My Life as Teacher, Writer, and Artist: Part 2: Teaching

If you read my last post you got some general idea of my life trajectory in broad terms. In this post I want to pay special attention to how and why I became a college instructor with a couple of side trips on scholarship and the philosophy of teaching. Many of my colleagues teaching at the college level get their first taste of teaching in high school. Not me. I never intended to teach in high school. Something about high school teaching appealed to me, but I wasn’t interested in going to university in the Education faculty for a year of professional development which would have allowed me to teach in BC high schools. So, what was my alternative? It was going straight from university into college teaching. University faculty don’t need professional development, or so they have insisted for decades. Theoretically, aspiring university teachers learn the teaching craft by watching and emulating their professors. I always though that was a bit strange because of the variability of skill exhibited by faculty. Still, working as a teaching assistant was a form of preparation for eventually taking over the big job. Frankly though, I got a job teaching on a sessional basis at Douglas College as I entered graduate school so I had no real previous experience teaching or managing a classroom. I learned by doing what my colleagues were doing but I also learned from books, lots of them. I questioned everything about teaching, including the setting, the materials, the psychological, sociological, political, and economic assumptions, the goals and the means.

As a student of the social sciences I was already prepped for a critical stance with regard to what I was doing. The time was the mid to late 1970s. I graduated with a B.A. in 1975 and went on to study for my Master’s degree in 1976 after I was recruited by the Sociology and Anthropology Department at SFU to be a teaching assistant. We needed the money, so it was a no-brainer. I was definitely cocky enough to believe that I could pull it off and I think I was pretty good at it. Academia suited me to a T. At the same time, most of the colleges in BC were either in their infancy or about to be built. Most of them were begging for teaching staff. One of my former teachers at Douglas College asked me if I would consider teaching there. I only had a B.A. but was in a grad program and that was enough for them. I started then on a 5 year stint as a sessional faculty member at SFU, Douglas College and eventually Kwantlen College before moving to the Comox Valley in 1983 to teach at North Island College (NIC), although at NIC we were called tutors and not instructors. The college started as a distance education organization which worked closely with Athabasca University to provide university-level courses to people in the northern half of Vancouver Island. Eventually it morphed into a regular college and by 1992 had pretty much made to transformation completely. I worked at NIC until 2012, the year I retired. Now, reading back on the words I have just written I can assure you that I’ve only provided you with some of the backbone events and circumstances that make up my story as a teacher. The reality is much more nuanced and complex. Teaching is all about human relations and love. Yes, love*.

Going to university as an undergraduate was a fairly new thing for someone of my class background. SFU, and the newly named University of Victoria, were a new kind of university set up to train a much needed workforce in a new world of work that demanded a higher education than ever before. The BC college system came into existence around the same time and for the same reasons.

Social roots and standard teen silliness

Coming from a basically working class family with hints of an agrarian past, I had no expectations of going to university. Initially I worked in lumber mills and at odd jobs here and there, jobs that were easy to come by at the time. I was not a particularly stellar kid and for a time hung around my brother-in-law’s used car lots. I tried selling used cars but I just didn’t have it in me. I was wracked with indecision, bounced around from job to job, smoked and drank way too much. I was like a lot of my peers. Because we’re raised to think of ourselves as quintessentially individual, I though the world revolved around my belly button and had no idea about what anyone else was doing, nor did I care. Eventually, as I got older and worked my way slowly, painfully, and hesitatingly out of my teens and into my twenties, my interests changed as did my attitude and behaviour. I got involved with a French-Canadian organization and found in that group a mentor, Roméo Paquette, who helped me understand my potential and encouraged me to get more involved. I had a lot to learn if I was going to go to university and much of my interest started with my French-Canadian connections. At that time I also struggled with by Catholic upbringing. It wasn’t easy. For some time I had ceased to believe in the teachings of the Church and I had an increasingly clearer and clearer appreciation of evolutionary theory. Church teachings just didn’t make sense to me any longer especially in the light of science. Still, I loved my parents and I knew that my newfound perspective on the world was something they could not understand or accept. It’s strange in a way. My parents were very proud of me and my academic career yet they were never able to relate to my life in the least. Their faith in the Church was what sustained them and they could not understand anyone abandoning that faith. They prayed for me. For me, a break from Catholicism was inevitable. I haven’t looked back since.

