Sleight of Hand

John Dee performing an experiment (detail), by Henry Gillard Glindoni

When I saw the reaction many of my third world compatriots had after the recent barrage of news regarding the US government releasing information about unidentified flying objects, or whatever they're called nowadays, I confess I felt a little proud.

You see, when the story broke out regarding weird things in the skies—that turned out to be ballons by the way—and that there would be new government investigations on the subject, both UFO aficionados and people who normally don't care about this stuff got excited, especially in the US. But the majority of comments made in my country revolved around how that story was one more smokescreen in a long list of smokescreens to distract Americans from real domestic and international issues, issues that could be solved but aren't because the rich wouldn't benefit from it.

Simple as that.

But while it is true that almost everywhere, not only the US, the rich and powerful trick the rest of the population into being preoccupied with unimportant or invented questions, according to some philosophers, even the important issues, in an ultimate sense, are things humanity got into to keep itself busy so that it won't think about the most pressing problem there is. Like everything else, this issue can be summarized when we answer the question: what is going on?

For instance, when it comes to deceptions perpetrated by the rich and powerful, like lying to the public about a particular issue, we can answer that question “what is going on?” by stating that those who own society feel they can profit somewhat from a made up narrative. Again, simple as that.

However, let's say we could get rid of the kinds of deceptions and distractions that benefit a few at the expense of most. We could then tackle and maybe solve real problems, instead of made up ones. Still, according to some thinkers, these real problems and their respective solutions are part of a never ending chase we got ourselves into because we are never satisfied with our existence and don't want to face a horrific reality—but no matter how hard we try, that reality creeps in.

As humanity advanced from rural societies to the age of industry, it left backbreaking labor behind and took on either backbreaking and alienating jobs in factories, or soul crushing jobs in offices. Mankind can treat diseases that used to kill most people before they could grow old, but humans are now exposed to other deadly diseases.

One can think of the cliché about how, as humanity progresses throughout history, it creates solutions that engender new problems, in a race that has no finish line. So even if we could create Utopia, barring some type of magical technology that would turn us into an unmoved mover type of god, we would still be born, live our lives, encounter positive and negative states, and die. In an ultimate sense, then, the question “what is going on?” is an existential question.

The heart of the matter here are the things we do and the stories we tell each other in order to distract us from a deeper reality we don't want to confront, ever. Citing U.G. Krishnamurti in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, Thomas Ligotti writes:
Somewhere along the line in human consciousness, there occurred self-consciousness. [...] That consciousness separated man from the totality of things. Man, in the beginning, was a frightened being. He turned everything that was uncontrollable into something divine or cosmic and worshiped it. It was in that frame of mind that he created, quote and unquote, “God.” So, culture is responsible for whatever you are. I maintain that all the political institutions and ideologies we have today are the outgrowth o f the same religious thinking of man. The spiritual teachers are in a way responsible for the tragedy of mankind. [1]
The “totality of things” that Krishnamurti talks about is nature.

According to Karl Marx, humans are a product of material nature. Therefore humanity depends on nature in order to exist, and to do that it modifies nature to suit its needs and thrive. [2][3] This is not wrong, but it's a rather descriptive and dry account. Albert Camus, in his turn, famously described humans as being able to recognize the meaninglessness of existence and how absurd everything is. It goes a little deeper, but while recognizing our predicament, Camus proposes we endure this lack of cosmic justification, even in the face of life's intrinsic horrors and finality. [4]

But Peter Wessel Zapffe had a different take, one that dispensed with proposals of submission to an existence filled with never ending pursuits and fake meanings. Like U.G. Krishnamurti—and Emil Cioran for that matter [5]—, for Zapffe, humans are the product of blind evolution through natural selection, and our evolutionary advantages, our self-reflecting consciousness and intelligence, became a hindrance to us. In his essay, The Last Messiah, Zapffe writes:
Whatever happened? A breach in the very unity of life, a biological paradox, an abomination, an absurdity, an exaggeration of disastrous nature. Life had overshot its target, blowing itself apart. A species had been armed too heavily—by spirit made almighty without, but equally a menace to its own well-being. [...] Despite his new eyes, man was still rooted in matter, his soul spun into it and subordinated to its blind laws. And yet he could see matter as a stranger, compare himself to all phenomena, see through and locate his vital processes. He comes to nature as an unbidden guest, in vain extending his arms to beg conciliation with his maker: Nature answers no more, it performed a miracle with man, but later did not know him. He has lost his right of residence in the universe, has eaten from the Tree of Knowledge and been expelled from Paradise. He is mighty in the near world, but curses his might as purchased with his harmony of soul, his innocence, his inner peace in life’s embrace. [6]
Zapffe compares our biological maladaptation to a prehistorical deer that was thought to have gone extinct because of its oversized antlers. Natural selection had favored those individuals with larger antlers. They reproduced more, creating a tendency for ever larger antlers. This, however, became a hindrance to that species, as our deep, reflective consciousness would later become a hindrance to us.

