Archive for July, 2011

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Cell Phone Denial

July 21, 2011

"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

First, a bit of disclosure.  Influenced by Neil Postman, I tend to be a late adopter when it comes to technology. Getting the lay of the land and assessing emergent positives and negatives of given technologies has lead to an unusual situation. I don’t own a cell phone and have no desire to possess one. Being a late adopter I fell into the situation naturally and, observing it, decided to maintain it. Recognizing that this is not a luxury available to all, this is not a judgment. The broader philosophical debate is fun but not the point here. Rather, it is to set up the typical dialog which follows below. Before departing this introduction I’d like to share the visceral side of my non-usage. It comes from seeing people talk and text during musical performances, particularly in more intimate club type settings.  Singer Jeff Tweedy of the band Wilco expresses  the concern with great eloquence at the following location:   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ew3AOlbJXos  There are even clear tie-ins to Ernest  Becker’s work.

In my high school classes,  when my students learn of my cell phone choice they are fairly incredulous, wonder  tinged with pity.  This is certainly understandable insofar as cell phones have constituted so much of their environment. Cell phones wallpaper and mediate their experienced reality. The interesting part of the conversation comes when they invariably ask, “But what about if ………. ?”. There follow the standard emergencies of the broken down car, sick person or simply generic ‘emergency’. My stock answer is to ask what people did before cell phones. They generally fall mute at this point and I leave them to chew on it a bit.

While much has been written about the importance and the pros and cons of social networking through technology, I wonder if Becker has something to add to the conversation. Becker uses  Kierkegaard to express the fear and trembling , the terror, that follows from realizing our mortality. He goes on to use psychoanalytic insights to explain how we cope with this terror through various forms of repression.
Returning to my students and their cell phone dependency, could it be the case that their use of the technology marks a kind of repression?  Without being reductive and suggesting a simple one to one cause effect relationship, might it not be the case that  cell phones can act as a sort of psychological crutch, shielding them from the ‘throwness’ of life?  Kierkegaard relates the fictional account of a man who confidently plans a dinner date but who dies in a freak accident before he can attend. His point is that such an event is always possible for any of us and yet we must repress this knowledge and live as though our future actions are guaranteed. To fully accept the conditional nature of our existence might allow the fear and trembling and sickness unto death to overwhelm us. Perhaps for my students the very existence of the cell phone represents a psychological lifeline in the ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’ game of life. Their pejorative use of the word random as in ‘That’s so random’, points in the same direction, a reaction to the dizzying pace of postmodern life.

Another element that may come into play with use of technology is what  Kierkegaard refers  to as philistinism, a way of repressing the dual terror of life and death by losing oneself  in the routine of daily life. To quote  Kierkegaard, “Philistinism tranquilizes itself in the trivial.” Technology allows us to  bury ourselves in the minutia of trivia in new ways.  As the 24 hour news cycle has spawned infotainment, the ever present cell phone has enabled a new dimension of philistinism. Or so the argument goes. Perhaps my instincts on this are off base. Hmmmm….  How could we test this?  A death prime followed by a measurement of how quickly one turns to the cell phone?  That could be interesting. Incidentally, the title of this post is intended as a double entendre.  I can be in denial too.

Finally, on a trip to Mammoth Cave today I passed a tiny cemetery and took a picture I’d like to share.

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A Clean Slate?

July 19, 2011

"The Single Hound" Bruce Floyd

“. . . a person’s past inescapably clings to him and . . . becomes his fate as soon as he tries to get rid of it.”
–from The Double by Otto Rank

A few months ago I read Joseph’s Conrad’s novel Lord Jim again. I must say that in my opinion Conrad only gets better the older I get. I never tire of his work, seem to take more away from it the more I read it. Jim, the Jim of Lord Jim, a handsome lad, superficially imposing and easy to like, is, like many of Conrad’s characters, a sailor, a merchant seaman. Jim has grandiose dreams, imagines himself a hero, has an egregiously inflated notion of his own worth. He shapes his life by illusions, the primary one being that he is special, more courageous than other men.

Yet on his very first sailing job, working as an officer on a ship transporting a large number of pilgrims on their way to Mecca, he, along with all the others members of the crew, jumps ship when it hits sometimes in the water and seems certain to sink. Jim, who has been disdainful and contemptuous of the rest of the crew, assuring himself that he is superior to this vulgar bunch, cannot accept that he is as guilty as they are. He, aloft and arrogant, stands apart from them as they make their way in the lifeboat, all of them thinking they have left the passengers to drown. The cowardly ship’s crew make their way to port to report the sinking of the vessel, only to see, about the time they are making the report, the abandoned ship, towed into port by a French ship. The other officers flee, but Jim stays and stands trial. It is at this trial that Conrad’s narrator, Marlow, sees Jim for the first time. Fascinated by the young man, Marlow gets to know Jim.

