Existential Problems Are Real Problems

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Cody Without Organs 

What is the weird? When we say something is weird, what kind of feeling are we pointing to? I want to argue that the weird is a particular kind of perturbation. It involves a sensation of wrongness: a weird entity or object is so strange that it makes us feel that it should not exist, or at least it should not exist here. Yet if the entity or object is here, then the categories which we have up until now used to make sense of the world cannot be valid. The weird thing is not wrong, after all: it is our conceptions that must be inadequate.”

Mark Fisher, the Weird and the Eerie.

The term ‘existential crisis’ is thrown around the social playing field – we’re all having one. Yet none of us seem to experience this crisis as indeed a real crisis. 

Without going too far into my own ideologies, I will make the claim that this is part and parcel with what Mark Fisher has called Capitalist Realism – the pervasive atmosphere in which any real alternative to capitalism cannot even be imagined. 

My problem here won’t be dealing with Mark’s diagnosis of modern depressive culture, but instead with the specific phenomenon in which our very real problems of existence are mistakenly considered ‘not real problems.’

What I mean by this is that the common experience referred to as an ‘Existential crisis’ – precisely a crisis of existence – has lost its meaning as a ‘real crisis’ by being recognised instead as common. Too common to be a real problem, “if we are all dealing with it’. 

The social-cultural normalisation of the dread we feel at the very level of our subjectivity. The paranoia which is suddenly invoked in us at the core of our very conditions of human experience. 

Life. 

These problems turn up all across points in one’s life. 

Problems which involve the ‘larger picture’; metaphysical dilemmas, the human condition. 

Whether or not one is happy in life, or whether or not one has ‘wasted’ their life away. 

The grandness in scale of these problems is precisely what leads to them becoming seemingly unanswerable, and to that extent, not worth answering. 

Problems which overstate themselves as problems, problems which since there is seemingly ‘no way out’  it would appear better for one not to think about it. 

And when one does indeed think about it, in a social aspect, perhaps when trying to discuss this with others, it only comes about as a plaything of thought. 

Nothing too serious. More of a joke of conversation than a problem worth real analysis, let alone solving (together). 

I refer to moments when one has seriously found themselves stuck

Stuck in a loop, persistent thoughts, perhaps a lingering paranoia or anxiety. 

Or stuck in place, having come across an obstacle too large to face. Where the only option let is to stick one’s head in the sand. 

What I want to suggest is that existential problems are real problems. 

These problems of life which become assimilated into normal life as ‘just those moments’ or things which occur every so often that can go without paying any real attention to them. 

By ‘real’ , I will be referring to precisely the Real in psychoanalysis. 

The Real which is only experienced as a traumatic event. A break in one’s world (symbolic/imaginary). 

A break in reality. 

Which forces us to transform – either ourselves or the world around us-  so as to fit this break into a narrative. 

This is only to say real problems are problems we encounter which leave us shook. 

Forcibly changed. 

Problems of the Real. 

We can recognise the discourse of one’s existential nihilism and inescapable angst in the form of ironic mentionings, or jokes, to which a common reply to such heavy statements amongst young people would be “same“, this is a way in which we attempt to symbolise the Real

Without getting too much into it, by this I mean the thing which we cannot fully express, that which remains outside of our articulation, which haunts us as this spectre or thing that we can sense/feel (to imagine in a Lacanian sense of the Imaginary register) yet cannot fully grasp. 

It exists as a gap or break in our reality that becomes a part of our reality only once we find a means to express it. By producing and using a language to signify this missing thing’ that becomes our paranoid obsession that we repress and which enters our unconscious. 

All “repression is the return of the repressed” – a simple freudian premise recovered in Lacan’s seminars, which means a thing repressed is always the return of that which is already repressed. It doesn’t ‘disappear’ but instead always re-appears. Once in the conscious, and again in the unconscious. 

It is also in the Lacanian sense that the “Unconscious is structured like a language“. 

The Unconscious is not some hidden chasm, an abyss or pit in the psyche which fills itself with vanished concepts. It is the surface layer which reveals itself as a gap in the surface. 

To try and express this simply, when a thing ‘goes missing’, we forget or repress something at the psychic level, it doesn’t go somewhere. It goes nowhere.

 It isn’t embraced in the language, the everyday, in the symbolic. And thus becomes an unexplained ‘x’. It turns up somewhere else. What we forget, will be remembered somewhere else. Psychoanalysis warns us that the body speaks too, and that it can remember and speak for us, what we have forgotten. 

The Unconscious is the process by which a thing moves – from where it was to somewhere else – the unrecognised movement of a thing from a space in our cognition to somewhere non-cognitive. 

It is the movement and exchange between “a signifier for another signifier”. 

It is this exchange from one type of word to another (such as the words spoken by our body, in aches, pains, sudden desires, wants, and needs) that we do not fully account for. 

Where we purposefully or otherwise forget to pay attention is where the unconscious comes in.

An equivalent epistemological take is that of the ‘God of the gaps’ – an allegory that refers to how historically, circumstances which were at the time ‘unexplainable’ became associated directly with God.

What was unexplained was solved with “clearly it is just God, who is beyond our knowing”. 

