May 17, 2016 § 20 Comments
“The difference between technology and slavery is that slaves are fully aware that they are not free.”
“Technology is a queer thing. It brings you gifts with one hand, and stabs you in the back with the other.”
Are smartphones making us stupid? They have certainly made us their slaves. Social media addiction is on the rise—compulsive internet checking has become the norm.
It’s crept up on us. It’s been less than a decade since smartphones were introduced to the main arteries of culture, and now it is flooding our collective bloodstream like a drug. The idea of opting out—unplugging permanently—no longer seems like a viable option for most people. But even as we willingly engage our pint-sized prison, we are increasingly, uncomfortably aware of its bars.
Sure, it’s great to be able to stay in touch with friends, have mobile up-to-the-minute map access, the ability to document digitally and look a fact up on the spot! But the sword cuts both ways.
We are also far less likely to experience a grounded sense of being present in the moment when, the second there is some space or silence, we have the option & impulse to check our email, text inbox, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. It’s become like a tic for most people. We no longer have to face ourselves or others in those in-between-moments, we can just dive into our phones.
75% of people between 18 & 25 respond “yes” to the question “when nothing else is occupying my attention, the first thing I do is reach for my phone.” (Time.com.)
According to a new study from Microsoft Corp., people now generally lose concentration after eight seconds, one second less than the attention span of the notoriously ill-focused goldfish.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard (and uttered) the phrase, “I just haven’t been able to get into any good books lately” in the last year.
A recent study, 45% of people tested said they feel “worried or uncomfortable” when email and Facebook are inaccessible.
While 60 % stated “they felt the need to switch off” their phones and computers to secure a full-fledged break from technology.
“In other words, it’s not being on social networks that makes people anxious. It’s being away from them.” (Huffington Post.)
Charlie Brooker’s British television series “Black Mirror” (which I recommend watching, though it’s not for the faint of heart) sums up the situation expertly in the second episode: the opening scene depicts its lead character waking up in a room surrounded by wall-to-wall digital screens.
Instantly bombarded with advertisements, he proceeds to shuffle glumly through his morning routines. One’s first response is invariably: “Oh! How awful! What a way to live!” Uncomfortable calibration moment. “Oh shit. That’s us.”
Star Trek’s “The Next Generation” tapped into the dystopian future we are currently experiencing way back in 1991—an episode called “The Game,” in which a mysterious game is introduced on board the starship. The device engages the player’s brain, specifically their pleasure centers.
Before long, the entire ship’s crew is playing the game, peer pressuring everyone else to try it. Eventually, just two un-addicted crew members remain, then only one. (It’s really worth a watch for the eerie allegorical chill factor.)
“The Game” was prophetic: a release of pleasurable chemicals (specifically dopamine) is exactly what’s responsible for our growing collective addiction to nuggets of electronically derived information.
In her article “Seeking,” journalist Emily Yoffe details how the seeking instinct is a primordial vestige of biological necessity. Hardwired into our brains, it drives impulses like checking texts or Googling.
Yoffe refers to an experiment carried out in 1954 by a team of scientists involving a control group of rats.
“They would stick an electrode in a rat’s brain and, whenever the rat went to a particular corner of its cage, would give it a small shock and note the reaction. One day they unknowingly inserted the probe in the wrong place, and the rat kept returning over and over to the corner where it received the shock.
“They eventually discovered that if the probe was put in the brain’s lateral hypothalamus and the rats were allowed to press a lever and stimulate their own electrodes, they would press until they collapsed.”
The scientists assumed they had discovered the rats’ pleasure centers, but to neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, “those self-stimulating rats, and the humans [who participated in later experiments] did not exhibit the euphoric satisfaction of creatures eating Double Stuf Oreos or repeatedly having orgasms. The animals were excessively excited, even crazed….in a constant state of sniffing and foraging,” notes Yoffe.
