When I poop, does that stuff just disappear down the toilet into oblivion?

As I promised a few posts ago, here’s what I consider to be my immortality-project.  Before  reading Luc Ferry the other day, I had no idea that my immortality-project has been around for a long time.  In fact, the Greek poets and philosophers came up with the idea probably 7,000 years ago.  It goes something like this: we are star stuff.  Every atom that makes up my body at the moment has always been around in the universe. We think of ourselves as individuals, but we’re more like a link in a process.  First we are born.  But what exactly does that mean?  Well, it means that our mommies had sex with our daddies, egg met sperm cell and voilà.  Of course, that’s just the start of it.  All the time, mommy is eating and transforming the cells of plants and other animals into cells for herself and the fetus growing inside of her. (She is also breathing, of course, another way of ingesting molecules.) In this process, organisms (a particular organization of atoms and molecules) are constantly processing matter, exchanging atoms and molecules and creating energy in the process.  When I poop, that stuff doesn’t just disappear down the toilet into oblivion.  It gets used up by other organisms as their own building blocks. (Not always as we intend, of course.) We eat, we poop, we breathe as do all other animals in one way or another. Even plants transform cellular material found in the soil into leaves, fruit, seeds and then, when they’re finished with the leaves, seeds, fruit, etc., they return them to the ground so that they can then be used themselves as building blocks for other plants. I feel a little pedantic writing this, but I don’t think many people give it a second thought.

What I’m saying here is that the ‘stuff’ that makes up my body at the moment or that’s ‘passed through’ in the last 67 years or so has always been around and always will be.  Oh, when I die, my consciousness will pass on and that’s probably not a bad thing, but the rest of ‘me’ will just get used up making other things.  So, we’re all immortal in a real sense of the word.  Of course many of us aren’t satisfied with that.  We want more.  We want it all.  We want to live on forever and we’re willing to listen to anyone or any set of cultural institutions that promise us that.

 

 

Escape 30: A last gasp…

Escape 30: A last gasp…

Ok, so I’ve turned a lot of bits into bytes and then into kilobytes in the last month doing this blow by blow evaluation of Ernest Becker’s Escape From Evil.  After flogging humanity for its hubris, arrogance and basic failure to be nice, Becker asks in an almost doleful way, what can a science of man do to turn this thing around?  He says, “Men cannot abandon the heroic.” (p. 159) Well, that’s a bummer.  He goes on to argue that we need our illusions. “The great question is: if illusions are needed, how can we have those that are capable of correction, and how can we have those that are capable of correction, and how can we have those that will not deteriorate into delusions?” (p. 159)

If men live in myths and not absolutes, there is nothing we can do or say about that.  But we can argue for nondestructive myths; this is the task of what would be a general science of society.

Of course this implies that human action is responsive to reason.  It may be in individual circumstances in a very limited way, but when it goes up against the power of a determined lie of an ideology, it doesn’t stand much of a chance.  It seems we can deny evidence, we can deny effect if in doing so we continue on the road to the good life, prosperity and immortality.

The task of social theory is to show how society aggravates and uses natural fears, but there is no way to get rid of the fears simply by showing how leaders use them or by saying that men must ‘take them in hand.’ Men will still take one another’s heads because their own heads stick out and they feel exposed and guilty. The task of social theory is not to explain guilt away or to absorb it unthinkingly in still another destructive ideology, but to neutralize it and give it expression in truly creative and life-enhancing ideologies. 

What might these be?  Well they aren’t to be found in traditional religions, says Becker.  The problem with Christianity and other churches these days is that their hero system has been eclipsed by secular society.  The current pope understands that but he also knows that providing people with a bit of an opportunity for personal heroism might just get their juices flowing again.  And of course it must be said that churches have and still do take sides in secular conflicts as was the case in Ireland where the Catholics were organized around labour while the Protestants were more supportive of British capital.  This is a generalization, of course, but not unreasonable.  In the Middle East today, the same can be said about the Shi’ite and Sunni Muslim factions.

