Archive for March, 2011

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Lethal Inspection

March 31, 2011

"The Cephlapod" Cory Foster

One of my favorite television programs is an animated series called Futurama. It follows the life of a late-20’s slacker named Fry who finds himself unintentionally and cryogenically frozen in 2001 and then reanimated in 3001 (how’s that for an immortality project?). While trying to acclimate to life 1,000 years in the future, he befriends all manner of alien, mutant and robot life forms and actually winds up feeling quite comfortable in his new surroundings. The humor of the show is successful using its future setting as a vehicle for the satire of our world back here in the 2000’s. The characters in the show deal with largely the same problems that we do. Corrupt government, rampant commercialization and intolerance are all covered. I was, therefore, not surprised when the most recent season featured an episode covering the concept of mortality salience and the denial thereof, but I did chuckle to myself at the serendipity of its co-occurrence with the initiation of this blog.

The protagonist of this particular episode (“Lethal Inspection”) was Fry’s best friend, a bending robot named, appropriately, Bender. We learn through dialogue in the story that all robots in the 3000’s are equipped with a backup chip when built, so that if anything destructive befalls their bodies, they can simply be reinstalled in another body. Bender comes to find out that he is defective, in that he is missing this essential chip. This effectively makes him mortal. His reaction is one of rage and violence, and he vows to take revenge on the assembly line inspector whose responsibility it was to make sure that Bender was built to industry standards. He travels through North America on a frantic search for this “Inspector 5,” and eventually winds up in Tijuana, where he was built. I won’t give away the ending, but it is somewhat bittersweet.

Bender gets examined in "Lethal Inspection"

I found this to be a very Becker-centric episode of Futurama, for obvious reasons. It seems ideas about existential dread are certainly out there in the wider world, but it’s unclear how much they affect any of the viewership. Were most people in such denial that this episode did not register in the forefront of their minds? Did they react in some subconscious way, as in the various TMT experiments? I would be interested to see if there was a spike in violence or altruism after the airing.

Many of the writers on the show are Ivy League educated, mostly from Harvard, and their erudition shows. However, it was most interesting to see them tackle a softer science (psychology), instead of their standbys of physics and mathematics. When Bender asks the humans in his workplace how they deal with their mortality, they reply with “violent outbursts,” “general sluttiness” and “thanks to denial, I’m immortal!” One wonders whether they had used Denial of Death as an inspiration here.  We in the EBF know that Becker’s Denial is as likely to be denied in the Ivies as anywhere. Later, we see Bender reacting to his newfound mortality in a single-minded violent pursuit of revenge, and as he begins to accept his fate, there is a profound sadness apparent in a being that is supposed to be cold and unfeeling. The spirit of Becker was very apparent through the story and I can only hope that among the viewers several were sufficiently interested to investigate further.

For a transcript of this episode, visit: The Infosphere

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Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down

March 28, 2011

"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

The Christian observance of the season of Lent, the period of spiritual preparation leading up to Easter Sunday, is inaugurated by the sacramental known as Ash Wednesday. In the Catholic form of the ritual, ashes produced from the palms of the previous year’s Palm Sunday service are placed on the forehead of the believer. The priest or lay distributor says “Remember Man that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” The ashes remain on the forehead for the remainder of the day as an outward sign of the need for repentance in one’s life.

This ritual has seemed to exert a strong and unique hold on the psyches of adherents.  I was surprised to hear a priest express exasperation at the fact that Ash Wednesday sometimes outdraws Easter in attendance. Ernest Becker helps explain the appeal. In The Denial of Death, Becker explains how Kierkegaard stands in the Augustinian-Lutheran tradition wherein, “Education for man means facing up to his natural impotence and death.” Becker goes on to say, “It is only if you ‘taste’ death with the lips of your living body that you can know emotionally that you are a creature that will die.” The power of the ritual stems from the fact that it effectively touches both the existential and public spheres of our life. On the one hand it is completely individual and concrete. Ash fragments tumble into eyelashes causing you to blink. As an individual you decide whether to leave the ashes on all day (as is the religious expectation) thereby letting one’s religious freak flag fly, or, enter the anonymity of secular culture by washing them off. On the other hand it is a public affair often involving hundreds of people and you are ‘Man’ not Dan or Neil or Erika. Your personal identity, even as it is emphasized, is transcended by your animal condition.  We taste death simultaneously on two levels.  This deep insight,which is terrifying at its core, takes place in the comforting culture armor of religion. The hope of Easter resurrection sits on the horizon. And yet, for that moment, “Remember Man…….”