“Some of the human subjects described feeling sexually aroused but didn’t experience climax. Mammals stimulating the lateral hypothalamus seem to be caught in a loop, where each stimulation evoked a reinvigorated search strategy.'”
(Cue the Smashing Pumpkins: “Despite all my rage / I am still just a rat in a cage.”)
“Seeking needs to be turned off,” concludes Yoffe, “if even for a little while, so that the system does not run in an endless loop. When we get the object of our desire (be it a Twinkie or a sexual partner), we engage in consummatory acts [which] reduce arousal in the brain and temporarily, at least, inhibit our urge to seek.
“But our brains are designed to more easily be stimulated than satisfied. If humans are seeking machines, we’ve now created the perfect machines to allow us to seek endlessly.” (“Seeking,” By Emily Yoffe.)
We are navigating a Brave New World. As with everything, the first step is awareness. We have to admit we have a problem before we can get better. The point of power is choice.
The next time you find yourself going for your phone, don’t. Instead, look around. Observe the details of your surroundings, feel into the moment of being alive. The solution is simple; it’s just a matter of doing it, and in many cases, retraining ourselves, re-patterning compulsive, unconscious behavior.
There’s still time to allow our humanity to catch up to our technology.
December 1, 2014 § 9 Comments
“Race is there & it is a constant. You’re tired of hearing about it? Imagine how fucking exhausting it is living it.” ~ Jon Stuart
“I don’t know why people are so reluctant to say they’re feminists. Could it be any more obvious that we still live in a patriarchal world when feminism is a bad word?” ~ Ellen Page
“We will never have true civilization until we have learned to recognize the rights of others.” ~ Will Rogers
The disputed circumstances of the shooting of Michael Brown, a young unarmed black teenager, by Darren Wilson, a white police officer—and the resultant civil unrest—have received considerable attention in the U.S. & abroad over the past few months. The death has sparked emotional debate about law enforcement’s relationship with African-Americans & police use of force doctrine.
Jesse Williams, best known for his role on the Grey’s Anatomy TV series, asserted the importance of talking about the narrative—i.e., the context of race-relations in America—surrounding this story, to make sure we’re starting at what he calls “the beginning.” The biracial actor continues:
“You will find the people who are doing the oppressing often want to start the narrative at a convenient point, they always want to start the story in the middle [of what comprises a longer narrative.] There’s a lot of bizarre behavior going on & that is the story.”
He laments the idea that because Brown stole a five dollar packet of cigarillos before the shooting, in the eyes of much of the world he “automatically becomes a thug worthy of his own death.”
The dialogue on both sides—those who believe racial context is relevant & those who believe it’s being unfairly projected onto the case—has continued to rise in emotional pitch, including reactions like the ones Williams described.
While a lot of people have voiced compassion for the situation in Ferguson, there has been a lot of insensitive commentary as well:
If you can’t read the caption on the main image above, it says: “Looting: because nothing says you care about a dead kid and the community more than stealing 50 pair of Air Jordans and then burning the store to the ground.”
While the point itself is undeniably logical, comments like this deflect the significance of the larger story by focusing on one small aspect of the situation & creating a false dichotomy:
“Because people looted in the riots, the riots are obviously absurd.” If A, then B. In classic false dichotomy style, this doesn’t give room for a simultaneous option: that the riots are a noteworthy expression of cultural pain triggered by a symbolic tragedy which has destabilized a community; and throughout that destabilization looting has occurred.
“I’m seeing a lot of …’Well, he punched a cop,'” writes Chuck Windeg. “Or it attempts some kind of equivalency (‘Both sides are really to blame, here,’ as if one side doesn’t have a whole lot of power compared to the other side).
“Where is the empathy?
“I want you to think about it. I want you to imagine being a family who lost their unarmed son in a police shooting. I want you to imagine being in a town full of such families — families who know that they are without power, that at any time one of their own could get shot by a cop a half-a-dozen times and nobody will even send that to trial.” (On The Subject of Cultivating Empathy.)
Journalist David Brooks notes: “We all have to have a new social compact on this.