Now, Becker lays his soul bare.  He wants us to buy into the notion that theory in the social science must be organized around bringing about social justice:

One of the reasons for our present disillusionment with theory in the social sciences is that it has done very little in this liberating direction.  Even those intelligent social scientists who attempt a necessary balance between conservative and Marxist perspectives are amiss in this…what I am saying is that a general critical science of society that unites the best of both wings of thought is a present reality, and need not be delayed…In science, as in authentic religion, there is no easy refuge for empty-headed patriotism, or for putting off to some future date the exposure of large-scale social lies. 

Of course, nobody wants their ‘large-scale social lies’ to be exposed.  That’s why art, criticism, satire and science itself must be controlled.  They are dangerous threats to the powers that be, the ones hiding behind the big lie of secular immortality striving.

It all comes down to this.  Becker is the strong believer in reason.  He knows that this belief is not entirely justified, but he’s kind of put himself into a corner where there is no way out.

So it is the disguise of panic that makes men live in ugliness, and not the natural animal wallowing.  It seems to me that this means that evil is now amenable to critical analysis and, conceivably, to the sway of reason. 

His ‘conceivably’ here speaks loudly that he is doubtful of what reason can do.  I think that Becker in all his brilliance has based his work on a number of moral assumptions that keep making life difficult for him.  One is that ‘evil’ means disease and death on the one hand, but also implies what humankind has done in efforts to try to eliminate ‘evil’ from the planet.  Another is that human life has intrinsic value.

Yet another is that reason can awaken us from our slumber of denial, repression and transference.  Still, there is a lot of insight in this book of Ernest Becker’s, insight that can be used to at least bring us as individuals to a place of wisdom and understanding.

Escape 29: Can psychology do it?

Escape 29: Can psychology do it?

My, my, this is a tough question for all of those people who would want science to provide prescriptions for future behaviour or for the amelioration of the human condition.  Can psychology do it?  Becker writes:

We can talk for a century about what causes human aggression; we can try to find the springs in animal instincts, or we can try to find them in bottled-up hatreds due to frustration or in some kind of miscarried experiences of early years, of poor child handling and training.  All these would be true, but still trivial because men kill out of joy, in the experience of expansive transcendence over evil. If men kill out of heroic joy, what direction do we program for improvements in human nature?  What are we going to improve if men work evil out of the impulse to righteousness and goodness?

if men are aggressive in order to expand life, if aggression in the service of life is man’s highest creative act?

Doesn’t look too promising does it?  Not only that, Becker reflects on the idea that crazy, twisted people don’t do anywhere near as much damage to life as idealistic leaders.  Leaders, no matter how screwed up they are,  are still for people an ‘expression of the widespread urge to heroic transcendence.’ (p. 156)

Today we are living the grotesque spectacle of the poisoning of the earth by the nineteenth-century hero system of unrestrained material production.  This is perhaps the greatest and most pervasive evil to have emerged in all of history, and it may even eventually defeat all of mankind.  Still, there are no ‘twisted’ people whom we can hold responsible for this.

Well, I’m thinking there may be the odd ‘twisted’ bastard out there in the ranks of the world’s ‘leaders.’  I’m thinking Dick Cheney might qualify.  If nothing else he and people like him, including Stephen Harper, are prepared to sacrifice anything including the viability of the only home they have, the earth.  That’s twisted in my mind.  Freud admitted himself that ‘there is no dependable line between normal and abnormal in affairs of the human world.’ (p. 156) WFT.  So is there any hope for psychology, real psychology? I don’t really know.  Not sure exactly what hope would look like.  Becker was not convinced that the ‘psychical’ sciences could offer much in the way of advice to the human race.

Still, Becker notes, that Freud, no matter how cynical he got, always trusted psychoanalysis.  In the end he believed in it as anyone believes in their particular hero system. That’s probably true of a lot of psychologists.