For several reasons, Ash Wednesday occupies a good place in my own life. As a kid, the weirdness of it was attractive. It had a darkness about it, like something from a Neil Gaiman novel tumbling into Anytown U.S.A. In retrospect it seems likely that the ritual prepared the way for a later interest in Becker’s work. I got it before I ever understood it. As an adult, a house fire added to the truth to which Ash Wednesday points. About 10 years ago we lost the second floor of our house to fire. Thankfully everyone got out okay but we lost a lot. The initial pain of pitching things soon took on a liberating feel. The trauma of loss gave way to a sense of freedom from stuff. This ‘giving up’ or sacrifice is the key component to Lenten preparation. My daughter took it a step further, using charcoal from her burned bedroom for art projects and keeping a baggy of ashes from the fire for her own annual idiosyncratic Ash Wednesday ceremony, ‘tasting death with lips of her own living body’.

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Seeing Through Violence

March 24, 2011

"k1f" Kirby Farrell

Instead of grumbling about violence in media and the movies, lets consider what sort of work it’s doing.  Granted, this is the United States, where violence seems to dominate imaginative life from TV to exterminatory video games.  And you know the conventional wisdom: that violence onscreen incites us – or (ahem) if not us, then certainly the impressionable young – to aggression.  And the other face of the argument gets equal time, especially from pious broadcasters: that representations of violence have no lasting effect on us, or may even serve as a safety valve to co-opt the aggression viewers’ feel.

Put that debate aside for a moment.

What’s worth pondering is the way violence disrupts our “natural” sense of the world as safe, sensible and natural.  I call this the magic circle of everyday reality, the zone we’re taught to expect from babyhood.   You can think of it as the sum of beliefs that support our basic trust in the world.  We think of it as “what’s right.”  Its implicit rules and familiar patterns make it possible to anticipate events and behavior, and to cope sensibly when things fool us or go wrong.

When what’s right prevails, the world makes sense – and so does the self.  You could say that what’s right is a critical component of the operating system that makes it possible for us to manage the overwhelming world in which we find ourselves.

We adjust to the world and grow by continually coping with disruptions of what’s right.  Every surprise, from a sudden wink of affection and a broken shoelace to a tsunami, challenges imagination to test and the magic circle and recreate it more convincingly.   Conflicts and incongruities make us more realistic.  In a sense this is adaptation and evolution.

In this light, violence is a radical form of a process so common in mental life that we scarcely notice it.  As a representation, violence is an emergency signpost indicating that imagination has to undertake some problem-solving action and recreate our mental world.  As a blazing signpost, violence calls attention to our need to overcome inertia and safety in order to stay lively in a demanding world.  It shouts that what’s right can become self-regarding and stagnant.

In this light television violence can be seen as crude tool for dramatizing the cognitive process of recreating our conception of the world.  TV writers could present more sophisticated and abstract conflicts as provocations, but of course they’re paid to reach out to a mass audience and stimulate maximum excitement.

No question, such signposts are often raw, simplistic, and even perverse.  George Gerbner, the media analyst, has shown, for example, that too much TV generates the false mindset that he calls “the mean world syndrome” – a belief that the neighborhood outside your door is more dangerous than in truth it is.  Shrink from violence, and it can paralyze you.  But if you study it as a marker, as Gerbner has done, violence can illuminate the processes that lock us up in the shadows in front of a deadening screen.  What assumptions about life is this instance of violence disrupting?  And why?  What should I think – or do – about it?

It helps, in a word, to look at violence as a technology for confronting our prejudices about the world – denial.  A  gang fight or an earthquake a cruel political maneuver seems to be all fury, anything but a technology for making us more aware.  But if you step back, if you look at the play of what’s right, however vicious, you can make out the challenge to adaptation: to be more realistic.

