Archive for the ‘Pop Culture’ Category


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.


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.


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…


Hollywood does Becker

July 10, 2012

TDF Guest Don Emmerich

What we can’t think about: In the following essay, I recommend the recently-released film Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and discuss how it illustrates many of the insights found in the works of Ernest Becker.

“The final mission to save mankind has failed,” a radio announcer declares.  “The 70-mile wide asteroid known as ‘Matilda’ is set to collide with Earth in exactly three weeks time.  And,” the announcer continues, his voice gradually taking on a more chipper tone, a tone reminiscent of Casey Kasem announcing the week’s Top 40, “we’ll be bringing you our countdown to the end of days, along with all your classic rock favorites.”

So begins Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, a film that comically—and beautifully—illustrates the different ways people deal with the awareness that they’re going to die.  Several characters respond by putting their trust in different transference objects.  Some, for example, go about buying more insurance, seeming to believe that their wealth and preparedness will save them from the giant asteroid set to obliterate the planet.  “I’m afraid the Armageddon package is extra,” Steve Carell’s character tells one of his clients.  “That protects you and your family against any sort of apocalyptic disaster—asteroids obviously, famine, locusts…”

Other characters immerse themselves in their jobs, carrying on as though everything is normal.  Carell’s maid, for instance, keeps showing up to clean his apartment.  When Carell kindly suggests that she instead spend her last days with her family, she assumes she’s being fired and begins to cry.  Only after he agrees that she can continue cleaning the apartment does she regain her composure.  Her denial, it seems, is so great that the planet’s impending destruction doesn’t even register.

This latter scene reminds me of one of my favorite Becker passages.  “Gods,” he writes, “can take in the whole of creation because they alone can make sense of it, know what it is all about and for.  But as soon as man lifts his nose from the ground and starts sniffing at eternal problems like life and death, the meaning of a rose or a star cluster—then he is in trouble.  Most men spare themselves that trouble by keeping their minds on the small problems of their lives just as society maps these problems out for them” (The Denial of Death, 178).

So, in other words, many of us are like the maid, so consumed with the minutiae of our lives that we don’t have time to confront life’s bigger issues.  More disturbingly, many of us are like a group of rioters we encounter later in the film.  Unlike the maid, these rioters have responded to their imminent deaths by looting their neighborhoods and brutalizing anyone they can get their hands on.  Their actions illustrate Becker’s argument that the fear of death often leads to scapegoating and violence against others (Escape from Evil, Chapter 8).

Needless to say, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is not a feel-good movie.  Early into it we learn that, just as in real life, we’re not going to be given a clichéd Hollywood ending; we learn that this fictitious world really is going to end and that everyone really is going to die.  And yet the film gives us hope, much in the same way that Becker’s writings give us hope.  The hope comes not from a mystical revelation that life has a transcendent meaning and that we have souls which will survive death.  The hope is that each of us can live happier, more fulfilling lives and that the key to such lives is self-awareness.

In the film’s final scene—which is so beautiful and powerful that, for fear of ruining the movie, I won’t describe here—we see that self-awareness is terrifying.  And yet we see that it is only through such awareness that we’re able to extricate ourselves from the idols which rule most of our lives.  For instance, it is only the film’s self-aware characters, those who have accepted that the asteroid really is coming, who are able to get past their own neuroses and form genuine and loving connections with others.  Carell’s character in particular has what Irving Yalom calls an “awakening experience,” a confrontation with death that shakes him from his self-delusion and apathy and causes him to live a life of intention and value.   (See Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death).  Again, for fear of ruining the movie, I won’t say any more about it here.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World certainly doesn’t provide the perfect Beckerian solution to the problem of existence.  For Becker prescribed that we embrace both self-awareness and a Kierkegaardian-like religious faith.  Both, he believed, are equally necessary.  Yet I can’t help but consider this a very Beckerian film.  It sends the message that people in our death-denying culture most desperately need to hear, that message being—to quote Yalom—that “[a]lthough the physicality of death destroys us, the idea of death [that is, the awareness of death] saves us” (33).