Well, the simple answer to the question in the title of this blog is no.  How does psychology deal with problems of ‘cosmic heroism?’  So, now we come to the end of this Becker marathon.  Tomorrow, in my last post in this series, I see what Becker has to say again about The Science of Man.

Escape 28: What is the heroic society?

Escape 28: What is the heroic society?

 

So, I’ve come to the last chapter of Ernest Becker’s Escape from Evil in this series of posts I’ve come to refer to as my Becker marathon.  In this post and the last 2 to follow in the next couple of days, I work through this last chapter called Retrospect and Conclusion: What is the Heroic Society?  It’s divided into 4 sections, History, Psychology, The Science of Man and the Conclusion [to this last chapter] Today, I take on his section on History, tomorrow, the section on Psychology and on the last day, this Thursday, The Science of Man and the Conclusion. 

In this last chapter, it’s clear to me that Becker is grasping at straws.  He has produced this mind-boggling analysis of what drives us and has driven us throughout history, our fear of death and our fear of life.  Now what?  How are we to suddenly lose our fear of death and put down the weapons we’ve used in their increasingly terrifying effectiveness in our determination to eliminate evil on the planet in the form of the ‘other’?  We’ll get to his final thoughts on this in the last post in this series, but for now, History.

In the opening three paragraphs of this chapter Becker notes the emptiness of a classical Marxist analysis for the ‘liberation’ of humankind, which it claims will come after capitalism has run its course.  I don’t think Becker is correct in his analysis of Marx because the only foray into utopianism that Marx attempted was in his book The German Ideology and he regretted that for the rest of his life.  After he got over his youthful enthusiasm and humanism, he sat in the British Museum and studied until he got bum boils and concluded that the only thing he could say for sure about the fall of capitalism was that there would be no more exploitation of labour by capital because capital will have virtually eliminated labour in successive waves of overproduction.  Becker wants to see Marxism as a failed potential immortality ideology for the masses.  So, what is to be done? [Yes, that’s the title of one of Lenin’s books]

Well, we now know a lot more about the psychodynamics of history.  It’s…

From the outside a saga of tyranny, violence, coercion; from the inside, self-delusion and self-enslavement.

If we didn’t have transference, we wouldn’t be able to stand life. We localize our fear and terror, make it manageable all the while exchanging our freedom for life.  We are sorry creatures indeed, because unlike other animals we have ‘made death conscious.’ (p.148) Evil is in anything that makes us sick, wounds us or even ‘deprives us of pleasure.’ (p.148) 

The result is one of the great tragedies of human existence, what we might call the need to ‘fetishize evil,’ to locate the threat to life in some special places where it can be placated and controlled.  It is tragic precisely because it is sometimes very arbitrary; men make fantasies about evil, see it in the wrong places, and destroy themselves and others by uselessly thrashing about. 

We do this so much it’s quite pathetic, really.  Note what the Ugandan government has just done.  The Ministry of Ethics and Integrity there is charged with seeing gays and lesbians punished and outlawed.  Several US states would do the same and some are actively pursuing action against gays and lesbians.  They see gays and lesbians as threats to their values.  Wow, they obviously have very weak and precarious values to see gays and lesbians as a threat to them.  As Nietzsche concluded, ‘all moral categories are power categories; they are not about virtue in any abstract sense.’ (P. 149) 

Purity, goodness, rightness – these are ways of keeping power intact so as to cheat death; the striving for perfection is a way of qualifying for extraspecial immunity not only in this world but in others to come.  Hence all categories of dirt, filth, imperfection, and error are vulnerability categories, power problems.

You can see why Tea Party Republicans and their counterparts in Uganda are so intent on persecuting gays and lesbians.  They are vulnerability categories in their world!  They need to be eliminated.  Of course, we all need to individuate ourselves, to feel that our lives are meaningful.  What better way of showing that we are special and deserving of power and life is to dedicate ourselves to eliminating dirt, filth, imperfection and error?  Now that’s a heroic thing to do.

