Archive for April, 2011

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Product of the Ukraine (Strawberries from Chernobyl)

April 28, 2011

"Blak Lantern" Henry Richards

Today is the 25 year anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. In my last post, I coined the term Irrational Radiation Stigma (IRS) to describe an unconscious reaction that might be created by the tragic nuclear catastrophe in Japan. I hypothesized that Terror Management Theory (TMT) could be used to develop hypotheses concerning the possible observable effects of unconscious stigma. Limiting such hypotheses to the economic arena, TMT might predict that for some window of time, Japanese goods might be seen as vaguely undesirable. Knowledge of the Japanese origin of goods might conjure up unconscious images of contamination, death, and the inevitability of death, and hence to a decrease in preference for Japanese products. The effects could be measured in terms of the price and volume of sold Japanese goods over the last few months, compared with averages for those months in other years. Perhaps certain goods might be more likely to stimulate such anxieties, consumables that go into our bodies, such as food and drink; perhaps next strongly affected would be food containers and cookware, or clothing that goes close to the skin. How do you feel about strawberries from Chernobyl, or anywhere in the Ukraine (once the Chernobyl association has been made salient)? Of course, what I am calling IRS would be mainly unconscious, so even though some of you are denying any feelings about it, in the super, you are still likely to walk past those red, juicy Chernobyl berries.

A non-zero significant difference between pre and post Fukushima is the safest scientific bet, because this hypothesis would pick up the effect of aversions and any counter-reaction (conscious or otherwise) to IRS. For example, one might predict that the degree of IRS effects would vary with the extent to which countries are committed to nuclear energy. Familiarity with a potential threat might lead to acclimation, or to sensitization, like living in a seismically active zone, versus living on the edge of an active volcano. Consumers in nuclear dependent France might show little to no IRS effect while countries that have avoided a nuclear energy strategy, such as perhaps Canada, would show more of an aversion. On the other hand, people living with a nuclear power plant in their back yards–say residents of New York City, which has nuclear plants closer to it than the distance of Fukushima stay-out zone–might show the strongest effects.

Of course, another way to test such effects is to conduct social psychology experiments. Imagine subjects (college sophomores, who else?) playing some variant of  the TV game show “The Price Is Right.” The country of origin of the goods could be easily varied, and the prominence of the Fukushima situation could manipulate by exposing the subjects to some advertisement related material (preferably visual) prior to playing the pricing game.

One legitimate goal of such a research project (or even this arm-chair version of one) is to prevent IRS by making its possibility conscious. Almost three weeks ago, I saw the first buy-to-support-Japan sign in the window of a record store in my Seattle neighborhood. Record stores themselves are going extinct, so my guess is that the buy-to-support-Japan movement is huge by now via the ASI (artificial social intelligence) communication media that is replacing brick and mortar, at least in the recorded music business. Of course people can and do consciously examine humanitarian concerns and respond with charity and compassion. That kind of conscious decision-making, which often is grounded as much in emotional empathy and sympathy than reason, is the antithesis to IRS. In the not so long run, conscious decisions will carry the day, because Fukushima, half a world away, is not a direct threat to us. Researchers, act quickly while compassion is still gathering its wits about the degree and significance of human need in Japan.

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The Consolation of “The Sandman”

April 26, 2011

"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

A hazard of working with Ernest Becker’s ideas is that they can increase the anxiety of being trapped in the human condition. Without the comfort of traditional religion and lacking Tillich’s “courage to be,” it is possible to fall into despair. Becker acknowledges as much and advises us “to fashion something—an object or ourselves—and drop it into the confusion, make an offering of it, so to speak, to the life force.”   In reflecting on Becker I am constantly brought back to a Bob Dylan lyric: “Well I can’t provide for you no easy answers. Who are you that I should have to lie?”

While personal and collective creativity may be the most effective way to assuage our anxiety, I’ve also discovered a type of vicarious consolation in author Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel series, The Sandman.  Referred to by Norman Mailer as “a comic book for intellectuals” and penned in the 1990s, these comics focus on the exploits of The Endless, a family of supernaturals who are anthropomorphic personifications of the human condition. The seven siblings who comprise The Endless are Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Despair, Desire, and Delirium. They represent certain constants in the human condition that transcend particular eras and cultures. Their adventures and interactions with humans are not unlike those of classic Greek mythology. The central character is Dream, also referred to as Morpheus.

The Endless

An interesting feature of the series is that it employs the gods of past civilizations, Thor or Anubis for example, as characters in the story. These gods and goddesses no longer inhabit earth as in the past, having been superseded by new gods and beliefs. Rather, they have left to reside in a different realm and crop up periodically in the narrative to serve the storyline. The death of belief and what happens to the gods when this occurs is a favorite theme of Gaiman and appears again in his novel American Gods. It also features prominently in the Discworld novels of Gaiman’s friend Terry Pratchett.

