Occupying Room 231

November 4, 2011

"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

The recent Occupy Wall Street movement has afforded a new way of getting Becker’s ideas to a broader audience. My regular classroom is room 231, and when the Occupy movement began, I jokingly told the classes that I was occupying room 231. This was amusing and consistent, insofar as I regularly present progressive thinkers who challenge the perspectives of a fairly conservative student body. Upon further reflection, I realized that it was not merely amusing, but entirely appropriate. Becker explained, and social psychology has confirmed, that humans naturally invest themselves psychologically and emotionally in symbol systems that give them a sense of immortality. In the film Flight From Death, the law is cited as one such example. Similarly, Wall  Street and the ‘guiding hand of the market’ may well reflect not only an economic system but also a symbol system as well. It remains to be seen how all this will play out, but I cite it in class as an example of what we can expect more of, namely, social dislocation and the attendant disorientation and potential violence that may ensue as our culture shifts to new energy sources, local solutions and more technologically mediated communities. Divining the whys and wherefores of these changes is beyond the scope of this blog or even my classroom.  The point here is that Ernest Becker has given us a heads up on where to look for the irrational, the emotional, the potentially explosive. We should look to where our collective immortality projects are symbolically incarnated. As they are challenged, altered and revamped, we  need to be able to counter emotion with reason. The late, great REM famously said, “It’s the end of the world as we know it.” If we want to ’feel fine’ about that, we’d do well to pay attention to Ernest Becker.


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