In other words, man is fated, as William James saw, to consider this earth as a theatre for heroism, and his life a vehicle for heroic acts which aim precisely to transcend evil…To be a true hero is to triumph over disease, want, death.

Even better sometimes, to be a true hero is to lay down one’s life to secure the lives of others.  Think here of Jesus and scores of other heroes in history who died to secure mankind…‘by their blood we are saved.’ (p.151) 

 

Freud was very pessimistic about the future of humankind.  For Freud we humans are doomed by our own instincts for evil.  Becker doesn’t buy that.  For him, we are born hunters so it may seem that we ‘enjoy the feeling of maximizing [our] organismic powers at the expense of the trapped and helpless prey.’ (p. 152)

The tragedy of evolution is that it created a limited animal with unlimited horizons. Many is the only animal that is not armed with the natural instinctive mechanisms of programming for shrinking his world down to a size that he can automatically act on…Men have to keep from going mad by biting off small pieces of reality which they can get some command over and some organismic satisfaction from.

 

The thing that feeds the great destructiveness of history is that men give their entire allegiance to their own group; and each group is a codified hero system.  Which is another way of saying that societies are standardized systems of death denial; they give structure to the formulas for heroic transcendence.  History can then be looked at as a succession of immortality ideologies, or as a mixture at any time of several of these ideologies.

And so it came to be that we could only become heroic by following orders.  Oh, I’m really summarizing Becker here and doing him an injustice in the process, no doubt.  He seems most comfortable when he is chastising our species in a sense for a history filled with greater and greater paradigms for death denial, ones that expect us to be heroes as individuals, all right, but by ‘following orders.’  This is as true for Christianity as it is for Capitalism.  Follow orders and you will be saved.  The word ‘orders’ here may seem a little harsh and arbitrary because this is not a military type order.  It’s a prescription for salvation that does not tolerate defiance.  In capitalist terms, the ‘order’ means to consume. 

Now a new type of productive and scientific hero came into prominence, and we are still living this today. More cars produced by Detroit, higher stock market prices, more profits, more goods moving – all this equals more heroism.  And with the French Revolution another type of modern hero was codified: the revolutionary hero who will bring an end to injustice and evil once and for all, by bringing into being a new utopian society perfect in its purity.  

Escape 27: The Shape of Social Theory

Escape 27: The Shape of Social Theory

So, I know the title of this post lacks a certain excitement, but it’s the title of the last section of Chapter 9 in EFE and I’m not feeling particularly creative today, especially not given the topic here.  I mean, talk of social theory is not likely to contribute a lot of effervescence to a bar conversation, but I suppose if the bar is on a university campus it just might.  Things can get very serious in campus bars.

Becker takes the position that social theory is, or at least can be, scientific, although he has a particular goal for it.  He writes:

There is nothing in human nature that dooms in advance the most thoroughgoing social changes and utopian ambitions…A science of man in society is possible even while admitting the most destructive motives of men, precisely because these motives become open and amenable to clear analysis, to a tracing out of their total structure in the full field of human affairs as those affairs reflect the torments of man’s inner life, his existential paradoxes.

Social theory, then, is neither radical nor conservative, but scientific; and we should begin to get scientific agreements on its basic image of man and society.

Becker just after making this statement suggests that it’s possible to design “nondestructive yet victorious types of social systems.”

He writes:

A social ideal could be designed that takes into account man’s basest motives, but now an ideal not directly negated by those motives. In other words, a hate object need not be any special class or race, not even a human enemy, but could be things that take impersonal forms, like poverty, disease, oppression, natural disasters, etc. Or if we know that evil takes human form in oppressors and hangmen, then we could at least try to make our hatreds of men intelligent and informed: we could work against the enemies of freedom, those who thrive on slavery, on the gullibilities and weaknesses of their fellow man, as Burke so eloquently argued. 