It is precisely in the death of the gods and the ongoing existence of The Endless that I find consolation. Only a short leap separates the death of the Olympians and the death of contemporary gods.  Traditional religion has functioned as effective culture armor precisely by connecting individuals and cultures to something bigger, something transcendent. The Sandman does this by highlighting the endless universals of the human condition and in so doing conveys  a certain constant nobility in the human experience. This self-aware postmodern consciousness is quite distinct from the metaphysical certainty and security of the classic religions. Is it enough? Perhaps. In his interviews with Bill Moyers, the late mythologist Joseph Campbell observed that the shaman of former cultures had been replaced by the artist as a fashioner of the new myths. Perhaps The Sandman represents a small step, one of many, in the development of a new consciousness, an at-homeness, with the human condition.

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Anyone Can Whistle!

April 21, 2011

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

One of the most startling ideas of the existential psychoanalytic tradition confronts us with is that “normal mental health” is itself a form of pathology. The simply “normal” person in any society has purchased that normalcy at the cost of loads of repression, denial and truncation of his or her true inner feelings and of reality in general. I suppose it is always good to be cautious in making sweeping generalizations about all societies. But this certainly seems to be true of modern technologically advanced societies, and of current American society in particular. The normal, everyday actions of normal, everyday human beings are laying waste to the very planet we rely on for our sustenance.

I got up this morning, walked the dog, and then drove a total of about 20 miles doing various errands around town. Totally normal, nothing unusual, nothing to provoke deep thoughts. But clearly, as I do think about it, my actions, in conjunction with the hundreds of thousands and millions of others acting similarly, create the markets for continued oil consumption, the lines of tankers across the oceans, the ecologically devastated refinery port areas like New Orleans (the destroyed coastal wetlands is largely what makes a hurricane like Katrina so destructive–a healthy coastal wetlands would enormously absorb and diminish the strength of the storm), the wars that are required to maintain the oil flow, and the climate change that is causing havoc all up and down the east coast and the southern belt this winter and spring. Despite my morning’s contribution to global destruction, I will curl up in my reading chair sometime this afternoon, probably with at least some reading material that will indirectly chastise me for my lifestyle. Later I will pick up my child from school, make some dinner of Passover leftovers, and with my wife attend a program of my daughter’s school choir this evening. Perhaps, if all goes according to a scenario taking shape in that back of my mind, before dropping off to sleep tonight I will have fulfilled Freud’s vision of the best we can do in terms of “normal mental health,” i.e., the ability to work and to love (to be productive and to mate.)

The fact is, in our culture, our normal everyday activities are destroying the environment we depend on for life. We daily soil our own nest. I don’t know what to do about it, what the long term solutions are–that is, as the saying goes, above my pay grade. But I am quite sure that I cannot repress or deny the facts. It is not the psychopaths that threaten our existence and the long term viability of our species. The threat, collectively, comes from everyday, normal guys like me, and you, and you, and you. From us.

I was listening again recently to a recording of a great Sondheim musical, “Anyone Can Whistle.” To put it mildly, this musical was a big flop on Broadway, probably because it is too honest about the human condition. The basic story line is that there is a mass escape from a local state mental institution and all of the patients have come to town and mixed with the townsfolk, so that no one knows for sure who is who, who is “normal” and who is “mental patient.” Soon the great doctor Hapgood shows up, charged with the task of sorting out the sane from the insane. He goes about asking questions of the people, and it quickly shows that each and every life is so full of mixed motives, repressed realities and logical contradictions that every judgment Hapgood makes as to the relative sanity of this or that person appears totally arbitrary. And in a typical Sondheim twist, the great Hapgood himself turns out to be one of the patient inmates. It really makes you think…

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Thinking Through Violence

April 18, 2011

"k1f" Kirby Farrell

In a recent post I called attention to the way media and public thinking often *use* violence as shorthand to mark a disruption in everyday ideas.  You could say that violence often functions not as a literal representation of behavior but as a marker for a “mind-blowing” experience.

I was glad to see Jim Lieberman reminding us that this is a culture much given to violent content in public discourse.  He puts it eloquently enough to warrant a repeat.

One might say that we have 3% psychopaths in the population and they get 50% (who knows?) of the media coverage–news and entertainment. So most people think the world is much more dangerous that it really is. That’s externalizing the death-threat. Each nightly news program about killing lets us go to sleep thinking someone else took the bullet for me, I’m still alive. As Otto Rank said, “we are not that far removed from the old ritual of human sacrifice.”

