Sunday 9 September 2012

What the Hell is Existentialism - Are You Afraid?

 'This is a snakeskin jacket! And for me it's a symbol of my individuality and my personal freedom.' (Sailor, in David Lynch's 'Wild at Heart)

So here I am running around in my writing studio in a beret, smoking Gauloises and spouting existentialism à la Simone De Beauvoir.  I watched Suckerpunch with the sub-adults last night so I’m actually only smoking Gauloise in my virtual reality.

If you believe that reality exists independent of consciousness that what is just is, and therefore that we exist as individuals, as acting and responsible conscious beings then you embrace one of the basic tenets of Existentialism.  I’ve spent many discussions over a steaming cup of coffee with my friend Samantha Fifield discussing the question of being and what it means to be an individual, to exist in this world as an individual and how other people perceive us as individuals. 
Sam decries the labels, roles, and stereotypes, definitions that other people want to give us based on what we do for ‘work’. Sick of being asked at parties ‘What do you do?’ as a social identifier that would neatly put her in a ‘box’ and form the basis for assumptions about her ‘self’, Sam conducted an interesting social experiment. She started to reply ‘Nothing. I do nothing at all’.  There would be a shocked silence and the people she was talking with would slowly find an excuse to drift off. There was no box to classify her with and I would argue they were then faced with an existential crisis where they are forced to question their reason for being. For most people this is too uncomfortable. As a university graduate with a degree in accounting but not working in that area at the moment, she felt that people often evaluated her worth by her ‘work’. Of course this is the age-old problem for women who choose to ‘stay at home’. Is their worth perceived as being less?  Is what’s happening here similar to the prisoners in Plato’s cave in which prisoners see a world of shadows reflected onto a cave wall, rather than the world as it actually is?
In fact what constitutes our 'true essence', instead of the arbitrarily attributed 'box' used by others to define us, is our consciousness or sense and perception, the values we determine are important to us and the experiences that have helped us shape and form these values. This is, as Sartre suggested, what helps us to determine the meaning of our life.  Existentialism emphasises the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent who determines their own development through acts of will. If you’ve seen ‘The Matrix’ or ‘Suckerpunch’ or even ‘Groundhog Day’ you’ll be familiar with this concept.
Of course if you are free to make choices this also means that you have a responsibility for the choices you make. Freedom is often misunderstood as meaning that anything is possible and where values are inconsequential to choice and action. However, based on what I said before I would argue that we can’t and don’t make choices without first considering our own individual values. There is always an element of self-interest in all of our choices and it is impossible to be wholly objective and consider only the greater or ‘collective’ good. Although Ayn Rand is one of my favourite authors for her book ‘The Fountainhead’, which I love for its championing of individualism in architecture, I disagree with her philosophy of Objectivism for its basis in pure reason without feelings. Apart from scientific imperialism I don’t think our movement thru and perception of life is ever without feeling. This is where ‘marking’ for many subjects in school is actually questionable because it can’t help but be based in subjectivity.
What was actually happening to the people who questioned Sam was they were experiencing ‘Existentialist Angst’. An anxiety or dread of facing the fact that their own ‘worthiness’ may actually be questioned if they could no longer base the answer for who they are on what they do for a job. Categorising yourself by any one particular job description as a means of saying who you are, essentially defining yourself, takes away your complete responsibility for your own freedom to make choices and the outcomes of those decisions. To try to suppress feelings of anxiety and dread, people often confine themselves within everyday experience, the social ‘norm’ or the accepted thing to do. They are scared of individualism. Are you afraid?

1 comment:

  1. Since we are all just a figment of our own imagination there should be no problem in determining what we are worth. The people we are 'afraid' of, those who ask the silly questions about what we do for a crust, are just part of our immagination. Just tell them to bugger off and everything will be fine! Have a Pina Colada and relax!