Author Archive


The Appeal of “Downton Abbey”

January 27, 2014
"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

“Svaardvaard” Bill Bornschein

As the BBC production Downton Abbey begins its fourth season amidst the typical swirl of sneak previews and gossip, it occurred to me that at least some of the show’s popularity reflects Becker’s ideas about culture. To be sure, there are many factors in the show’s success, foremost among them good writing and strong acting. Beyond the technical elements however, lies a storyline that speaks to our immediate condition as post-moderns who are maddeningly self-aware.

Downton Abbey tells the story of aristocrats in early twentieth-century England. Their travails revolve around the breakdown of their hierarchical world in the face of modernity. A parallel hierarchy of the servant class who wait on the aristocrats also suffers from similar stresses as the various liberation movements challenge their security. I maintain that part of the appeal of Downton Abbey is the vicarious pleasure we receive as we see the characters moving confidently in their prescribed roles. There is a clear rule book of behavioral expectations for both aristocrats and servants and those rules are framed against unconscious assumptions about the way things are. On that level we experience the program as a nostalgic reminder of a simpler day when Walter Cronkite could end his newscast with a confident “And that’s the way it is,” without the postmodern smirk of “Who says so?”

In a recent piece for The Wrap (, critic Tim Molloy mocks the trivial concerns of the Downton Abbey crew: maid who quits without notice, or an apron that rips at an inopportune time. My favorite trivial crisis is the cook who is stymied by an electric mixer. But is this really so different from contemporary technology anxiety that affects many in my baby boomer generation? Perhaps it is the very triviality that Molloy observes which allows the culture to work its magic and protects everyone at Downton Abbey from the terror of the human condition. As Becker observed, “The real world is too terrible to admit. It tells man that he is a small trembling animal who will someday decay and die. Culture changes all of this, makes man seem vital to the universe; immortal in some ways.” The detail and rigidity of the social order is perhaps a testament to its effectiveness as character armor.

The struggle to maintain a coherent narrative of meaning in the face of change is no less a challenge for us than for the fictional characters. In fact, the center holds less securely today. We recognize the trivial as trivial, hence the game Trivial Pursuit. The Downton characters invest their social roles with meaning in a marvelously sincere and unconscious fashion. Their repression works. To borrow Kierkegaard’s image, they stand on the brink of eternity wondering if their socks match. But again, the plot is driven by that very condition of unconscious duty crumbling under the stress of modernity. Lou Reed captured the theme beautifully when he sang, “Self-knowledge is a dangerous thing, the freedom of who you are.” Our freedom renders the future more open and therefore more terrifying. This explains the current flight of many people into reactionary tribes and fundamentalisms, both sacred and secular.

Fortunately, there are other ways of dealing with the terror that accompanies freedom. One way is to apply the “anthropologist game.” In the original form of the game, people exchange wallets and, like an anthropologist, analyze the culture. Because they are objectified by the other person, assumed truths are seen in a new light. Similarly, Downton Abbey provides a familiar yet exotic world that we can hold safely and reflectively at arm’s length, seeing people wrestle with our shared human condition. As soap operas go, not bad.


A Call for Readings

June 2, 2013
"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

“Svaardvaard” Bill Bornschein

One of the best things about working with Becker in the classroom is that it provides such a great resource for continually seeing him anew through the eyes of students. They bring a fresh world of experience to the eternal dilemma Becker raises. My own teaching practice has gradually shifted away from explaining Becker  toward  allowing the students to respond to their initial exposure to Becker. Actually engaging a discrete,  distinct component of Becker’s thought in a direct and powerful way can open the door for student to follow up, not just intellectually, but existentially. This post is concerned with using Becker in the classroom and will conclude with a request that you suggest readings from the Becker canon that can be used effectively. Socratic method is the vehicle I am experimenting with and a brief word about the technique is in order. I am new to the formal technique myself and realize many colleagues may be more experienced, and so I welcome input on that front  as well.

Socratic method has as its goal the exercise of the mind in the pursuit of understanding. The purpose is not to come up with a final correct answer, but rather to engage a multi-layered idea, one open to interpretation and resistant to pat answers. How perfect. The entire sweep of Becker’s illuminating work is to ask the next question and avoid the easy out, and therefore it is genuinely compatible with the Socratic goal. For those of you familiar with Robert Pirsig’s Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, this is approaching Becker in pursuit of The Good, rather than The True. Dialogue, rather than debate, is the vehicle for in-class conversation and this allows the idea in question to be held like a jewel to the light, the different facets on display. The endorphin rush of a great conversation or moment of insight can “set the hook” for further work with Becker in the classroom; “Hey class, remember that conversation we had a while back?”