This is hard to take if you’re an evolutionary biologist or human ethologist.  Becker in his last two books paints a very unflattering picture of humankind, as a species whose every member harbours hatred towards ‘others’ despite the Christian provocation that we should love our enemies.  We DO love our enemies because without them how would we know if our way to immortality is the real way, the way that is assured by victory in battle?  We just don’t want to hug them unless it’s in a death embrace.  So how can Becker now invite us to create a world in which we all become nice?   What possible mechanism could he point to that could bring this world about?  Thorstein Veblen, in his great book, The Place of Science in Modern Civilization, argues that science is the search for truth, with the emphasis on search.  Science is, first and foremost, a search for the truth but with the underlying assumption that the truth will never be completely found.  Oh, we may uncover bits and pieces of it now and again, here and there, but truth must always be considered tentative.  I’m with Veblen on this one.  Becker wants us to find a certain truth and act on it.  Well, he denies it and waffles a lot, but in the end he wants us to change from bloodthirsty immortality seekers to benign or ardent fighters for justice.  Let’s see where he takes us in the last 20 odd pages of his book…but we’ll leave that for tomorrow.

Escape 26: It’s all about you and me. Yes, it’s personal, but the personal is the social.

Escape 26: It’s all about you and me.  Yes, it’s personal, but the personal is the social.

So, I’ve managed to stay on schedule and write a blog post every day for the last 25 days.  It’s been an exercise in discipline as much as anything.  Why have I done this?  Why have I done anything in my life?  Why have you?  I’ve been thinking about this for a long time and reading all the relevant material I could get my hands on.  A lot of my attention has been and still is on the concept of morality and what it means to me as an individual and to the various groups I ‘belong’ to.  In thinking about this, I like to use the metaphor of the dance.

Life for each of us is a dance, a dance between self-aggrandizement and self-effacement, between ego and group, between me and you and all of us.  As an individual animal I need to eat, drink water, sleep, breathe air, shit and piss.  I could say that I also need to have sex, but that’s really quite optional.  Obviously for societies to survive some people need to have sex for the purpose of making babies, but not every member of a group needs to participate, as long as a ‘sufficient’ number do.  So, I have my needs and you have your needs.  Like sex, we have needs that involve other people.  Sex is a basic social act.  We need to cooperate to do it.  Most of us have a sex drive (Freud called it the libido), but it varies in intensity from person to person.  One thing is certain and that’s that we need the company of others.  We are a social species.  Of course, in a sense, all species are social, but we don’t all equally enjoy the company of others of our species.  In some species life is pretty much a solitary experience, individuals coming together for sex and for not much of anything else.  We humans are quite gregarious, by and large.  We like and need contact with others.  We know how devastating it can be when we don’t have meaningful human contact with others; we languish and die.  We also know that the most devilish of all punishments is solitary confinement.  We literally feed off of each other, as Kirby Farrell wrote so eloquently about in his blog post I reposted here today.  Yet, there’s a problem we have to deal with as individuals in our social relations.  In fact, as Norbert Elias argues, there is no such thing as a human individual, we are really interweavings and interdependencies.  We know nothing, are nothing outside of our groups.  Maybe after long years of effort we can learn to live by ‘our own devices’ but only because we take a whole lot of cultural baggage with us including material artifacts, things to do things with, tools for instance.

A hundred years ago, Thorstein Veblen teased classical economists for their view of us as “homogenous globules of desire” bouncing off of each other in the market as if we and society were two separate things.  We are not.  We are society.  That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t exist without us.  No.  The existence of societies is not dependent on any number of discreet individuals, but only on the existence of a ‘sufficient’ number of individuals.  ‘My’ society doesn’t stop functioning because I die.  It’s not dependent on me.  I, however, am dependent on it.  To use an analogy, on the one hand, if I were a drop of water in a river, I could easily be ‘extracted’ from it and the river would still flow.  If the river dries up, on the other hand, there can be no individual drops.  Becker struggled with precisely these issues.

