If the ego is largely the ‘effect’ of our prevailing social practices, then, since we can change them, we can change our ego-logical identity. (1)
Since the birth of the ego is its emerging from submergence in the elemental field of Being, there where it exists only as merged with its object, the assumption that the ego represents the end of this process seems altogether arbitrary. Moreover, in view of the fact that the ego represents the reality of social consensus, the assumption constitutes an ideological position. (2)
The Social Ego
To acknowledge “the social ego” is both a redundancy and essential insight. There are no transcendent, hermetically self-contained egos à la Howard Roark or any other libertarian colossus-in-a-void striding across the stage of human existence. All life is life-with-others, whether one retires to a cave in the Himalayas or is routinely packed into commuter trains for hours each day. We emerge from and are bound with the fateful activities of others; thus, our “inward” life partakes of the sociality of human being–of being human in a world populated by other-consciousness. This recognition helps situate and make sense of Jean-Paul Sartre’s assertion in Existentialism Is A Humanism, “When a man commits himself to anything, fully realising that he is not only choosing what he will be, but is thereby at the same time a legislator deciding for the whole of mankind – in such a moment a man cannot escape from the sense of complete and profound responsibility.” Regardless of the sexist bias implicit in his use of the male pronoun to represent all human beings, Sartre’s essential point is apt: we cannot escape being enmeshed in the totality of human affairs, as we are in-a-world with others, those others who in fact have created us, sustained our lives, and in varying ways or degree continue informing our existence. Thus, the question of the ego and egological society contemporaneously plunging towards global ecocide, is neither a private matter nor one somehow outside ourselves. We are for each other, thrown together in a mutual fate that both transcends and embodies our immediate situation; though much of human activity is aimed at distancing ourselves–even at cost of outright destruction of others–there is no releasement from the fateful bond of sharing a world. We are joined together, the hated and the hater, thumb to hand.
It could be retorted that even so, the choice of total destruction, a death wish entire, is not only possible but much in evidence. The routine squandering of human effort, wealth, and resources, on the production and pursuit of ever-more-destructive (and expensive) weaponry, is but one obvious expression of the human wish for Thanatos. The question–that of an egological consciousness versus ecological comprehension and sense of identity–is in fact now revealed in our present moment as nothing less than the choice of life or death for the world. In view of this, and needful of clarifying what ‘choice’ means in the social ecology of egological being, the being of humanity must be examined.
The first thing to recognize about choice, about choosing, is that we always already have been thrown ahead of ourselves, coming-to-being as bodies. We reach awareness of ourselves through “the dimension of the flesh” (Merleau-Ponty) not as a neutral plain, but one replete with demands that limit, spur, afflict, and at times endanger us. To say we always choose within a situation, is valid so long as we always keep in mind this first situation–that of embodiment–which never ceases to precede and undergird our procession through being. In coming-to-be oneself, we first dis-cover embodiment, our carnal charter, the awareness of consciousness as distinct following the flesh, guided on by an increasing crescendo of felt demands. It is through this that the ego is formed by response to promptings from human others and bodily pressures. We become egos–in Levin’s insightful term, ‘egological’–through being socialized to cope with and manage our embodied inheritance. Thus, choice is never abstract, a mere checklist; choices are motivated in and from feeling, with thought’s constellation forming around the emergent ego.
This does not cease to be the case when we are fully formed and relatively mature, recognizing ourselves and being acknowledged by others as self-regulating individuals. We continue to swim in tides of emotion, bodily aches and reminders–indispensable in fully forming us as human. It is not only a fact of embodiment, but I’m-body-meant; the ego-body is historical; it carries origin-ary lessons of nurturance, dependence, trust, and emerging discernment. It is this historical body that continues in-forming us and that accounts for the ego’s sense of having been and as continuing in coherence of identity. None of these movements, dimensions of individuation and identity, are of themselves problems; they have become problematized in a society where the ego has become the “handhold” of those who rule, in a process contemporaneously become totalitarian in scope and ambition.