Leonard Cohen’s Old Ideas

March 20, 2012

"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

With song titles such as Going Home, Amen, Come Healing, and Darkness, it is not surprising that Leonard Cohen’s new album, Old Ideas, resonates with themes that Ernest Becker addresses. Indeed, in a New York Times interview Cohen stated that the work is a reflection on mortality. With an able assist from lyricist Patrick Leonard, Cohen engages with central questions, confronts primal fears, and describes a life lived forward in a way that both gnaws at and comforts the listener.  Minimal arrangements coupled with a gravely monotone spoken-word delivery produce a drone that has the effect of hearing prolonged Tibetan chanting. You could easily miss gems like this from the song Banjo in which Cohen describes impending death: “It’s coming for me darling, no matter where I go. Its duty is to hurt me. My duty is to know.”  The duty to know? That sounds like the response of a person who has taken up the task of wrestling with unrepression: someone who has seen the future and refuses the seduction of denial. With this post I would like to explore the lyrics of a particular song, Going Home. Take time to consider these  lyrics.

Going Home
Leonard Cohen/Patrick Leonard

I love to speak with Leonard
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd
He’s a lazy bastard
Living in a suit

But he does say what I tell him
Even though it isn’t welcome
He just doesn’t have the freedom
To refuse

He will speak these words of wisdom
Like a sage, a man a vision
Though he knows he’s really nothing
But the brief elaboration of a tube

Going home
Without my sorrow
Going home
Sometime tomorrow
Going home
To where it’s better

Going home
Without my burden
Going home
Behind the curtain
Going home
Without the costume
That I wore

He wants to write a love song
An anthem of forgiving
A manual for the living with defeat

A cry above the suffering
A sacrifice recovering
But that isn’t what I need him to complete

I want to make him certain
That he doesn’t have a burden
That he doesn’t need a vision

That he only has permission
To do my instant bidding
That is to say what I have told him
To repeat

I love to speak with Leonard
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd
He’s a lazy bastard
Living in a suit

The presentation of self-consciousness is quite powerful, is it not? The third-person running commentary we carry on within ourselves from time to time serves as the vehicle for a view of the self that is by turns loathing and affirming. The self-conscious presentation of the self to the external world coexists with knowledge of the man behind the mask. We hear the existential cry for transcendence, “a cry above the suffering” that is dashed against the hard stone of reality. It is Cohen’s ability to bestride both psychic worlds that is so intriguing. It nicely reflects Tillich’s famous “courage to be.” Cohen’s description of himself as an “elaboration of a tube” nicely reflects the evolutionary process as well as what Becker describes as the horror of the natural world, the global cafeteria of food in/food out. And yet, this tube is not frozen. It is moving. It is going home. And it is going home consciously, “without the costume that I wore,” a clear reference to the vital lie of culture. The contrasting feelings of mortal resignation and freedom from cultural roles inhabit a liminal world, the world where the falling angel meets the rising ape. As with Becker, there is no apotheosis. At song’s end, he is still in his suit, although he no doubt inhabits it differently than when he first slipped it on. With Old Ideas, Leonard Cohen faces his mortality by fashioning something, making an offering, so to speak, and dropping it into the confusion.


The Dark Knight Needs Paris

August 11, 2011

"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

The trailer for the latest Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, begins with the following intonation: “If you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal,  then you  become something else completely: a legend.” Holy causa sui, Batman! I didn’t know it was that simple. Of course it isn’t that simple, but the line from the trailer struck me as an example par excellence of the human desire to transcend our mortality. Failing that, some of us help ourselves along by sharing vicariously in heroics of another. I suspect Bruce Wayne will be thwarted in his bid for legendary immortality. Even legends die out eventually. But perhaps the movie patrons will leave with their anxiety temporarily assuaged.

I have another suggestion. Their time might be better spent on Woody Allen’s latest film, Midnight In Paris.  Set in modern-day Paris, the plot centers on protagonist Owen Wilson’s love for the Paris of the 1920s, the Paris of Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, and Stein. Director Allen employs magical realism to allow Wilson to travel through a time portal back to this golden age, meeting many of his heroes. Without giving away too much of the plot, he comes to realize that every age is golden, every age has its luminaries, and there is no time like the present. He returns to modern-day Paris with his love of the city intact and a commitment to live in the here and now.  He forgoes magic for everyday reality. This acceptance and willingness to engage the present reflects the existential “courage to be” that theologian Paul Tillich described. As I left the theater and walked into the sultry Louisville, evening I felt a certain satisfaction, a calm if you will. The time is now. Thank you, Mr. Allen. Good luck, Bruce.


The Psychic Bartender: Face to Face Book

June 30, 2011

"k1f" Kirby Farrell

It’s deadly quiet in the bar.  Where are the customers?  Isn’t anybody thirsty?  Ah, right.  They’re home “doing” Facebook.