Feeling compassion for Jim, Marlow, after some time, manages gets Jim a job, and Jim, up to then intractable and self-pitying, sullen and bellicose, suddenly does a volte-face,  and says Marlow has given him, Jim, confidence. Jim thinks he will “show them” yet, saying, “I always thought that if a fellow could begin with a clean slate,” he could, in effect, redeem himself, make the past disappear, vanish, as if it had never been. And Jim, still embracing the most fanciful illusions, leaves for his new job.

When Jim, brimming with confidence, blind to his arrogance and vanity and appalling ignorance of how the world works, leaves, Marlow, alone with a solitary candle throwing feeble light in the heavy shadows, doesn’t feel “enlightened” at all. He is, he says, too old “to behold at every turn the magnificence that besets our insignificant footsteps in good and evil.” Marlow, contrary to Jim’s ebullience and Jim’s illusory sense of his own self-importance, as if each beam of light that shines on him is either portentous or auspicious, feels sad, his seeing a cold truth that Jim is blind to: “A clean slate did he say? As if the initial word of each our destiny were not graven in imperishable characters upon the face of rock.”

I won’t quibble with Conrad about how much of our character we are born with. Is at least a portion of our destiny etched into us, something ineradicable, before we see the light of day? I simply don’t know. It does seem, however, that Jim is born with a fundamental flaw.

But I am old enough to know this though: there is no such thing as a clean slate. There is no way we can erase who and what we once were. I’m not saying we can’t change. Maybe we can. People have changed. Life is not a fact, but an act, some thinker says. No matter. From the time we are born the world stains us, indelibly, and as the years pass the stains become darker. It it not rather foolish for a man to aver he will begin with a clean slate? How?

We are always meeting people like Jim, those who are always shouting they are going to start over with a clean slate. A wiser person, I suggest, would hope to spruce up the dirty slate, touch it up a little, would see in an instant the folly of ever thinking the corrupted and polluted and defiled slate could be wiped completely clean, scoured of all scratches and imperfections.

Some might say, “Yes, and it is from these scars, our past idiotic acts, our thoughtless cruelties, our errant assumptions that we learn to modify our behavior. These kinds of people, the idle dreamers, those who think because they want to change themselves that they can change, not by action but by simply wishing, fall victim to the same mistakes all over again, contumaciously clinging to the idea that the world can be made to conform to their dreams of it, never thinking, musing and brooding, “O God, what have I done?” but rather, “What have I missed? Oh, how the world has failed me, failed to recognize how special I am.” They are sure they were born to be heroes, the cynosure of all eyes, plaudits falling all about them, cries of acclamation, if this or that had happened. It’s always “this or that” with these kinds of people. It’s the Jims who jump ship and then want us to judge them as if they didn’t jump. Strange creature, a human being. Another person might define himself or herself by his or her ideal vision, but we can judge others only by their actions.

All of us, no doubt, sometimes wish we could wipe clean the slate when we look back at our lives. Most of us have done some bad things we are ashamed of.  We could say, most of us in the EBF, with some accuracy what Hamlet tells Ophelia: that we are indifferently honest; that is, not much better or worse than most other men. But most of us have lived long enough to stain the slate, to dirty it up royally with the mire of foolishness and folly, with carelessness and cruelty, with impatience and stupidity. God knows, there is not enough soap in the world to scrub clean our slates, not enough steel wool to strip away our flaws and failures.

I don’t even know what a clean slate is. I don’t think it’s a topic we should think about too much; it seems utterly futile and fatuous to do so. Can you imagine any honest and undeluded person deciding to begin with a clean slate? We can reform, change in radical ways, but we can never begin with a clean slate.

Jim would find this out to his great sorrow–and, worst of all, to the great sorrow of others. His fecklessness, his desire that the world be as he wants it to be rather than it is, would cost lives, one of them his own. Hamlet–admittedly he is depressed but it’s a price for his finding out, to his regret, what we all must find out: that things are not what they appear to be–tells Ophelia that all men are arrant knaves, that she should leave them all alone, that she should flee to a nunnery. It’s worth nothing that by the end of the play he has mollified his searing view of humanity, come to terms somewhat with the unavoidable confusion of life, the vexing complexity of motives and actions. Jim never learned.