Back to 1971

I spent 18 months at Douglas College as a student, then transferred to SFU in 1973, the year we got married. By 1976 I had gotten a BA. Carolyn and I decided it would be fun to travel a bit and we did. We packed up our car and a travel trailer, stayed with my sister in 100 Mile House for a bit, found out Carolyn was pregnant, then moved on to Edmonton easily finding jobs. Our intention had been to make it to Ottawa so I might find work, but our plans changed with the pregnancy and we moved back home to BC. I happened to go to SFU upon my return and was offered a job as a teaching assistant. That clinched it for me. As I started work as a teaching assistant the faculty just assumed that I would enter grad school there so I did. I studied at SFU until 1980, got my MA and decided to apply to the grad program at the University of BC. I studied at UBC for a couple of years on a PhD, but couldn’t keep it up because I needed to work and help raise a family. Still, that was my introduction to teaching. I sort of fell into it. I readily took to teaching. I loved it. In 1983 I got a job at NIC as I already noted. That job lasted 29 years.

Scholarship

Of course, teaching was only a part of what I was up to at the time. I did graduate work and settled on a dissertation about Harold Adams Innis’ work. Innis was a well-known but entirely misunderstood scholar teaching at the University of Toronto until his untimely death in 1952. My dissertation was an attempt to set the record straight on Innis. I don’t think it had much of an impart on scholarship but it got me my M.A. Working in my dissertation I had to deal with my previous studies of Marx, Durkheim, Weber, etc., but a new scholar entered my life at that time. I discovered him through Innis. His name is Thorstein Veblen. He was born who knows when but he definitely died in 1929. His work blew me away and laid the groundwork for much of my later research. His influence on me was closely followed by Ernest Becker and a panoply of scholars associated with his work including Marx, Freud, Rank and many others. The archives of this blog are filled with references to their work.  Later, I read Norbert Elias and was immediately struck by the lucidity and strength of his analysis about the relationship of the individual to society. For Elias we are interdependencies and interweavings and it’s barely logical to speak of individuals unless the immediate qualification is that we are essentially social.  All of that time, I also read voraciously authors like the French social historian Fernand Braudel, the economists David Ricardo, Adam Smith, iconoclastic psychiatrists like R.D. Laing and Thomas Szasz. I’ve never stopped reading. I must say, though, that there has been a consistent thread running through my reading and that’s been the rise and fall of empires and the globalization of capital. My library at home is replete with books on the nation-state, revolution, European history, ideology, and capitalist expansion.

Of course, if you took a tour of my library you’d figure out quickly enough that the above hardly scratches the surface. The scholars I mention above are but the high points on my literary landscape. The meadows and valleys are filled with books on Canadian history, religion, philosophy, language (semiotics and pragmatics), sexuality, ethnography, evolution, biology, psychoanalysis, and art. Now, my attention has also turned to YouTube and other digital formats. Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University, a neuroscientist, has a series of lectures on YouTube that are brilliant to say the least. To a non-expert, they explain clearly the social class basis of stress not only in olive baboons on the African savannah, but also in Whitehall, the seat of British government bureaucracy.

The above is not a trip through my intellectual story, but it does provide a scaffolding for more interesting backstory commentary. Neither is this a place for a wander through my intellectual trajectory. I suppose I have to get down and write that sometime for me, if anything. The archives here contain a lot of insight into my worldview, but it’s not condensed and focussed. That condensation and focus really defines a retrospective for me. I can do that. What I hope you will get from this is some appreciation of the time and effort it takes to put together the worldview I have. It’s unique and idiosyncratic. You could never duplicate it. Parts of it are accessible to all, but not the whole thing. There are just too many elements to it, too many connecting strands that I alone have experienced. That makes it infernally difficult to share. I will try.

 

*Love is a word that begs definition. Maybe in a future blog post.

 

Why do some people refer to sex as dirty?

By sex in the title here, I mean sexual intercourse and sexually related activities. I never could understand the reference. It seemed (and still seems) ridiculous to me. I understand it now, but that doesn’t make it any easier to accept because it’s a metaphor that is deeply demeaning to women of course, but frankly, to all of us. The reference could make sense if it aimed at describing sex in a mud bath, but that’s never the intention, of course.

You all know this. It’s no secret. Men are never referred to as ‘dirty sluts.’ It just doesn’t happen. However, women are  routinely called dirty sluts, particularly by the porn industry, but also by some segments of the population with very categorical views of when, where, and with whom it’s okay to express one’s sexuality.

