Archive for September, 2012

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Romney’s Taxes

September 27, 2012

“Normal Dan” Dan Liechty

So  Maria Bartiroma and Christian Heinze have taken to scolding the press, the Obama campaign and by extension the all rest of us for our continuing “obsession” with Willard “Mitt” Romney’s personal taxes (http://gop12.thehill.com/2012/09/maria-bartiromo-hammers-media-over.html). It is all beside the point, they say, simply voyeuristic and in any case none of our damn business. But if I could sit down with Maria and Chris, I would like to pose for their evaluation (and by extension, all the rest of us as well) the following. (note: please excuse that I use a university setting in the scenario–it’s what I know–please feel free to substitute whatever institution makes most sense to you. DL)

Let us imagine that it is the strongly established custom at my university that a certain percentage of the salaries earned by all those working here are given back annually as a gift to the university in support for the university’s general operations. Let us further imagine that one of the most highly paid professors on campus routinely goes through all kinds of machinations and accounting tricks to keep his “salary” as low as possible, moving this over here and that over there, explicitly to keep his “contribution” to financial support of the university as absolutely low as possible. As a result, on the whole he routinely pays in a significantly lower percentage of his total compensation package in give-back support than any of the custodians, office workers and maintenance people, even though his total compensation package is 100s, even 1,000s of times greater than theirs.

What are the rest of us who work at this university to think of this person? Well, many of us recognize that on a much smaller scale we are doing the same kind of thing ourselves, the main difference being that given his level of compensation he has access to many more machinations and accounting tricks that would simply not be cost effective for us to try to access. We therefore perhaps a little grudgingly tolerate the man’s financial mores and figure that as long as he isn’t breaking the law, well, no harm no foul.

But would we then support him in becoming president of the university? Would we buy the view that it is exactly his deft employment of machinations and accounting tricks that qualify him to be president of our university? Were we to find ourselves on the presidential hiring committee reviewing his application, would we think it “none of our business” to expect a full inspection of his compensation and giving record at our university?

You, Maria and Chris (and by extension all the rest of us) can answer these questions in whatever way seems right to you. I know what my answer is.

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Your iPhone, Creaturely Motives, and Prosthetic Identity

September 18, 2012

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

When tech makes you feel superhuman.

Recently psychiatrist John Wynn posted a nifty essay about people’s passionate identification with the late Steve Jobs and the remarkable iPhone.  Here’s an excerpt:

Saying, in essence, “I revere Steve Jobs, therefore I will buy the phone he designed,” can be translated as, “my life feels fuller, more meaningful and secure, because of my affiliation with this powerful figure.” Carrying and using the device we are reminded throughout the day of our seamless participation in a world of brilliant innovation and beauty. Adding apps, chatting with Siri, video-chatting with friends and loved ones all deepens our sense of participation with Mr. Jobs, his beautiful designs, and the infinite future of technological advance and aesthetic refinement.

 The iPhone is a totem, an emblematic object of spiritual significance that conveys power and safety to the bearer. We’ve come a long way since amulets and rabbit feet warded off bad luck; now we have infinite contact with an infinite world of information, creativity and connection. New owners fondle their iPhones, show them to whoever will look, and ponder adding any of over 500,000 apps — to equipment that already just received over 200 enhancements. Perhaps the “i” in iPhone stands for “infinite,” as in the infinite pursuit of technology as an end in itself. . . . [The] passion surrounding the inventor’s death shows us that the phone is invested with much more power: it comforts and reassures us by warding off our own fears of death, and our awareness of our mortality.1

This argument explains the magic of the iphone as partly an effect of transference—hero-worship. From helpless infancy on, we’re disposed to identify with powerful figures who can protect us and fulfill our needs.  In a way, Steve Jobs has joined the “immortal” Albert Einstein as a larger-than-life and ambiguously superhuman hero.  His gizmo, the iphone, has a similar kind of special potency that makes it a “totem” or fetish, ambiguously supernatural.  As the psychiatrist reminds us, “Consciously nobody is saying to himself, ‘I bought this thing so I can live forever.’ But nevertheless, the machine can arouse feelings of special powers and confidence that makes you feel exceptional.

