Our Fleeting Lives.

I have two photographs to show you. The first one is of 634 Alderson Avenue in Coquitlam, British Columbia.

634now
Picture 1

The second is also of 634 Alderson Avenue in Coquitlam, British Columbia but this house no longer exists. It stood on exactly the piece of ground now occupied by the duplex in picture 1. It was my family home.

634then
Picture 2

 

Just so you know, the first image I downloaded from Google Earth street view. The second one I got from one of my sisters. I don’t want to relive my family’s life in the home depicted in the second photograph, the one I would call my family home but it would be an interesting journalistic exercise. After all, it was a very important place in my life for years. No, what I want to do is dwell upon another reality. But first a little background.

 

Look at photograph 1 and you see a relatively new duplex between a home on the right and a fourplex on the left. The fourplex has been there some time and existed when the house in photograph 2 was there. It was built after a very dilapidated home was torn down sometime in the sixties if memory serves me right. The house on the right stands on a lot my family sold after our property was subdivided into a number of parcels. It was built sometime in the sixties too. The photo is unexceptional in just about every way. The unit on the left of the duplex is 636 Alderson Avenue and the unit on the right is 634.

 

That (634) was the address of my family home for a long time. I’m not sure exactly for how long because I don’t really know when my father and his first wife moved into it. I think it was sometime in 1937. When my parents moved out of the house you see in picture 2 one of my sisters bought it from them, sometime in the 1980s, the house was still in the family for a period of time. Later, after my sister sold the house it was eventually demolished and the duplex in picture 1 was built to replace it. By the time it was demolished, the house in picture 2 had undergone extensive renovations. Although the house was ‘serviceable’ that mattered not, it was demolished. That’s just the way it is. I lived there for 12 years with my many siblings starting in 1947 before I went off to boarding school in Edmonton in 1959, then on and off for a few more years. Actually the details aren’t important except as background information.

 

What I want to focus on here is something that has been a preoccupation of mine throughout my academic career and even earlier, I’m thinking, and that’s the fleeting aspect of our lives, their finiteness within a field of infiniteness.  It’s a cliché to say that the generations come and go, that each of us is born and dies. That’s certainly true, but what interests me here is the substance underlying the cliché, how we think about these things, explain them to ourselves, reconcile them with the natural cycles of matter and energy and attempt to derive some kind of meaning for our existence.

The house I lived in, the house my family occupied for decades is gone. All the activity, all the sorrow, the happiness, the sadness, the love that permeated that place are gone. All gone. Yes, my sisters and brothers have many memories of life there. Stories abound. Yet the house is gone, forever. Poof! In a flash of time.

I’m thinking that the people who currently live at 634 Alderson Avenue in Coquitlam, BC, have no sense at all of what may have stood on the very spot they now occupy. To them, the property is what it is. Their lives are ongoing. They move easily from room to room. They have things to do, people to see, work to go to. They eat and sleep without ever thinking about the people who lived there previously. They may not even know that people lived there previously.

Yet, people did. I did. My brothers and sisters did. My parents did. There was life there, there was drama. There was tedium. The current residents don’t know that my father had the front yard paved over. I know that he did, but I’m not sure exactly why except to get rid of the patchy lawn that was there before and to increase parking spaces. They have no idea of the tons of laundry my  mother did every week, of the piles of soiled diapers that she cleaned, the Sunday pork and beef roasts my father used to put on the stove in the morning and the many loaves of bread my mother baked every three or four days. They don’t know about the laughter, the tears, the pain and the joy that characterized that home. They have no sense of anything that was there before them. Fair enough of course. I wouldn’t expect them to.

What is interesting, I think, is that the same kind of experience of things exists in cities, towns and villages everywhere. The current Rome is built on several past Romes that keep turning up in archeological digs. The same thing goes for Paris, Beirut and London and every other human occupied place on earth. I’m quite sure that the house I lived in at 634 Alderson Avenue was the first one built on that piece of property. I’m guessing trees, brambles and bushes stood on the homesite before the house was built. In Rome there are buildings raised on the debris and remains of several other generations of houses and homes previously erected there. Of course, at one time there were no man-made structures on the planet at all. Then, as a species, we moved like a fungus across the planet and occupied large tracts of land, building structures on them, some with a degree of longevity, some with none. It seems solid. It all seems so real, yet it’s all fleeting. Nothing is forever, not 634 Alderson Avenue, not Rome. We move silently through time glancing backward now and then but catching only glimpses of what went before.