The key to a good Socratic dialogue is the selection of the specific reading, piece of art or music to be worked with. Length can be from a couple lines to a couple paragraphs. The reading should be open to interpretation with layers of meaning to be explored. The topic should be broad and of existential significance, that is, something the students care about. Something that really challenges or moves people is best.  As examples, I’ve used the Edwin Arlington Robinson poem “Richard Cory” and entry  #49 from the James Carse book Finite And Infinite Games. One great way to judge a given reading for its utility is to see if you can ask a really good question of the text. Does the text raise more questions than it answers?  A question that you yourself struggle with would be best of all.

So would you consider reviewing your mental catalogue of favorite Becker passages and sending them to me in the comments section? I’m most familiar with Denial of Death and Escape From Evil, but anything at all is fine— and that includes Kierkegaard, Rank, and Leichty. I am very hopeful that we can generate a decent handful of readings that we can use to introduce Becker to a broader audience. Thanks in advance for your insight and assistance.


Rise of the Planet of the Apps

March 2, 2013
"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

“Svaardvaard” Bill Bornschein

Our local paper recently featured a story about our zoo’s cutting edge program that gives iPads to our orangutans, Teak, Bella, Segundo, and Amber. The stated purpose is to provide mental stimulation that helps prevent boredom and depression. Without the slightest sense of irony, the zoo officials go on to explain that “Freedom of choice is critical to their well-being.” Good grief, of course they are bored and depressed. They are prisoners. If the doors were opened I doubt they’d stick around to play with the iPads. A friend suggested that for amusement the orangutans be shown Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Or was that Planet of the Apps?

As I reflected on this my mind turned to my own students, iPads in hand as they chart a brave new world of education. As with the apes, many students have regarded their formal education as a form of imprisonment. No less an authority than Professor A. Cooper gave expression to the general sentiment in his seminal work School’s Out For Summer.  Indeed, like prison, the reward of graduation is to finally “get out.” I suspect this may be as true for doctoral candidates as for high schoolers. Of course, the iPad is being promoted as a form of engagement, which it certainly is. But to what degree is it liberating? We have probably all read critiques of our cyber-age and the anomie it engenders. Are we happier, more fulfilled, living better lives than before? Is cyber community a complement to or a substitute for earlier forms of community?

Framing this in a Beckerian perspective, do the iPads reflect a genuflection at the altar of our new god Technos who has stepped into the void created by the demise of standard brand religious and cultural myths?  Facing myriad problems, insofar as we place faith in anything, we seem to place our faith in technology, even for our orangutans. One of Becker’s most compelling images is that of the philistine, which he borrowed from Kierkegaard. The modern philistine loses himself in the minutia of the daily routine and thereby represses existential anxiety. Does our technology allow us to maintain a distracted existence? Watching my students jump around the internet on their down time, that seems to be the case. I’m always mentally comparing these students to their predecessors in terms of their general awareness of the world and the issues we face. I should hasten to add that I am not talking down today’s  kids. They are simply what I see before me and I suspect the same distracted consciousness exists across generations.

I recently read The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter In A Distracted Time by David Ulin.  He makes the case for reading as a type of depth experience that leads to both a clearer understanding of self and at the same time a sort of negation of self as we turn the reins of our consciousness over to another. It is this sort of dialectical inner conversation between the author and the reader that produces the consciousness of an avid reader, at once adventurous and discriminating. He goes on to analyze the availability of such an experience on iPads, Kindles, and the like. I return here to the freedom of choice offered to the orangutans on their iPads. What is the difference between amusement and insight, between accessing data and entering the mind of another?  Like the orangutans, we are prisoners of a sort, confined by our mortal condition. Unlike the orangutan, our boredom and depression—and I would add here our self-conscious anxiety—is unlikely to be assuaged by the amusement the iPad provides. No, we are a different kind of prisoner and require something deeper. This may seem completely obvious, but I see people losing themselves in the surface components of technology as surely as Kierkegaard observed the philistines of his day. As we chart a course forward, how will we mediate technological change so as to live rich and productive lives? For me, it will entail a self-conscious effort to continue in-depth reading as well as pursuing in-depth conversations that involve eye-contact. Without such a self-conscious effort we may find ourselves more and more like the orangutans, prisoners of a lower order. Okay, enough of that. It’s time to check Facebook.


AT&T and the Yang Complex

January 10, 2013
"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

“Svaardvaard” Bill Bornschein

Have you noticed the recent AT&T commercials that feature an adult asking leading questions to children, questions that have “obvious” correct answers? Which is better, big or small? Which is better, fast or slow? These questions serve the purpose of the ad  but also reveal a disturbing aspect of our culture. The immediacy of the children’s answers and the “no kidding, duh” tenor of the commercial reveal a pretty unreflective public, at least in the view of the advertisement’s creators. If we pause for a second to apply the same questions to other subjects  such as cancer or melting glaciers, we get some different answers. Which cancer is better, big or small? What rate of glacial melt is preferable, fast or slow?