And exceptional is how you want to feel when you’re one of billions of bipeds under stress and wide open to the infirmities and terrors of flesh you’re heir to.

Suppose we expand on this account.  Suppose we use the iPhone to think about technology in relation to creaturely motives and prosthetic identity.

A few blogs back (“Semper Fido“) we were remarking on our peculiar vulnerability among the animals. We’re brainy but with no armor, feeble claws, prolonged helpless childhood—and we know we die. In response we find ingenious ways to magnify our capability and feel bigger than enemies and death. Among our creaturely motives are appetites for more life—more food, sex, more discoveries, more self-expansion. The marginal creature wants to be bigger and more meaningful. Feeling like a bigshot—feeling more important—promises to protect morale.  As in slang, “Keep your spirits up, big fella.”

How do we cope with these limits?

Among animals, we’re virtuoso tool-makers, continually expanding our selves through prosthetic engagement with the world.  We develop relationships which magnify our adaptive powers and symbolically make up for our creaturely limits. Your fist won’t bag a gazelle for supper, but a stick, a stone, a flint, or a bullet could feed you. The executive brain may imagine that you are your mind, and the tool is a handy external convenience. But in fact tool-use is a creaturely motive, built into us as it is in some of our primate cousins. In this sense, whatever else you are, you are your tools and tool-using motives as well.  And once you start thinking in this direction, you see that almost everything in our lives has the character of a tool, from art to theology and dandruff shampoo. You can also see that an intense identification with tools risks reducing the self to an apparatus for use. The potency of the tool can become the potency of the self, as in the fanatical attitudes of some gun owners toward their weapons.

I like the term “prosthetic” to describe our relationship to tools.  As partly symbolic creatures, we routinely imagine ourselves surpassing our actual biological limits. In this sense a tool such as the wheel is compensating for a biological lack the way an artificial limb does. It’s making up for something missing. To put it another way, our lifelong childlike flexibility as animals means that we’re  always potential as well as actual creatures. Which is another way of characterizing us as problem-solving animals.  It’s how we’re built.

Is it any wonder people identify with their iPhones? The gizmo magnifies you, and it embodies you.  It substantiates you. Let’s keep in mind that the self is not a thing.  It’s an event, and an evanescent biochemical and symbolic event at that. It’s a halo of possibilities. It can’t be weighed or X-rayed or ribbon-wrapped. As social animals, we live by continually substantiating one another. Every “Hello” corroborates that you and the other dude exist. When you press the flesh in a handshake or a hug, you’re making more real the envelope of the self. When the corroboration is really strong, fortified by endorphins and the symbolic vitamins of intimacy, you actually feel as if, in the wisdom of slang, you’re “getting real.”  Meaning, more real, more alive, bigger, pregnant with possibility. There’s more you.

Back to the iPhone. By expanding your voice over unimaginable distances, potentially everywhere, the machine puts you in the world. It may record you and your relationships with others as sound or a photo. With its ever-increasing new apps, the device even mimics our own extraordinary adaptability as animals, and our capacity for multiplicity and overlays of experience.

Critics can object that the phone is “just” electrons and facsimiles of “real life.” You’re not really nose to nose with your sweetie a thousand miles away, so don’t get carried away, pal. But the truth is, real life is also a facsimile. Again, the self is not an object but an event continually recreated in an imaginative zone of symbolic fizz and overlays of tacitness.

In the most basic sense, we live by enabling fictions. We readily invoke a “me,” but we have to keep simplifying our “life stories,” making them artificially consistent so that the self and the overwhelming world will be manageable. We continually finesse our ambivalence so we can get up in the morning and reach for a tool such as hot coffee that enables us to get started. If you’re on this expedition up da Nile, you know in the back of your mind that you have to simplify yourself and the world, but you accept this falsification because our sense of “as if” keeps us from feeling turned into a mechanism.  Like intuition, “as ifness” gives life space three dimensions and color.

