Rainbow on a ship

Positive Thinking

Or the Learning of How to Ignore

by / 15 February 2020

Facts don’t cease to exist
only because we ignore them.

1.

The Beach Boys’ 1966 celebrated song Good Vibrations is a tiny silver coffer to admire enthusiastically. One could get lost in the inlays and in the luminosity of the coffer itself, reasonably, without considering forcing the lock – boring, tiring discipline. It is anyway true that someone, somehow, would eventually think of the coffer as what it is: a container. What does this song contain, beyond its catchy rhythm and its psychedelic symphony? It contains indications of an evident, by now, and yet not completely comprehended phenomenon. In the autobiography I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times, Brian Wilson says that his mother believed that dogs were able to perceive human positive and negative vibrations. This concept of “emotional vibrations” is the basis and inspiring source for the famous song we are talking about. Its lyrics refer to this field of vibrating matter which composes a substantial field of interlacement between a him and a her. The man, who is the one who sings, says: “I’m pickin’ up good vibrations/She’s giving me the excitations” and later on “[g]otta keep those lovin’ good vibrations a-happenin’ with her”. This inherent theory of a quasi-substantial psychic influence on reality – and on other psychic fields – has a deep, terrifyingly long history. The Beach Boys set up here a particular paradigm where the “direction” of these positive vibrations deploys itself, roughly speaking, from an external source to my body-mind system, where the latter receives and affirms these emotional vibrations, allowing an answer on the same level. The influence lays upon the distinctions external-internal, subject-object and so on. If I’m “vibrating”, the possibility is that I can pulse in the psychic field of someone else and receive an answer. As the songs goes, the singer-perspective character realizes that, in order to feel these positive feelings, he must “keep those lovin’ vibrations a-happenin’”. Evidently enough, I must remain positive and cheerful to make the atmosphere positive and cheerful – right?

2.

You might have already experienced the contemporary paradigm of the positive thinking tale if you have stepped upon self-help books, motivational videos on YouTube, and perhaps even encountered the simplified rehabilitation of the notion of meaninglessness of existence called “optimistic nihilism” – a joyful attempt to cope with the incapacity of figuring out a way to live a full life. If the 60s were about social ideals and personal growth within a community of peers – itself an ideological, anti-capitalist narration – the new paradigm stands upon a very subjective, very individual “philosophy”: Do the things that make you feel good. This, together with the belief that positive thinking attracts positive events, is the anteroom of an enormous placebo effect kindred with a naive and uncriticized realism. Social isolation, depression, loneliness are the Western world’s contemporary struggles which led self-help culture and self-help publishing to an evident growth, along with motivational speeches about success in life. The downfall of social and personal meaning and values that the Zivilisation announces and manifests seem to have reset people capacity to respond to the question: Why, and how, should I live? The focus of individual purpose has shifted from human emancipation and development to individual realization – brought by other individuals who have severely and attentively dug into the mazes of human existence (?).

An interesting example of this is the Jordan Peterson phenomenon. Clinical psychologist and professor of psychology, Peterson has found himself wrapped in the dress of a saviour. He began to publish on YouTube videos talking about the plague of political correctness and its relation to free speech, along with other contemporary issues next to neoliberal and conservator positions. Now Peterson is a public figure with an enormous audience of confused young adults who seek the correct way to live life, to behave as a person (“start making your own bed!”), to find a subjective perspective of an objective meaning in one’s existence. All of this, of course, blaming “cultural Marxism”. It is absolutely stunning to see, on Youtube, clips of his university lectures titled with some catchy phrase like: “This 7-minutes video will change your perspective on life”. His lectures are partly misinterpreted and partly ruthlessly popularized. Peterson has been mantled as the pater patriae of the children of the corn. He, who is anyway what we call an expert in his field of study, is just the tip of the iceberg. The general view we have is about a market of easy solutions, superficial not in the sense of “frivolous”, but literally as solutions who care about the social surface at an individual level. That is: instructing individuals, interested in reaching their own success, to build a “winner” social image. The matter is learning to be among the others instead of being with them. The self-help/positive thinking culture has gained a huge host of followers over the past few decades, which do not produce a social set; they are instead united by the worship of the self-determining individual. All of them are crawling around the same core: Self-persuasion that all problems in one’s life are a matter of how one decides to think about them. Let us consider problems as ritual tests! As steps of a wonderful journey called life! Lets smile, and enjoy the trip – as rigid branches carried by a stream which, moistening their bark, gives the illusion of a now unattainable freshness.

