Archive for the ‘Anthropology’ Category

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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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Of Pets and Humans

June 26, 2012

“Normal Dan” Dan Liechty

After a wonderful week at the Ozark Sufi Dance Camp, it’s back to “real life.” Gratefully, I take with me the many conversations I had there with fascinating people who have pondered deeply the meaning of human existence and are engaged in significant projects of spiritual renewal and social revitalization in our culture. Among these, one that stands out is a gentle and loving man named Bodhi Be, who led a daily workshop on issues of death and dying. He is the originator of a very interesting project in his home area in Hawaii. The Death Store describes itself as an end-of-life community resource center. I encourage you to spend a bit of time at their website (thedeathstore.com) and perhaps get on their email newsletter list.

The conversations we had in that workshop reminded me of a message I received a couple months ago, and I thought perhaps excerpts from that correspondence might be of interest to Denial File readers as well. The message read, in part: Why is death so insulting in our culture? Why isn’t it acceptable to part with a friend like it is to part with a pet? I just wanted to ask for your opinion. Following, in part, is what I wrote in reply. Feel free to criticize and add to the discussion!

Dear friend, you pose a very important question, for which there is no easy answer. You ask why our culture is insulted by death, but I suggest it is not just our culture. Any viable culture, to one extent or another, makes implicit claims to having been founded on a supernatural basis. Therefore, by participating in its cultural pageant, following all the rules and being a good citizen, it offers to its people the opportunity to transcend and elevate mere earthly existence into an imitation or reflection of divine existence. With few exceptions, cultures that initially appear to be the most “death accepting” are exactly those cultures with the most elaborate transcendence ideology, and in which that ideology is strong, intact, and plausible (because everyone a person rubs shoulders with believes it as well.) The very function of culture is to buffer us against the deep anxiety about death we all have, an anxiety that results from simply being human, driven by the conflict between a strongly organismic survival disposition and the cognitive power to understand that death is inevitable.

What appears to make Western culture “stand out” among others is that, at least since the European Reformation and Enlightenment, we have honored as culturally heroic the pioneering spirit of inquiry, embodied especially in science and in iconoclastic and anticlerical” dissenting” religious views, which includes at the edges even agnosticism and atheism. Eventually, as we encourage the heroic spirit of “thinking for yourself,” and “questioning authority,” the eagle eye of iconoclastic inquiry focuses on the transcending mythology of the culture itself, resulting in scholarship and educational that tends to debunk the foundational stories and beliefs, making them seem childish and implausible.

Thus it is that a significant sector of our culture, the highly educated sector, gains its own sense of heroic transcendence (meaning and purpose) exactly by questioning, undermining and debunking the very foundational, mythological stories of our culture which neatly combine doctrines of supernatural religion with sentimental patriotism. But this cultural mythology is the very substance from which a much larger sector of the society continues to gain its own sense of transcending meaning and purpose. The conflict that arises between these sectors is what we have called the “culture wars,” with one side assuming what is needed is “more education,” while the other side is just as sure the problem lies with smugly subversive and vaguely un-American “elites” whose covert agenda is to dominate others and undermine what is most sacred to the majority (Sarah Palin’s “Real Americans.”) We end up with defensive and exaggerated affirmations of the cultural mythology on the one hand (“In God We Trust!” “One Nation, UNDER GOD!” ) and the corollary elevation and adoration of “substitute gods” on the other (the pantheon of rock, sports and movie stars, the superrich, even people famous just for being famous) who function to fill our need for identification with something, anything, beyond the “merely human.”

So now (three times around the barn to get to the house–sorry about that!) we come back to your question: Why isn’t it acceptable to part with a friend like it is to part with a pet? Of course, from a purely logical point of view, it would be, and there is a lot we could do to bring a more logical perspective into our end-of-life customs and activities. (Nota Bene: visit the website of The Death Store mentioned above.) But at the same time, we clearly see that cultural norms are neither formed in nor driven by logic, but rather the deeply emotional and psychological need for assurance of transcendence. The reason we cannot simply bury our friends and loved ones with the same equanimity we do our pets is exactly because, in direct confrontation with death, our knee jerk human response (even of the most secular among us) boils down to a five word cry: We are not just animals!

Addendum: Our particular cultural traditions have made a categorical distinction between humans and other species. Much of the culture warrior resistance and even revulsive disgust against “evolution,” or PETA philosophy, is rooted in the need to defend and maintain this distinction. We might speculate, however, that in a culture whose norms distinguish most highly between, say, plant species and animate species, it would be more acceptable to part with a friend as with a pet. We might further speculate that in our own culture, as the sacrosanct distinction between human and other species breaks down, at least one result is elevation of close pets to something parallel to other family members in relation to their parting–a fact suggested in the fast emerging commerce in pet mortuary services.