With its programs and purposeful apps, the iphone suddenly appears as a fabulously ambivalent enabling fiction.  It expands you, it makes you real. It also simplifies you, making you usefully artificial as denial does. It proves you’re alive even as it potentially dissolves your voice and identity into the aether.

Modernism is a period of radical prosthetic development in human identity.  Only within the past century or so have we become creatures whose bare feet rarely if ever touch the ground; who can see inside our bodies; artificially propagate ourselves in a petri dish; walk on the moon.  In this framework our prosthetic dimension calls into question the kind of animal we are.  What is the ground of our experience?  Where does self stop and tool begin? If a house or clothes function as a prosthetic shell, where does self stop and environment begin? And since other people can extend our wills as tools do, in a host of relationships from slavery to parenting, we sometimes need to ask, Where does self leave off and other begin?2  

One of these days we can carry this investigation further by exploring how we use others as tools to form our personalities, just as we use fire and microscopes.  We think through others.  Since we’re here on da Nile, we could say that we swim in other people.

Why bother with the idea of prosthetic identity at all? Why not go with Winnicott and object relations theory, say? Or another vocabulary altogether? For me, prosthesis emphasizes identity-formation as a creative act, inherently social and systemic in its mutuality. Prosthetic relationships can provide a way to think about symbiotic qualities in family and cultural systems as well as in our psychosomatic endowment. Insofar as they invite us to think in terms of interdependent behavioral systems rather than individual conflicts, they open toward evolutionary and ethological perspectives.  They foreground concerns which are apt to be deemphasized in criticism and psychology based on intrapsychic or interpersonal conflict.

There’s a further twist worth mentioning, especially in an election season, at a stressful historical moment. Prosthetic behavior can open up perspectives beyond the melodramatic heroic rescue and victim-enemy tropes we’re given to. Listen closely enough, and you’re likely to hear chauvinism or self-concern in most accounts of our struggles. Prosthetic relationships remind us that we live in systems. Prosthetic behavior can call attention to our character as experimental, problem-solving animals continually adapting to a world which, like the swollen, organic soup of the river ahead, is bigger than we are, and always bringing more life.

1. http://www.ernestbecker.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=518:steve-jobs-death&catid=7:news-archives&Itemid=33

2. This is from my Post-Traumatic Culture: Injury and Interpretation in the 90s (1999), p.175

 This essay is cross-posted from Psychology Today.

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Three Scenes from a School Day

September 14, 2012

“Svaardvaard” Bill Bornschein

For this post I’d like to share three distinct  Becker-related observations from a day at school. They do not  come together to form an overarching theme; rather, they demonstrate the breadth of application that a Beckeresque  perspective provides. Alternately, they may reflect my own focus since I recently told a friend that I divide my life into pre-Becker  and post-Becker. Whichever is the case, here goes:

#1) The first scene is from the classroom and reflects “intentional Becker.”  We have been studying the nature and function of myth in culture, Joseph Campbell-type material. Looking at both religious and secular mythology, we strive to understand the conditions under which myths thrive or falter. We learn that myths are strongest when they are unconsciously assumed and weakest when they are self-consciously held at arm’s length. As Campbell and others have pointed out, times of rapid change make people aware of the myth as myth. In the words of Walter Truett Anderson, “We are not so much possessed by belief as possessors of belief.” We inhabit our traditional myths in newly self-conscious ways in our postmodern age. I express this new experience by standing in the classroom doorway, one foot in, representing living within the myth, and the other foot outside the door, representing transcending the myth. The dilemma of the self-conscious society is the dilemma of the self-conscious individual writ large: namely, how to live with integrity in the face of reality. Retreats into nihilism and tribalism are options that are clearly present. Standing in the doorway reflects another option, living with traditional myth in a new way. Consider the traditional Biblical creation account, which is geocentric and anthropocentric. Now consider the current state of knowledge about our place in the universe as reflected in the following  flash animation. http://htwins.net/scale2/?bordercolor=white   What are we supposed to do with this? How do we appropriate tradition in light of such a new perspective? As Becker provides no pat answers, neither do I. The students wrestle with new questions of meaning and tradition and the hope is that the process itself will render them more compassionate and tolerant as they understand their own myths in a less absolute way.