We, as a species, will evolve right out of existence. No doubt at all about that. But that’s nothing to be sad about, nothing to fear. That’s just the way it is. Fighting it has gotten us nothing but pain and grief.

We try to hang on to the past in many ways. We write history.  We practice archaeology and anthropology. We study how biological forms change and evolve. We measure tectonic action and we track the movements of stars and the galaxies.

We try to hang on to some sense of what we were. We take photographs. We write diaries in the hope of remembering something from the past. I have some journal writing from the 80s and 90s and when I look at them and read about what I was doing on a specific day in February, 1989, I’m not actually remembering those experiences. I’m not reliving them. I have an idea of what I was doing, getting a coffee, for example, but I’m not reliving that moment.

We record action, events, scenes of all kinds. We record human conversations and whale vocalizations. We film political speeches and we have buildings full of archives, artifacts, petrified bones and old art works. We try to hang on to the past. But all of it is fleeting.

 

As I approach my 70th birthday in January, 2017, I guess my death is more of a reality to me than it’s ever been. I’m not sad about that. I’m not depressed about that. My death will happen momentarily because life passes by that quickly, but that’s fine. Some of you will mourn my passing but don’t spend too long grieving. As I watched my father-in-law dying in a hospital bed in Burnaby General Hospital in 1989, the traffic outside just passed on by. Not many people took notice of his death. We did, of course, and we were sad. Same for when my father died in 2007. He as 94 years old and ready to go. His body was determined to go back into the pot of organic matter that makes our world go around. One day he was there, kissing babies, working his ass off trying to feed his many children, and the next moment he was gone. That’s our truth.

That’s our lives. I often think about my father these days. He was a man of tradition but he was also an excellent craftsman and inventor. After I got to be 14 years old or so we often worked together. He was my boss on many occasions, and he was a good one too. I don’t know why this is still with me, but I vividly remember the first time I heard him say ‘fuck’. My, I was shocked but impressed. I was 9 years old and with him on a Saturday visit to the sawmill he worked at on Lulu Island. As we left the plant in late afternoon he talked briefly to the watchman and that’s when he uttered the infamous word. Shocking and revealing. My father was human! I remember when he and I flew to Winnipeg to pick up my Austin Healy Sprite, a car I left there after a youthful infatuation with a young woman in St-Norbert, who at that time I would say was way above my station in life. He was great. He put up with my whining and snivelling. He was so forgiving and caring. I must say that I could be a jerk as a kid. But I wasn’t a complete waste of skin. We had some wonderful times as kids building forts, digging tunnels and just farting around. I was mouthy and bratty and that got me into trouble on occasion. As a teen, I was often sullen, thoughtless and miserable. Par for the course.  I smashed up the Volkwagen van parked in front of the house in picture 2. Damn near killed myself along with a friend of mine. I was careless. I was irresponsible, and after that crash, I was brain-damaged for years, something that didn’t improve my outlook on life. Eventually, I grew out of it and up, went back to school and the rest is history. The people who now live at 634 Alderson Avenue know nothing of this and I’m sure they wouldn’t care if they did. That’s the way it is.

We look for continuity in our lives, we look for meaning. We even crave immortality and have created countless ways of convincing ourselves that our bodily deaths aren’t real and that our ‘souls’ will live on. I know people, irreligious people even, who at celebrations of life, still insist that the deceased loved one is somewhere up there, looking down and waiting for us to follow. It’s so hard to find any meaning in the minutia of life, in the fleeting memories and impressions we have of past events. So we look elsewhere and we create elaborate cultural schemes to convince ourselves that our lives have ultimate meaning and that there is life after death. It’s kind of a natural reaction, I’m thinking, that our big brains have devised to deal with death, the ultimate evil. Of course it depends on what we think life is and what death is.

Enough for now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

My personal statement from 1990 on the Knowledge Network.

Why not post a video I did in 1990. That’s only 26 years ago! Frankly, what I say in this 7 minute clip I still relevant to me today. I think it’s a good way to start off my new set of blog posts. Hope you enjoy it, although ‘enjoy’ may not be the best word to use here. The clip was filmed in Vancouver with a Knowledge Network crew over a 12 hour period in one day. It was part of my North Island College tele course on the Knowledge Network that ran from 1986 until 1992. Interesting times.

Roger

Why do 99% of movies follow the same formula?

Why do 99% of movies follow the same formula?

Because they address our most basic anxieties, our fear of death and our drive to deny it.  Denial of death is what I call a meta-institution. That means an institution (defined by Veblen as a crystallized habit of thought or life) that is globally dominant and pervasive. No place, country, society, culture or whatever group is immune.  We all create and nurture death-denying institutions. Sometimes they involve religion, sometimes not. Business is as good at death denial as religion is. There is no way that the film industry can escape our basic drive to deny death.