This bracing reminder actually dovetails with my point in a timely way.  Again, people *use* representations of violence as a way of expressing a mental threat – a threat to our cherished ideas about the world.  In this way violence can function like a tantrum when the child can’t understand and “loses it.”  It can be helpful to ask how the climate of thought may be making it hard to see that people are having trouble putting threats to worldview into words.  Or as Jim Lieberman says, the culture can get us used to confusing problem-solving with pulling a trigger.  In the extreme this is what I call “berserk style,” and it’s all around us in pumped-up America.

Here’s today’s punch-in-the-nose example:

Consider the current media focus on demands for budget cutbacks to “balance” things.  In reporting on the economic ideas, media has a hard time resisting the militants’ stress on apocalyptic ideas such as “tsunamis” of debt. The “tsunami talk” tries to overwhelm – or deny – the serious debate among economists about how to cope with unprecedented US debt as the world continues to rebalance after WW2.

But no less important,  “tsunami talk” short-circuits attention to the *use* of violent images.  In this case militant  budget-balancing is routinely used to justify squeezing the poor but not the corporate military or the super rich.  Violent budget balancing is, so to speak, unbalancing thought.

A lot of political and financial talk prefers to babble about “fighting” this ill or that rather than solving a problem.  The language we use – the language we’ve inherited – has ancient roots.  It’s loaded with expressions that favor violent mobilization of will.  You “fight” flu.  You “war” against drugs.  You “battle” poverty instead of  “sharing” the goodies or “loving” thy neighbor.  As berserk style, it puts mental life on the boundary of violence.

As we dimly recognize, it’s how we’re built, though of course we (ahem) fight to change.

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The Long Arm of the IRS (Irrational Radiation Stigma) all the way from Japan

April 14, 2011

"Blak Lantern" Henry Richards

This April 15, consider a different IRS, one Made in Japan.

Will an additional burden be imposed on Japan in the form of irrational fears and suspicions being attached to the affected people, Japanese goods, and perhaps to all persons and things Japanese?  We are in a window where only information and images from Fukushima have had any impact on our day-to-day lives. In a few months, there might be a rational basis for concern that some Japanese imports from Fukushima or downwind of that area may have unacceptable levels of radioactive contaminants. Radioactivity is invisible, but it can be detected, measured, and often removed by simple procedures like removal of dust, or washing of exposed surfaces. Not as easily contained may be an irrational stigma which appears to be on the rise related to radiation “from abroad”. Steve Crane of the BBC reports that the Japanese government will pay trade insurance benefits to industries negatively affected by radiation concerns in response to some countries refusing deliveries of goods that could not be contaminated by radiation. Feels like the IRS is already raiding the till. Every sign of Chinese coal smog and any hint to the fifth decimal place of Fukushima radiation floating this way over the Pacific are likely to fan smouldering anxieties into live coals of suspicion and fear, potentially igniting the bonfires of prejudice and resentment.

We have solid historical evidence of a kind of IRS within Japan itself. Sarah Boesveld of the National Post, in her article, “Stigmatized by No Fault of Their Own”, warns of the possibility of recapitulating  the fate of the 227,565 people recognised by the Japanese government as hibakusha, “radiation affected people,” survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. The hibakusha and their decedents, according to Boesveld, were seen in post-war Japan as having “a mark of shame, a sign that one is potentially damaged; impure by no fault of one’s own.” a stigma that narrowed life’s prospects, from employment to marital partners. The response to survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki stemmed from a traditional Japanese value of misogi, or all-encompassing purity, Boesvelt explains: “The Shinto religion holds moral, spiritual and physical purity as one of the most treasured traits in people and so it was thought that those exposed to harmful radioactive chemicals could not achieve that purity.” The hibakusha of WWII also suffered self-imposed penalties stemming from their expectation of discrimination and rejection, a self-rejection evidenced in self-denials such as not claiming medical benefits that would require having documentation of exposure to radiation. Perhaps there is no line between guilt and shame in the self-loathing that is spawned by a stigma that reaches into one’s DNA. Perhaps these feelings were almost natural in an era that saw race as a determinative human characteristic, that largely framed the war with the Japanese as not just a duelling of nationalisms but as a war between “peoples.” Both the marred and the visibly untouched bodies of those exposed to the nuclear blasts and lingering radiation served as emblems of the defeat of a whole people.