In the age of no fathers, sons need to learn things all by themselves. They are not even sons anymore; they are sponges, whose best skill is to become the most ductile shapeshifters.

3.

The myth of positivity, the “positivity no matter what” tale, is a desolating myth, but remains nonetheless a mythical discourse. We can say about myths that they are normative codes in the form of narrations, metaphors who aspire to be universal as prescriptive and exemplary models of behaviour. Myths ordinate reality, produce Chosmos out of Chaos; they even structure a perspective on reality, how it works and how a community (Gemeinschaft) should behave in relation to the World and to the community itself. Myths set up a self-justifying structure which produce social objects, models of behaviour, called rules. Myths have an incredible amount of value in defining and carrying values – this is because they are, moreover, interpretations of existence and of the world: Weltanschaaungen. Myths are order-bringers, are structure-guarantors, hence they need to be themselves coherent narrative structures. The myth of positivity that we are experiencing through new medias, in workplaces and, in general, in social relations is different from “traditional” mythical narratives. It is not a metaphorical narrative, it is not theoretical, and it is not a story. The myth of positivity stands upon itself as an ethos, as an interpretation of existence, as a system of ethical prescriptions for the good life. Catching here and there, the good vibes philosophy tries to define a sort of coherent and catchy theoretical background.  

The perfect way to describe the good vibes tale’s functioning is through the hindu/vedic word mantra. Although there is no general accordance on the literal meaning of the word/verses, some of the recurrent elements such as mantra as formulae which, through the pronunciation of specific words, produce thoughts or beliefs. The word itself comes from the root man-, namely “to think”. In this sense, mantras are instruments of self-induction (to enhance the meditative practice) and self-persuasion. The line between self-persuasion and self-deception can be very blurred. As an objectification of both language and thought, the concept of mantra draws a very clear image of an idea of thinking: an “external”, ideal and numinous object – the mantra formula – acts directly upon the “thinking substance”, similarly to how alchemic stones interact with spirit and matter. This very horizontal way of conceiving thinking, this form of naturalization of it, determines thinking as a substance – a substance deeply interwoven with feelings, emotions and mood. It is a substance that needs to be driven, limited, determined through the means of sacred formulae in order to produce bodily and humoral effects; it is perceived as the mighty instrument that could lead to peace, ataraxia, cheerfulness… anyway, it controls, but needs to be controlled at once.

It is not by chance that the positivity myth comes along with a series of philosophical renaissances, a coming back to fashion of theoretical accounts such as stoicism, cynism, and a deeper interest for oriental practices like meditation and its western degenerated paradigm of mindfulness. One heart-warming indication these renaissances give us is the struggling tension to reunite ideas and actions, theory and practice. Stoics and cynics, for example, are part of that (quantitatively insignificant, unfortunately) race of thinkers who structured their thought as a real life-practice. It is a conception we can find in Eastern philosophies too, however with a different account of what thought is and how we should think about it. Cynics in particular, with parresia, the duty of saying the truth, manifest themselves as an ancestral lineage of heretics who decide to elide the irrepressible chasm between thought and reality. Of course, the Cynism we experience today is not the ancient Kynismus, but a form of moralistic justification, under the mantle of the most unprejudiced realism, for any action in the sight of an end. Our Cynismus is: “it is not important how; it is important that it happens”. Anyway, the matter is to discipline thought under the sceptre of life and immediate presence. These renaissances are part of the wider phenomenon of revival brought by the postmodern condition. The re-exploration of past tendencies, obsolete paradigms of thinking, past modes of appearance – and even their re-evocation in a mash of an already-been with the illusion of novelty (let’s think about hipster culture) – are all declination of the same struggle. New combinations of the same elements are just combinatory magic tricks – the eternal return of the same. The dull nostalgia for an idealized past is the manifestation of a lacking sense of belonging to the present and to the social space as it is. Revivals work as beautiful dresses to rotting bodies. The future comes too fast in the form of optimization; there is no space for new images, only for calculation and functions.