With our oversized minds, we realized that we were separate from the “totality of things”, that we were alone, with no larger meaning other than to survive, with no one coming to our rescue. So we have been fabricating stories and occupying our time ever since the separation occurred.

The advantage granted to us by nature turned out to be a curse. Realizing their lot, humans are exposed to a “feeling of cosmic panic”, as Zapffe calls it. Our species, however, has learned to limit the content of its consciousness, and so, for the most part, we don't see our predicament and we don't panic. Human consciousness was able to create mechanisms to limit itself, to make itself unaware that humans are ephemeral beings who suffer for nothing more than to carry the species forward in time, like every other animal it consumes. And that is why the homo sapiens didn't go extinct in an epidemic of madness, according to Zapffe. This is the greatest sleight of hand of all. Quoting Zapffe:
Cultural history, as well as observation of ourselves and others, allow the following answer: Most people learn to save themselves by artificially limiting the content of consciousness. [7]
For Zapffe, this limitation occurs via four mechanisms that we can combine, or not, in a multitude of ways. They are: isolation, anchoring, distraction and sublimation. [8] Isolation occurs when we don't think or speak about it to ourselves or others, be through active effort or not. Anchoring is when we fixate on certain things as they give our lives meaning, be it consciously or unconsciously. Church, State, ideals, personal goals and relationships are examples of anchoring. Distraction is, well, actively seeking distractions, like watching television, to occupy our minds and our time, so as to avoid panicking.

Finally, some are capable of confronting the horror of existence and have overwhelming personal transformations by either experiencing something or producing something of value to themselves and maybe others. This is sublimation. A piece of art, an essay, a scientific thesis, an athletic achievement, the enjoyment of the view from the top of a mountain—many different things can be linked to an experience of sublimation. But it will depend, of course. Most of the time, none of these examples will be connected to sublimation.

Zapffe ends The Last Messiah by stating, through the mouth of the eponymous character, that we should cease reproducing and leave the unending chase forever, since it's all for naught and the chase has great costs—including the cognitive cost of having to limit our consciousness to prevent us from despairing. This is his ethical prescription:
[...] be infertile and let the earth be silent after ye. [9]
But of course, right after speaking these words, the life-denying messiah is murdered by a mob led by pacifier makers and midwives. And so ends Zapffe's essay. Infertility is his answer to the greatest of all tricks, the one we play on ourselves so we don't fall prey to cosmic panic. This trick is part of what Thomas Ligotti calls “the conspiracy against the human race” in his book by the same name. [10] A conspiracy all of us participate in when we hide from ourselves the knowledge that human consciousness was a step too far for nature, an unbearable weight that drags us down.

So, even though my compatriots might be right in saying that the most recent unidentified flying object media buzz is likely a distraction encouraged by powerful groups who rather have the masses enthralled with non-existing issues than having them questioning the status quo, the reality is far more insidious, in that even the real issues we face are inseparable from the collective journey we started way back, when the human, through no fault of its own, was separated from the rest of nature.

The most egregious deception is perpetrated not just by the powerful, but by all of us.

by Fernando Olszewski

1. U.G. Krishnamurti apud Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, Hippocampus Press, 2006, p. 238.
2. Karl Marx, The German Ideology, Prometheus Books, 1998, p. 36-37.
3. Karl Marx, The Economic Manuscripts of 1884, Prometheus Books, 1888, p. 76-77.
4. Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, Penguin Books, 1979.
5. Emil Cioran, The Coming of Consciousness, in: A Short History of Decay, Arcade Publishing, 2012, e-book.
6. Peter Wessel Zapffe, The Last Messiah, Philosophy Now #45, 2004.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid.
10. Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, Hippocampus Press, 2006.