You can see why Facebook is popular.  It makes personal two of the core themes of American culture: broadcasting and advertising.  It enables you to broadcast your life to an audience, graciously idealizing yourself – and them – through “favorite” photos and edited accounts of everyday news.  Like tattoos and piercings, the process displays you.  It gets you shelf space as friends and other customers troll the aisles of the interpersonal supermarket appreciating “my” familiar and admired products.  You can make yourself a feature page in a virtual number of People magazine.  And it’s a marketplace, a form of eBay, where the transactions can go both ways.

Since the number of your “friends” can be calculated, it keeps score of your expanding personality and its deepening confirmation as folks notice you and confirm that, yes indeedy, you do exist.  In the process you’re expanding the boundaries of your life and maybe forming up your life story by getting in touch with long lost childhood pals.

And unlike the nattering here at the bar, there are no unpleasant reminders of what you don’t want to think about.

You hear praise but also complaints about Facebook in the bar.  It keeps personal life superficial and airbrushed, and it keeps it vicarious.  In massaging your life story for your army of friends, you’re accepting that your personality is an enabling fiction.  In a small way you’re your own PR agent, offering yourself as a local “Lady Gaga” or some other invented celebrity.

To be fair, you do have to keep the fictionalizing within the unspoken limits of manners and polite sanity – though your friends may not have reliable ways of checking up to see if “you” really is the “you” you say are.  Not that you can’t be an attractive liar or sociopath in nose to nose conversation.  The critics fear that you’re making people endlessly distractible and trivial.  They fear that your techno-infatuation over the internet is symptomatic of The End of Robust Real Life. As in the 1890s, the fear is that all this virtual reality and facsimile is making you effete, spineless, and infantile.  Men are no longer real men, and women are – well, you get the picture.

Are the critics onto something?

What do we know?  We’re psychic bartenders, not psychics.  Instead of crystal balls we have only a sink full of unwashed glasses.  What interests us as we rinse the butts out of last night’s glasses is the underlying fear out there that selves are becoming trivialized and emptied out.

In particular we wonder what it means that Facebook seems to be showing us people frantic to celebrate — or prove to the world — that they’re real.  After all, Facebook has become the multibillion dollar device for exclaiming “Look at me!  I exist!  I’m me!”

I know, I know.  You’re wondering if this fear is related to the popular fascination with autism, especially Asperger’s syndrome, in which the sufferer can be “almost” social: capable of facsimile intimacy with you.  Asperger’s folks are “almost” real.  In one direction they’re a marker for our fear that everything’s turning into a facsimile of real life.  If you’re autistic, in theory you can’t understand other people’s motives.  But even with Facebook friends, you have to keep everybody’s motives pretty simple. You airbrush your life to mask some of your embarrassing pimples and shameful motives.

While you were surfing the internet, the Matrix has taken over.  That’s the worry.

Look around you.  Lots of bruising competition for jobs and status in a sick economy.  Whose elbow just bloodied your nose?  The rich and powerful pull a lever and you jump through a hoop to pay the rent.  People who invade other countries and kill education budgets call themselves “conservative.”  The headlines show you “kill team” soldiers — Support Our Troops — grinning over the corpse of an innocent Afghan kid that they bagged like an elephant in order to feel heroic.  The manicured newscaster reports another workplace or schoolyard rampage motivated by WKW  (Who Knows What).  Prime time will spotlight yet another serial murderer who could be living in your garden shed or under your bed.

So yes, maybe the bipeds are all becoming psychopaths or sociopaths or superficiopaths, insensitive to other people.  Maybe our genes are degenerating or poisoned. It’s a street of random killers out there.

And the rage to make things right again can be potent.  If you enjoy rage for revenge, watch Dexter, the autistic TV vigilante, who exacts cruel vengeance on tacitly austistic predators.

But wait a minute.  Maybe this preoccupation with autism and psychos is a sign of our raised expectations.  We live in psychologized societies, with all sorts of reminders to be worried about our mental well-being. We take mood vitamins, psychotropic elixirs, payment holidays.  Erotic life is more explicit and voluptuously advertised than ever before, so of course it’s also more superficial and rubber-stamped, which can give you gnawing hunger pangs and make everyday intimacy a romp with a sex doll or a replay of The Stepford Wives.  Who isn’t worried about “commitment”?

And to add insult to injury, everything is insured these days. You’re continually told that, as the merchandisers put it, everything comes with a “lifetime guarantee.”  If you find that you’re not insured — if you lose you health or your house or your family — you feel like a loser.  You’re a failure.  You’re nobody, socially dead, and maybe enraged enough to go on a rampage like one of those psychos we were just talking about.   Or maybe Facebook will make you feel connected and worthwhile again.

