A third post relating to the Ernest Becker Legacy conference held at SFU earlier this month.

As promised this is the third post of my ruminations about the Becker conference.

[A sad aside: I took my time with this post because my trusty MacBook Pro that I bought in early 2011 decided life was not worth living anymore and pulled the plug on itself. So what to do? Buy another computer of course. Maybe later. What I did instead was pull the hard drive out of it and put it in its own stand-alone case. Now I can boot it from Carolyn’s computer just like it was my own aside from a few little glitches. It’s very slow though because it has to run through a USB port, We’ll fix that by increasing the ram in Carolyn’s computer and get it a new battery while we’re at it. Now Carolyn and I have to share a computer, sort of. I’m actually typing this on an old PowerBook G4 I had in my studio for pulling up photos for painting. It can’t handle a lot of new software including Chrome and Firefox, but it’s better than nothing and I can get my mail and do this. So that’s good. It won’t be good for the Cumberland Forest Society’s Trivia Night in a couple of weeks – I’m the quiz master and we need to drive a projector with new software. For that we’ll need my (ah..Carolyn’s) MacBook Pro with its new ram and battery. I actually amazed myself by how much I grieved over the loss of my computer. Thankfully, I was able to salvage it’s brain even if I had to let its heart go.]

I’ll restrict my comments here to the presentation by Andrew Feldmár. It was on Sunday morning, the last presentation of the conference. To be honest, I was a little hung over at the time but that was probably appropriate given the content of the  presentation. So Feldmár was a very popular professor in the psychology department at SFU for many years. He was there when I was first a student at SFU in 1972. I didn’t take any courses from him. I was kind of anti-psychology at the time. I’m much less so now. In fact, even at the time I read a lot of psychology and psycho-analytical writing. Still, it was generally reading on the critical side. I understand that psychology has its place in the world, but my perspective and that of a lot of my fellow grad students was that psychology’s focus on the individual was an ideological bow to the individualism characteristic of capitalism, the basic target of our collective criticism. Even more, we considered psychiatry, specifically, as an extension of the police in modern society, persecuting anyone not ‘towing the line’ of modern capitalist institutions. Feldmár shared our critique of psychiatry although I didn’t know that at the time.

In fact, Feldmár worked with one of the most famous critics of psychiatry, R.D. Laing, who worked in Britain and conducted a lot of experiments on the ontology of schizophrenia and other ‘mental illnesses’. Laing was a most impressive guy who virtually pissed off the entire body of psychiatry at the time. I’ve recently been re-reading his The Divided Self and continue to be impressed by his work. Of course, his ‘colleagues’ considered him a brash, arrogant rebel. All the more reason I would read his work. Laing as well as Thomas Szasz and others more recent like Peter Breggin argue that schizophrenia arises in certain individuals because of a confluence of genetic/biological predispositions and family dynamics. They argue that families and ‘society’ create schizophrenia and that it is not a disease per se, but is a dynamic set of relationships that become intolerable to the ‘patient’, In other words, families create schizophrenics, not an idea very popular with the families of schizophrenics. To be clear, Laing and Szasz did not feel that the families of schizophrenics were in any way malevolent, except in the sense that the people with the power in the family, generally the parents, would stand on very strict behavioural parameters for their children not allowing their children to develop their own sense of self and self-determination. Asking the parents of schizophrenics why they thought their children became ‘ill’, they determined that to a large extent, the parents felt that they had absolutely no responsibility for it arguing that they had provided their children with all the best life could offer them including love and acceptance.