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Ego-Consciousness – New and Improved. Still Packed Special Ingredients Guilt and Shame

April 4, 2012

"Blak Lantern" Henry Richards

What we cant think about: Language and consciousness are essentially outgrowths from self-reflective anxiety.

Humans have such capacity in action. We have gone from huddling around fires to protect themselves from the big predator cats and canine pack hunters to eradicating, in many areas, creatures that will not yield to domestication. Not even the birds–which come and go like random thoughts–can escape the silver-meshed net of our minds or the dark blanket of our mindlessness. Only the prolific and polymorphic insects and the cunning arachnids have a strong chance of surviving our era.

Equally amazing is our ability to not act externally, to introspect and reflect on ourselves and our condition. We gained this moment of pause through the evolution of empathy: feeling into and imagining what our peers were experiencing in the hunt or in competition for a lover.  In that moment of pause (many really, but easily represented by a single moment) so much happens, or at least the seeds of so much are engendered: helplessness, worship, guilt, desperation and fear. To extend this analogy, it’s as though we carry forward from that moment between actions such variegated seeds in a bag made of tightly woven anxieties. We plant these seeds latter, but at each planting we either choose a seed at random, or if we are more mature, we pick with foresight the seed that will grow into the most useful thing in our future, a winter harvest for winter’s need. Each time we want to plant a seed, we have to pry open the cord that seals the anxiety sack we carry around our necks like the ancient mariners talisman. That cord is the ego and ego-consciousness, the opening is our capacity for conscious awareness of our anxieties and fears and aspirations, and of the broader world. [The Sanskrit root underlying Indo-European words like ‘anxiety’ meant ‘to choke’ or ‘to strangle,’ the feeling that something closing in on us and our possibilities, causing us doubt the next breath.] The catch 22 is that if we abandon the bag to escape anxiety, the seminal possibilities it holds are also unavailable to us. We have no life without ego-consciousness. It is both cornucopia and Pandora’s Box. The ego is the vocal cord of anxiety, and finds its voice in the bubbling fountain of possibility itself–language. The headwaters of chosen words and others left behind. The paragraphs, pages deleted and lost. The wrong word, the gesture that mangles the meaning.

So much of human experience and being is ineffable; so much so that to speak at all is to have guilt. This is why the biblical gift of tongues was so much a miracle, not that each man heard the proclamations and praises in their own language, but that those who were themselves sub-merged with the power of the Holy Ghost knew not what they spoke and expressed the full fervent desires of their hearts with assurance that their words were in God’s ear. Their ecstatic expression was a fluent overflowing, a guiltless circumvention of ego consciousness. Recent neuroimagery studies suggest that worship in glossolalia is neither language in the normal sense, nor is it neurologically the same as singing. The frontal lobes are less involved than in communicative language and the parietal lobes that construct our sense of self within the flow of perception are in high gear. Glossolalia is perhaps the opposite of meditation, in which frontal activity predominates and the parietal self becomes a mere whisper in the background. Meditation is facilitated by the repetition of  a single word or phrase, and connects one to the One. It is for those who would die to the ego. Glossolalia dismantles the ego-self and reforms it in the context of the cosmic. In the Christian context it is an experience and expression of the self-in-God/God-in-self. Glossolalia is an abundance of semantics, deep-structures, clangs, rhythms and rimes–all heavenly clothes of sensory perception– the resurrected body, the New Self–. Glossolalia, and experiences like it such as ecstatic prophesy, are for those born again to the ego-in-God.

Is this part of the mystery of  גַּן עֵדֶן,  Gan ʿEdhen and of the reason for our expulsion from the Garden? Was the fruit that  Satan bid Eve to eat the idea that the Lord’s words could be taken in a different way?  That the Lord and his words were not one?  That the Lord is himself divided against himself, meaning, against meaning, because he allowed the existence of a snake that walks on legs–the cunning human intellect? Or was the forbidden fruit the idea that the Lord’s words had only one meaning, the one that Satan (easily parodied by William Blake as Newton’s cold, constricted view of reason) could articulate perfectly? Was our sin giving away the gift of tongues and divine meditation to affirm the body’s guilty reality?