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Religion Versus Spirituality?

March 21, 2011

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

The most recent Point of Inquiry podcast was a very interesting discussion about the increased use of the term “spiritual” to describe oneself, as opposed to “religious.” The Point of Inquiry discussion revolved around whether it was legitimate to describe science as intimately connected to spirituality. The discussion more or less took for granted that science would be opposed to “religion,” but “spirituality”? Maybe not so much…

My thoughts on this topic are not directly applicable to that particular question, but I also work in a secular discipline, social work, in which discussions of the general topic have become common in the last decade. In my social work classes, when I lecture about the concepts of religion and spirituality, I use the image of a glass and water. Water (spirituality) is the substance, which can be poured into any number of containers. The glass (religion) is the particular container holding the water in one particular time and place. Both the water and the glass are conceptually separable. But the glass without any water isn’t of much use or interest, while the water without the glass just runs all over any which way, maybe more interesting but also not of much use. As with creative processes, which need both the creative energy and a concrete project toward which to direct that energy and give it form, religion and spirituality are integrally linked and in need of each other. At the same time, what is most precious is the substance, and it can be a great adventure to notice how this substance can fill itself out in many different containers. We get into trouble if we become attached to a particular container even at the expense of the substance. Most of the time, that analogy seems to be useful, though like any analogy, it is flawed if you push it too far. But anyway, see what you think!

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Today’s Secret Word is “Triage”

March 18, 2011

"k1f" Kirby Farrell

You’re not fooled.  You read the news.  You know that “the unemployment rate” is higher than it’s been in decades.  Chances are, you also recognize that calling it “the unemployment rate” turns the distress of real people into a tame abstraction.

No doubt, like me, you’re asking Why?  What’s gone wrong?

Of course: “the recession.”  But officially at least, the recession’s over.  The banks and corporations are filling their piggybanks again.  Yet working folks are still hearing a pitiful clink or two when they shake their piggybank.  Incomes have not risen in real terms for a decade or more.

Back in the 1970s the Department of Labor already had its finger on the problem.  There were just enough new jobs being created for new workers entering the workforce.  But the quality of the jobs was under stress.  Read: the quality of the jobs was declining.  Since then, as you know, more people are working part-time, without benefits, for lower pay, and with signicantly less job security.

What’s wrong?  The President has appointed a new economics advisor from GE, and today’s explanation is that “American competitiveness” needs  to improve.  But again, the corporations are flush: only their profits are coming from investments – and labor – abroad. To put it more directly, with less denial, American business have been sending money and jobs overseas.

They’re not being simply malicious.  They’re responding to the difference in labor costs around the world – global wage arbitrage.  China, India (“Chindia”) and other countries have opened up vast new pools of cheap labor.

To sweeten the pot, these available workers are usually docile.  They’re grateful for a wage, they put up with the grind of the sweatshop.  They know they have to eat and can be replaced on the assembly line.

If you look past polite denial, the reality is that you work or you starve.  That is, you die.  Your kids die.  Or you survive in squalor, in a state of social death.

This ultimate, disguised fear of death sends a powerful electric current through the subject of jobs. Not surprisingly, those on top feel the threat too, though for them the fear is that labor’s costs and demands may rise, profits may fall, and the boss, too, may fall.  This is one reason for the relentless campaign against unions around the world.  Colombia is notorious for the murder of labor organizers.  At a comparable stage this country saw the same sort of violence, as Howard Zinn famously documented in his People’s History of the US.

The global wage arbitrage and means that for the forseeable future, incomes will be rising in developing countries and declining here.  Usually we focus on the need to create more jobs, which turns the problem into a manageable task, even if we never seem to reach the goal.  But change the perspective.  Over the horizon in the bigger picture, you can see that forces in America will be working to drive down the number of well-paid workers until wage differences come into balance.

That means triage.

You see it everywhere.  Layoffs.  Declining benefits.  Givebacks.  Automation.  Union-busting.  The firm gives you a severance check and sends you to India to teach your job skills to the Indian who will replace you (no kidding).