Besides revealing a dim view of the public, the ad’s popularity confirms the “truthiness” of that perception. In other words, the knee-jerk response critical for its effectiveness bespeaks our real world perception, our socially constructed reality. This is what I refer to as our “yang complex,” our western preference for the yang elements in the yin/yang dichotomy of Taoism. Yang roughly translates as “the sunny side,” and I am reminded of the American standard Keep on the Sunny Side. Yang qualities include fast, hard, solid, focused, hot, dry, and aggressive. It is associated with the male gender, the sun, sky, fire, and daytime. Yin roughly translates as “the shadow side.” Yin qualities include slow, soft, yielding, diffuse, cold, wet, and passive. It is associated with the female gender, the moon, earth, water, and nighttime.

The yang complex AT&T plays off of reminds me of the critique that  Ernest Becker offers of Norman O. Brown’s unrepressed man, the archetype for many similar New Age visions. AT&T’s approach puts us on the threshold of a very Beckerian question: “Which is better, repression or unrepression?” Rejecting this false dichotomy, Becker maintains that repression is necessary and it is the way in which the repression is managed that is crucial. As it stands, repression is a dirty word in our popular culture. Indeed, unrestraint is the premise of modern consumer culture. The yin qualities we need for balance are present but muted. I maintain that our cultural yang complex puts us in a dangerous position. Bigger, faster, and more more more have become the watchwords for a growth curve that is clearly unsustainable.

Yet, the lack of a yin perspective in our political discourse reveals the depth of the culture of yang. We appear unable to envision anything new, still opting for the obvious answers, just like the kids in the AT&T commercial. We need a new mythology, a new story that admits the insights of Becker, Rank, and Kierkegaard where the answers are not so obvious.


Peak Complexity, Peak Oil, Peak Terror

October 17, 2012

“Svaardvaard” Bill Bornschein

I was fortunate to hear University of Washington professor Phillip Hansten’s talk at the recent EBF Fall Conference. His topic was what he refers to as “premature factulation,” which he defines as “the process of coming to conclusions without adequate study or contemplation; usually applied to complex concepts or situations.” The diagram below represents the basic dynamic.

Premature Factulation

Hansten’s book Premature Factulation provides many examples of this process as well as prescriptions for dealing more successfully with complex issues. Peppered with quotes from great thinkers across the ages, this book has the synthetic feel of Becker’s work and I recommend it.

As I looked at the Hansten diagram, M. King Hubbert’s famous oil depletion curve appeared in my mind’s eye. Hubbert’s Peak, as it is called, explains that the rate at which oil can be extracted follows a Bell curve and further, calculates that such a peak has already been reached. Indeed, global production of oil reached its apex in 2005. The economic downturn that followed shortly thereafter reflects our inability to project future growth based on cheap energy. Economic contraction is the new reality, regardless of which political party is victorious or what the consumers want. The laws of physics seem to stand quite independent of human desire.

As I compared the two models, the first thing that struck me was the role of complexity in the first half of the curve. The dramatic growth curve that has accompanied the age of oil really took off in the post-WWII era with the Green Revolution quadrupling global population and the advent of modern consumer culture more than quadrupling our, for lack of a better term, stuff. Indeed, our Apollonian ascent, which has provided the basic template for progress and heroism, has been fueled by vast amounts of cheap, easy-to-get oil. As we pass through this gate of history, we bear witness to the consequences of the collapsing hyper-complexity, from our undecipherable financial instruments to our interconnected food and energy delivery systems, to our far-flung military superstructure and beyond. The stop-and-start nature of our economic recovery is evidence of the change as a recalibration ensues and we continually adjust to the new normal, downscaling and localizing. Elsewhere I have suggested the emergent localism as an opportunity for a more practical heroism of scale involving more face-to-face interactions. At the same time, it is potentially an opportunity for panic and terror on scale that is horrific.

When considering the potential for panic and horror I often direct my students toward reflecting on our biggest symbols, like the cross or the flag, as a way of understanding symbolic immortality and its consequences. Reflecting again, in light of Hansten’s presentation, the very complexity of our symbolic immortality system really comes to the fore. It’s not just the archetypal symbols, it’s all the little stuff we take for granted; the designer label, the exclusive membership, the branded product loyalty.  I’m guessing that this is where the early apprehension of panic will register. Ernest Becker’s ideas would be most useful at this point in the process, giving the better angels of our nature, if not ground to stand on, at least ground to hover over. Here, at the tipping point, Becker’s work could paradoxically be a life saver. The question is how to get the word out.  I have advocated getting Becker in the hands of artists, the re-mythologizers who could get these ideas to a mass audience.

