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.

Escape 19: All you wanted to know about human evil but were afraid to ask!

Escape 19: All you wanted to know about human evil but were afraid to ask!

Well, it looks like I may just get through this 30 day Becker marathon in 30 days.  I’m on Chapter 7 now, which starts on page 91.  Since there’s 170 pages in the book I’m close to half way there.

As noted earlier, Becker is the great synthesizer.  He gleans in a critical way the works of others to build his own model of how the world works.  Those ‘others’ include hundreds of scholars of all disciplines as can be verified by a glance at the bibliographic entries in his many books, but major influences have been Hocart, Huizinga, Brown and Rank.  The school of psychoanalysis to which Becker subscribes is the school, which broke away from Freud.  Rank was a special protégé of Freud’s but could not accept Freud’s Oedipus Complex and other aspects of his work.  Freud was no slouch, of course, but his work was nowhere near as historical as his detractors, Brown and Rank, not to mention Jung and Adler.  For Rank and Brown, following Freud, the basic foundation of an understanding of humankind’s evolution on this planet is our fear of life and death.  Of course we wouldn’t be able to stand it for long if every day of every year we were consumed by fear of life and death.  Rank accepted without any resistance one of the pillars of Freud’s work and that’s the idea of repression.  As Becker writes:

…men do not actually live stretched openly on a rack of cowardice and terror; if they did, they couldn’t continue on with such apparent equanimity and thoughtlessness.  Men’s fears are buried deep by repression, which gives to everyday life its tranquil façade; only occasionally does the desperation show through, and only for some people.  It is repression, then, that great discovery of psychoanalysis, that explains how well man can hide their basic motivations even from themselves.  But men also live in a dimension of carefreeness, trust, hope, and joy which gives them a buoyancy beyond that which repression alone could give.  This, as we saw with Rank, is achieved by the symbolic engineering of culture, which everywhere serves men as an antidote to terror by giving them a new and durable life beyond that of the body.

 I don’t think I could find a quote in EFE that better represents Rank’s thought as expressed here by Becker.  Following this quote Becker introduces Wilhelm Reich and his book The Mass Psychology of Fascism.  In his conclusion that much of the misery on this planet is a consequence of our attempt to deny our animal nature, the question for Reich is: how could we so willingly give over [our] destiny to the state and the great leader? (p. 93) Because we’re such suckers for promises of prosperity and good times ahead if only we follow the great leader, the steady, thoughtful great leader.  But, unfortunately, in attempts to avoid natural plagues and disasters by investing our trust in great leaders we unwittingly unleashed another plague brought on by our thoughtless allegiance and obedience to the politician.

Reich coined the apt term “political plague-mongers” to describe all politicians.  They are the ones who lied to the people about the real and the possible and launched mankind on impossible dreams which took impossible tolls of real life.  Once you base your whole life-striving on a desperate lie and try to implement that lie, try to make the world just the opposite of what it is, then you instrument your own undoing…all you have to do is to say that your group is pure and good, eligible for a full life and for some kind of eternal meaning.  But others, like Jews or Gypsies are the real animals, are spoiling everything for you, contaminating your purity and bringing disease and weakness into your vitality. 

It’s all about scapegoating…a theme we’ll run into again in this exercise.

Escape 18: Our Bodies, Our Deaths.

Escape 18: Our Bodies our Deaths: What evil has history wrought?

Chapter 6 in EFE ends with a section called The Demonics of History.  How to summarize Becker’s arguments here?  Not without some difficulty: every sentence is jam packed with meaning.  In the last post we noted that money is the new immortality ideology but ‘new’ here means after the fall of primitive society and the rise of classes some 10 to 12 thousand years ago in some parts of the world, much later in others.  But, it’s complicated.  As Becker writes:

If we say that ‘money is God,’ this seems like a simple and cynical observation on the corruptibility of men.  But if we say that ‘money negotiates immortality and therefore is God,’ this is a scientific formula that is limpidly objective to any serious student of man…We see the changes from tribal modes of achieving power to money modes right before our eyes.

 In the early days of French ‘exploration’ in North America, once the Huron, Montagnais and other tribes understood the power of the invaders from Europe they didn’t need to be coerced to let go of their previous immortality ideologies.  They were confronted by a relentless and powerful new god, one that did not want to compromise with theirs, a god who showed that the only way to salvation and eternal life was in the worship of it and it alone.  The earliest ‘conversions’ had been gotten with bribes and coercion, but in time that was no longer necessary.