#2)  Even as traditional myths undergo stress in the face of rapid change, so too there are newly minted myths that largely escape observation and critique and are quite robust. Chief among these new myths are the myth of progress and the myth of the technological fix. These two myths come together in a new piece of technology that many students own, the iPad.  As I strolled through the cafeteria at lunch I noticed a table of eight or nine students sitting with their iPads, each playing a different sports game, football, auto racing, basketball and the like. The students were talking to each other even as their eyes remained riveted on their screens. Two things occurred to me. One was that I was reminded of Becker’s description of philistinism and wondered what he would think of this new technology’s power to distract and trivialize. The second was that the students offered ample evidence of how malleable we truly are. We are training our flexible minds to do new things in new ways, for better or for worse.  Some observers like Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows, warn that the new technology is producing a jumpy human mind that now struggles with sustained focused concentration. Whether one sees the technological revolution as a blessing or a curse, the fact remains that we are remarkably adaptive. Becker warned against a New Age-style apotheosis of man, and yet it is our capacity for change that is  our wellspring of hope. We may be locked in to our mortal condition, but we do still have imagination and the capacity to change our direction, if not our fate.

#3) The third Beckerian scene is the most serendipitous. While in the teacher’s lounge I had a conversation with a young English teacher who was upset with a particular student over the creation myth he had composed. It seems the young man, in his story, had envisioned the world as created from the feces of a sacred animal. As it turned out, this was the younger brother of a student who had tried something similar a few years earlier, only making the feces from God directly. “But I didn’t make it God’s poop!” was the younger brother’s defense. The teacher saw disrespect. I saw Becker. It seemed to me that such a creation narrative was psychologically grounded in the human condition in a way that many creation myths are not. Whether or not disrespect was intended, the usage seemed pretty accurate. A quick survey of creation myths revealed what I expected, that creation from feces is a common theme from the Americas to Europe, Africa and Australia. Intuitively, the students were onto something, no shit.

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Clint Eastwood Appreciation

September 11, 2012

“Normal Dan” Dan Liechty

Good old Clint Eastwood is back in the news lately, following his “empty chair” speech at the Republican Convention. There is not much more to say about that, other than to express my disappointment in Clint’s political judgment. But because he is front and center in current events, I have been doing an increased amount of thinking about him these recent weeks. No question about it, I love Clint Eastwood’s movies. Although I oppose on ethical grounds the concept of redemptive violence (a theme running through his movies like the mighty Colorado since Fistful of Dollars (1964), director Sergio Leone’s masterpiece, starring Clint, that created the very genre of the “spaghetti western.” The noxious theme continues to run through the later movies Eastwood directed himself, but at least there it tempered by the realities of aging and moral ambiguity. I have thought long and hard about why I would love these movies so much, even though I so vehemently oppose their central theme of redemptive violence. I’ve come to the conclusion that their tales of righting the world’s wrongs through the explosive but heroically portrayed violence is for me a sort of moral pornography. I cannot deny that it holds a certain fascination, even if it be teasing what I tend to think of as the dark side of our nature. Kirby Farrell’s cultural analysis, especially his book Berserk Style in American Culture, strongly outlines the grounds for both the fascination and for why overall this must be considered the dark side of our nature.

Ernest Becker, of course, was the master of suspicion when it comes to cultural heroism. Yet he also suggested that we cannot live in the absence of its pursuit. That is quite the dilemma for anyone striving to incorporate Becker’s insights into daily living – be deeply suspicious of all forms of heroism, criticize it, debunk it whenever possible, but recognize that you can’t live without it. Well, I suppose if there is an implicit heroism in such a task, it is the heroism of insight. Peel away the onion of illusion. Now the next layer, now the next layer. Now again the next layer. And then what?

Clint said it the best, in his 1973 film, High Plains Drifter (perhaps my favorite, by the way). With that determined glint in his eye that is quintessential Eastwood, he says, “And then you live with it.” Gosh, I wish I’d said that…

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“Post-Birth” Abortion?