Death doesn’t necessarily mean what happens to you when your brain and body stop functioning. It can mean poverty or social death and isolation. In this sense death denies us the good life but leaves us, zombie-like, to live out our physical lives with not much of anything interesting to experience or for which to look forward.

The film industry barters in death, social or physical, worldly or eternal. So, you’ll often see a person die in movies but generally that’s considered a sacrifice for the survival of our favourite death-denying meta-institution, the one that promises us eternal life of one kind or another. The hero, that person or group that personifies the triumph over death, occasionally dies in a movie, but always with the proviso that what they’ve fought and died for lives on. From war movies to romantic comedies, the formula is always the same as is the outcome. Of course there is a lot of variation in how the formula plays out and how long an individual movie spends on any particular part of the formula, but that doesn’t negate the existence of the formula itself.

Triumph over complacency, attack from various quarters (earthly or otherwise), disease, rejection, isolation, poverty, or what-have-you, is the bread and butter of the film industry.

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

Healthy Living Experts Forum – The House of Now

Healthy Living Experts Forum – The House of Now.

For those of you in the Comox Valley area who are not averse to getting up on a Sunday morning, I’ll be speaking at this forum this Sunday.  The details are on the website.  I’ll be talking about morality and poverty among other things.  I have 20 minutes like the other presenters…but for those of you who know me, I could go on for hours!  Should be an informative morning…which you could then follow up with lunch somewhere like the Atlas Cafe or the Wandering Moose in Cumberland!

Why are we afraid of people in wheelchairs?

[This is a bit of an exploratory post.  I have ideas here that I want to develop further, but rather than trying to refine them now to a publishable state, I’m putting them out there in a somewhat disjointed and unrefined state so that I can think about them further and get your comments on them if you are so inclined].

 

A couple of days ago I posted a comment here about an injury I suffered last Thursday evening to my ribcage after a bad fall resulting in a hospital visit and a great deal of pain to an area of my body that had already been traumatized by cancer surgery.  Well, that personal story was just a way of leading into today’s post.  Of course, everything about the report I made a couple of days ago was true.  I’m still in a great deal of pain.  I haven’t driven our vehicle since my injury and I’m not sure when I will be able to again.  Maybe later this week sometime.  The good news is that I do feel some improvement in my pain levels already and some improved mobility.

That said, there are many people with immobility issues that cannot look forward to any improvement whatsoever in their conditions.  I feel temporarily humbled by my lack of mobility in a mobility driven world, but they must only feel permanently humbled and even humiliated.  Someone I am acquainted with has muscular dystrophy.  He’s my age, a little older actually.  He lived a ‘normal’ life for decades before being diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, but his mobility has continuously declined since his diagnosis.  He is now confined to an electric wheelchair and a scooter that allows him a certain degree of mobility.  He can even visit me in Cumberland from Courtenay (8K) although not in my home because it is not wheelchair accessible. There’s actually very few locations in the Comox Valley accessible to wheelchair bound people, homes or businesses.  As an educated guess I would say that about 1% of Valley homes are wheelchair accessible.  The big box stores are all accessible, but not many of the businesses along 5th Street or anywhere downtown are. I know other wheelchair bound people in the Comox Valley with varying degrees of immobility, but all have very mobile and agile minds.  Of course, like the rest of us, not all wheelchair bound people have agile brains and some have difficulty communicating with ‘normal’ folks.  I’ll get back to that in a bit.

My point is that we treat people immobilized by various kinds of physical ‘disabilities’, ‘abnormalities’, or whatever other qualification we might use in describing them, with a curious dismissiveness.  We don’t take them seriously and don’t expect anything intelligent to come out of their mouthes.  Mainly, we don’t address them at all and if we must, we’d rather do it through an intermediary, like a caregiver or companion. I use ‘we’ here because this is a generalized social reaction with few people being self-aware enough to realize what they are feeling and why they are feeling that way.

What I am arguing here is not that individuals in our society are insensitive or uncaring about people who are ‘differently-abled’ as they sometimes describe themselves, but that we have a very deep-seated fear of immobility because of its association with death and we are culturally programmed to shun it.  If you think about it for a moment you’ll soon realize that we unconsciously equate mobility with freedom and wealth, immobility with death and confinement, either, for example, in a wheelchair or in prison.  We punish people in our society by removing their mobility.  We laud people who are mobile.  I can’t tell you how often I’ve been asked since I retired from college teaching where I’ve travelled to (nowhere, actually) or what travel plans I have.  Our obsession with mobility is virtually universal, goes a long way back and is deeply embedded in our cultural fabric.