While still maintaining this view, Hansten’s model provided new insight.

Since encountering Becker I’ve been frustrated, as I’m sure some of you have as well, by the difficulty of getting folks to pick up on his work. The ideas are so important, the argument so well crafted, and with the Mortality Salience Hypothesis so demonstrable, how can people not get it? The voice of Becker whispers, “Yes, Bill, it’s called denial.” Okay, I get that. Still … this is where Hansten’s model is helpful. Upon reaching peak complexity in the problem-solving process, and having done the requisite reflection, an ideational breakthrough occurs, which Hansten calls “enlightened simplification.” As it is applied in the real world, it becomes “authentic simplicity.”  What might this mean for our problem of peak oil and peak terror? It indicates that there may be a point at which a significant part of our culture of denial can give way to more authentic realism. One reason that denial is so readily available to moderns is the very complexity of our world. We can readily be the Kierkegaardian philistine, distracted by the trivial. As the nature of our predicament becomes more apparent, we will have less time for trivia and necessarily more focused on the basics. Much like the addict who must hit bottom to escape his own denial, so too our culture must sober up to move forward. Becker’s ideas, I believe, will find a more receptive audience as the crisis deepens. The power and simplicity of his core insights will match the “authentic simplicity” our earthier society will require.


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.   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.


Adolescents and the Scale of Heroism

August 22, 2012

“Svaardvaard” Bill Bornschein

As many of us embark upon a new school year it feels appropriate to reflect on healthy heroism. Late adolescence is a time of vital dreaming when the armor of character is formed. The purity and power of the hero’s journey at age seventeen or eighteen is something to behold. Students express the foolhardy courage of the Monty Python Black Knight who cries, “It’s only a flesh wound!”, while simultaneously exhibiting the vulnerability that typifies their youth. They are godly and they are creaturely in spades. They are also works in progress. Society has had its say but they are still flexible, formed but not finished. This seems a very opportune time to introduce Becker’s core insights because the students have the cognitive ability to grasp the insights and also the vitality of youth to carry them heroically forward. They have the courage to be. Becker can percolate as the vital lie of their character forms. Some will keep their eyes open. Some will understand.

Regardless of whether the students follow up with Becker specifically, I’m hopeful they’ll  become more reflective on the role and nature of heroism in their lives. Becker refers to “the paradoxical gift of a confusion about heroism” that his parents gave him. He experienced the confusion as a gift because it called him forward toward greater understanding. Unfortunately, not all confusion about heroism is successfully resolved, as Becker so insightfully chronicled. A confusion about heroism, writ large, can produce war, famine, pestilence, and death as we try to escape from evil. Becker’s ability to address heroism on both the personal and the societal level makes him extremely relevant to young adults who feel their singularity intensely, even as they are inevitably drawn into the web of culture. Just as Becker concludes The Denial Of Death with a strong statement about the limits of a heroic individual, so too he ends Escape From Evil with a parallel statement about the limits of a heroic society. There is a nary an apotheosis to be found. What does this mean for the students?

For educators of youth, it is vital to engender hope. Hope represents that liminal space where the falling angel meets the rising ape and nihilism is countered. Where is hope to be found? In his critique of the limits of Enlightenment rationality, Becker at one point quotes Paul Pruyser who asked, “If illusions are needed, how can we have those that are capable of correction, and how can we have those that will not deteriorate  into delusions?”  This is reminiscent of Nietzsche’s “good lies.” It may be that history is unwinding in a way that will allow us to take advantage and create such life-affirming illusions. Specifically, we are in the midst of a massive contraction occasioned by the crisis of natural limits, oil, water, food—you name it. Large institutions and the expansive mythologies that have undergirded  them are  fragmenting under these pressures. Has it not been the case that our capacity for ideologically driven mayhem has followed the oil curve upward? And have not our illusions followed an Apollonian trajectory borne on the wings of the great god Technos? What will happen as we draw down? Certainly one scenario is that we will fight ruthlessly over the shrinking pie, and there are signs that is happening. There is another possibility. Life lived at a more local level may afford the opportunity for a heroics of local scale: less John Galt and more Wendell Berry, less individualistic and more communal. My students are encouraged to view themselves generationally, as a collective making positive and necessary change. The cult of the individual seems to be running out of steam. This, coupled with the immediacy of our physical needs in the draw down might be the impetus for a healthier heroism. History seems to be the balm for our existential crisis, the realm of new possibilities where hope can dream.