Think; if a race of men with advanced learning, health, and weapons were to land on our planet and tell us about the god who sustains them in Alpha Centauri, a new religion would sweep over large numbers of people overnight and discredit most of our institutions. 

 So, money represents real earthly power, but its power is sacred.  Money gives power now!  No need to wait on an earthly death for apotheosis.

Man has become dependent on social symbols of prestige that single him out as especially worthy of being remembered in the eyes of the gods and in the minds of men.  But for an animal who actually lives on the level of the visible and knows nothing of the invisible, it is easy for the eyes of men to take precedence over the eyes of the gods.  The symbols of immortality power that money buys exist on the level of the visible, and so crowd out their invisible competitor.  Man succumbs easily to created life, which is to exercise power mainly in the dimension in which he moves and acts as an organism.  The pull of the body is so strong, lived experience is so direct; the ‘supernatural’ is so remote and problematic, so abstract and intangible.

 Indeed the pull of the body is strong but it’s the body that is the source of sin.  The body dies and that’s not an acceptable outcome for such a narcissistic species as our own.  That’s why we divide ourselves into body and soul.  The body dies but the soul lives on.  The soul is an immortality project in the real sense of the term.  The body leads us into temptation.  It’s the source of all death and guilt.  As I get older, in my penultimate years, I feel that as the life drains out of me I am betraying our most cherished immortality symbols and I must feel guilt for the loss of life.  But the immortality ideologies that dominate the planet now are betraying me because their promises of immortality are empty ones.  It’s interesting to me how the symbol of the devil represents “physical, earthly, visible power and on this planet easily holds sway over his more ethereal competitor, spiritual power.” (p. 85)

As we noted earlier we need evidence that we are being heard by the gods in our search for immortality; that assurance does not come easily.  But if we can convince ourselves, as the Calvinists suggested after some initial stumbling, that how we conduct ourselves on this planet may be an indication of where we will end up after we die, that can give us some comfort but it also can bring on anxiety.  As Becker writes:

No wonder economic equality is beyond the endurance of modern democratic man: the house, the car, the bank balance are his immortality symbols.  Or to put it another way, if a black man moves next door, it is not merely that your house diminishes in real estate value, but that you diminish in fullness on the level of visible immortality – and so you die…the decline of traditional religion has eclipsed the god whose eyes judged merit according to the goods you piled up…In other words, modern man cannot endure economic equality because he has no faith in self-transcendent, otherworldly immortality symbols; visible physical worth is the only thing he has to give him eternal life.  No wonder that people segregate themselves with such consuming dedication, that special ness is so much a fight to the death: man lashes out all the harder when he is cornered, when he is a pathetically impoverished immortality seeker.  He dies when his little symbols of specialness die. 

 This is a long quotation but I feel no qualms in putting it down here for you to read. It sums up a great deal of Becker’s thought in this chapter.  Over time we came to distrust invisible symbols of immortality.  As Becker writes: “Immortality power, then, came to reside in accumulated wealth.” (p. 87)

So, in a world dominated by secular immortality symbols, where we judge people on their possessions how do we understand the concept of sin?  In a world where our immortality is gotten by bartering with the gods, sin meant distancing oneself from invisible power.  It might mean angering the gods by not performing a ritual properly or by ignoring prescribed behaviours.

Sin is the experience of uncertainty in one’s relation to the divine ground of his being; he no longer is sure of possessing the right connection, the right means of expiation. 

Sin, in a Christian sense, defines a situation, created by certain actions or thoughts, that distances the believer from his God.  It’s a denial of the symbolic side of humankind.  And, of course, it’s our symbolic side that is the seat of our immortality.  The body betrays us, drags us down.  No wonder we often speak of the body in terms that connect it to the earth and in doing so we can barely mask our loathing of it.  Sex is ‘dirty’ unless of course it’s sanctioned and made acceptable by the application of essential rituals to ‘cleanse’ it.  In this sense, it’s easy for men to think of women as the source of evil and death.  Men can think of themselves as purely symbolic creatures whereas women’s bodies are the source of temptation and descent into death.  Women bleed monthly, they bleed in labour, they give life, but in so doing create death.  They are the carriers of death by giving birth.  The idea is perverse but any simple and cursory study of the ethnographic record easily demonstrates how widely it was, and is still, accepted.  I will explore this further in subsequent posts, but for now I have to wrap up this already too long post.