We, not as distraught and wild with grief as Hamlet, would probably tell her that most of us are doing the best we can. Hamlet, had he lived, would have learned to live with imperfection. You and I have lived longer. I suspect tonight you and I will tuck away our imperfections within us and then sleep well.

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The Psychic Bartender: Opportunity Knocks

July 14, 2011

"k1f" Kirby Farrell

Old pal Kay comes into the bar for the usual vegetarian stew and a glass of refreshing philosophy with a head on it.  It’s slow in the bar, so of course we chew on the news — which this week happens to feature the usual headlines about predators.

A mother is acquitted of murdering her daughter.  Passions run high about the acquittal.  Everybody loathes a child-murderer. The State of Texas put to death a dad, Cameron Todd Willingham, for allegedly incinerating his daughters in a fire at home one morning.  A psychologist told the court that a skull on the defendant’s macabre rock & roll posters indicated vicious cult associations.  Neighbors waxed vitriolic about his death’s head tattoo.  That is, the usual symbol that soldiers and some working class guys use to kiss off the Grim Reaper struck some decent Texans as sound reason for a judicial killing.

And ironical too.  Because a national arson investigation found the local Texas arson report a tissue of unscientific suppositions and prejudices.

Whoops.

Texas Governor Perry has preserved the peace of mind of those voting to execute the perhaps grieving father by smothering a review of the scientific report.  Well, he’s dead now anyway.  Why stir up trouble?

Whoops.

So here we are discussing these fierce passions.  You recall California’s maddening Three Strikes law, which has locked up mostly nonviolent criminals at a cost that’s helped devastate education and social services.  Well, Three Strikes passed in a fit of hysteria aroused by the atrocious murders of young people, a coed and 12 year old Polly Klaas.

And then there’s the truly amazing coterie of Catholic priests who have been found guilty of preying on young lambs.  Turns out these weren’t freakish aberrations but a subculture within the Church.  Rome’s investigation blames the predation on the excesses of the 1960s–really.

At the bar yours truly says, “So you wonder what kids stand for that makes them such targets for aggression?”  This followed by speculation about youth symbolizing more vitality, more freedom, more future, blah blah blah.  Think here of Nabokov’s Lolita.  As in cannibalism, the predators are trying to fill themselves up with qualities missing in their own lives.

Says Kay: “But look at the natural world.  Predators always prefer to prey on the young because they’re defenseless and less able to flee.  They’re easy.”

Hello.

Opportunity knocks.

If you think of it this way, we are opportunistic killers rather than demonic.  The adult animals want to minimize risk in the chase.  If they have enough caloric or psychic food around, they may skip predation altogether.

We’re creatures of systems.  Evolutionary and cultural systems.

This is why it makes sense for the neighbors to get enraged about child-murder – but also why that fury is so dangerous.  The young and weak need protection, so society mounts a massive threat display to scare off opportunistic big bad wolves.

But here’s a sly implication as the bartender refills your mug: what about the class war roiling the American political scene?  We’re treated to daily shows of foot-stomping determination to enforce “austerity” on a childishly spendthrift nation.  The austericrats want to police government spending not by cutting the corporate military budget – in fact they’re increasing it – but by cutting health and other care for the weak, the poor.  Oh, and the young.  Last I heard, more than a third of kids in the U.S. grow up in poverty. When was the last time you heard a pitchman for “family values” urge more spending on poor kids?

Well, look at it this way: the rich have always disapproved of wasting money and care on the poor.  After all, as our primate cousins show us, that would be like the alpha animals raising up competitors who might hassle them.  But there’s another way to look at it.

Opportunity knocks.

In an economic “crisis,” at a time when corporations monopolize public voices, who’ll hear the squawks if gentrified predators take another bite out of the young and poor?

Sensible predators aren’t demons or sadists: they’re opportunists after easy pickings.

That could mean the bared fangs will back off if somebody growls at them.

Grrr.

Come on, practice that growl while the bartender pours.

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The Shadow Line

July 11, 2011

"The Single Hound" Bruce Floyd

In the Author’s Note to his short novel “The Shadow Line,” Joseph Conrad responds to critics who find traces of the supernatural in the work. I find what Conrad says of high interest to anyone interested in Ernest Becker. Conrad says,

But I could have never attempted such a thing [putting the supernatural in his work], because all my moral and intellectual being is penetrated by an invincible  conviction that whatever falls under the dominion of our senses must be in nature and, however exceptional, cannot differ in essence from all the other effects of the visible and tangible of which we are a self-conscious part. The world of the living contains enough marvels and mysteries as it is—marvels and mysteries acting upon our emotions and intelligence in ways so inexplicable that it would almost fully justify the conception of life as an enchanted state.