Those who are familiar with the “the beauty is in the eye of the beholder” can conceive how deeply this “good vibes” narration is itself a prescription for good life. From this set of prescriptions we can determine the problematic consequences – problematic exactly because consequences instead of premises – of the derived image of thought. It becomes an immanent power human beings have which, exactly as a mantra but without the numinous act of naming, is able to shape our experience of the world – and maybe the world itself. It is a strange form of dualism, a crucible of worlds where thinking, in the form of self-persuasion, determines itself as stronger than the physical world – although dangerous. Thinking has become what passions and instincts once were; we need to avoid that thinking looks at its own image in the mirror. Therefore, thinking is its own nemesis, and the task is to treat it like a horse with blinders: the task is to focus our thoughts on good vibes only, sure that this will call to us good events. It is certainly hilarious that, from the role of the charioteer in Plato, thinking has found himself thrown in the body of one of the two horses.

4.

In order to deepen our understanding of this narrative phenomenon, it would be wise to approach some of its historical origins. A theoretical background is exactly what this sort of experimental narrative lacks. To conceive failure as a blessing, mood as an amorphous passive matter, sadness and loneliness as guilt, one needs a minimally coherent justification. Historically, it could be clever to refer to New Thought movement, born at the beginning of 20th Century, a form of immanentist pantheism which considers human nature as itself divine. One of the main beliefs of this movement was, and is, the so-called “law of attraction”, namely the belief that, given the energetic nature of human beings and thought, positive or negative thoughts can alter the external world and our worldly experience itself. This doctrine found many points of contiguity with naturalist and proto-ecological movements born in the second half of 20th Century. The Hippy lifestyle, New Age culture and even theosophy have all been countercultural visions of the world that shared, more or less underneath their surfaces, accounts of the nature of thought which entail energy and its interaction with matter. For this reason, we need to consider here the importance of psychoanalysis too, particularly in the person of Carl Jung. His account of libido as energetic force, and his theorization of a deep unconscious dimension called “collective unconscious”, shared by all human beings as a transcendental memory, worked as a misinterpreted substratum of many of those movements quoted above. The same can be said for the studies on psychedelics (people like Terence McKenna), which opened a whole new series of experiences of mind, and thus a whole new series of interpretation of the nature of our psyche. All these elements together show a multifarious yet somehow clear pattern that whispers about the nihilistic torment. Obsessive speech about the infinite power of thought, of imagination; the call to freedom from society and its burdens; the pursuit for an happiness that flees from “great narratives” and aims to find again a place in the world. Also, the self-legitimization of this positivity-speech is that it does not conceive itself as theory, but as a grounded (read: scientific) account of physics, medicine, biology. The law of attraction, of course unfalsifiable and thus scientific exactly like the existence of aliens, tries to ground itself as real knowledge on the basis of that very science which cannot grant it any grade of validity. Also: neuroplasticity, the ability of our brain to “change shape” in order to optimize neural networks, is often used as evidence, and justification, of the fact that “to think positive is to shape our brain for positive thinking”. Of course, this way of justifying the endeavour to think positive is completely oblivious to questioning the justification for positivity itself. It is the classical error of losing sight on the general ends, and focusing on the sharpening of the means. Related to this premise of using thinking to shape thinking, it is also important to refer to Ron Hubbard, Dianetics and Scientology – another perspective on “the power of thought on body” and on the “we use the 10% of our brain” yakking.

In all this mess, it is quite hard to depict a clear image of what kind of influences are responsible for such an account of what our thought is. It is, nonetheless, useless. I think, instead, that a proactive approach could act better as a key to cope with the positive thinking myth in respect to an exegetical approach. There is a consideration, ultimately, we should do. Despite the obviousness of the “pursuit of happiness”, it is not completely pacific the reason why contemporary individuals need to convince themselves to be happy in order to be happy. Why should we consider erasing a spectrum of our emotions as a legitimate practice to a happy life? Why should I pick only positive aspects of a both positive and negative event, given also the suspect substantialization of “positivity” and “negativity”? On what basis should I consider my thoughts as voracious enemies?