So what does it mean to sin in a secular world?  Well, I don’t agree completely with Becker in his conclusion here.  He claims that we’ve avoided sin by “simply denying the existence of the invisible dimension to which it is related.” (p. 89) But, in my mind to sin in a secular world that promises victory over death by the accumulation of wealth, sin must be the inability to accumulate wealth.  The poor, by definition, are sinners of the worse kind.  But how do we atone for this sin?  In a Christian world simply asking for forgiveness and promising to lead a better life can be enough.  In a secular world it’s not so easy.  Of course we make the poor pay for their ‘sin’ by treating them like shit.  “There, that will teach you for not being wealthy.”  Becker concludes:

History is the tragic record of heroism and expiation out of control and of man’s efforts to earn expiation in new, frantically driven and contrived ways.  The burden of guilt created by cumulative possessions, linear time, and secularization is assuredly greater than that experienced by primitive man; it has to come out some way…The point I am making is that most of the evil that man has visited on his world is the result precisely of the greater passion of his denials and his historical drivenness.  

Escape 15: If your adversary wins the argument about truth, you die.

Escape 15: If your adversary wins the argument about truth, you die.

Half way through this exercise.  Becker is in my blood, it seems, not because of him as a person.  He is not my Christ.  What he does do for me is summarize and synthesize ideas that I slowly came to accept over 40 years of scholarship.  Actually by 1975 only a year after Becker’s death I was already ‘predisposed’ to accept his arguments having spent many hours reading the ethologists, Emile Durkheim, the Bible (2 versions), as many ethnographies as I could get my hands on, Thorstein Veblen, Karl Marx, Nietzsche, Will Durant and scores of others.  The idea of an immortality-project that became the centre of people’s lives and embodied all of their hopes for eternal life, I had already intuited but not articulated as such.  In the late 1970s and early 1980s, as I read Becker and his muses, Norman O. Brown and Otto Rank, I felt that I found my way home.  Of course, the irony hasn’t escaped me that this could very well be my own immortality-project, but I’m OK with that.  We as humans can’t exist alone, as individuals.  We need company, meaningful company and we gather life from it.  We get stronger with every association we make so it’s not surprising that we hunt down every ‘like’ we can get on Facebook.  We need others to share our project because there’s strength in numbers.  As Becker writes:

Each person nourishes his immortality in the ideology of self-perpetuation to which he gives his allegiance; this gives his life the only abiding significance it can have. No wonder men go into a rage over fine points of belief: if your adversary wins the argument about truth, you die.  Your immortality system has been shown to be fallible, your life fallible.  History, then, can be seen as a succession of ideologies that console for death. 

 In this sense all cultures are sacred.  Becker does not subscribe to the common idea that cultures contain sacred and profane elements.  For him, all culture is sacred because it promises victory over death and disease.  So, now we get to the critical point:  it’s the group and the group alone that confers immortality.  There is no immortality outside of the group’s promise of it.  Furthermore, the power of the group can only be released with the proper ritual executed to perfection.  The group can demand from us countless practices, ideas, behaviours, scarifications, tattoos, lip plugs, genuflections, tips-of-the-hat, and what have you because in the end these things will get us immortality.  Not doing them or not doing them properly voids the contract and we die.

Unlike Freud, Rand argued that all taboos, morals, customs, and laws represent a self-limitation of man so that he could transcend his condition, get more life by denying life.  As he paradoxically put it, men seek to preserve their immortality rather than their lives.

 That’s all for today.  This is a short one but I’ve been at this keyboard for many hours today and I’ve had enough.  Tomorrow is a new day and a new post.

