The Engineering of Human Desire

April 26, 2011 § 2 Comments

By Tai Carmen

In an earlier post, Invisible Architects, we explored the birth of a fascinating marriage in American consumer culture: psychoanalysis and marketing.

To recap briefly, the original, pre-commercial boom advertisements were simple, innocent. They highlighed practical virtues and were basically very straight forward. There weren’t girls eating hotdogs in bikinis or anything like that, stirring subconscious connections between sex, desire and sandwiches.

Then Edward Bernays entered the scene in the 1920’s. Freud’s nephew, he applied his famous uncle’s ideas about the inner wild beast within man’s psyche (also known as the “Id“) to better hypnotize the public into associating certain products with fulfillment of these inner libidinous impulses. He is now considered the “father of public relations” and a pioneer in the field of advertising. A dubious honor.

Bernays felt quite high and mighty about his role as public perception manipulator, having the view — shared by many in the elite corporate world, then and now — that the masses were a “bewildered herd,” whose riotous urges needed to be channeled in positive directions. For them, this positive direction was consumerism. This way, the masses were docile and the economy boomed.

The hay day of this phase of marketing is epitomized by the now-cheesy typical 1950’s commercial we’ve all come to associate with the era of conformity.

What no marketing guru could predict, was the liberation from social conformity that happened in the cultural renaissance of the 1960s.

The inner wild beast was certainly loose. Suddenly American youth began to reject homogenous mass-produced products. The international political situation became more important. Liberating the individual spirit of each human being became more important. Corporations began to take a serious hit as the hippie culture began to spread like wildfire throughout American consciousness.

A very ancient tribalism began to re-emerge — transcendence through disorientation of the senses. It had been happening since the festivals of Dionysus in ancient Greece, it had been happening among native tribal cultures for centuries, and now the spirit had been taken up by American youth.

These wild impulses could not be channeled into the purchase of a new toaster. The ad companies were flummoxed.

Though the hippie radicals had a moment in the sun, soon enough, what with student demonstration beatings, the assassination of various symbolic “hope figures”, such as JFK and John Lennon, a disillusion began to brew — free spirits wondered if they really could change Washington with a few marches, or the paradigm of the world with a drug-induced vision, etc.

A slow turning away from politics, towards the self, began to take place in response. “Be the change you seek in the world” became the primary mantra of the burgeoning Human Potential Movement. Not a bad thing in itself, if a little sad considering where the movement began — with a greater, more far-reaching hope towards universal peace and love.

All this time the public relations and marketing gurus — inspired by Edward Bernays’ marriage of psychoanalysis with advertising — had been scrabbling to find a market in the changing times. And when the Human Potential Movement hit its stride, advertisers began to see a window.

This new breed of people, the maturing hippies and all those influenced by the philosophy of the 60’s, did have desires which could be met by mass produced products, they were simply more specific, more nuanced, more particular than before.

These people went hiking after all, and hikers need apparel, tools. They played music — musicians needed instruments. They read books, etc.  These were all untapped marketing opportunities, the corporations now realized with the help of a new creation: focus groups.

The corporations learned that the more specific the questions, the more enthusiastic people were in answering them. People simply loved to think about their answers, talk about themselves, etc. And they gave the advertisers exactly what they wanted: the keys to the psychology of the new consumer.

A new marketing system was developed, addressing people’s values. Lifestyle marketing was born. The reasoning went like this: if a new product expressed a particular group’s values, it would be bought by them. And they were right.

These new beings were consumers after all, the ad companies realized, but they no longer wanted anything that would place them within the narrow strata of  American society. Instead they wanted products that would express their individuality, their difference in a conformist world — the very things US corporations had not, until that point, been able to manufacture. But with the advent of focus groups, they developed specific categories of “nonconformist consumer.”

Among others, (like the “outward bound/adventurer” type, to whom they could sell sporting goods) there were the “self-directeds” also known as “self-actualizers” : inner-directed, artsy, socially aware, bookish types who were curious and interested in the world around them, as well as in distancing themselves from conformist society (in short, the very free spirits marketers had given up on.) Advertisers realized that these new creatures would buy products which symbolized or accentuated their identity as “individuals.” Oh, the irony.

“Be anything you want to be” became “buy anything you want to be.” Products became extensions of personal identity and individual expression. The corporations and marketing gurus had adapted.

I know it’s “in” to hate on American corporations, and I want to be clear that I’m actually not jumping on that band wagon, though it may seem I am, because I believe that putting caps on corporate expansion (even while the homogeny is boring and the monopoly is rather terrifying) is a fascist road.

Yes, it’s gross and creepy that a single corporation can secretly own hundreds of seemingly separate business entities, but to governmentally enforce restrictions is to invite a new kind of oppression. I would rather advocate responsibility and awareness — conscious consumerism — within the strata of freedom.

Responsibility in this context means buying local when possible, supporting individually owned businesses, and not allowing media mind-washing machines to convince us that our identity can be bought. Buying a new brand-name technology is not revolutionary. Thinking for yourself is.

*For more detailed information on this subject, watch The Century of Self documentary series. 

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The Eternal Return

April 17, 2011 § 6 Comments

By Tai Carmen

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.  Ecclesiastes 1:9

I dwell in sacred time, which flows in a circle. Not historical time, which runs in a line. T. A. BarronThe Lost Years of Merlin

The idea of the eternal return is not limited to Biblical platitude. The concept can also be found in ancient EgyptianMayan and Aztec beliefs, in East Indian and ancient Greek philosophy, as well as the 19th century thought experiment of Friedrich Nietzsche.