The problem refers “back” to the condition we name postmodernity. The easiest way to describe this condition is as follows. All the great narratives, namely the great utopic visions regarding the future of the past centuries, have found themselves stuck in the actual deployment of the events: history is not teleological, it is not even substantially the history of something. How can we make all the atrocities happened in the 20th Century fit into a human emancipatory discourse – without justifying them as dialectical? History is time passing, things changing, perspective shifting. Traditional values and ethical values manifest themselves as perspectival and cultural. There is no absolute foundation of thinking and knowledge; knowledge is information, information is product, product is sellable. A great part of our understanding of the world works via cybernetics, and many of our modes of relation are technological. The future, far from being a regulative visionary model, an ideal, stands closer to the present; it even retroacts upon the present – i.e. the possibility of an ecological catastrophe forces us to act as the future is already present. In this landscape, one of the main issues is legitimization. Great narratives dissolve, little individual narratives begin to spread. Whose knowledge is legitimate to be considered as knowledge, if everything is perspectival? Does an expertise in something legitimate anyone to be listened more than a non-expert? What is that makes knowledge true and legitimate? Lyotard would answer power in the form of money, but today things are different from 1978. Money itself is the source of suspect regarding knowledge. Therefore, knowledge is perceived as bound with individual interests – if I tell you something, is to make you buy a product or control you.

5.

It is a brave new world that experiences a derailed form of resistance. Despite everything, the blossom of an unconscious feeling of resistance is something to jealously preserve. The lack of a principle of legitimation and a principle of truth is related to the dissolution of the Father (super egoic) principle, from which no other paradigm has formed yet. There has been attempts to get back to the Mother, to earth and nature, but these are futile shots. Positive thinking is one of these attempts, where an acephal body manifests the tension to resist death and continue to move just for the sake of moving, looking for a brand-new head. Another self-fraud. Self-help is the anchor against the dread of existence without meaning, without sense of belonging, without predetermined place in the world. Without history – history is not my history. The future is insofar it is my future. Therefore, as optimistic nihilism prescribes, everything I feel good about matters because nothing matters – apart from what makes me feel good. If this happens to make feel good other people too, marvellous! That is not, however, a crucial necessity. What is easy to forget telling this tale, is that what makes us feel good waits at the end of the path. The cause of the “feeling good” or of happiness is an object given as result, not as present in itself. In order to gain the thing which produce the good feeling we must consider that it is not thinking alone which modulates matter directly and produces the object’s condition of existence; it is action, determined by thinking and by will. To act is painful, sometime repetitive, always tiring. It is a consume, an expenditure of energy, instead of being an obsessive research of energetic vibrations. The expenditure produces variations; it allows to reach the concreteness of an object given, in the first instance, as ideal. Expecting to receive the good only because one “is good”, without doing good, is nothing more than a fancy. Optimistic nihilism is the death rattle of the Last Man. In a universe which does not manifest a meaning on its own (?!), one needs to detach from everything that is not lifetime – forget the past, to enjoy the bestiality of the presence. However, in order to reach that cheerful present, one should look behind and see the struggles of the past – the path walked, the ordeal.

It is a time of passage. Paradigms need time to set, values need experiment to become concrete. That is what we know. One must feel terror to create something different, or to recapture that which was taken for granted. Our conception of time has narrowed, because there is no trust in the past and no faith in the future. Anyway, let us consider this as positive. Let us think about the positive, beautiful things we can learn from the ruins of the world we are walking on, dressed in a big smile. When I will be dead, there will be no problem left… so why focus on problems even now?

It is a time of passage. Old orders fall, beliefs become redundant, obsolete. New relations begin to interweave; new tensions begin to determine new poles of difference; new systems learn how to ordain structures. All this depends upon time. Not necessarily the time of our life, of our individual thinking, of our desires. Above all, in order to think this time of passage and live this time of passage, we must emendate any limitation we set to ourselves for the sake of fear, desolation, lack of hope. One of the tasks of thinking in the time of passage, where mutations happen and the terrain is fertile for thoughts, is to precisely face and analyse what makes the world tremble, what haunts our dreams. Positive thinking and individual improvement (based on what?) are dead, static and rigid branches, which are only valuable to light a fire. Just one. They are blind to themselves, unguided perspectives that aim to ground a lifestyle where the founding principle – to be positive at all costs – is completely unquestioned in its essence and in its deep reasons. Self-deceptive palliatives.

