There is a homunculus that dogs my steps. An artificial being. It lingers on the edges of my existence, perpetually craving attention yet fully elusive. It is indistinguishably me, yet blurred like an aged memory. I have no control over it. It has existed since my inception; or, at least, since my inception of self.
A stranger glances at me. I transcend my subjectivity, becoming an object in their mind. I am reborn, not as a free individual, but a representation of a free individual. A painting witnessed, rather than created. The subtleties of my strokes have become sweeping arcs. The colours have turned garish and sharp. There are great swathes of canvas simply unpainted. It is cheaper fabric. My god damn signature is wrong. I am staring into a Frankenstein self, unable to do anything but open and close my mouth like a limp fish, held in the arms of a witless fisherman. They have left me gasping, ‘The horror, the horror!’ The fisherman’s daughter takes a photo and bonks me on the head. I am devoured by a family of twelve.
Our culture has become one of consumption, where the self is no longer expressed through experience, but through representation. Capitalism has reared its ugly head and turned the self into a commodity, fuelled by other commodities.
‘Experience? Hah!’ Capitalism cries as it slaps your flower-holding hippie hands. ‘Can I hang experience on my walls? Wear it over my Calvin-Klein briefs? No! Experience must be awarded as a diploma. Experience must be captured on your iPhone. Experience must be traded for at a 20% off holiday discount. Experience must be representational, otherwise it never happened at all.’ Capitalism then proceeds to show you its collection of questionably sourced diamond watches, and you realise that the lack in your soul came not from existential queries of being and suffering, but rather the physical lack of material bourgeois accessories.
‘Thanks Capitalism!’ you reply, leaving the realms of sanity.
Not only does capitalist expression reject traditional experience, but creative production as well. Our mass market society has turned the producer into a machine. The worker into a cog. Brute efficiency has made the artist obsolete. The artist is drowned by a cacophony of sensationalism. The only means to battle this is to become the savvy business-artist, a Jesus Christ of Suburbia who sacrifices oneself to the cut-throat Hollywood nu-metal-Hans-step conglomerate, in hopes of changing the system from within. However, the core drive of capitalism is profit, and to profit one must express one’s work for others, rather than for oneself. One must live inauthentically, as a being-for-others, as a self that depends on the gaze, rather than denies, subverts, or challenges it. There is no art in this, only slavery.
Experience co-opted, production nonviable, the only means of expression left is consumption. Never before has the proverb ‘you are what you eat’ described the world so aptly. Consumer culture implores us to lust, insatiably; to fill the void of want, despite creating the void in the first place. You are sold promises, not goods. Goods are merely included in transactions, a means to physically ground transcendental ideals. Consumption is really the wrong word for it. Subsumption is not even the right word. No, you consume to replace your self. You consume to become the goods that surround you—the ideals they carry. It is a substitution culture, no longer interested in ‘I am’ but rather ‘I have’. Individuality has been appropriated, and turned into a visual farce; a fluttering of feathers to indicate status, to indicate success, to indicate happiness.
Capitalism and mass production have skipped hand-in-hand into the sunset, leaving a culture of needless craving in its wake. It has created a mass identity crisis by emphasising the being-for-others, over the being-for-itself. The gaze has become the source of our sickness—consumption, our anodyne. If we represent ourselves prettier, cleverer, stronger, funnier, we overcome the gaze. The gaze falls instead, on a homunculus. An artificial being.
The vapidity of social media expression is merely a consequence of consumerism. Being an ultimate platform for disseminating the self, of course the homunculus would triumph over the human. Reality has been tucked deep in the crevices of the soul, peeked only in the occasional photo of an Instagram-filtered sunrise with the words ‘be the self, you selfie, you – Gandhi‘ plastered over it, in 36pt. Helvetica. It is the silent screech of a soul in despair, desperately seeking succour in a world where there is naught but the nothing gaze piercing the nothing self.
The great irony of consumer culture lies in the fact that it must desperately attract the gaze, whilst also repelling it. It must provide a means to self-definition, through the creation of a false self. It must afford control over the other, despite the other’s inalienable freedom. Of course your homunculus will never satisfy you! It is a representation. It is a graceless, fleeting thought in the mind of the other. A limp fish in the arms of a witless fisherman. A painting dulled by indifference and misunderstanding. Through the other, all subjective history, context, and meaning is lost.
It is not narcissism that plagues our society. It is the opposite. It is self-hate. It is a fear of being oneself. A substitution culture has arisen, that attempts to completely and utterly annihilate the self, and replace it with a representation; a representation that can only grow and change through consumption, yet can never fulfil itself whole. It is not a distraction from the lack, but the lack itself, masquerading as the distraction. Consumption has not filled the void, it has expanded it! We have lost the concept of being-for-itself. We have given up our freedom. We have given into the gaze, and allowed it to dictate our lives, not even changing our selves to its whims, but playing dress up with a homunculus instead. It is heartbreaking.
The homunculus is inescapable, but our attention towards it is not. The problem lies in our focus; in the beliefs capitalism has ingrained in our society. To live in constant want over the approval of others is to shift one’s own approval to second place. Self-image has overtaken self-reflection. Not only has this allowed consumerism to flourish, but also virtue to diminish. Blunt honesty has become a vice. We pander to one another. We tell white lies to soften blows. We connect superficially, circling each other’s homunculi in an egg-shell dance of self-abasing identity death. No one knows one another, anymore, and no one is satisfied.
We are living in a Wittgensteinian dystopia, where language has ceased to function. Where communication has been co-opted by fear. Where an etiquette prioritising politeness over truth dominates us. A little Kant sobs piteously in a cardboard box. He is perhaps cramped, in the corner, in a little wet stain of tears. We, society, have reduced him to this. We have picked up our cultural Sharpie, and labelled this box deceit. We carry it around with us, but understand not the consequences. Our desperate yearning for approval has, ironically, enacted barriers to connection. We are not human, anymore. We are homunculi.
A being-for-others, who reacts to the gaze, reduces oneself to an object that is shifted, moulded, and exploited by circumstance. Sartre called this phenomenon bad faith. In essence, one pushes the responsibility of their actions onto forces outside of one’s control. Nature, society, tradition, vocation. One diverts blame, at the cost of freedom. Sartre, however, believed that ‘man is condemned to be free’. We cannot escape responsibility, no matter how much we desire to. Our choices are our own. Our actions, the means to self-definition.
Capitalism has left us believing that identity is tied to consumption. That wealth is the only means toward self-expression. That ambition and corporate success are values necessary for happiness. But this being-for-others is an eternal becoming—a chase towards ideals whose distances never change.
The gaze is both alluring and frightening; our homunculi uncontrollable. It is easy to rely on the other for praise and affirmation, but with it comes also criticism and indifference. It is a frightening life. A social enslavement. Only in ignoring the homunculi and acting on our own terms, will we close the ravenous maw of consumerism.