Colonization of the Ego
As never before, corporate messages of desire, success, reward–and the threat of failure and deprivation–are directly communicated each day to people in our society (as is also true across the world). As Christopher Lasch pointed out, there is effectively no protective layer in the American family that can any longer shelter children (and the family unit per se) from corporate intrusion. His observations predated our current circumstance, where it is common for people to be texting, viewing, and “relating” via gadgets designed to convey corporate agendas; thus, his observations were prescient. Today, even the mode of communication is divisive, as the old phone system shared across society has been balkanized by rival networks. The capacity to find someone across the country via a phone book or an operator, has almost entirely vanished. Atomization of societal relations is accelerated via the privatizing of communications technology, with resultant fissures expressed as social estrangement. Ironically, corporate media themselves wonder why society seems not to cohere, why alienation is common, and emotional suffering (expressed as addictions, suicide, violence and killing of others, etc.) widespread. Technology that severs previously reliable bonds, is itself both one effect and cause of this breakdown.
Earlier than ever before in life, individuals assimilate the anxiety-soaked message that to be successful means learning to follow rules that pit individuals against each other in a race for desirable jobs, decent housing, and a wide array of other circumstances and resources made deliberately scarce in a class-ruled society. The ego assimilates, evaluates, and accordingly sets course for the not-promised land of human satisfaction; crucial in this voyage is the necessity of “playing” other people, driving ahead regardless of distractions and obstacles such as personal solidarity. What happens in this social movement of the many towards limited rewards in a congested avenue, is the success of egological functioning–one based upon conflict, isolation, in an implicitly hostile environment.
The rise to riches of those few who become household names in consumer culture is not typical of most who live in great wealth, themselves children of the already wealthy. For the relative few who actually grasp the ring of material abundance, their own path has little in the way of felt ties to the lives of others struggling for the crumbs available in the marketplace. The personal effect of this process is coarsening of the individual, producing a “type” familiar and visible to us via mass (corporate) media. The ego is effectively colonized by the playbook and values of the 1%, the ruling handful of society who wield power for its own sake and the sensation of vitality it imparts to otherwise largely empty lives.
In the sense that Levin unfolds the meaning of ‘egological’ vs. ‘ecological’ being, he does not mean simply having an awareness of issues of the time and concern for ecology, though that certainly accompanies and follows the transformation he explores. His intention is that we reflect upon and observe the egological perspective, which is the “normal” way of experiencing life in our highly technological, scientific culture. As noted in the foregoing, the process of ego-formation in our society is one of increasing estrangement from self and other, a combat-ready coarsening that submerges us in a vat of antisocial sociability, where deprivation and mutual manipulation are the common state of all. The recognition that our conditioning is toxic–for the individual and by extension, for the world we create and sustain–can lead to attempts of self-healing; this is expressed by Levin in this way:
Our vision needs to retrieve that sense of ‘the world as a whole’, because the culture of representational thinking has not encouraged us to stay in touch with the primary experience–our belongingness. (3)
Through awareness of the daily trauma of being-in-conflict with others, scrambling for crumbs of fulfillment and possibility, we can use the ego’s capacity for self-reflection to see the contours of our suffering. When we see this, we open possibility…and it is both opening and possibility that are crucial to development of ecological consciousness.
To a great degree, the rapid emergence of ecological awareness and living through the unfolding stream of awareness currently blossoming across the world is a self-defensive response to the great peril confronting our planet. Real peril–not one of the series of crises orchestrated by our rulers to suborn our resistance to their plans of conquest and exploitation–has had the salutary effect of both rousing people to action, and causing us to examine and evaluate our lived values in light of ultimate catastrophe. The heroic actions of masses of people risking arrest and brutalization at numerous locales across the world have been highlighted by many young people who realize they will have no future at all, left to the greed psychosis of those who rule us. Levin is not one of those armchair philosophers who believe simply thinking in a certain way can resolve emerging planetary issues; he explicitly affirms that societal changes must and will ensue as the self-conscious attendance to an ecological way of feeling and being in this world with others, moves us to oppose the nihilistic rule by the violence of greed. The role of his work is to bring “more Being to being,” in the form of sharing with us a sustained meditation upon the history of how human society has thought of itself across the centuries, and with this perspective enabling individuals to participate in reframing and transforming the way societies view themselves in the world.
(1) The Opening of Vision: Nihilism and the Postmodern Situation, by David Michael Levin. Routledge, New York and London, 1988, p 202
(2) Ibid, p 203
(3) Ibid, p 200
Recommended books by David Michael Levin
The Body’s Recollection of Being (1985)
The Listening Self* (1989)
The Philosopher’s Gaze (1999)
*Especially accessible for those without prior experience of reading philosophy–the least technical of his books that I have read.