Ernest Becker 2: Oh, Our Lovely Tummies

Ernest Becker 2: Oh, Our Lovely Tummies

So, following yesterdays post, Becker argues that we are animals.  Well, what else?  I know, I know, we think of ourselves as humans not animals, but that’s not a distinction that makes much sense.  Science has gone way beyond thinking of things on this planet as being exclusively plant, animal or mineral.  It’s not as simple as that.  However, for the moment, I hope you’ll accept my argument (and Becker’s) that we aren’t rocks or minerals or grapefruit.  No, we are animals.  We share genes with grapefruit and we need some minerals to survive, but we aren’t plants or minerals in any obvious sense.  That’s Becker’s opening argument:  we’re animals.  We behave very much in animal ways although we also very much deny it with all of our best efforts.  We have a lot in common with most animals, more with some than with others, of course.  So carrying on from where we left off in the last post Becker writes:

 

Beyond the toothsome joy of consuming other organisms is the warm contentment of simply continuing to exist – continuing to experience physical stimuli, to sense one’s inner pulsations and musculature, to delight in the pleasures that nerves transmit.  Once the organism is satiated, this becomes its frantic all-consuming task, to hold onto life at any cost – and the costs can be catastrophic in the case of man…For man…this organismic craving takes the form of a search for “prosperity” – the universal ambition of human society…In man the search for appetitive satisfaction has become conscious: he is an organism that knows that he wants food and who knows what will happen if he doesn’t get it, or if he gets it and falls ill and fails to enjoy its benefits.  Once we have an animal who recognizes that he needs prosperity, we also have one who realizes that anything that works against continued prosperity is bad.  And so we understand how man has come, universally, to identify disease and death as the two principle evils of the human organismic condition.  Disease defeats the joys of prosperity while one is alive, and death cuts prosperity off coldly.

 

Tomorrow we’ll see where Becker takes us from here.  But from what he’s established in the first two or three pages of his book in a chapter called The Human Condition: Beyond Appetite and Ingenuity we know that for us humans, death is a final insult to an organism that is warm and feels so wonderful with a full stomach.  We love our tummies.  How could they possibly melt away into insignificance?

Death Denial

If there’s a constant in human history, it’s death denial.  Ernest Becker, in the last book he published just before his death in 1974, The Denial of Death, explores and explains the pervasiveness of death denial in all cultures all over the globe.  I cannot recommend this book highly enough for anyone interested in trying to come to grips with their own death, but also with the death of cultures, ways of life and all cultural artifacts.  According to Becker, individual death is a given, at least in the physical sense, but as human beings, we can’t accept that inevitability, so we devise sometimes very elaborate systems of death denial.  For Becker, cultures themselves are immortality projects designed to deny death.  The Christian idea of the soul is a great immortality project.  The body dies, the soul lives on forever.  Take that, death!  Life 1, Death 0.  So, Christians can live thinking that when they die, they live.  That’s comforting, I guess, if it’s possible to really believe that.  My sense is that doubt is hard to cast aside.  Is there really an afterlife?  After all, it’s just promises, no proof.  It’s also my sense that one way to assuage guilt over doubt is to affirm the death denying ideology of the soul more firmly than ever.  I’m not picking specifically on Christians here, everybody else does it too.  There are atheistic religions like Buddhism but they also have mechanisms that promise some form of immortality.

None of this is surprising.  In the simplest of biological terms, living organisms, particularly the sentient ones, ‘want’ to continue to live.  It’s a basic drive.  Becker’s book, Escape From Evil, published shortly after his death by his wife, Marie, and his publishers, expresses this beautifully in its first few pages.  We are driven to fight the two pillars of evil in life: disease and death.  Disease injures our potential to enjoy life, to revel in a good meal, an excellent glass of wine, or a particularly spectacular sunset.  Death takes away everything, all enjoyment, all time, all everything.  What greater evil can there be?  So we devise elaborate schemes to make us feel like none of this will ever happen to us?  Not to humans.  We are the chosen species.  We are not like other animals.  We are special under the sun.  And if anyone dares say otherwise, well, that’s most unfortunate for them.  They must be dealt with in the harshest of terms because if our death-denying ideologies are proven to be weak or just plain lies, then we die…forever.  Aboriginal cultures everywhere, when faced with the power of colonialism, abandoned their traditional practices and took on the beliefs of their captors and colonizers.  Why continue to put faith in an immortality-ideology that failed to protect them in their most trying moment?

Now, of course, the most powerful immortality-ideology is capital accumulation and wealth.  But we know that this kind of ideology, no matter how powerful cannot promise us immortality.  Still, there are many people today who live and die for ‘freedom’ to accumulate capital to get rich.  They are, in fact, willing to kill the very planet they occupy so that they might live forever.

This short post barely scratches the surface of the importance of Becker’s work.  I’ll come back to Becker over and over again in posts to come.