I’ve been thinking about sleep paralysis a lot lately. I suffer from it fairly frequently and there are few things that scare me more than the prospect of a sleep paralysis episode, not least of all because my sleep paralysis is always accompanied by lucid nightmares. I have nightmares without sleep paralysis, but the reverse never happens. I hate it. I’m always stuck there as some sort of creature bears down on me, and no matter what I do, I can’t react fast enough. When I can move (in the dream, that is), it’s always too slowly, like I’m trying to punch through jelly, and no matter how loud I scream, hoping someone will come and wake me, my screams only ever come out as feeble moans in the night. It’s like I’ve been buried alive in my own flesh, unable to act, unable to fight.
Sleep paralysis has been on my mind mainly because I’ve been pondering the relationship between a person’s psychological makeup and their ethics. I suffer from claustrophobia, which, when you break it down to its most basic concepts, is an intense anxiety about being unable to move, unable to act, unable to choose. I couldn’t help but wonder whether my claustrophobia, an inescapable part of my psyche, plays a role in my attachment to values of freedom and choice, and the intense dislike of being boxed in by definitions I previously raised in my blog post “Lines” (to which I consider this blog post a sequel, as you may have noticed). I eventually concluded there probably wasn’t much of a link between my phobias and my opinions, since I’m also agoraphobic but don’t have a similar fear of being presented with too much freedom. In fact, I think more freedom is something that mankind is lacking and direly needs.
Anarchists are generally considered the most laughable, ridiculous and absurd of thinkers, but I’m increasingly troubled by this surprisingly broad, if understated, consensus. The main reason anarchists are rejected so off-handedly is because of an assumption we hold, an assumption that is accepted as being so intuitively true we hardly even discuss it outside the realms of abstract philosophical and political thought. This is the assumption that humans need structure. The idea is rather straightforward: without social, political, economic and moral structures, man would be guided solely by primitive desires, and would degenerate into mindless savagery.
But let’s look at where these structures originated. The first human relationships, the first structures of human interaction, emerged from those very simple biological urges that structure is supposed to control. Apart from the obvious example of mating, individuals associated with each other in other ways to improve their chances of surviving and passing on their genes, such as hunting and gathering together to acquire food more efficiently than they could alone. However, as we developed the first notions of higher thought, these simple facts of human existence became open to scrutiny and questioning. At that point, it became necessary to justify these structures. Seemingly skipping over the “is-ought problem” that would later confound philosophers, those reaping the most benefit from these structures (and therefore most invested in their continuation) created the first prescriptive explanations for their existence. In other words, they transitioned from things that simply were to things that should be.
But, of course, few are content to remain out of power, so those who wished to seize the power for themselves began to make their own prescriptive statements, or ideologies, in order to persuade others to support their leadership. This is the birth of the marketplace of ideas, of discourse and dialogue, and the greatest fuel for the torch of human intellect. But as human intellect ascends, the capacity emerges not just to question specific structures, but to question structures themselves. Thus emerges the myth of the necessity of structure. Structure is justified through the need to reign in mankind’s biological imperatives, even though structure itself emerged from those same imperatives. It is, perhaps, the greatest and most successful lie of human thought.
Let’s have a look at what structure is really like for human beings. Structure is limiting and otherising. It attaches values like “good” and “normal” to certain behaviours and traits in completely arbitrary fashion. The definition are always imperfect and because they’re rooted in those early Us vs Them tribal and familial relations, though expressed in “higher” terms, they inevitably result in exclusion. When that exclusion is from systems designating “good” and “normal”, it results in oppression and hatred being placed on those who fail to conform, and someone will always fail to conform, because all such definitions, describing what is or ought, must necessarily exclude what is not or ought not.
Further, in constructing systems of what should be, whether they be ethical, political, social, economical or legal, perfect prescriptive statements are virtually impossible, because lines need to be drawn, and without an objective metric to decide where they are drawn, the drawing becomes arbitrary and unsatisfactory. When that happens, the result is anxiety and despair, because all morality is essentially inexplicable and untenable, not to mention unachievable, since structure creates limitations on one’s ability to act, including one’s ability to act “morally”. For example, it’s these structures that stop everyone being fed, since the unequal distribution of economic power means that most of the capacity to change the world in ways that end starvation are invested in people with strong incentives to not make those changes, while those who would do it don’t have the requisite power.
Structure is ostensibly there to keep humans from collapsing into mindless savagery, yet here we see it producing nothing less than the most mindful, sophisticated savagery. If, for all our higher thought, for all our structures and systems, the result is the same, exactly what is structure for? The fact of the matter is that the assumption of structure’s necessity is completely artificial, and also wrong. Structure is a product of the base desires that structure is said to suppress and control, and not only fails to prevent the cruelty those desires will allegedly lead to, but frequently provides “justifications” for that cruelty in ideological terms, with talks of “trade-offs” and the necessity of losers in society, because without loss for some, there cannot be victory for others.
But that cruelty goes against essential human decency, resulting in existential angst. I myself have attempted to develop complex and meaningless categorisations of how morality works and the relationship between one’s morality, one’s actions and one’s anxiety over the gap between what should be and what is. When my daily existence consists in living in an unjust world and being unable to rectify the injustice, when I’m no more capable of doing good than I am of fighting off the monsters of my nightmares when the sleep paralysis strikes, it’s no surprise that I would try to assuage my own pain by attempting to compartmentalise and define. Yet, such efforts will always end in failure, because they involve buying into the root cause of all pain and heartache: structure itself.