The concept of the eternal return posits that the universe has been recurring, and will continue to recur, in a self-similar form, an infinite number of times across infinite time and/or infinite space.

The image of the Ouroboros, the snake devouring its own tail, symbolizes the eternal recurrence, or “the end is the beginning.” It has been seen in various expressions through out ancient Egypt, Japan, India, and Greece — in European woodcuts and Aztec art.

Stephen Hawking affirms the possibility of the  “arrow of time”,  a concept that the universe proceeds up to a certain point, after which it undergoes a time reversal.

Respected religious scholar, Mircea Eliade, expands on the concept in his book, Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return, first by splitting man’s experience into two categories: the sacred and the profane, or everyday.

In his studies of tribal belief systems around the world, Mircea concludes that traditional or “archaic” man associates “the sacred” with some original mythology of creation. He sites the Aborigines concept of “dreamtime” as one example. In the Aborigine legend of “the time before time” creators, who exist in a world outside of time, created the world within time, and then become rocks, trees, stars, etc. in the world. In this way, Mircea observes, the profane only gains meaning through the sacred.

Nietzsche uses the idea of the eternal return as a thought experiment to explore his concept of Amor fati, or “love of fate.” Imagining such an existence horrifying, he rallies with the cry of embracing what is:

“I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful.”

Art and Human Consciousness: Transcending Postmodern Doubt

April 10, 2011 § 5 Comments

By Tai Carmen


Art sings from the axis of truth to wake us up to who we are and where we are going.  — Alex Grey, The Mission of Art

Since the first prelinguistic human put rudimentary paint to rough cave wall, the human race has sought to bring its inner visions into the world through form, sound and story.

These early depictions focus mostly on animals, or on human-animal interaction, perhaps having some kind of magical pre-hunt ceremonial meaning.

The next trend we see in ancient art (Egypt, Mesopotamia) is the portrayal of mythic power beings, often a merger of human-animal traits into superpowerful hybrids, perhaps an attempt of man to internalize the power he sees in animals.

As his consciousness evolves, man begins to wonder why.

To answer questions about origin and meaning, to instill a sense of control and some kind of system, the gods are born. Unless, of course, they really existed (ancient alien theory, anyone?). The most simple explanation of course is mythological — that man was symbolically growing wings, imagining himself greater than his past, stretching his imagination.

Next, the Ancient Greek interest in human form and aesthetic balance emerges.

In The Mission of Art, Alex Grey writes: “The new vision of Greco-Roman art began to shift away from the fusion of human-animal deities and focus more on ideal and naturalistic human forms. Naturalism corresponded more with the ascending world-view of rational investigation and description of nature (including human anatomy) which was the beginning of organized scientific medical inquiry.”

By the Renaissance, we see many self-portraits; in correspondence with humanity’s birthing self-awareness.

“As the ninteenth and twentieth century human psyche matured into the analytical rationalism of objective science,” Alex Grey notes, “the moderns turned their attention to analyzing the formal characteristics of painting and sculpture itself  [. . . ] The search for unique and personal approaches led artists to increasingly clever explorations of abstract, surreal, and nonobjective [art.]”

Each “ism” signified original insights and inventions of the artists: impressionism (small but perceptible brushstrokes, realistic representation of light, usually indicating movement or passage of time, simplified form). . .

fauvism (French for “wild beasts”, strong color, simplified subject, mood over realistic representation) . . .

expressionism (the world represented in an utterly subjective manner, radical distortion of reality for emotional effect) . . .

. . . cubism (objects are broken up, analyzed, and re-assembled in an abstracted form—instead of depicting objects from one viewpoint, the artist depicts the subject from a multitude of viewpoints to represent the subject in a greater context). . .

. . .  futurism (violent rejection of classism) . . .

. . . dadaism (ridicules the so-called meaninglessness of the modern world through the use of the absurd, precursor to surrealism)  . . .

. . . constructivism (practical art, stripped of emotion, mechanized). . .

. . . surrealism (dreamlike juxtaposition, visual surprise) . . .

. . . abstract expressionism (anti-figurative aesthetic, emotionally intense, rebellion with nihilistic tinges). . .

. . . pop art (images from popular culture, ironic use of kitschy and/or banal found objects). . .

. . . minimalism (work stripped down to most fundamental features) . . .

. . . conceptualism (concept over aesthetic).

As you can see in this brief visual history of modern art, we’ve deconstructed ourselves to bits. Alex Grey details, “Today’s culture of high rationality has been dubbed post-modern, because we have deconstructed reason and language itself, finding that there are always multiple points of view on any subject.

“Any attempt to comprehend a ‘whole’ or ‘higher’ truth must take the cacophony of indivduals, each with his or her own opinion, his or her own “truth,” into account.

“Postmodern doubt has replaced the confident trajectory of invention and progress which characterized modernism.”

In light of our recent artistic past, it seems the current cultural situation calls for today’s artists to transcend the fractured vision of postmodernist deconstruction and find a new connectivity, a new vision, which does not so much rely on reaction to the past, as mining for deeper truths within the collective human psyche.

It is the first vision that counts. Artists have only to remain true to their dream and it will possess their work in such a manner that it will resemble the work of no other artist — for no two visions are alike,  and those who reach the heights have all toiled up the steep mountains by a different route. To each has been revealed a different panorama. — Albert Pinkham Ryder


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