According to Radiation Effects Research Foundation, a joint US-Japan organization, after the nuclear bombing, the radioactivity at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was over 90% depleted in one week and returned to  less than the background level within a year. The half-life of the stigma was probably 25 years. The hibakusha ultimately transformed their victimization and stigma into heroism, both by their actions and the evolution and healing of Japanese society, partially aided by American support. The Japanese are in a moral position to be able to encompass blamelessness within misogi. Will it prove to be the case that the rest of the West is equally enlightened? (I say the rest, since here in the third millennium, Japan is integral to the West). The label “Made in Japan” has transformed over the decades from meaning cheap goods made by cheap labor to shoddy and derivative knock-offs to reminders of the rust encroaching on our industrial heartland (recall how Japanese autos were pummelled and even burned in public), to envy-provoking, high-tech, leanly designed, and profitable consumer goods.

Will the subliminal baiting of death that comes with riding a Suzuki motorbike become more of a scary turn-off than an exhilarating turn-on?  Is there a danger that “Made in Japan” will become a reminder of our self-poisoning presence as contemporary consumers, of our world-destructive lifestyles, and our inevitable mortality?

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Depositing Religion On The Doorstep of Psychology

April 11, 2011

"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

The title of this blog is a reversal of Ernest Becker’s famous statement that psychology deposits us on the doorstep of religion. He was speaking to the impossibility of psychology fully answering the existential dilemma that is at the heart of the human condition. While I believe Becker was correct on this, I think it is also true that psychology can help us frame our questions in a clearer way and so point us to more productive outcomes. A case in point is the recent talk given by social critic Naomi Klein on the question of climate change denial.  Klein’s talk can be found here:

http://www.energybulletin.net/media/2011-03-25/naomi-klein-totnes-movie

Her main point is that climate change deniers, both the scientists and those who readily accept their findings, are ideologically driven to defend a certain worldview. Of what does this worldview consist? Briefly, it is composed of a strain of Christian faith, laissez-faire economics, and frontier rugged individualism. These elements stand over and against not only any attempt to regulate polluting companies, but any attempt to rein in the consumer appetite for more, more, more. To quote Klein, “When they say climate change is a threat to the American way of life … infinite growth, infinite expansion is embedded into people’s definition of themselves and of their country. It is their mythology that is under threat.” Klein goes on to argue that scientific facts by themselves cannot address the anxiety experienced by the climate deniers whose worldview is threatened. She counsels addressing the underlying ethics and values of the competing worldviews. She says that we should realize that there is an ideological war going on and should be willing to fight it on that level. It is at this point in her argument that we can benefit from the insights of Becker because if irrationality can appear in the scientific arena, it most certainly can appear in an ideological war. Moving from scientific fact to ideological debate does not address the anxiety that undergirds the conflict. This is where religion is deposited on the doorstep of psychology.

A recent study by Jessica Tracy, Joshua Hart, and Jason Martens points to the psychological foundation of climate denial. The study is entitled “Death and Science: The Existential  Underpinnings  Of Belief In Intelligent Design And Discomfort With Evolution.”  It can be found here:

http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0017349

While climate change and evolutionary theory are distinct topics, I suggest the psychological dynamics are very similar. The study is highly detailed with nuanced findings and it is impossible to do it justice in this short space. For our purposes, a very brief summary must suffice. In short, the researchers tested how the meaningful worldview held by subjects correlated with acceptance or rejection of both evolutionary theory (ET) and Intelligent Design Theory (IDT). By exposing subjects to mortality salience questions—questions that make them aware of their inevitable death—the researchers found that subjects moved toward the theory that best supported their worldview. Those lacking strong natural science backgrounds were more likely to be drawn to an IDT that tacitly supported traditional western cosmogony. Conversely, those with a strong natural science background were more likely to accept ET. In both cases, subjects gravitated to the view that supported existential meaning. One major takeaway of this study is its confirmation of the idea that society functions to give people a meaningful worldview and a significant role to play within that worldview. To quote the study, “The present research suggests that the attitudes toward scientific (or seemingly scientific) views and ideologies can be partly shaped by unconscious psychological motives to maintain security and ward off existential angst through the cultivation of meaning and purpose.”

The upshot of all this is that meaning trumps reason. That might be fine were the stakes not so high. When ecological devastation lies in the balance, our need for comfort cannot be allowed to trump reason. Here, the insights of Becker are so important in allowing us to understand the underlying motives and name them clearly. As Confucius said, “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.” Becker’s work gives us the language to name “the truth of things.” One positive finding of the “Death And Science” study is that subjects could be moved toward that more accurate naming and find existential meaning in the ET worldview through education.