Of course the quality of public life suffers.  Less tax revenue means fewer government services and a tattered safety net. Education, the route to skills, costs more. As in the past, the increased competition and insecurity mean increased hostiity to immigrants and felllow workers, including union members and public employees with secure health and retirement benefits – even though the system is actively scheming to gut their contracts and pensions.

Under pressure, in short, people are tempted to turn against organizations that have improved the workplace.  You don’t see protests in the streets against corporate greed and criminality.  There are no sit-down strikes of the sort that won auto makers the right to organize during the Great Depression.

There are practical reasons for this slowmotion crisis.  The US has the weakest labor laws of any advanced industrial country.  Most media in the nation is owned by four multinational corporations with no incentive to publicize the needs of labor.  Schoolkids have little or no exposure to economic or labor history.  The list could go on, with denial everywhere.

But that’s why it’s important to keep triage in view.  Triage is culling the herd.  Triage is finally about survival.

People unconsciously in the grip of survival dread may drift along in strenuous denial – who can bear to think about death setting off to work in the morning?  But some people will turn aggressive, as if to get control of fate by turning flight into fight: turning fear and depression into outrage.  We see it in audiences eager to be pumped up by ranting politicians and shock jocks. Their outrage combines a sense of victimization with righteous fury.  It’s a pill for self-esteem.

But as history keeps showing us, throwing wild punches at shadowy scapegoats all too often shows you a shocking black eye when you look in the mirror in the morning.  And it does nothing to stop triage.

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Pre-Death Anxiety

March 14, 2011

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

One of my students recently posed an interesting question. Does Ernest Becker’s idea about the denial of mortality and death being at the root of human motivation apply equally to all humans everywhere? It has been said (by Phillip Reiff, I think, though I don’t have the exact quote at my fingertips) that each era has it own “pornography,” that topic which consumes major portions of the social energy suppressing, and yet it holds deep and unavoidable allure at the same time. Whatever that issue be in a given society, people will react to it like a moth to flame, repelled and in denial but at the same time drawn to it by irrational psychological forces that probably in large measure stem directly from the social taboo itself. For European Victorian society this was sexual eroticism, and therefore what Freud noticed and outlined in his sexual theory of psychology was not a human universal itself, but rather a psychology more or less specific to his time and place. In modern society (so the argument might go) the allure of sexuality has pretty much lost its unconscious psychological force. With endless and easy access to all kinds of sexual depiction through mass media of all kinds, our society’s problem is less one of controlling sexual obsession that it is simply maintaining adequate interest and arousal for a minimal level of sexual functioning. But clearly (as can be seen by random viewing of television and movies) the obsession of modern society is death and destruction. Therefore, what Becker so accurately diagnosed was not a human universal, but rather the “new pornography” of modern technological society.

There is certainly a lot that can be said for this point of view. After all, isn’t it true that even Becker somewhat idealized earlier and primitive societies for the fact that they exhibit much less death anxiety than our own?

In interaction with this point of view, I would say that Becker did not unduly idealize pre-modern societies or the people of these societies. But he did see that the problem of facing naked death anxiety was effectively ameliorated in such societies, compared to modern society, for the following
interrelated reasons:
1. In general, pre-modern societies are relatively isolated and culturally homogenous, so that their cultural transcendence systems (that is, hero systems, religious narratives and teachings, and so on) were less likely to be directly challenged–everyone a person came in contact with on a daily basis basically saw the world in the same way, and thus reinforced the plausibility of that particular worldview. In modern technological society, high speed travel, large-scale immigration, and encompassing mass media work to inform society’s members of dozens, hundreds, of competing worldviews, thus presenting a fundamental and ongoing challenge to the unquestioned veracity of any one particular version. If, as Becker thought, our sense of ourselves as worthy people, engaged in worthy endeavors of transcending importance (that is, our worldview and our place as a valued person within it) acts as a buffer against naked mortality anxiety, then certainly we could say that this functioned better in earlier societies. This is not because their worldviews were more true or more accurate, but because their communications horizons were severely limited. (What, in modern society, is sectarian self-segregation but an attempt to (re)create conditions of limited communications horizons as a reinforcement of group worldview plausibility?)
2. Pre-modern societies, based on tribe, family and tradition (esp. oral tradition) produce less highly individuated people, hence less naked death anxiety for the individual. The more one is psychologized to the “group,” the less one needs to establish transcending meaning for life all alone. The more one individuates (has a sense of himself/herself as a separate individual with very personal desires and needs) the more one “stands alone” and is thus exposed to the anxiety of failure, an only lightly disguised form of death anxiety. Therefore, more highly individuated societies do have a higher burden of death anxiety as Becker depicted it.
3. Actual death is not hidden away in pre-modern societies. Children grow up seeing people die, yet also have the direct experience that life goes on. As this is reinforced in the integration of religious narratives and rituals in everyday life (tending to ancestors, etc.) it is very natural to maintain the worldview of life continuing on in some form after death. Modern societies do keep actual death hidden and out of sight for the most part–exchanging it for the highly stylized depictions of death of the mass media. This is clearly an aspect of the manifestation of death anxiety in modern society. Up-close and personal exposure to actual death are replaced by depictions of stylized, unreal death. And unreal death easily translates as “death is unreal.”  But unconsciously the anxiety persists.