Nobody is guaranteeing the passage being a passage to something else. Thinking about this time as transitional, however, does not mean to reassure ourselves about the fact that we just have to wait. It would be naïve, just like watching at the world through pale-pink lenses. Ecological catastrophe is the evidence we are possibly facing the end – an end that can manifest itself in other ways. A world-system which witnesses blossoms of increasing complexity, that nearly annul our capacity of prevision on events, is experienced in the same way as a house too big to be aware of all the maintenance to do. Technology should help us, but it is itself an object which we have not completely comprehended and with which we have not learned to relate essentially. A time of passage, thus, is that time of expectancy, when one needs to sharp what one have, in order to be prepared for whichever event or revolution will come. We should aim for the maturity which can grant ourselves to seize things with responsibility. Our decisions, our thoughts, our actions as a web of relations between one another are the really “realist” way to work a path through this shift of paradigms. We must seriously consider exiting intellectual puberty, the take on the responsibility of account ourselves as the spectres which we have hidden behind our skulls. Face the spectres to give time to time, wait for the events and open them the way – without, however, an hopeful smile, but with profound acquaintance. If childhood is the time of faith in values, adolescence the one of putting them under question, then adulthood should be the time of tidy up the pieces – and never having again the need for prescriptions.

Biblio/sitography (in order of appearance and utility)

  1. Good Vibrations – The Beach Boys, Capitol Records, 1966
  2. on “positive thinking”: Positive thinking: Stop negative self-talk to reduce stress; How To Reprogram Your Mind (for Positive Thinking); The Power Of Positive Thinking: How Thoughts Can Change Your Life; 7 Practical Tips to Achieve a Positive Mindset
  3. Examples of motivational speeches: STOP BEING A VICTIM – Powerful Motivational Video ; NO EXCUSES – Best Motivational Video; WARNING! Belief changer
  4. Optimistic Nihilism: Optimistic Nihilism
  5. O. Spengler, The Decline of the West, Vintage Books, trad. C.F. Atkinson, 2006
  6. on Jordan Peterson and his bastardised lectures: Men & Women: Personality Differences | Discovering Personality with Dr. Jordan B. Peterson; Jordan Peterson – Stop Hiding! You Are Stronger Than You Think; Jordan Peterson – Clean Up Your Room!
  7. on myths – some indications: E. Cassirer, Language and Myth, trans. S. Langer, Dover Books, 1953, New York; M. Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, trans. W.R. Trask, Harcourt Brace & World, 1987, New York; F. Creuzer, Simbolica e mitologia, Editori Riuniti, trad. it. G. Moretti, 2004
  8. F. Toennies, Community and Society, Dover Pubs, trad. C. Loomis, 2003
  9. Alain Daniélou, The Myths and Gods of India, Inner Traditions, 2008
  10. On the degeneration of stoicism: Stoicism & The Art of Not Caring; Marcus Aurelius: LIFE CHANGING Quotes (Stoicism)
  11. On Stoicism and Cynism in contemporaneity: G. Deleuze, Logic of Sense, trans. C. Boundas M. Lester and C. Stivale, Bloomsbury Academic, 2015, London; P. Sloterdjik, Critique of Cynical Reason, Univ. of Minnesota press, 1988
  12. On postmodern and revival: J. Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Manchester UP, trad. G. Bennington and B. Massumi, 1984; F. Jameson, Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Blackwell Publisher, 1992; T. W. Adorno, Parva aesthetica, Mimesis, trad. M. Masiero, 2011
  13. On New Thought: NEW THOUGHT MOVEMENT – History and What We Believe – A Practical Spirituality; R. Byrne, The secret, Atria Books, 2006; What Is the Law of Attraction
  14. C. Jung : The Collected Works of C.G. Jung, G. Adler, M. Fordham et al., Princeton UP, 2014
  15. On neuroplasticity for positive thinking: How Does Thinking Positive Thoughts Affect Neuroplasticity
  16. L. Ron Hubbard, Dianetics, N.E. Publications Int., 2007
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