In fact, the situation in the family, Laing finds, is highly complex, and is founded on a series of contradictory behaviours expected of the children by their parents. So how would Laing endeavour to ‘cure’ schizophrenia? Well, Laing used LSD very successfully to ‘shake up’ the patient in a way that allowed them to see their situation from a different perspective. A recent CBC Ideas program notes that using LSD in therapy resulted in a 50 to 90% success rate for certain ‘problems’ such as alcoholism and other mental illnesses. Andrew Feldmár, in his talk, discussed the use of psychedelic drugs in therapy and how successful it’s been in Laing’s experience and his own. Of course the ‘establishment’ opposition to the use of psychedelic drugs pretty much made the practice illegal and illegitimate although there’s been somewhat of a revival lately. Feldmár is a large part of this revival in his current work and hearing about it firsthand was amazing to say the least.

However, I don’t believe that Feldmár’s presentation lived up to its title, A Laingian/Psychedelic/Therapeutic Perspective on “The Denial of Death”. I don’t recall Feldmár talking a lot about Becker although Becker definitely leaned heavily on Laing and Szasz in the psychological aspects of his work. I would have appreciated a more direct outline of how Becker uses Laing and Szasz in his work. Becker never mentions psychedelics and therapy that I know of. I have to go back and look as some of his earlier works. I’ve focussed much more on Becker’s later works, The Denial of Death and Escape From Evil, for my own purposes. Like I said, I was a little hung over on Sunday morning, October 4th, when Feldmár made his presentation. If I’m misrepresenting him in any way here, I’d be happy to hear about it.

By the way, I’ve decided to write one more post on this topic. It’s not about the conference directly, but about an interaction I had with an old professor of mine and one of Becker’s colleagues at SFU. That will come next week.

Follow up on yesterday’s post on the Ernest Becker Legacy Conference at SFU

In my last post I mentioned some of the conference speakers, among them Sheldon Solomon and Jack Martin. I quite enjoyed both of their talks which together summarized Ernest Becker’s thought and his biography. To generalize beyond caution, I dare say that every one of us is an ever changing individual confluence of experiences, actions, achievements, ideas, values, etc., bounded by a sac of flesh and bone and  wrapped in a social weave of interdependencies. Solomon and Martin ‘gave’ us the confluence that was Ernest Becker in as much complexity as was possible in a short time.* Of course, the conference title implied that Ernest Becker’s legacy would be the focus of discussion. In Becker’s case the legacy in question refers to the range of ways and means his ideas have informed those of others who have followed him. It’s what he left behind for others to use and build upon. That’s a staggering amount of information, ideas and insights to put it mildly. 

Most people who have used Becker’s work have focussed on this or that aspect of it. There’s too much of substance in Becker’s work spread over too many disciplines, making it close to a unified theory of social and biological life on a grand scale, to use the whole thing as a starting point for further analysis. We can gnaw away at the details and go from there, but it’s most difficult to follow Becker on the grand scale of things. A person would have to share his confluence of influences at the very least. I mean, he described his last book as a synthesis of Marx and Freud. Well, who is competent to judge whether or not he actually did that? Someone who at least shares his reading list and sees the world in ways that he did. Was he referring just to Marx and Freud or were these two names rallying terms for a huge number of writers and authorities that he also used? His Freud also included Rank, Jung (to a lesser extent), Adler, Brown, Jones and many others. His Marx included Frankfurt School types, the more humanistic Marxists like Fromm. In fact, I don’t see a lot of classical Marxism in Becker’s work so he must not have meant Marx,  but Marx-ists.  Becker’s confluence is complex and massive and  hardly matches anyone else’s so I think that we literally cannot follow Becker in the entirety of his thought. In fact, a prerequisite for reasonable commentary on Becker’s overarching thought, I  think, is a familiarity with the bulk of his reading list. You’ll need a few years to get through it.  You’ll also need an openness to his interpretation. 

I’ve already written that people have settled on aspects of Becker’s work to elaborate. It’s probably safer and necessary to do that in any case as I have just argued. So, we come to David Loy, a very nice man if I’ve ever met one, a Buddhist scholar, an activist one by all accounts. Google his name. He’s written a few books. His talk was interesting, but not so much for me because I just don’t easily go to ‘religious’ places in my thinking. Of course I’m probably doing Loy an injustice and I wouldn’t want to do that. Still, I probably wouldn’t read any of his work but I would love to sit and watch a beautiful sunset with him.