“Whites especially have to acknowledge the legacy of racism and have to go the extra yard to show respect and understand how differently whites and blacks see police issues. So whites can’t just say ‘Does this look right to me,’ but ‘Does this look trustworthy to the black community.’ That has to be the standard.”
The New York Times columnist adds:
“Racial inequality has become entangled in all sorts of domestic problems of disappearing jobs, family structure. This is mostly a question of good intentioned people trying to do the best they can with very knotty social problems, which now overlap with racial problems.”
Clearly, the reaction is so strong because the implications of the Brown case hits a profoundly charged collective nerve. As Jesse Williams says: “We’re not making this up.”
I’d like to take the conversation out of the case-specific back-and-forth (which is un-constructive, since none of us were on the jury) into a wider examination of difference, social power & rankism.
The specters of oppression have been rising, as of late.
In August, UC Santa Barbara student Elliot Rodger went on a college town killing spree after posting an anti-woman rant on youtube. Before driving to the sorority house where he would kill two women, he uploaded a video entitled “Elliot Rodger’s Retribution.”
The manifesto specifically mentions a “War on Women” for “starving him of sex,” in which he states:
“I don’t know why you girls aren’t attracted to me. But I will punish you for it. I am going to enter the hottest sorority house of UCSB & I will slaughter every single spoiled, stuck-up, blond slut I see inside there. All those girls that I’ve desired so much, you will finally see that I am in truth the superior one. The true alpha male.”
As with the Michael Brown case, many argued the killings were politicized; in this case, mental illness recast, rather than, as Arthur Chu poetically phrased it: “The fruits of our culture’s ingrained misogyny laid bare for all to see.”
But again, there’s a false dichotomy: just because Rodgers may have had mental health issues, doesn’t mean the culture that fed his hate & gave it a language—the larger narrative—isn’t meaningful for us to examine.
As with Brown, the story became a symbol of what is broken in our country & the world.
“Yes All Women started as a response to the deeply ingrained misogyny that fueled Elliot Rodger’s murderous rampage at Santa Barbara University. It is also, in rhetorical structure, a response to “Not all men,” a [deflective] response by certain men to stories of violence men commit against women (“not all men rape” – typical #notallmen reply). #Yesallwomen overflowed with female voices sharing personal stories of the rampant harassment and objectification they face in daily life.” (Think Progress.) Examples include:
“Because women have to avoid eye-contact with men in public in order not to ‘lead them on…'” (Sophia Bush.)
“Because every single woman I know has a story about a man feeling entitled to access to her body. Every. Single. One.” (Kaylee Anna.)
“I shouldn’t have to hold my car keys in hand like a weapon & check over my shoulder every few seconds when I walk at night.” (Cara Parish.)
Yet at the same time, this month TIME magazine published its annual poll of “cringe-worthy memes,” asking readers which word they would “ban” in an ideal world from 2015: alongside popular/over-used words like “literally” & “obvi” appeared the word “feminist.”
Of course the article received an outcry of objection for reducing one of the most significant social movements in history to an “annoying” social meme. The article now appears with a note from the editor, apologizing for inclusion of the word.
But the message remains: people are tired of hearing the word feminist. Mostly, it would seem, people not affected by sexism, and women who are confused about the word’s meaning because of negative stereotype.
“I am not a feminist,” actress Selma Hayeck recently asserted as she received her (instantly a little ironic) award from Equality Now.
“If men were going through the things women are going through today, I would be fighting for them with just as much passion. I believe in equality.”
Just a quick review:
“fem·i·nism; the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.” ~ Merrium-Webster Dictionary
It’s important to note, there have been three distinct waves of feminist thought.
The first, in the late 18th & early 19th century, was the suffragette movement, which focused on removing basic legal obstacles to equality: the right of women to vote & to own property. (American women did not receive the right to vote until the 1920s; Saudi Arabian women, as recently as 2011.) (Check out this interesting timeline.)