September 7, 2012

“Normal Dan” Dan Liechty

There has been a lot of media hype this summer over an article published last February in The Journal of Medical Ethics. http://jme.bmj.com/content/early/2012/03/01/medethics-2011-100411.full  Supposedly, the article makes an argument for “post-birth abortion,” that is, allowing legal infanticide for an unspecified period of time after a child is born, giving the parents a bit of extra time to decide if they really want this child or not. The argument is that this is only taking the justifications for pre-birth abortions one step farther and that all important moral justifications for pre-birth abortions apply equally to post-birth abortions, since no clear moral line of distinction can be made between a fetus about to be born and that same fetus some minutes or hours or days later after birth.

I first heard about this article on an ethics discussion list last winter. Most people thought it was a hoax. But the authors and the journal present it as a serious article, and over the last few months I have been “confronted” with this article numerous times by people claiming it is the “logical extension” of pro-choice thinking. Feeling perhaps a bit goaded, as well as enjoying a bit more free time this summer than I usually have, I finally actually read the article.

The authors, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, summarize what they see as the central moral arguments supporting abortion, noting that the thread that runs through them all is that they all place the convenience of the adults above the good of the fetus. They then engage in an “if…then…” thought experiment. They say that “if…” arguments for the legitimacy of abortion based on what is convenient for the adults only are morally valid, “then…” there is no moral difference between pre-birth abortion and after-birth infanticide.

They are not (I don’t think) advocating infanticide, but playing the Devil’s Advocate role concerning arguments for the legitimacy of pre-birth abortion set forward by others (that they play the role so well is the source of confusion about their intentions and why one can easily read them as actually advocating legal infanticide.)

Now, if it were true that abortion rights supporters draw solely or even mainly on what is convenient for adults as the basis for their moral reasoning, this article would have a lot of force behind it. In fact, it probably would have been already written by someone else years ago. But that is only very peripheral to the moral reasoning of those who support policies of choice in specific circumstances (it is, in fact, the perspective on abortion advanced by those who want to proscribe it entirely.)

The central pillar of pro-choice moral argument is the woman’s right to bodily integrity, plain and simple. This is why distinguishing between stages of fetal pre- and post-viability is of crucial importance in reasoning toward moral support for policies allowing for abortion in specific circumstances. Pre-viability, we are looking at a circumstance in which assertion of the woman’s right to bodily integrity (autonomy) must be protected above fetal right to existence, because the existence of the fetus is completely dependent on the will of the woman to continue the pregnancy. Post-viability, that is no longer the case, and therefore once viability has been reached, the right of the fetus to existence must be weighed much more equally with the woman’s right of bodily integrity.

Even once viability has been reached, in my view, the decision to continue the pregnancy is still strongly that of the woman herself, but the right of the fetus to existence increases along with the length of the pregnancy. Regardless, there is a crucial moral difference between pre-viability and post-viability. For the most part, we have set viability at about the end of the second term of pregnancy (approx. 6 months.) Increased medical technology is constantly pushing that backward into the 5th month, but there are certainly limits as to how far this can or (morally speaking) even should be pushed.

The authors of this article totally ignore and dismiss viability as a moral watershed in pregnancy termination, which is certainly why 99% of medical ethicists who read the article initially thought it was a hoax of some kind. It turns out it wasn’t a hoax, but it certainly was laughably poor, scholarship–about like someone making an argument about how high humans can jump but neglecting to take gravity into account. While “if…then” thought experiment has a place in academic discourse, no serious ethicist will have learned anything from this article about actual policy.

One thing I hope we have learned from this episode is that with the advent of the internet, articles of this type, on issues related to “culture war” hot buttons, are bound to be hyped and exploited far beyond the intentions of the authors or the journal editors. Much more cautious hesitation about publishing such articles is in order.

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EBF Fall Conference: A Party and A Program, Oct. 5-7

September 5, 2012

Check our website for the newest update on the October Conference: This October 5-7 will be a monumental weekend for the work of Ernest Becker, Neil Elgee and for The Ernest Becker Foundation. We’ve got a terrific lineup of events for our lucky EBF members and we hope you’ll all attend the festivities!

www.ernestbecker.org