If these words don’t agree with Becker’s idea of reality then none do. Becker and Conrad thought we have only the world about us, the one interpreted by the senses, the one out there beyond my study window, all of it, from the blue sky beyond, to the late afternoon light dappling the leaves on the river birch outside my study, to the fat cat asleep behind me, her snoring rhythmical, steady and strong.  Becker and Conrad, it seems to me, agree that looked at clearly the entire scheme of things is so inexplicable, all parts of it, that the world can be seen as enchanted, so profoundly mysterious that the only true response is to look at the universe and this self-conscious and woefully finite self-conscious creature in it with only awe and wonder. Awe and wonder include terror. It is under blue skies and gentle winds that the lioness stalks the wildebeest, creeps ever closer; then she leaps, runs down the doomed animal and quickly dispatches it with ruthless efficiency. We watch with both awe and terror. Some people won’t watch such scenes  Most of us go about the world in a kind of coma, taking in just a little at the time.

I think, just a guess (Sheldon would know better than I), that perhaps we could endure terror if we, either by Rank’s Will or Becker’s illusion, subordinate it to Awe and Wonder, see terror as a necessary precipitate, the ineluctable ancillary to Awe and Wonder. We can’t have one without the other. No? In short, the world is not only just terrifying (and it is terrifying aplenty) but it is also inspiring, filled with a great and prodigious beauty, and as Conrad says, a kind of enchantment. We forget the beauty part too much, I think we Beckerians do.

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And the Pursuit of Happiness…Maybe That’s the Problem?

July 5, 2011

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

Fourth of July weekend 2011 is history, and America is back to work this morning. A little tired, a little elated, yesterday’s grilled meats repeating on us a bit, maybe a little hung over. Our patriotic orgy, complete with countless fireworks displays, is over with and we are back to the day to day task of living (at least it’s a short week, tomorrow is already hump day!) And what does our day to day living entail? Well, according to all of the speeches and recitations we endured over the weekend, we are back to the daily grind called “…the pursuit of happiness.” That is how our Declaration of Independence describes it, and that is how we patriotic Americans like to conceive it.

Now, all this talk about the pursuit of happiness has rung a few bells and got me thinking. In the past few years I have been reading a number of books about the pursuit of happiness, especially existential psychiatrist Ron Leifer’s book The Happiness Project (Snow Lion, 1997) and along with that a book by lawyer/journalist Gretchen Rubin of the same title (HarperCollins, 2009). These are very different books, but they have a key idea in common, an idea also at the root of a couple of books by social psychologist Barry Schwartz, The Costs of Living (Norton, 1994) and The Paradox of Choice (Harper Perennial, 2005). And this is the idea that happiness, if it is to be achieved, cannot be aimed at directly. It can only come as a byproduct of other pursuits. We experience happiness reflectively, in the rearview mirror of life so to speak. If we focus on achieving happiness as our goal, we will never really get there because we will never be able to say “enough.” This point is made clear in Rubin’s book. She recognized that in every important area of her life, she had achieved it all in superlatives: successful family, successful marriage, super career, plenty of money, social standing and respect, the very most that an Upper East Side lifestyle has to offer. Yet she found herself naggingly dissatisfied and anxious. Ron Leifer, drawing on Buddhist and existential sources, points out that there is a direct connection between the many ways we pursue happiness–being motivated by the urge to satiate desires–and the Buddhist notion of the causes of suffering. Barry Schwartz draws on sociological and psychology research to suggest that in a market-based society in which all “good” is gradually reduced to creation and possession of material wealth, our pursuit of happiness increasingly undermines the very social environment (of community, ecology, family and a healthy commonweal) that support human happiness.

Maybe, then, the “pursuit of happiness” is a misplaced goal in the American ideology. Of course, the Declaration of Independence is what it is–we cannot amend it, as we can (thank God!) the Constitution. But we can do interpretive thought experiments with it. Presently, just about the only interpretation allowed is that pursuit of happiness equals pursuit of property. And granted, “Life, liberty and the pursuit of property” is exactly John Locke’s original phrase, which was being pondered in Thomas Jefferson’s mind as he wrote The Declaration. However, as the rising chorus of voices like that of Gretchen Rubin is making clear, we have taken the pursuit of property pretty much to a dead end. Friedrich Hayek and Ayn Rand have not turned out to be very faithful travel guides.

How about if, for a moment, we pondered this as an interpretation, just as an entertaining 5th of July thought experiment:

We hold these Truths of be self evident, that all people are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain Inalienable Rights, among which are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Community, Ecology, Family, and a healthy Commonwealth.