The price of a humanity that actually grows and changes is death.
— Read on www.newstatesman.com/culture/books/2018/04/how-dying-offers-us-chance-live-fullest-life
Interesting New Statesman article on a topic dear to my heart.
The price of a humanity that actually grows and changes is death.
— Read on www.newstatesman.com/culture/books/2018/04/how-dying-offers-us-chance-live-fullest-life
Interesting New Statesman article on a topic dear to my heart.
Or, they ‘commune with the devil’, i.e., have sex with him. That’s not much better.
For men who dream of immortality, women, who are so clearly associated with Eros, with the pleasure principle (as psychoanalysis would have it) are a clear and present danger. God is always associated with light, the devil with darkness. It’s a sad state of affairs that men, as long as they’ve been men and not ‘merely’ animals, have felt that women are a major source of their downfall. In fact, Aristotle and many others considered that the ‘vital’ factor in making children rested solely with the male. Women were simply the receptacle for the fully formed life in the sperm. The sperm was where it was at. Aristotle never considered the fact that women might have eggs, embryos that are at least half of the picture in fertilization and mitosis. We can forgive people in the past for not understanding how babies come about but it’s still a mystery for some people apparently.
And procreation is all mixed up with pleasure and sexual desire. Sex is not just about making babies even if the Abrahamic religions denied the notion that orgasm or pleasure were anything more than a distraction from the main goal of sex. Pleasure in sex was always bad, evil, because it drew attention away from the ultimate goal of humankind in bartering with God for access to eternal life. Symbolically, God is spirit, the Devil is body, earth, dirt. Spirit leads to eternal life, the Devil leads to death, eternal death. Our bodies are our own worst enemies. Women just add a double jeopardy to the situation. The equation of women with the devil is clearly derivative of the kind of logic behind original sin, a logic that has prevented equality between men and women for as long as we know.
Historically, artists have not shied away from depictions of women consorting with the devil or as the devil themselves. Look at this image. It’s from a book called On Ugliness edited by Umberto Eco (Rizzoli, 2007).
It’s on page 190 in a section called The Demonization of the Enemy. The image is from Thomas Murner and is entitled: The pastors of the Lutheran Church make a pact with a buffoon or a madman and the devil. (in Von der Grossen Lutherischen Narren, 1522). Now, that’s pretty weird in itself, but the image contains one representation that is of specific interest to me here. Look at the picture of the devil. Do you see what I see? Breasts and a vulva?
It’s pretty hard for me to escape the idea that Murner had it in his mind that the devil is a woman, dragging men into sins of the flesh by her vile seductions. Poor men! How can we resist the temptation? Well, we can’t. Why? Because we’re animals. No matter how stridently we try to deny it, we are animals and we have all the animal urges needed for a sexually reproducing species, urges that can be diverted to aims of pure pleasure in any number of ways. Simple. Well, not so simple for a species that wants to live eternally. We see or know of animals dying all the time, hit by cars, in slaughterhouses, on farms. That couldn’t possibly be our fate. So denying our animal nature is, well, kind of natural for a big brained animal like us. To gain access to heaven we need to deny our animal nature.
According to Murner (and he has a lot of company), women are the source of the fall of man. Original sin was perpetrated by a woman when she convinced poor Adam to eat forbidden fruit. Seductress! Devil woman who leads man into sin, into death, the death of all living things! The only way ‘man’ can convince himself that he deserves eternal life is by denying earthly existence and by putting all his energy into cultural forms of death-denial often in the form of institutions that depict nature as dangerous and deadly to be dominated and tamed at all costs. Include women in the definition of nature in the previous sentence and you have the perfect recipe for misogyny.
The photo below also from Eco’s book reproduces a painting by Franz von Stuck. It’s called Sin and was painted in 1893. The painting is of a young woman wrapped in a huge snake, an obvious reference to Satan, the same one who was the culprit in all the nastiness that went down with Adam and Eve. So, in one stroke, von Stuck clearly associates women with the devil. The snake is a most consistent symbol for the penis in all of human history. So, Von Stuck, the consummate misogynist suggests that this woman may very well be having sex with the devil. So bad! So evil!
Well, it’s all fine and dandy, but in my world, the devil doesn’t exist, making it difficult for women to have sex with him. That didn’t stop The Doors from putting out a song called Woman is a Devil or Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels from releasing a song called Devil with a Blue Dress On.
That said, there’s no way I could even begin to scratch the surface of historical and modern depictions, in the visual arts, literature, poetry, and other cultural forms, of women as devils, as evil temptresses, out to seduce us poor men thereby denying us a life of eternal bliss in heaven with God.
More to come. Stay tuned. Why aren’t men and women equal?
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 27: The Shape of Social Theory
So, I know the title of this post lacks a certain excitement, but it’s the title of the last section of Chapter 9 in EFE and I’m not feeling particularly creative today, especially not given the topic here. I mean, talk of social theory is not likely to contribute a lot of effervescence to a bar conversation, but I suppose if the bar is on a university campus it just might. Things can get very serious in campus bars.
Becker takes the position that social theory is, or at least can be, scientific, although he has a particular goal for it. He writes:
There is nothing in human nature that dooms in advance the most thoroughgoing social changes and utopian ambitions…A science of man in society is possible even while admitting the most destructive motives of men, precisely because these motives become open and amenable to clear analysis, to a tracing out of their total structure in the full field of human affairs as those affairs reflect the torments of man’s inner life, his existential paradoxes.