In a way there’s nothing new about the activity.  When have people not advertised themselves?  True, Facebook tends to be trivial, but that’s nothing new either.  Our swapping of little gifts and gossip is a form of grooming such as our primate cousins enjoy.  It relaxes and affirms the ephemeral self of the only animal on the planet that is burdened by awareness that everybody dies and that communication is never more than approximate.  In this sense Facebook is another face of the denial that makes life possible.  So in this bracing context we’re all looking for “lifetime guarantees,” and Facebook is part of the fine print.

The problem of course is that denial always has its limits.  Once you become aware of denial, it’s harder to keep it going.  Once you become aware that the fine print is just fine print, and the warranty is unlikely to save you, then you need some other sort of network to sustain you  — say, friendship, or maybe a spot at the bar, with the other curious customers and your good-natured psychic bartender.

Call it face to face book.


Steve Earle, Me, And Ol’ Causa Sui

May 26, 2011

"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

Musician and author Steve Earle has long traded in stories of limits and transcendence of limits. This is the case in his latest offering. Perhaps I should say offerings because he has simultaneously released a novel and an album of the same name, I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive. This title, in turn, is a Hank Williams song. The novel revolves around Doc Ebersole, a fictional friend of Williams who is being haunted by the singer’s ghost ten years after his death.  The novel has met with critical praise.

The focus of this posting is a particular song on the album entitled simply, God Is God. The lyrics follow.

God Is God by Steve Earle

I believe in prophecy
Some folks see things not everybody can see
And once in a while they pass the secret along to you and me
And I believe in miracles
Something sacred burning in every bush and tree
We can all learn to sing the songs the angels sing
Yeah I believe in God
And God ain’t me

I’ve traveled around the world
Stood on mighty mountains and gazed across the wilderness
Never seen a line in the sand or a diamond in the dust
And as our fate unfurls
Every day that passes I’m sure about a little bit less
Even my money keeps telling me it’s God I need to trust
And I believe in God
But God ain’t us

God of my little understanding, don’t care what name I call
Whether or not I believe doesn’t matter at all

I received the blessins
And Every day on earth’s  another chance to get it right
Let this little light of mine shine and rage against the night
Just another lesson
Maybe someone’s watching and wondering what I got
Maybe this is why I’m here on earth, and maybe not
But I believe in God,
And God is God

What I find interesting in these lyrics is the use of traditional religious symbols and images in a modern way that is consonant with Ernest Becker’s insights. Images of mighty mountains and burning bushes, of miracles and prophesy, singing angels and little lights that shine are juxtaposed with the wisdom of knowing that you don’t know. I associate the insight most clearly with Socrates but it is found in philosophy, religion, and psychology. Earle addresses a “God of my little understanding” and acknowledges “every day that passes I’m sure about a little less.” His search for meaning concludes “maybe this is why I’m on earth and maybe not.”  Undergirding all this uncertainty is the causa sui realization that he is not the ultimate author of his mortal fate. God is God. Earle’s response to this reality would draw a knowing smile from Becker. When he refers to every day as another chance to get it right and commits to let his little light rage against the night he gives expression to the existential faith of a Tillich or Kierkegaard. Beyond these insights, Earle’s way of believing is also important. It is a tentative faith that leaves room for doubt and stands in contrast to the ideological extremism that characterizes too much religious expression. At the same time, it is powerful enough to allow him to rage, and most importantly, to create. Living in this liminal space is perhaps a way forward. Steve Earle is a fine traveling companion.


The Consolation of “The Sandman”

April 26, 2011

"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

A hazard of working with Ernest Becker’s ideas is that they can increase the anxiety of being trapped in the human condition. Without the comfort of traditional religion and lacking Tillich’s “courage to be,” it is possible to fall into despair. Becker acknowledges as much and advises us “to fashion something—an object or ourselves—and drop it into the confusion, make an offering of it, so to speak, to the life force.”   In reflecting on Becker I am constantly brought back to a Bob Dylan lyric: “Well I can’t provide for you no easy answers. Who are you that I should have to lie?”