There is more that can be said, and I will come back to this in future blogs. For the time being, let me just conclude that this is not to say that people in pre-modern societies did not face death anxiety; only that the cultural buffers against its debilitating potential are relatively strong compared to modern societies. Modern societies can almost be described and characterized by their systematic, point-for-point undermining of the pre-modern cultural buffers against death anxiety-cultural– diversity (making particular transcendence narrative less plausible); high, even exaggerated, individuation (placing all of the burden of existence on the individual rather than the group); and increased reliance on professional expertise, which has the rather direct side effect of hiding the dying and dead away from children as they grow up (even the deaths of their pets and animals) and thus increasing its anxiety-provoking potential.

Therefore, if people in pre-modern societies experience less naked death anxiety than people of modern, technological societies, it is not because the people themselves were of a different makeup or psychology. It is because the cultural buffers of pre-modern societies work more efficiently, and pre-modern people are not subjected to the same challenges to their worldviews as are inherent to a modern cultural milieu.

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Observations From Egypt

March 10, 2011

"Blak Lantern" Henry Richards

In mid- November, I was with my spouse wandering around (and around) Tahrir square and thereabouts, lost trying to find the Egyptian Museum. That led to an adventure and a story of high chicanery and  deception that was a living allegory for life in modern Cairo. I’ll tell it to you later. Right now, I have so many feelings about the recent events in Egypt that I have been at a loss to put them together. I’ll post a few here now. Read all you want, I’ll make more (including the living allegory, I promise).

My fellow Egyptians, ask not what Baksheesh your country can give to you–Ask…

One impact the revolt in Egypt has had on me is that I see the tradition of baksheesh very differently now than I did when I was constantly expected to pay for nothing or an imaginary service, or a service I didn’t want. Baksheesh means sharing the wealth. It’s not begging. It’s the principle that if you have, of course you’d want to give, so the only pressure on you is your own estimation of the generosity of your character, not your judgment of the neediness of the person asking baksheesh. (In writing this, I learned from my writing tools software that Word will autocorrect misspellings of Mubarak and Baksheesh, but does not know Tahrir from a pile of beans. Also, did you know that Baksheesh is a fair trade wine retailer in Sonoma and St. Helena, California?) In Cairo whenever well dressed men in suits, including plain-clothes security staff, asked for baksheesh, I would cringe. (Baksheesh in the far south, near Sudan, was a lot less prevalent and intrusive. Oh, the gentility of Southern folk everywhere). I know now that a tourist has a very hard time imagining the hardship of even the middle-class and barely middle class people in Egypt, let alone the poor.

True, there are tall leaning towers of eesh baladi (flatbread) at a great government-subsidized price in every small shop and street stall. But man does not live by bread alone. The life giving transfusion of meaning that a reality-based hope delivers to all aspects of one’s life are surely as foundational as material sustenance. And Mubarak was not subsidizing hope. He was subsidizing bread and (no, not circuses) slogans, and security for other people and other nations, but not for the Egyptians. After my weeks in Egypt in November, I was surprised (like everybody) about what happened to Egypt and Mubarak. I am shocked and happy that it means that there is now more of that reasonable hope in the same shops and mini-bazaars, albeit maybe with less bread and with higher prices.