Shame and guilt are implicit in the punishment God gives the newlyweds. They are banished under conditions that will require that they are looking down all the time: Adam, the agriculturist (red clay, the root meaning of his name) must till the field that will either sustain or starve them, and which they will eventually become (human: creature that is buried in the earth, humus ). Eve (still a Paleolithic gatherer of fruit, nuts, roots, and small rodents) must forage in the high grass in trepidation of the Snake writhing to bruise her heel—her ever-present awareness of a painful and malevolent death. So guilt and shame anticipate a punishment. For post-Theists, and those with a loving God, where is the punishment to come from but from within?

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Too Much Life

November 15, 2011

TDF Guest James Lieberman

Earth now holds 7 billion people. Some of us can recall when it was only 3 billion (1960). The human population on earth reached one billion in 1800. Estimates have us reaching 10 billion by the end of this century–a ten-fold increase in three centuries. Only 1 in 6 enjoy a high standard of living. At least 1 in 6 do not have adequate clean water. Many more are poor, hungry and sick. In Africa it appears that population control is more a consequence of disease, famine, accident, and war than family planning. Some religions teach that unearned suffering is redemptive and that’s fine if one believes it, but not if it’s deemed sufficient consolation for the poor, hungry, sick, and maimed. Too much life–human bodies occupying (not really sharing) the planet–is killing us. Denial of global warming seems to be a form of death-denial.

More details and U.S./World comparison at Population Connection online.

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Don’t Just Talk the Talk…Walk the Walk, You @#$!!**@#$

November 8, 2011

"Blak Lantern" Henry Richards

I am flying back from Toronto and have been contemplating our use of signals, symbols, signs and space, and how these act together musically, merge, emerge, collapse, and cascade into odd sculptures we often assume we understand, but are both as crazy and as patterned as the view in a kaleidoscope. [The inventor of the Kaleidoscope coined the name from the Greek in 1817, literally– “observer of beautiful forms”, may we all be kaleidoscopic.] Of course, we share a language with the Canadians, as well as most of a hemisphere and lots of aspects of general and high couture. But I began to doubt the depth and substance of this Northern Mitwellt when my faith in the natural order of things was shaken by an ungodly delay at customs after recurrent experiences  of Canadians ramming their bodies into mine as I tried to traverse Toronto city streets. The same thing happened in the quaint tourist town of Niagara on the Lake, Gateway to the Falls. [I wanted to write something here about Viagra on the Lake, Gateway to the expletive deleted, but there is no reasonable occasion for it, save the love of aborted limericks.] This has happened to me before in American cities, being forced to deal with these human battering-rams, and wondered why it was, that one (that one being me) could walk down crowded streets in Manhattan, Paris, Cairo, and Mexico City and never seriously collide with anyone or anything, except, in the case of Manhattan, where you are likely to collide with the opportunity to buy pretzel Rollex on the cheap. You certainly can’t say it’s because NYC is the more genteel locale.

I was offered an explanation by a true anthophile [in biology this term is also used as an adjectival modifier for various parasites, but here I refer to that meek breed that  Jesus spilled the beans about – may they indeed inherit the earth, which is the power-lust behind their dirty little conspiracy of masochistic sabotage of rational hedonism] that it all had to do with the Canadian demographic. Canada’s population is hopelessly doomed to bitter conflict due to division into groups with conflicting loyalties – namely Anglophiles, Francophiles, Freethinkers that despise one or both of these groups, and are therefore aligned with the Americans, and finally, sundry indigenous peoples and folks that even Canadians can recognize as foreign. [East Indians are not foreign, definitively Anglophile in orientation. You can’t trust Africans, they are as likely to be Frankophile or pro-American as anything else]

Here’s my anthrophilic friend’s atomic theory of homoculi in motion on sidewalks: Anglophiles insist on the affectation of walking on the left because they know the British drive on the left, and the Frankophiles stick to the right (oddly enough like their decedents on the Isles of  Greater Normandy). Freethinkers (really pro-American at heart) are dedicated to doing the opposite of what they think some despised group is doing. All of this takes a certain amount of mind reading and influence at a distance, [what we used to call magic until we found that electrons really do it].

Canadians for the full integration, as rare as ghost neutrinos, hold the middle ground, while the First Nations people are exercising any ancestrally rite (read right) of passage urged on by the spiritus loci, making them sort of like quantum jumpers, but somewhat less predictable. But, I protested, to my anthrophilic buddy, I have never had any body bang into me point blank in any of the international cities I mentioned, or on any of the few Indian towns I’ve been in here in the states, where, I have to admit, I have never seen a crowded sidewalk. Most folk just amble in the road in harmony with the weaving winds and with the same Honda pickups, RAV 4s, and Chevy trucks folks amble around in harmony with in Appalachia, only country ‘n western style.