The unconscious works precisely as God does here. 

Signifier exchange, I.e to symbolise and give language to the Real, that repressed thing which lurks outside our lexicon, the horror beyond comprehension, becomes comprehensible the more we symbolise it. The more language we use to express it, the more it can become embedded into our world-narrative. 

Existential crises are those things we experience as events. 

They aren’t gradual, one is thrown into one seemingly out of nowhere, and our attempts to explain this feeling seem to never grasp it. 

It is the feeling of going nowhere, or not going at all. It is a dismal insignificance. It is a comic nihilism, a loss of sense (of self), a dreaded knowing or not-knowing of something wrong with existence itself at large. 

What a profound, human experience. 

In some cases, this feeling seems to slide. Disappearing somewhere. 

For others, a shift has been made in the narrative they have about themselves and the world around them. About existence.

Both are still affected by it. 

When one experiences the Real, it comes to us as a loss. Our own loss, brought about purely by existing. 

In both cases, the Real has come into the picture, and something has to change.

For the former, the change becomes Unconscious. 

By choosing not to pay attention and symbolise this new imagined thing (repressing) it returns in another form. It is expressed not by us, but by the parts of us which will speak for us. 

Suddenly something is different, perhaps about ourselves, or about the world itself, but it is not noticeable. It goes unnoticed. It is here the speaking which is done for us shows itself: anger, depression, hunger, illness, fatigue… a signifier for another signifier. 

If we don’t pay attention, instead we change in a way we don’t realise we have. The change itself has gone unnoticed. To the point where the change is not recognised sometimes at all. And it is in these cases where sometimes nothing is done. 

When we do finally speak of it, it comes as jokes, irony, nihilism. Attempts at humour, with a kind of hope that we will in a sense be heard, but by a part of us which we didn’t recognise as speaking. When the Unconscious itself speaks. And it hopes to be listened to. 

In the latter, the change is recognised, and one can speak of it, and makes the choice either to or not to. 

I write this because it is in the interest of analysis, of desiring, of listening to ourselves, that we attempt to pay attention to the Real. 

To recognise the feeling we describe as a crisis of the existential order (e.g.worthlessness on a cosmic scale, incompleteness, the radical hopelessness of the future) is indeed Real, and if not attempted to be heard or spoken about, will force in us a transformation which we are not prepared for. 

A transformation in us which we cannot explain.

 Which haunts us.

 “something is missing” – 

Yet this missing thing is just out of reach. 

In this way we become missing to ourselves. We lose a sense. Our ability to control what we manifest as reality becomes fickle. 

To instead, draw out this unexplained feeling, to embrace the Real head on and bring about a means to appreciate its existence, the more we can insert this missing something into a subjective narrative. Which makes sense. 

And which comes to represent our ability to control the reality which manifests itself and which we manifest. 

Existential problems are Real problems. 

Allow yourself to take something which bothers you seriously. 

Allow yourself the space to come to terms with the things which surprise us. Which leave us in suspense. 

And in that suspense find a means to bring calm, comfort and familiarity into this space. To patch the break/gap in our reality with language. 

a weird entity or object is so strange that it makes us feel that it should not EXIST […] Yet if the entity or object is here, then the categories which we have up until now used to make sense of the world cannot be valid […] it is our conceptions that must be inadequate.”

This is not to say that by expressing your problems they magically go away, it is to say that which we ignore as a real problem will (in an almost seemingly obvious irony) always come to reveal themselves as a real problem in another way. 

One then has the choice to begin analysis and acceptance. To start a journey by which one’s transformation is controlled. As opposed to out of control. 

Or, to allow this possibility of analysis void. To ignore one’s own self at the expense of one’s own self. 

To deny that what one needs is help

Please allow yourself to process your problems as Real problems. No matter how grandiose, or ‘normalised’. 

It is in this way that normalisation can go from being the acceptance of repression at the level of the collective cultural consciousness – to the normalisation of treatment, care, and in helping one another deal with the problems which torment us. 

This is itself a key to the solution Mark Fisher began to provide us with to the problem of Capitalist Realism. 

To realise that although our suffering is unique and individual, the causes of our suffering are collective. 

A problem at the level of the collective  requires treatment at the level of the collective. 

And through this realisation, to escape the “pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action.” 

This makes capitalism very much like the Thing in John Carpenter’s film of the same name: a monstrous, infinitely plastic entity, capable of metabolizing and absorbing anything with which it comes into contact.”

Capital is an abstract parasite, an insatiable vampire and zombie-maker; but the living flesh it converts into dead labor is ours, and the zombies it makes are us.”

Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism

To escape the thing which haunts us (for the left, Capital, an existing horror and threat at the level of existence) requires us to first accept it as such. 

As a spectre which requires an exorcism. 

Then, we must only begin to imagine possible alternatives; a world in which this spectre is exorcised and we are no longer haunted, 

To break the invisible barrier constraining thought and actions requires first we only imagine us breaking out. 

And then by expressing and symbolising this imagined way out, by formulating and creating a language around the Real thing which horrifies us, we embrace and introduce a means to escape. 

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