What reason do we really have to believe that, without structure, brutality and horror is guaranteed? It’s an assumption that persists because society is almost entirely made up of society’s winners, and those who want to become the winners, and so wish structure in the abstract to continue, even as they attempt to swap out the dominant structure for the structure which empowers them instead. We have as much reason to believe a structureless existence will bring about happiness as a structured one, and perhaps more, since we have all of human history as evidence that structure fails to bring about good outcomes, and no real evidence either way of structurelessness’s efficacy. Maybe if we abandoned structure and dedicated all the time and energy we currently spend thinking about how to act to just acting instead, we could actually act without cruelty.
Yet, could we act without a metric, without the prescriptive statements of morality? Logic says not, but is logic really any less arbitrary a structure? Consider the following: “every rule has its exceptions, including this one”. In logical terms, completely meaningless as a statement, since its own falsity is built into the truth of it. Yet, it’s still meaningful in so far as it reminds us that absolute statements will always fail, including the absolute statement that absolutes always fail. In such semantic spaces, logic and intuition say “wrong”, but the truth sings “right” back in their faces, and wins even as it loses. Isaac Asimov clearly understood this sense of truth when he wrote “Never let your sense of morals prevent you from from doing what is right”, itself a prescriptive statement that should, by its own maxim, be wilfully ignored in some cases. Can we really deny that such statements are more useful and meaningful than more truly and absolutely prescriptive moral statements, let alone claim that they are actually less useful and meaningful? We talk about trade-offs, and trade-offs are indeed structurally inherent, but only in the same way that they’re inherently structural. Are there winners and losers in a structureless world? Probably not, and though such a state may seem paradoxical in so far as nobody losing entails everyone winning at the same time that nobody winning entails everyone losing, the paradox is itself a non-entity that comes only from structure.
Yes, even as I speak of truths, let us think about the classic statement of “This statement is false” and the fact that it can be neither true nor false. The absurdity of structure could scarcely be more transparent. We can’t even rely on a structure as basic and intuitive as true or false, fact or fiction, real or unreal. Those dichotomies are meaningless. “This statement is false”? This structure is false. All structure is false. We laugh at the anarchists because structure is assumed, but when we do away with that assumption, it becomes clear that anarchism only seems absurd because society itself, civilisation itself, is structured to make it seem absurd! Yet, what is really more absurd? Structure is always broken, wrong and skewed, and we only keep it because everyone wants to be a winner in the game of thrones, and won’t sacrifice structure in case they lose, which, ironically, means everyone loses, forever, though they don’t all lose equally. Yes, when you get down to it, there is no such thing as winning in a structured world, just losing the least horrifically.
We spend too much time debating the best systems and structures, and talking about “new paradigms”, but not enough time talking about the inherent flaws in paradigms themselves. How about instead of new paradigms, we just get rid of paradigms altogether? Such a thing may be difficult or even impossible to conceive, but that just goes to show how nefariously limiting paradigms and structures are! How can we trust something that robs us of the ability to effectively scrutinise it, to even imagine a world without it? The very structures of this language prevent me from even verbalising what I really want to say. I can only ever approximate what I’m trying to convey. I often find myself stilled for hours in the middle of writing, unable to continue because the words for what I’m trying to say just don’t exist. I mean, who needs Newspeak? I already can’t challenge the oppressive state of being we humans find ourselves in. Who needs the Party? Who needs Big Brother? We’re already in Room 101 – it’s called civilisation.
When I think about how, in recent weeks, I have decried the cynicism of Seanad abolitionists, and then attempt to compare their cynicism to the cynicism of people in general, of human culture, I just have to stop and ask myself what I’m even complaining about. There’s probably not a human culture in existence that’s willing to just take people as we come into the world and believe in our own actions. In fact, I know there isn’t, because the very idea of cultures, of codes and customs and practices, is antithetical to that kind of hope, that kind of freedom, that kind of just being, of being-in-itself, of acting-in-itself.
After all that, you’d expect (quite reasonably, I think) that I’m without hope for humanity. Even if we were to all accept the evilness of structure, how could we argue, talk or debate our way out of the prison of systems when argument itself is an inescapable and oppressive structure, or accepting the evilness of structure requires believing in some sort of system of good and evil? To a certain and unavoidable extent, I have to buy into structures just to be able to function, but isn’t that only because we’ve defined functionality in a structural way, i.e. defined functionality at all? It all seems so insurmountable, but I can’t just stop, can I?
In the end, I guess I just have to hope that as long as I’m aware and awake to the what structure does, and hold that knowledge in my heart, I’ll stumble on to the path I must follow, that road which will ultimately lead to a land without roads, without walls, without lies and truths. I can’t do anything if I don’t believe that the special place in ourselves, the part that we have buried in structure and drowned in lines, will make us keep striving towards a state of being that comes as close as possible to that perfect, structureless being-in-itself and acting-in-itself. And, yes, frankly, that is probably the biggest lie of them all. But if I can believe in that lie, and that lie lets me survive, then I’ll go on calling it truth. It’s not like there’s really a difference anyway.