Now, the folks who were running into me on this Canadian holiday of mine (I was not running into them, of course) were usually not built for intimidation. Some were panty- waist-sized metrosexuals, others were twenty-something bulimics imagining that they were laid off until the next fashion season. Others had a good solid thud to them, and some had a hollow sound that made me wonder if they had any innards at all. I know its unmannerly at best to speculate on another person’s innards, but when a thick side of Canadian comes ramming into you belly-first, your own belly is astonishingly orca-like in sonar capacity (however many inches of sufficiency or deficiency of orca girth). Instantaneously, you know more than you want to know about this person, such as how many hours had transpired since lunch when they decided to take you on, and you know with such exactitude that on the busiest sidewalks there is no need to carry a watch, or for the truly discerning, no need to buy the morning paper. [Read not the Times, Read the Tines. Rough paraphrase of Thoreau’s “Read not the Times. Read the Eternities”.]

I have read in no less an authority than the NYT that the way to avoid such sidewalk communions is to never make eye-contact with the approaching obstacle, since these are no mindless ice-bergs to be steered around or plowed through, but thinking, reacting, spontaneous minds, that once aware of a similarly endowed consciousness in their proximity, cannot help but to engage in some kind of battle for dominion for the space defining you as someone who is not them. The most benign battle is that to be the one who most deftly avoids collision, while not yielding to the adversary a mote of recognition (although bashing the other fellow’s head in with your tightly rolled NYT or Guardian is another ploy).

If all this seems trivial, dear reader, please recall that it was Sophocles himself who first took up the feather or stylus and gave us that grave and fateful tale of Oedipus meeting a man on the road to Thebes (or from Thebes from the other guy’s perspective).  In those days, the road was no broader than a city sidewalk, and sort of a foot pounded clot of mud with a moat of muddy slush on each side, which in this early phase of the Carbon Era, contained along with any and everything else, the solid CO2 left over by horsepower, amply reeking of methane. Neither man yielded–no doubt eye contact was at fault–and the death and crowning of Kings, marriage to a queen-mom, bilateral self-enucleation, and psychoanalysis ensued. Freud himself, recalling that Jews of his father’s generation were forced to step off the planks for any approaching Gentile notable, may have had his own dog in this battle for the sidewalk.

Of course the internet teaches me more than I wanted to know. It’s being called Intermittent Explosive Disorder, or Sidewalk Rage, and at the University of Hawaii a researcher has created a Pedestrian Aggressiveness Syndrome Scale, with these items:

·       Acting in a hostile manner

·       Feeling stressed and impatient

·       Walking much faster than the rest of the people

·       Not yielding

·       Walking on the left of a crowded passage way, when most are on the right

·       Muttering at other pedestrians

·       Bumping into others

·       Not apologizing

·       Making insulting gestures

·       Hogging or blocking the passage way

·       Expressing rage at drivers as well i.e. throwing objects or yelling

·       Feeling engaged at other pedestrians and enjoying thoughts of violence

What this doesn’t capture are all the people who pretend that this is never a problem, that either people always yield to them (intimidators) or that they are above it all (deniers and meek ‘n mild-ers) and just couldn’t condescend to acknowledge the annoyance.

As for me, I have resorted to carrying an umbrella or walking stick lance-style in the crook of my arm. I now accept that walking in populated areas is the modern plebian version of medieval jousting. I start off with my lance in the nook of my left arm and away from any vital organ (American conventionalist that I am) ready to steer off anyone veering too much into my lane, but I stay on the alert to switch to the other arm to deal with those who imagine a sidewalk shoulder on my right or who really want to play chicken.

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Imperfect Sympathies

November 1, 2011

"The Single Hound" Bruce Floyd

Late yesterday afternoon I pulled from the shelves my copy of Charles Lamb’s Essays of Elia, leafed through it, and settled upon the essay “Imperfect Sympathies.” After reading the essay, I am not sure how I should respond to it: whether I should applaud Lamb for his honesty, his eschewing of the easy solution, or whether I should find his views ugly. I am equivocating here. I know exactly how I feel about Lamb’s words in this essay.

He begins the essay by quoting from Browne’s Religion Medici: “I am of a constitution so general, that it consorts and sympathies with all things; I have no antipathy, or rather idiosyncrasy in anything. Those narrow prejudices do not touch me, nor do I behold with prejudice the French, Italian, Spaniard, or Dutch.”