Larry Green was another of the conference speakers and a big part of the organizing crew. I have so much respect for all of the organizers and the participants in this conference and Larry is right up there. He earned my respect for whatever that’s worth (I have no illusions about the insignificant space I take up on this planet, so what would he do with my respect? I do not mean this in any kind of self-deprecating way.). He is a long time psychotherapist (44 years) and teaches the odd course at City University Canada. The blurb in the conference document states “His contribution will focus on alternatives to “in-group” identification as a source of ontological security.” That’s a tall order. Becker’s discussion of the moiety in Escape From Evil would be enough to scare me away from suggesting an alternative to how things have been organized socially on this planet for thousands of years with people dividing themselves into competing groups all the better to prove how wonderful and worthy a winning group is in its barter with the gods for immortality. For me, the problem is that Green is focussed on individual accommodation to life on this planet and not on the overall ontological issues around  group formation and social conflict. But that’s not meant to be a criticism, just a problem for me…as a sociologist who taught Canadian history, French, Anthropology and Sociology at a freshman level. Notice, there’s no Psychology in there. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have the utmost respect for a number of psychologists, psychoanalysts and even psychiatrists (one even still living). I just don’t follow them around into theory very far. I’m too much of a social evolutionist and Marxist for that.

Speaking of Marxists, Brad Hornick was one of the speakers. He used his time to talk about his own life and what he thought was necessary for the creation of social change great enough to reverse the insane course we’re on destroying the planet as fast as we can. Becker, in the closing paragraphs of Escape From Evil mentioned that if we could come up with a new immortality project, say one that was aimed at climate change, that we could just change the course of history and maybe save ourselves in the process. I don’t think he was all that confident if would happen, but he threw that in as a possibility. Hornick argued that capitalism has to go in order for any positive advances can be made to this planet’s climate. Commodity fetishism is not going to allow us to easily let go of our obsession with possessing goods, so we have to get rid of commodity fetishism. Frankly, I don’t hold out a lot of hope for humanity, but Hornick isn’t giving up and I respect him for that. He’s a grad student at SFU in my old S&A department there. I wish him all the best. It’s a tough row he’s decided to hoe. I doubt if many people at the conference had any idea of what he was talking about but it may have challenged them a little and prodded them to think of how Becker’s work can be used to address some of the fundamental social issues of our time. 

The last speaker I  took in during the conference was Andrew Feldmár. I’ll save my comments on him for tomorrow. I’ll also discuss briefly a couple of other speakers not yet mentioned. Tomorrow it is.


 

  • Confluence means flowing together, as in rivers and such things. The idea of a person as a confluence, that is, the sum total of ideas, values, experiences, influences, etc., all come together in a sac of flesh and bone surrounded by, interweaving and interdependent with others in a social maelstrom came to me in the shower the other day. It’s what accounts for what we call our individuality. No two people share perfectly the same set of ideas, values, experiences, etc., but some of us  overlap in those areas and we form communities on the basis of those overlaps (sometimes voluntarily, sometimes by accident or necessity, sometimes by circumstance).
  • I could not have come up with this idea if I had not read widely in sociology and other related disciplines. It’s only on the basis of my reading list that I can even conceive of such strange things. Some of you may shudder a bit while reading this as you try to make sense of it from the point of view of your own confluence. The more you read the same kinds of ideas I did (and do) and share the same class background, etc., the more you may be able to parse my meaning. Very few people on the planet share my reading list or yours for that matter, that is if you have a reading list. Most people don’t. That in itself is neither here nor there. I can say though that having an extensive reading list in certain disciplines is definitely not a prerequisite for a happy life. In fact it can complicate life beyond salvage resulting in an inability to enjoy the simple things. But aren’t I getting serious now? Time to lighten up a bit. 
  • © Roger J.G. Albert 2015