Colin Turnbull in his 1960s ethnography of the BaMbuti tribe of the Ituri Forest in Central Africa described how the BMbuti had developed a system of describing how dead a person was.  If a person was unable to speak because of a stroke or such ailment, that person would be described as partially dead.  The greater the inability to keep up with the group, communicate and contribute to tribal life, the more dead a person was considered to be.  There was always a danger that a person might be considered dead even though they still had a pulse.  I can’t remember which anthropologist it was, writing at about the same time as Turnbull, who described in his notebooks a tribe in the New Guinea highlands that buried people alive because they had lost the ability to speak. For this tribe, he wrote, an inability to communicate verbally was a sure and certain sign that the person was dead. Burial would follow no matter how much movement was evident in the rest of the affected person’s body.

So, part of our common human cultural heritage seems to associate immobility and its various manifestations in individual human beings with death, the ultimate evil (in Ernest Becker’s words).  It doesn’t seem to matter what part of the world we are from, what language we speak or what tribe we belong to.  If we cannot speak, have various ailments that confine us to a wheelchair or we are somehow immobilized in body or mind, we are somehow lesser human beings no matter what other qualities we may have.  If we are on crutches because of an injury caused during a hockey game we will face a wait-and-see attitude.  If we are playing hockey again in a reasonable period of time all is forgiven but if we fail to get back to the game in a timely manner or are prone to injury and hence immobilized too frequently we will be considered a slacker and not really a good team player. Hero status goes to the player who plays on despite being injured, flaunting pain and immobility.  If we are in a wheelchair with obvious mobility limitations there in no wait-and-see-attitude, there is just ostracism and sometimes revulsion.

This all takes me back to wheelchair bound people, ‘mobile’ and agile brains.  My friend with muscular dystrophy has a very active mind, is from a professional background, is community-minded and involved in various social groups and activities. He is articulate and fully capable of expressing himself. His scooter is quite impressive and commands respect, but even he has commented to me that on more than one occasion when he was in his wheelchair accompanied by one of his caregivers that a clerk or other frontline worker would address the caregiver rather than him even though it was his business that was being discussed.  They often behaved as if he weren’t even present and, without asking him directly, would address his caretaker with:”…and would he like a drink with that?”    He reported on these occasions of feeling somewhat humiliated and disrespected, even if it was just for a moment.

We seem unwilling to tolerate immobility in any of its manifestations.  As noted above, we find physical immobility disconcerting and we feel uncomfortable around people in wheelchairs.  People who are ‘mentally’ immobile are particularly scary for us because they cannot move a conversation forward in a predictable manner.  We feel afraid or disdainful of people ‘talking to themselves’ while walking down the street. And while we are fine with immobility on vacations, lying around beaches reading novels, it must only be as a temporary interlude in a busy work schedule.  We heap scorn on ‘lazy’ people.  We find the immobility brought on by poverty particularly vexing and distasteful.   We describe children and retired people as ‘unproductive’ because they fail to contribute to the forward mobility (growth) of the entire community.  Combine any number of physical and mental immobilities and the disdain and fear we experience are compounded.

One mental struggle I’ve had for decades now is determining just how much of our fear of immobility is driven by our biological built in urge to avoid death like every other animal species and how much by culturally specific imperatives, including learning and education.  It’s hard to dispute the idea that over our history on this planet (and even now) individuals might at any moment have had to flee a predator or fight for survival.  The ‘fight or flight’ reaction would have been severely impaired by individual immobility.  Obviously, anyone who was immobile for whatever reason might put a whole family or tribe in danger.  The consequence of being immobilized by injury, hunger or any number of other conditions could be catastrophic.  How many times in the movies have you seen a war scenario where there was great gnashing of teeth over whether to flee and leave behind a wounded colleague or endanger the whole group by dragging him along and slowing everybody down.  Of course, if the wounded colleague was a hero he might just commit suicide, thereby releasing the group of its obligation to him and ensure the safety of the whole group.

There’s no denying that we are animals and have animal preoccupations around sex and survival.  However, that doesn’t mean that our behaviours are forever destined to be driven by our animal natures.  Ernest Becker argued that it’s our ingenuity and not our animal nature that has pushed us into perpetrating more evil on this planet than ever before.  Is it our destiny to always fear immobility and death?  Is it possible for us to ever develop cultural and moral principles and imperatives that strive to accept immobility and death rather than to fight them at every turn?  Will we ever be at peace with the fact that we are a weak, vulnerable, finite animal that has limitations or are we driven inexorably to apotheosis and hubris?  Will we ever treat each other with respect no matter what our level of mobility?  I’m afraid I’m not very optimistic about our chances of answering any of these questions in the affirmative, at least not in the short term.