The Cairo Express to Women’s Rights:

One amazing aspect of the Tahrir square footage was that it was largely absent of the regimented separation of the sexes. My wife and I a difficult time taking the subway from our overly fancy and ridiculously expensive, hotel to Tahrir Square. Most of that was the usual Idiots Abroad kind of comedy of errors, but with one Egypt-specific addition. We missed several trains because we were running alongside them trying to find a car that seemed gender appropriate for us, that is a car that was neither all male nor all female. I didn’t want to get on the all female car and hold my wife’s hand like a kindergartner on a field trip, to show I had the “ticket” of being with a woman, and not out to be a lech. We didn’t want to go on the all male car, where my wife’s very modest dress would be a provocation for some guy to stare at her as he wipes the drool off his chin. I am sure we looked like idiots to the locals and anyone who knew what the informal rules were. When we asked Egyptians, they all said to get on any car, although some cars are reserved for women (what?). It’s just a courtesy, not a Sharia law punishable by public flogging or doubling your baksheesh for a month, whichever the rapscallion is likely to find more distasteful. Putting aside neurotic conflict about the right car on the train, the leadership and participants in Tahrir are male and female. It seems that the camera-persons (I bet they’re all guys) found many shots of women leading the men. Of course, they were the kind of cheerleaders you’ll never see having a “wardrobe malfunction” at a Super Bowl half-time performance.

Egyptian-Israeli Relations Late-November, 2010 and 407 BCE

During whole trip, we saw not one anti-Israeli sign. Unless we brought up politics, and the Israel vs. Palestine vs. Egypt situation was discussed “intellectually,” for all intents and purposes, it seemed that Egypt is to Israel what Mexico is to the US (I had tried on “Canada to the US”, but Canadians are not a rapidly procreating hoard of impoverished potential invaders, who are racially alien and practice an inflexible and inscrutable faith—Yeah, that’s what those Canadians want you to think! Also the analogy to the Canadian-American relationship doesn’t work for that part of the middle east, because there is no Higher Power pumping money and military goods to both Canada and the US. The analogy to US and Them—I mean Mexico, is more apt. There is a Higher Power, pumping money and arms through the Mexican-American border, it’s called The Drug-Gun-Cheap Labor Trade, a little like the triangular trade that kept Slavery going for a few centuries, but I wander…).

People were concentrating on the problems of living, not on being against any group or country. In fact, for about half of our trip, we travelled with a small group (less than 8) which included an Israeli couple. The male looked Jewish (I know, I know, what does it mean to look Jewish? I mean that he looked more Jewish than I look Black). The only possible “situation” showing Arab-Israeli conflict was when the wife of the Israeli couple asked a boatman on the Nile to translate the name engraved in Arabic on the side of his small sailing craft. The man was a Nubian Egyptian, for we were near Elephantine Island, Aswan where Nubia traditionally is said –said for 4000 years—to begin) His black face spread with a wide grin of gratification, clearly happy that a tourist was taking note of his boat, before announcing with pride “The Arafat!” The woman made a dismissive gesture and mumbled something about Arafat being an idiot and stupid . Before the trip was over she had called everybody stupid: the Egyptians, our Dahabiah captain (golden boat, a big yacht) who was a Mexican-American born in Mexico, the Americans, the French, and, of course, the Israelis, who she deemed “impossibly stupid”. Another American who was present (my name is Wes and I wouldn’t touch that mess) tried to save appearances (and I suspect he thought that instantaneous Jihad was pending on his response) by saying “He was a really important leader.” But the boat owner was noticeably crestfallen. His deflation didn’t affect the great tour he gave us around Elephantine Island, the place where a temple to YHWH was built in the 5th century, after one third of surviving Jews fled to Elephantine and surrounds to live under Persian (Iranian) rule, after the Babylonians (Iraqi’s) destroyed Jerusalem and the First Temple. Goes to prove that Sly and the Family Stone were right all along, “It’s A Family Affair”.

More observations of Egypt to follow.