More basically, I heard with my very own ears parents chastising their children for having their hands ‘down there.’ “That’s dirty, don’t do that!” I’m hoping that it doesn’t happen with younger parents these days but I somehow doubt it. There are people on this planet who are pathetically if not pathologically ignorant, so nothing should surprise us. Moreover, cultural references are pretty pervasive and consistent in linking our ‘private parts’ with dirt. The word pudenda, the plural of pudendum, refers to “a person’s external genitals, especially a woman’s,” that according to the very reliable Google dictionary. Pudendum literally means: “thing to be ashamed of,” according to the same reliable dictionary. So, not only are genitalia dirty, they’re also something to be ashamed of. Now, even as a long time social researcher and somewhat cynical sociologist, I still find this reference to genitalia and sex, especially with reference to women as entirely perverse.

On another tangent, but still on the language train, if I want to refer to someone as not being entirely nice, I may call that person an ‘asshole.’ There we go again. It’s no surprise too that our swear words are pretty much entirely focussed on our genitalia and on sex. In French, swearing also involves the genitalia and such, but in Québec, you’re also liable to hear swear words referencing the Catholic Church and items used during the mass.

Since who knows for how long we’ve been alienated from ourselves. We refer to ‘my’ body. What is the ‘my’ that owns a body? We should’t be surprised, though, because that’s language and our language reflects our morality and our preoccupations and we are silently, unconsciously, subconsciously, and daily reminded of death. Language is entirely metaphorical so we express our fear of death not in direct terms, but obliquely, using metaphor. [By the way, if you want a good read: Talking Power: The Politics of Language, by Robin Tolmach Lakoff, Basic Books, 1990). It’s all about metaphor and politics. She’s got a great chapter in there on women and language.]

Alright, I’ll grant you that excrement is not far from being dirt and if mommy doesn’t want you playing ‘down there’ it could be partly because she doesn’t want you spreading shit all over the place. But that’s not the whole story, nowhere near. Excrement has much more meaning for us than that. Norman O. Brown notes in Life Against Death (p.295):

Excrement is the dead life of the body, and as long as humanity prefers a dead life to living, so long is humanity committed to treating as excrement not only its own body but the surrounding world of objects, reducing all to dead matter and inorganic magnitudes. Our much prized “objectivity” toward our own bodies, other persons, and the universe, all our calculating “rationality,” is, from the psychoanalytical point of view, an ambivalent mixture of love and hate, an attitude appropriate only toward excrement, and appropriate to excrement only in an animal that has lost his own body and life.

What does Brown mean when he writes that we are “an animal that has lost his own body and life.” ‘His’ in this sentence refers to humankind, all of us. In some ways I find it strange that Brown uses ‘man’ to include women and ‘his’ whenever a general possessive pronoun is on his mind. However, Brown is right. Taking a shit is a daily, unconscious, subconscious, reminder of our death and that’s distinctly unpleasant. If we thought about it consciously, we would be traumatized. So we use all kinds of metaphors to try to forget all about death or we joke about it. Few are the people who have come to grips with death and live a full life in their bodies, as their bodies, taking pleasure in them and accepting their aging and their annoying aches and pains. These are people who don’t yearn for a life beyond this life, because for them, that just doesn’t exist.

Just one more thing: What the fuck does ‘taking a shit’ mean? Of course we know what it means, but what can we make of it literally? I really don’t know. However, I’d rather leave a shit than take one, thanks. Enough silliness for one day. More later.

 

 

Why do we so often refer to sex as dirty?

My next post was supposed to be about morality and that will be the subject of a number of future posts, but I was listening to the CBC this morning and the guest host of the morning program was interviewing a comedian and talking about his upcoming show. That tweaked my interest as I sipped my coffee. The host asked the comedian if his show was going to be clean. The comedian responded that for the most part it would be but that it would also be dirty at times. Well, I just had to weigh in. Morality will just have to wait a bit.

By dirty I know, and you know, that the host and the comedian were referring to the use of  swear words like fuck and shit and piss in his routine. He was not, however, going to make specific reference to the sex act and have some fun with that. That would be too raunchy. After all, you’ve got to keep it safe for a regular audience or they won’t come back to see you again. Swearing, it seems, is fair game. It’s okay to make fun of your wife or yourself in a comedy routine, but it’s not okay to talk explicitly about what went wrong or right the last time you had sex. That will be okay in the not-too-distant future, I expect.