Social theory, then, is neither radical nor conservative, but scientific; and we should begin to get scientific agreements on its basic image of man and society.
Becker just after making this statement suggests that it’s possible to design “nondestructive yet victorious types of social systems.”
A social ideal could be designed that takes into account man’s basest motives, but now an ideal not directly negated by those motives. In other words, a hate object need not be any special class or race, not even a human enemy, but could be things that take impersonal forms, like poverty, disease, oppression, natural disasters, etc. Or if we know that evil takes human form in oppressors and hangmen, then we could at least try to make our hatreds of men intelligent and informed: we could work against the enemies of freedom, those who thrive on slavery, on the gullibilities and weaknesses of their fellow man, as Burke so eloquently argued.
This is hard to take if you’re an evolutionary biologist or human ethologist. Becker in his last two books paints a very unflattering picture of humankind, as a species whose every member harbours hatred towards ‘others’ despite the Christian provocation that we should love our enemies. We DO love our enemies because without them how would we know if our way to immortality is the real way, the way that is assured by victory in battle? We just don’t want to hug them unless it’s in a death embrace. So how can Becker now invite us to create a world in which we all become nice? What possible mechanism could he point to that could bring this world about? Thorstein Veblen, in his great book, The Place of Science in Modern Civilization, argues that science is the search for truth, with the emphasis on search. Science is, first and foremost, a search for the truth but with the underlying assumption that the truth will never be completely found. Oh, we may uncover bits and pieces of it now and again, here and there, but truth must always be considered tentative. I’m with Veblen on this one. Becker wants us to find a certain truth and act on it. Well, he denies it and waffles a lot, but in the end he wants us to change from bloodthirsty immortality seekers to benign or ardent fighters for justice. Let’s see where he takes us in the last 20 odd pages of his book…but we’ll leave that for tomorrow.
Escape 26: It’s all about you and me. Yes, it’s personal, but the personal is the social.
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 24: So, where do we go from here?
At the end of Chapter 8 Becker has a short section on transference. Freud wrote a book on transference, a phenomenon he observed in clinical practice where a patient would transfer to his doctor feelings she once had towards her parents. Patients were quick to abandon their egos to the new power figure in their lives. Others, among them Adler, Rank, Jung and Fromm extended Freud’s observations. It’s because of them, Becker argues that “today we can say that transference is a reflex of the fatality of the human condition. Transference to a powerful other takes care of the overwhelmingness of the universe.” (p.127). Transference is an incredibly powerful impulse. How is it that “men were so sheeplike when they functioned in groups – how they abandoned their egos to the leader, identified with his powers just as they did once before when as dependent children they yielded to their parents.” (p.127)
Years ago I taught courses on studying skills on the Knowledge Network. As part of a course called Advanced Study Skills I talked about self-esteem and the need for self-esteem. Well it seems that one of my esteemed colleagues, an administrator at the college he was, took exception to the idea of self-esteem. He actually wrote a paper called Self-Esteem: The Scourge of the Twentieth Century. In simple terms his argument is that any self-love detracts from the love of God. A Christian, (but he could have subscribed to any number of immortality-ideologies and come up with the same conclusion) he argues in his paper must invest his whole being in his love of God. The only being deserving of esteem is God. I think that this is a classic example of extreme transference. Of course, his logic is impeccable if you buy into his basic premise, which is that the body, the ego, the self, are the carriers of death and the only way to eternal life is by a complete abandonment to God, the ultimate symbol of the other side of life, the spiritual side, the one that doesn’t die.
Becker turns to transference in the last two chapters of EFE. He wrote a whole chapter on transference in The Denial of Death. In EFE his consideration is: where do we go from here? How can science deal with the fact that people are so willingly dominated by leaders who promise them health, prosperity and immortality, and the defeat of death?
My daughter, an evolutionary biologist, has always impressed me with her dedication to science and what Veblen called the search for truth. For her and scientists generally, science does nothing but create models of how the world works. Obviously ‘the world’ here refers to the physical world, the world amenable to our senses. In practice, our senses can be extended by telescopes, microscopes and a myriad of other technologies. We can ‘see’ into cells, DNA, galaxies and universes and create models for how they ‘work’. We can also ‘see’ into the behaviour or plants and animals. We can create models of how ‘things’ interact with each other and are interdependent.
I think that social scientists can also create models for how the world works. It gets more complicated when ‘looking at people (to use a visual metaphor) because we are people too and we are involved in our social worlds. It’s difficult to get enough detachment from the social world to study it ‘objectively.’ Becker advocated the scientific approach, but for him science had to contribute to making the world a better place. Many social scientists make the same assumption. So where do we go from here? Well, in the next chapter Becker takes on social theory, particularly Freud and Marx. As scientists, he argues that we have to “conceive of the possibility of a nondestructive yet victorious social system.” (p.126) He writes (and I end on this):
One of the reasons social scientists have been slow in getting around to such designs has been the lack of an adequate and agreed general theory of human nature…right now it is important to direct the reader to the quest for an agreed upon general theory of human nature to exactly what cripples the autonomy of the individual.