While personal and collective creativity may be the most effective way to assuage our anxiety, I’ve also discovered a type of vicarious consolation in author Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel series, The Sandman.  Referred to by Norman Mailer as “a comic book for intellectuals” and penned in the 1990s, these comics focus on the exploits of The Endless, a family of supernaturals who are anthropomorphic personifications of the human condition. The seven siblings who comprise The Endless are Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Despair, Desire, and Delirium. They represent certain constants in the human condition that transcend particular eras and cultures. Their adventures and interactions with humans are not unlike those of classic Greek mythology. The central character is Dream, also referred to as Morpheus.

The Endless

An interesting feature of the series is that it employs the gods of past civilizations, Thor or Anubis for example, as characters in the story. These gods and goddesses no longer inhabit earth as in the past, having been superseded by new gods and beliefs. Rather, they have left to reside in a different realm and crop up periodically in the narrative to serve the storyline. The death of belief and what happens to the gods when this occurs is a favorite theme of Gaiman and appears again in his novel American Gods. It also features prominently in the Discworld novels of Gaiman’s friend Terry Pratchett.

It is precisely in the death of the gods and the ongoing existence of The Endless that I find consolation. Only a short leap separates the death of the Olympians and the death of contemporary gods.  Traditional religion has functioned as effective culture armor precisely by connecting individuals and cultures to something bigger, something transcendent. The Sandman does this by highlighting the endless universals of the human condition and in so doing conveys  a certain constant nobility in the human experience. This self-aware postmodern consciousness is quite distinct from the metaphysical certainty and security of the classic religions. Is it enough? Perhaps. In his interviews with Bill Moyers, the late mythologist Joseph Campbell observed that the shaman of former cultures had been replaced by the artist as a fashioner of the new myths. Perhaps The Sandman represents a small step, one of many, in the development of a new consciousness, an at-homeness, with the human condition.


Frostbite: The New Jane Eyre

April 7, 2011


"k1f" Kirby Farrell

Like To Kill a Mockingbird, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre haunts the corridors of American education.  The plucky orphan Jane survives abuse, rejection, betrayal, and other afflictions to become an esteemed governess and finally the cherished wife of Edward Rochester.  Destiny rewards Jane’s virtue with a windfall inheritance from a remote uncle in Jamaica, even as the once-lordly Rochester is brought low by his mad Jamaican wife.

The magical undoing in this plot shouldn’t surprise us.  Most story-telling offers some sort of wish-fulfillment.  But Jane’s latest incarnation, directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, is worth noticing because the wishes it projects are more punishing than romantic.  And that may be telling us something about the mental weather around us these days.

As Ann Lewinson grumbled in the Hartford Advocate about the new Jane (Mia Wasikowska), “Most grievously, she cannot play Jane in love, and honey you are kissing Michael Fassbender [Mr. Rochester] — what is wrong with you?”  Well, Ann may have a thing for Fassbender, but in fact his Rochester is as tame as the unsmiling Jane. Their love scenes are achingly sexless. His past liaisons are so muted they could have been quilting bees.

Now here’s what’s striking: Stephen Holden’s New York Times review of Zeffirelli’s 1996 Jane Eyre almost exactly describes the new Jane as well.  Lush production, anemic passion.

How to account for this peculiarly damp romance?  One answer lies in the vindictive righteousness invested in Jane. While many feminists have moved on, 1980s victim feminism has hardly gone away. The recent Janes are outstanding victims of swinish boys (but not girlfriends), nasty schoolmasters, and a toxic stepmother.  Though the new Jane steadfastly stands by Rochester, you might wonder why.  She’s decorous to a fault.  Why depict her as such a stick?

One clue lies in her only inner spark – moral aggression.

We’ve gotten used to Hollywood and publishers promoting tough, self-sufficient women who can “Kill Bill” and other malefactors. The fury of Stieg Larsson’s viciously abused heroine Lisbeth Salander is gentrified in the new Janes.  This Jane’s not liberated-woman-as-killer, but as righteous judge.  Invite her to play, and she’ll zing you with cold rectitude.  When Rochester risks a little frisky wit, her repartee scolds.  Mistreat her and she will forgive you to death.

In this adaptation, young Jane behaves as if traumatized and, frankly, never gets over it.  She’s peculiarly anaesthetic.  The film gives her a stick figure, a joyless face, and stubborn teenage idealism that parents in the audience should recognize. She’s supposed to be a gifted artist, but she seems impassive about her beautiful surroundings chez Rochester. (Thank Adriano Goldman for the luscious cinematography. Love those Vermeer blue window shots and mouth-watering candlelight, and russet reds that bloom when passion soars to its tepid russet heights.)