As individuals we need to feel that we have value.  We need to feel that the space we take up on this planet is justified.  We need to feel important, to know that our lives have meaning.  We do not get this meaning from our bodies, by eating, shitting and pissing.  So we do things as individuals to convince ourselves of our importance.

Enter the dark side of social life:  Becker says that we now have a general theory of human evil.  It’s the result of “man’s hunger for righteous self-expansion and perpetuation.” (p. 135) Often we exercise our hunger for self-expansion at the expense of others.  We do this as siblings vying for our parent’s attention, by cutting another driver off in traffic, by shouting at a clerk, but we also do it in large groups through warfare, ‘ethnic cleansing, scapegoating and discrimination.  The more power we have the more we can incorporate others in our self-expansive strategies.  If I say to you ‘thanks for your time’ I’m tacitly acknowledging that I’m using you for my own purposes.  If I ask you for a coffee I’m asking you to take time out of your life to do something for me.  That may be a small thing, but small things add up so that sometimes we all but become slaves to others.  Human relations are not always ‘win, win.’  Corporations appropriate the labour of thousands of people.  As Becker writes:

We might say that there is a natural and built-in evil in social life because all interaction is mutual appropriation…social life seems at times life a science-fiction horror story, with everyone mutually gobbling each other like human spiders….My point in lingering on this is to show that we can have no psychology of evil unless we stress the driving personal motives behind man’s urge to heroic victory.

Of course, heroism is only possible within a society’s boundaries.  No one can be a hero in a vacuum.  Heroes can only be heroes if we collectively consider their actions heroic.  And, as we know, heroes can lead us all into an orgy of personal self-expansion.  That’s why we follow them with such devotion, but more so, we follow the group that creates the heroic possibility in the first place:

The individual gives himself to the group because of his desire to share in its immortality; we must say, even, that he is willing to die in order not to die. 

Of course: if our group is the source of life and if that group dies, then we die permanently, body and spirit.  So we have to defend our group with our lives.  Don’t forget the aphorism from the first chapter in EFE.  Evil is disease and death.  To defeat evil means to defeat anyone or anything that would contest the values, morality and power relations in the group.  “Men kill lavishly out of the sublime joy of heroic triumph over evil.  Voilà tout.” (p. 141)

I think it is time for social scientists to catch up with Hitler as a psychologist, and to realize that men will do anything for heroic belonging to a victorious cause if they are persuaded about the legitimacy of that cause.

­The ‘cause’ in the last sentence of the quote above could be a marriage, a friendship, a small business, art, a hockey tournament, saving whales, fighting Stephen Harper, building pipelines or opposing them.

Enough for now.

Straight talk about cannibals

For those of you that have been following my Becker marathon, here’s a blog post by Kirby Farrell that is very well written and carries such an important message. It is ‘Beckerian’ in its inspiration but uses current events in an inspiring message about the US and cannibalism.
Check it out.

thedenialfile

"k1f" Kirby Farrell “k1f” Kirby Farrell

Cannibalism is taboo. It makes the neighbors nervous, and, if you carry it far enough, leads to extinction. Yet the Internet is buzzing with fantasies of a “zombie apocalypse.” When you read news stories about naked lowlifes high on “bath salts” and biting strangers’ faces, Jeffrey Dahmer, who dined on local kids and lovers, doesn’t seem so odd after all.[1]

We’re built around appetites for life: for food, sex, companionship. We cherish the symbols of fertility in culture. From infancy we learn to manage appetite. Fairy tale ogres and giants warn you not to let outsized greed make you a predator. In “Little Red Riding Hood,” bedridden Granny lives alone, widowed, frail, and hungry enough to need Red’s gift basket of grub. Like food stamps, Red’s family gift is feeding someone needy. After all, only a few centuries ago famine still periodically spoiled dinnertime. This is one…

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