Lamb accuses Browne of being “mounted upon the airy stilts of abstraction.” Lamb admits the can “feel the differences of mankind, national or individual, to an unhealthy excess. I can look with no indifferent eye upon things or persons.” He is, he says, “in plainer words, a bundle of prejudices.” He says frankly that he can be a friend to a “worthy man who upon another count cannot be my mate or fellow. I cannot like all people alike.”

He says, for example, that, though he has tried all his life, he cannot like Scotchmen, and he assumes they cannot like him. He spends several pages explaining, cleverly I might say, his problem with the Scotch.  From what I can glean, Lamb finds the Scotch imperfect thinkers, dogmatic, blind to nuance and irony and humor, absurdly literal. (Here I recall that Dr. Johnson was markedly anti-Caledonian, though one senses in Johnson a bit of acting, as if he feels a need to bolster the notion of himself as a curmudgeon.)

On Blacks Lamb says, “In the Negro countenance you will often meet with strong traits of benignity.” He says he has always felt “tenderness towards some of these faces–or rather masks–” he has met in the street. His comment about masks is a perspicacious one. Then Lamb closes the matter about Blacks: “But I should not like to associate with them, to share my meals and good nights with them–because they are black.” I must say Lamb’s attitude toward African-Americans is much like that of many of the white Southern establishment had during the days of segregation. Men who would never cheat or harm a black man would not share a meal with him. I recall someone’s telling me that if he and a black man were in a room when night fell and the room contained only one bed, he would flip a coin with the other fellow for the right to sleep in the bed but that he would not share the bed.

Lamb, as we might imagine, has no use for Quakers. They are, he says, “given to evasion and equivocation.” Lamb disdains their austere lifestyle. Lamb likes “books, pictures, theatres, chit-chat, scandal, jokes, ambiguity, and thousand whim-whams. I should starve at their primitive banquet.” His appetites are too high for the meager fare the Quakers provide..

I have saved for last Lamb’s appraisal of the Jews. He has, he says, “in the abstract, no disrespect for the Jews. But I should not care to be in the habits of familiar intercourse with any of that nation.” He admits that “old prejudices cling about me.” Standard stuff, right, but then Lamb says something that, considering the sad history of the twentieth century, I had to think about for a while:

“Centuries of injury, contempt, and hate, on the one side–of cloaked revenge, dissimulation, and hate, on the other, between our fathers and theirs, must and ought to affect the blood of the children. I cannot believe it can run clear and kindly yet; or that a few words, such as candour, liberality, the light on nineteenth-century, can close up the breaches of so deadly a disunion.”

Auschwitz would prove Lamb right about the ineptness and essential fraud of a few words, of the liberal hope that progress had led to a burying of hate, to a state of social bliss. Lamb goes on to say that he does “not relish the approximation of Jews and Christians.” He finds it “hypocritical and unnatural.” He does “not like to see the Church and the Synagogue kissing and congeeing in awkward postures of an affected civility.” Lamb drags out the old shibboleth that Jews are interested in only “Gain and the pursuit of gain.” And he genuflects to the notion that Jews are shrewd, intelligent: “I never heard of an idiot being born among them.”

Of course one can take the essay in different ways. Some might say that Lamb is blindly prejudiced and bigoted, accuse him of being a racist, though the charge of “racist” is made so often these days that it sometimes ceases to have meaning and has become little more than a tired bromide. Others might say he is stressing tolerance but abjuring the notion that we must all love one another. “You can expect me,” Lamb might be saying, “to respect any worthy man, but you cannot expect me love every worthy man–or long to associate with him.” He seems to prefer associating with those who are most like him, those who relish in life what he does. The reader will have to decide for himself or herself his or her view of Lamb.

Certainly, my knowledge of Lamb, the kind of man I have assumed him to be, comes into play, and I have a hard time picturing him as a slavering racist or rabid anti-Semite. And yet we have his words, and they contradict that picture of the always slightly bibulous Lamb, always with a ready quip, a congenial man full of bonhomie, the life of the party. Some might say, “Well, he was a complicated man, a man with his quota of flaws.”

I’d wager that every member of the EBF is a complicated person, each one of us too with our quota of taints, some of us carrying too many. I’d wager too, though, that no member of the EBF can read Lamb’s essay “Imperfect Sympathies” and not be mightily troubled, even not, to put it simply, disgusted.

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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.