Reunited in the end with the blinded, gratefully emasculated Rochester, Jane’s safely in control of them both – and of the movie audience too.  There’s no question who will be running the show from here on out.  In a word, this is a gentle fantasy of righteous mastery and, by the way, getting even.

Third stream feminists argue that the 1980s emphasis on victimization promotes women’s helplessness.  But it’s useful to keep in mind that victimization can also fuel aggression: specifically vindictive righteousness. After all, from infancy, personality develops around convictions of “what is right.”  Shared with others, the sense of rightness allows us to feel at home in an overwhelming world.  It’s crucial to our mental operating system.  It makes the magic circle of everyday life seem natural.

One way of understanding the righteous Jane theme is to see it as a reaction against the tsunami of change that is making folks from Tahrir Square to Main Street feel orphaned and powerless. Granted, the Jane fantasy projects a gentry world in trouble.  And so it appeals to a gentry that today faces economic threats and values notoriously under stress.  In today’s terms, when Jane meets Rochester, fear of helpless unemployment meets what can jokingly be called “affluenza.”  Rochester has everything anyone could need, but can take no joy in it.  In order to feel, this limp couple needs Jane’s punishing rectitude and, finally, the crippling pain of a therapeutic fire that burns down the McMansion and makes pitying devotion exquisite.


But there’s a deeper level too.

You can also think of Jane’s masked anger operating in the service of mourning.  Like an old Harlequin Romance, the film stops the instant the lovers kiss.  But for all their supposed bliss, the lovers are implicitly mourning a lost past.  And the film is playing to an audience that is mourning for a world of fading verities beset by psychic storms: a world in which imagination will have to put mourning to work sorting out the old stuff and kindling it to new life.


Lethal Inspection

March 31, 2011

"The Cephlapod" Cory Foster

One of my favorite television programs is an animated series called Futurama. It follows the life of a late-20’s slacker named Fry who finds himself unintentionally and cryogenically frozen in 2001 and then reanimated in 3001 (how’s that for an immortality project?). While trying to acclimate to life 1,000 years in the future, he befriends all manner of alien, mutant and robot life forms and actually winds up feeling quite comfortable in his new surroundings. The humor of the show is successful using its future setting as a vehicle for the satire of our world back here in the 2000’s. The characters in the show deal with largely the same problems that we do. Corrupt government, rampant commercialization and intolerance are all covered. I was, therefore, not surprised when the most recent season featured an episode covering the concept of mortality salience and the denial thereof, but I did chuckle to myself at the serendipity of its co-occurrence with the initiation of this blog.

The protagonist of this particular episode (“Lethal Inspection”) was Fry’s best friend, a bending robot named, appropriately, Bender. We learn through dialogue in the story that all robots in the 3000’s are equipped with a backup chip when built, so that if anything destructive befalls their bodies, they can simply be reinstalled in another body. Bender comes to find out that he is defective, in that he is missing this essential chip. This effectively makes him mortal. His reaction is one of rage and violence, and he vows to take revenge on the assembly line inspector whose responsibility it was to make sure that Bender was built to industry standards. He travels through North America on a frantic search for this “Inspector 5,” and eventually winds up in Tijuana, where he was built. I won’t give away the ending, but it is somewhat bittersweet.

Bender gets examined in "Lethal Inspection"

I found this to be a very Becker-centric episode of Futurama, for obvious reasons. It seems ideas about existential dread are certainly out there in the wider world, but it’s unclear how much they affect any of the viewership. Were most people in such denial that this episode did not register in the forefront of their minds? Did they react in some subconscious way, as in the various TMT experiments? I would be interested to see if there was a spike in violence or altruism after the airing.

Many of the writers on the show are Ivy League educated, mostly from Harvard, and their erudition shows. However, it was most interesting to see them tackle a softer science (psychology), instead of their standbys of physics and mathematics. When Bender asks the humans in his workplace how they deal with their mortality, they reply with “violent outbursts,” “general sluttiness” and “thanks to denial, I’m immortal!” One wonders whether they had used Denial of Death as an inspiration here.  We in the EBF know that Becker’s Denial is as likely to be denied in the Ivies as anywhere. Later, we see Bender reacting to his newfound mortality in a single-minded violent pursuit of revenge, and as he begins to accept his fate, there is a profound sadness apparent in a being that is supposed to be cold and unfeeling. The spirit of Becker was very apparent through the story and I can only hope that among the viewers several were sufficiently interested to investigate further.

For a transcript of this episode, visit: The Infosphere