It’s quite telling that in English swearing is almost exclusively sex based or has to do with genitalia or bodily functions of one sort or the other. In French Canada, swearing is entirely different, or at least it was when I was a kid. In French swearing relates to religious things although it can stray into combining sex or bodily functions with objects or persons of religions significance. For instance, a great swearing line in French refers to the ‘holy cream of an old nun.’ It’s probably changing now to a more ‘cleanly’ sex-based expression. Tell me if you know. I’m not up on Québecois swearing behaviour these days. In English, of course, fuck is the word or choice in a number of expressions not at all related to sex, but the word clearly relates to coitus or the sex act. For instance we might exclaim upon seeing a cute cat video: “Wasn’t that just the cutest fucking thing you’ve ever seen?” Or, listen to George Carlin classify people into three categories. He says that there are stupid people, people who don’t give a shit and people who are just fucking nuts!

So, what about this sex is dirty thing? Well, Ernest Becker (in his many books, but especially The Denial of Death and Escape From Evil, concludes that it all goes back to our fear or terror of death,* which also has a lot to say about how women are so often poorly treated in our world and in times past.  So what does considering sex as dirty have to do with our fear of death and the way women are so often (mis)treated?

It’s a bit of a truism to say that we all live and die. Yes, we do, but we don’t necessarily like the dying part so we concoct all sorts of cultural mechanisms to help us deny  that fact. One way we do that is to separate ourselves linguistically from other animal species by referring to ourselves as ‘human’ and to those other things as ‘animals.’ Of course, we are animals and it’s hard to deny that because we’re obviously not plants or rocks, but that doesn’t matter. We deny anyway. That kind of attitude allows us to treat animals in all kinds of nasty ways, because, well, they aren’t human and God did say that he put them here on earth for us to have dominion over. We are spiritual beings, animals aren’t. Enough said.

More significantly however we also take great care to separate ourselves into male and female classes. Yes, I say classes because that’s what’s happening. Just as we consider ourselves spiritual beings and animals as spiritless, we have also contrived historically to consider men as spiritual beings and women as physical beings. In many parts of the world in every time in history women have been considered a lesser species than men.

There’s a simple, yet devastating reason for this. Women remind men at every turn that they are mortal. Women exude blood on a regular basis. Babies are born between shit and piss in an orgy of blood. You lose blood, you die. Men have gone to extraordinary lengths to deny their physicality, their animality, and emphasize their spirituality to the detriment of women. Men in some cultures wear anal plugs to show that they don’t need to shit. They are above that. Menstruating women are often shunned for fear that they might contaminate something or other. Men denigrate women at every turn. Not all men, of course, but our culture and many in the past have built massive institutions that denigrate women. The pornography ‘industry’ is a good example of that. It’s popularity attests to how important sex is to us, but how important it also is to objectify women and treat them as sexual objects and as not quite human. Generally speaking, women are way more important to men for their genitals than for their brains. Hillary Clinton is facing this fact right now in the U.S. Many men just can’t see the president of the United States being fucked. Tell me it ain’t so.

Sin, in Christian, Muslim and Judaic mythology often refers to succumbing to the temptations of the flesh, female flesh that is. The flesh is the territory of the devil. If you want to live forever  in the light of God then stay clear of unauthorized sexual pleasure. “Unauthorized’ here is a critical element in the preceding sentence. Although constantly being revised and rethought, when and how sex gets authorized and becomes okay is strictly defined in cultural precepts. That’s fodder for another blog post.

Oh, we take sex very seriously in our culture, in our time, but we have very contradictory ideas about it. Yes, the sex act is fun and all that, but it also brings us clearly into the physical world and that’s a dangerous place to be if you want to be immortal.

In my next post, I’ll consider how sex and our animality fit into our broader moral world.
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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.

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 17: Money: The New Universal Immortality Ideology

Escape 17: Money: The New Universal Immortality Ideology

That’s the title of Chapter 6 of Escape from Evil.  We all take money for granted, it’s such a common feature of our lives.  It’s funny how we think about money.  Technically, money is a social relationship.  It doesn’t refer to the stuff we carry around in our wallets.  Coins are technically called specie and the folding plastic (used to be paper) things are banknotes.  They are actually the physical representation of money.  So they’re kind of like a metaphor.  Chapter 6 is Norman O. Brown’s chapter.  Otto Rank and Brown share a unifying principle in their work, the universal urge to immortality.  It underlies everything they write about.

