What is the “Real World”?

How a concept rationalizes our servitude

Language gives us an interesting window into our minds. It acts as a sort of bridge that reconciles our thoughts and projects them onto the world. The words we choose, or rather, the words we use — in consideration of claims that we don’t choose words, simply adopt them — help expose the constructs we hold within.

One of these fascinating constructs is that of the “real world”. A concept that has been built into our over arching interpretational schema, yet one whose true meaning remains well hidden.

The “Real World”

In its most basic form, the concept of the “real world” alludes to a set of preordained responsibilities. A combination of patriarchal mores and the protestant work ethic.

In more philosophical terms, the “real world” proposes the existence of an objective reality that is governed by set rules. Rules, that give us all an equal playing field, and sorts us based on our abilities. More importantly, a world our understanding of these rules determines our success, or, on the other hand, leads to justified punishment.

The concept then is elicited as a sort of compass, a guiding principle in the face of obstacles. If you’re having a hard time and not getting your expected results, the solution is simple and easily at hand, you just need to pick yourself up from the bootstraps and fight on.

In short, the real world is one where an individual is seen as the sum of their interactions with the world, and their ability to best the variables that they face — variables which, since we are operating on the idea of an objective reality, we all face.

With this, the concept becomes an unconscious police force keeping us grounded, cautioning us from the dangers of swaying too far from the rules it sets out. Rules which resonate with many of us because, for the most part, they hold up to the truth. A strong work ethic is virtuous and a good sign of character. And standing up for one’s rights and “fighting on” is a universally accepted moral stance.

But why is it that the “real world” is used as an ominous warning? Spoken about either with a wry grin of “just you wait” or the depression of a return to a “grind” of sorts. To understand this better, we need to look closer at what the “real world” doesn’t encompass.

The “Unreal” World

The concept of the “real world” is usually elicited as a juxtaposition, one raised in two situations, university years, and vacation. In both instances it’s presented to mark transition. University, and everything that has preceded it, is presented as a preparatory phase for the “real world”, which we eventually transition to. While as when it comes to vacations, the “real worlds” is expressed as a return — here, and at the end of a vacation, you hear people say, “guess its time to go back to the real world”. Does this then mean that vacations and the years preceding graduation represent the “unreal” world?

Both vacation and university are times when an individual is seen as not contributing to society, a time when they are growing or recuperating as individuals. They also reflect a social landscape that is not replicated in the “real world”.

At university, there is a sense of open comradery of belonging to an institution where all are on a similar path of personal growth through the accumulation of knowledge. One may argue that this is not confined to the university and exists in the “real world” through the common experiences of work, or of belonging to a nation, yet, there is a major differentiator between the two.

In university, competition plays a benign role and growth is seen as a non-threatening event. As such, it allows for mutually beneficial social relationships to flourish around a shared experience of personal growth. The “real world”, on the other hand, presents a common identity in competition where the rules of the game are zero-sum. Personal growth as a concept is also largely abandoned in exchange for a more limited interpretation of career progression, that is, growth for a purpose. It’s for these reasons that mark university as “the best years of our lives”.

Vacations elucidate yet a deeper and darker comparison between the real world and the “unreal” world. Vacations are the only form in which one can disassociate from the “real world” and practice a sense of agency that extends beyond the mores of the “real world”. But there is an inherent understanding that this disassociation can only be momentary, that the escape from this world, is only temporary on account of the need for money. This is why the words “going back” to the real world are used.

Submitting to the inescapable

It’s this inescapability that makes the “real world” and the mores found within it seem to belong to an objective reality. Yet the existence of systems of social interaction beyond those mandated by the “Real world”, such as those found in university, prove that the concept is anything but objective.

This means that the mores that come with it are not seen as universal because of the merit they hold within individual, but are ideological retrospectives necessitated by a system that allows no agency beyond a prespecified “fermentation” period. The industrious character stops becoming a worthwhile characteristic because of its inherent social value — contributing to society out of free will, but becomes a necessity adopted to make sense of the fact that we have no choice but to be industrious if we want to survive. If these mores were not ideological components, then we would have no need for the juxtaposition of a “real world” as opposed to the “unreal world”.

The amazing bit is that we know both these concepts to be vacuous, yet we continue to perpetuate them within ourselves to justify our adherence to a system that robs us of our agency, an agency we know to have and believe should be able to practice — as we do in our allotted outbursts, yet, one that we are not willing to embrace in totally, for in our nihilism, we are happy to relinquish it in exchange for the convenience of what’s already there.

In this light, the concept of the “Real world” becomes both a trope and an awakened radical understanding of the subjectivity of the world and our compliant role within it.

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