One final thought: There have been studies suggesting that imagining oneself flying or in flight can act to assuage our mortality anxiety. If we could somehow get the climate deniers and IDT proponents up in airplanes and then reintroduce them to Darwin’s naturalism …

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Frostbite: The New Jane Eyre

April 7, 2011

 

"k1f" Kirby Farrell

Like To Kill a Mockingbird, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre haunts the corridors of American education.  The plucky orphan Jane survives abuse, rejection, betrayal, and other afflictions to become an esteemed governess and finally the cherished wife of Edward Rochester.  Destiny rewards Jane’s virtue with a windfall inheritance from a remote uncle in Jamaica, even as the once-lordly Rochester is brought low by his mad Jamaican wife.

The magical undoing in this plot shouldn’t surprise us.  Most story-telling offers some sort of wish-fulfillment.  But Jane’s latest incarnation, directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, is worth noticing because the wishes it projects are more punishing than romantic.  And that may be telling us something about the mental weather around us these days.

As Ann Lewinson grumbled in the Hartford Advocate about the new Jane (Mia Wasikowska), “Most grievously, she cannot play Jane in love, and honey you are kissing Michael Fassbender [Mr. Rochester] — what is wrong with you?”  Well, Ann may have a thing for Fassbender, but in fact his Rochester is as tame as the unsmiling Jane. Their love scenes are achingly sexless. His past liaisons are so muted they could have been quilting bees.

Now here’s what’s striking: Stephen Holden’s New York Times review of Zeffirelli’s 1996 Jane Eyre almost exactly describes the new Jane as well.  Lush production, anemic passion.

How to account for this peculiarly damp romance?  One answer lies in the vindictive righteousness invested in Jane. While many feminists have moved on, 1980s victim feminism has hardly gone away. The recent Janes are outstanding victims of swinish boys (but not girlfriends), nasty schoolmasters, and a toxic stepmother.  Though the new Jane steadfastly stands by Rochester, you might wonder why.  She’s decorous to a fault.  Why depict her as such a stick?

One clue lies in her only inner spark – moral aggression.

We’ve gotten used to Hollywood and publishers promoting tough, self-sufficient women who can “Kill Bill” and other malefactors. The fury of Stieg Larsson’s viciously abused heroine Lisbeth Salander is gentrified in the new Janes.  This Jane’s not liberated-woman-as-killer, but as righteous judge.  Invite her to play, and she’ll zing you with cold rectitude.  When Rochester risks a little frisky wit, her repartee scolds.  Mistreat her and she will forgive you to death.

In this adaptation, young Jane behaves as if traumatized and, frankly, never gets over it.  She’s peculiarly anaesthetic.  The film gives her a stick figure, a joyless face, and stubborn teenage idealism that parents in the audience should recognize. She’s supposed to be a gifted artist, but she seems impassive about her beautiful surroundings chez Rochester. (Thank Adriano Goldman for the luscious cinematography. Love those Vermeer blue window shots and mouth-watering candlelight, and russet reds that bloom when passion soars to its tepid russet heights.)

Reunited in the end with the blinded, gratefully emasculated Rochester, Jane’s safely in control of them both – and of the movie audience too.  There’s no question who will be running the show from here on out.  In a word, this is a gentle fantasy of righteous mastery and, by the way, getting even.

Third stream feminists argue that the 1980s emphasis on victimization promotes women’s helplessness.  But it’s useful to keep in mind that victimization can also fuel aggression: specifically vindictive righteousness. After all, from infancy, personality develops around convictions of “what is right.”  Shared with others, the sense of rightness allows us to feel at home in an overwhelming world.  It’s crucial to our mental operating system.  It makes the magic circle of everyday life seem natural.

One way of understanding the righteous Jane theme is to see it as a reaction against the tsunami of change that is making folks from Tahrir Square to Main Street feel orphaned and powerless. Granted, the Jane fantasy projects a gentry world in trouble.  And so it appeals to a gentry that today faces economic threats and values notoriously under stress.  In today’s terms, when Jane meets Rochester, fear of helpless unemployment meets what can jokingly be called “affluenza.”  Rochester has everything anyone could need, but can take no joy in it.  In order to feel, this limp couple needs Jane’s punishing rectitude and, finally, the crippling pain of a therapeutic fire that burns down the McMansion and makes pitying devotion exquisite.

Brrr.

But there’s a deeper level too.

You can also think of Jane’s masked anger operating in the service of mourning.  Like an old Harlequin Romance, the film stops the instant the lovers kiss.  But for all their supposed bliss, the lovers are implicitly mourning a lost past.  And the film is playing to an audience that is mourning for a world of fading verities beset by psychic storms: a world in which imagination will have to put mourning to work sorting out the old stuff and kindling it to new life.