In a pre-scientific world a person could get some kind of immortality by leaving behind children.  That’s not entirely satisfactory because for men it’s never certain that your children are really your own.  In this circumstance it’s not a bad idea to have a back-up plan.  How about leaving something else behind that reminds the living of how great a person you were?  How about things, physical things, things you know are yours.  Surround yourself with things and maybe you have a little insulation against insignificance.  Leave many wondrous things and maybe you gain a little immortality.  Yes, indeed, have your name placed on buildings…that will not thwart the grim reaper but it will be a lasting symbolic reminder of your life on this planet.  That’s about all we can expect.  It’s not much, but for an animal like ourselves we need to reach out and grab any bit of hope we can.

Money it seems is a great way to get yourself a little sense of immortality.  If you can, have a likeness of your face stamped into gold coins.  Yeah, that ought to work.  Money is a new magic object.  As Becker writes: “Money is the new ‘totemic’ possession.” (p. 75) Money soon became the new ritual focus.  The old rituals were just not doing it anymore.  Time to move on.  Money was the perfect replacement for the old rituals.  Becker quotes Mary Douglas from her book Purity and Danger:

Money provides a fixed, external, recognizable sigh for what would be confused, contradictable operations: ritual makes visible external signs of internal states. Money mediates transactions; ritual mediates experience, including social experience.  Money provides a standard for measuring worth; ritual standardizes situations, and so helps to evaluate them.  Money makes a link between the present and the future, so does ritual.  The more we reflect on the richness of the metaphor, the more it becomes clear that this is no metaphor.  Money is only an extreme and specialized type of ritual.

 Money, in fact, is religious.  It has become the new immortality ideology.  It provides life like no other ritual could.  The more of it you have, the more mobility you have, the more liberty you have, the more assurance you have of your value to others.  Life is mobility, death is immobility.  From this perspective the poor are the walking dead.  It’s not surprising that zombie movies are so popular these days and that zombie characters are often made up to look like ‘street’ people.  Money gives life, it is life.  There is no other way to put it.  I take exception to some extent to Becker’s analysis here.  If as Marx points out money is the average commodity then ‘commodity’ is the god here and not money.  Or to put it another way, the market is the thing.  Money is a representation of the relations of the market.  The market is the venue par excellence of exchange, gift giving and receiving.  It’s why we feel so good on a shopping spree and down when we are short of cash.  We are feeling a little connection to the gods. It sucks to be poor.  No connecting to the gods for you!

I’m not going to go into a lot of the content of chapter 6.  It’s a lot about how money came to have such power a long time ago, how it came to have supernatural power.

A little money goes a long way, but a lot of money goes a lot further:

And so we see how it was that money came to buy many things: if it was magic, people would give anything to have it.  As Géza Róheim put it in a very happy formulation, “originally people do not desire money because you can buy things for it, but you can buy things for money because people desire it.”

That’s a bit convoluted as a way to state it, but it’s clear that the evolution of money into want it is today was fairly slow.  Now, banks have replaced churches and cathedrals as the favoured display of immortality.  How many new cathedrals have you seen built lately?  How many bank towers?

Ah, money.  The best thing about it is that it can be accumulated and passed on.  In our time, we’ve made this into a sacred duty.  We sin if we don’t save.  We get chastised by the finance minister for not saving while out of the other side of his mouth he is urging us to spend otherwise we’ll find ourselves in a depression…which reminds us way too much of failure, immobility and death.  Spending means life and prosperity, even if we accumulate guilt as we borrow our way to communing with the gods.  When the bills come in after Christmas, then what?  But still, we believe in it.  We trust it.  It can be good to us, at least some of us.  Best of all,

…[money] radiates its power even after one’s death, giving one a semblance of immortality as he lives in the vicarious enjoyment of his heirs that his money continues to buy, or in the statues of himself and the majesty of his own mausoleum.  In short, money is the human mode, par excellence of cooly denying animal boundness, the determinism of nature.

 Enough for now.  I’ll finish up dealing with Chapter 6 of EFE tomorrow as Becker addresses what he calls The Demonics of History.

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.