Women as weak and unclean!

Barbarian Status of Women, Part 2:  Women as Weak and Unclean.

 

To start, I include here a sample of Thorstein Veblen’s writing to give you a sense of what it would be like to read a more substantial piece of his work, like his book The Place of Science in Modern Civilization.  Of course, this long quote is relevant to what I want to pursue in this post, that is, the general cultural institutional perception of women as weak and unclean, associated with the earth, dirt, blood, the night and death.  After all, Gaia, the first of the gods in Greek mythology was female, she was the earth. [She wasn’t personified as later Greek gods were, but she is a god helping to bring order into a chaotic universe.]   Veblen doesn’t go in all of these directions, but others do, including the Freudians.  We’ll have a little visit with them today too.  Now for Veblen:

In such a community [of barbarians] the standards of merit and propriety rest on an invidious distinction between those who are capable fighters and those who are not. Infirmity, that is to say incapacity for exploit, is looked down upon. One of the early consequences of this deprecation of infirmity is a tabu on women and on women’s employments. In the apprehension of the archaic, animistic barbarian, infirmity is infectious. The infection may work its mischievous effect both by sympathetic influence and by transfusion. Therefore it is well for the able-bodied man who is mindful of his virility to shun all undue contact and conversation with the weaker sex and to avoid all contamination with the employments that are characteristic of the sex. Even the habitual food of women should not be eaten by men, lest their force be thereby impaired. The injunction against womanly employments and foods and against intercourse with women applies with especial rigor during the season of preparation for any work of manly exploit, such as a great hunt or a warlike raid, or induction into some manly dignity or society or mystery. Illustrations of this seasonal tabu abound in the early history of all peoples that have had a warlike or barbarian past. The women, their occupations, their food and clothing, their habitual place in the house or village, and in extreme cases even their speech, become ceremonially unclean to the men. This imputation of ceremonial uncleanness on the ground of their infirmity has lasted on in the later culture as a sense of the unworthiness or Levitical inadequacy of women ; so that even now we feel the impropriety of women taking rank with men, or representing the community in any relation that calls for dignity and ritual competency ; as for instance, in priestly or diplomatic offices, or even in representative civil offices, and likewise, and for a like reason, in such offices of domestic and body servants as are of a seriously ceremonial character ‚ footmen, butlers, etc.

Veblen, then, in his odd style, explains that women are considered lesser than men because they can’t fight.  What they do around the house is fine, but the really important stuff, like hunting and protecting the group, is the purview of men and that type of activity becomes entrenched as the value standard by which to judge all action.  So, men, powerful men, manly men, become the standard by which to judge all of humankind.

Veblen’s explanation, then, remains at the level of performance.  The tabu on women is a result of their ‘infirmity’, their inability to pursue the hunt and to fight.  Because this ‘infirmity’ is infectious, men must avoid women, especially at certain times of the year and when women’s infirmity is most obvious during their time of her ‘customary impurity’ otherwise they risk losing their prowess.  There have been obvious residual instances of this proscription when it’s been made clear to professional athletes by coaches and others interested in winning.  So I googled: Is it ok to have sex before a high level athletic competition?  There were enough ‘hits’ to suggest that its still on people’s minds, mindless though that is.  After all when the French refer to orgasm as ‘la petite mort’ what they are referring to is the overwhelming bodily release of tension and semi-immobilization that comes with it.  One dies a little upon ejaculation.  At least that’s my interpretation and I’m sticking by it.  Others have suggested that ejaculation and orgasm give up a little of a man’s ‘life’ every time it happens.  I don’t think so, but it does bring up the notion that bodily functions in general, especially those that involve orifices, ejaculates, evacuations and such are subtle little reminders of our mortality.  Why else do Catholic priests and others vow to be chaste?  Why else would people (men, that is) in certain societies wear butt plugs?  Well, both practices deny the body and its downright nasty habit of getting ill, diseased and eventually dead.  Men can delude themselves into thinking that if they just abstain from bodily stuff and stick to the symbolic, spiritual side of life then they can live eternally.  Yeah, right.

Next class, we visit the Freudians via Norman O. Brown and Ernest Becker.  It might be fun later to look at Greek philosophy and myths to get a sense of how they see this stuff.

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.