The second wave, which took place primarily from the 1960s to the 1990s, focused on further breaking down the limits placed on women, based on society’s construct of gender roles. This included reproductive rights, sexuality, workplace & family issues.
Because women were breaking new ground, the feminism of this era had a more extreme face—just as a rocket leaving the atmosphere must use the maximum amount of energy during the moment it pushes through the atmosphere, known as “escape velocity.”
But in pushing social comfort zones in order to forge new ground, 60s era feminism also made a lot of enemies; women were told they “could be so much more” than mothers & wives; a sentiment liberating for those who had not dared imagine it, insulting to those who authentically desired it.
Still evolving, second wave feminism was spending so much energy on the “escape velocity” needed to push equality into its next phase, it lost sight of its original motivation: supporting female agency.
This outdated impression—of feminism excluding significant spheres to the detriment of its intention—is unfortunately one still held by most people today.
Modern feminism, known as third wave feminism, is a course corrected entity. The whole third wave of writers & activists—from the 90s to present day—saw the problem exactly: it wasn’t for feminist leaders to tell women who they should be or what constituted an “empowered woman.” Feminism was, is, and always has been about choice. Which included the choice to be a full-time mom, stripper or. However. They wanted. That was the point.
Are there lone extremists who say stupid things in the name of feminism? Of course. Just like every other movement. But if we throw out the feminism with the bathwater, we’re throwing out an important emblem of human liberation.
Feminism is what moved women from a position of being legally powerless, sub-human commodities to legally autonomous persons with a right to human dignity.
And that’s what I’m building up to: the idea of human dignity.
Imbalance of social status based on intrinsic unchangeable characteristics is not only the definition of oppression, it is the hallmark of a broken collective; humanity divided. Which is how we fall & have fallen.
A simple look at the composition of Congress serves as a snapshot for the state of the nation: in the House of Representatives, there are currently 362 men & 76 women. In the Senate, 17 women compared with 83 men. 361 whites representing in the House, compared with a meager 44 African-American; 96 whites, with zero blacks currently in the Senate. 25 Hispanic in the House & 2 in the senate.
That is not equality.
I’d love for feminism to be embraced for the equality signifier it is, for more men to join the movement & proclaim that they are feminists, like actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt in this awesome video….
Because in supporting one another’s social justice causes, we acknowledge both that we all have the same cause—a better world—and the fact that incidents of oppression are interwoven with the same social fabric.
At the same time, I acknowledge that compartmentalized movements are, sadly, part of what is keeping us divided.
In this spirit, I think the conversation might benefit from being steered towards what writer & physicist Robert W. Fuller has identified as “rankism”:
“Rankism occurs when those with authority use the power of their position to secure unwarranted advantages or benefits for themselves at the expense of others. It is the illegitimate use of rank and, equally, the use of rank illegitimately acquired or held. The familiar isms are all examples of this latter form.” (Breaking Rank, The Dignitarian Manifesto.)
“In addition to its universality,” continues Fuller, “rankism differs from the familiar trait-based abuses because rank is not fixed. Rather, it changes depending on context. Someone holds high rank at home and is lowest on the totem pole at work.
“Likewise, we feel powerful at one time and powerless at another, as when we move from childhood to adulthood and from our ‘prime’ into old age, or when we experience the loss of a job, a partner, or our health. As a result, most of us have been both victims and perpetrators of discrimination based on rank.”
He adds that the trouble is not with rank itself—there are many functions of society, such as student & teacher, where rank makes sense—but rather when abuse of power accompanies it.
This means focusing on human dignity.
One way we can do this is by staying aware of the subjecthood of others. Remembering that everyone is the protagonists of their own personal story; with a narrative, of which we may be unable to conceive…until we ask.
One of the key traits of narcissistic personality disorder is treating others as objects, rather than subjects—and it has been said more than once that the Western world lives in an intensely, and increasingly, narcissistic age. We think of “objectifying” as relating to the body & sexism, but, psychologically speaking, it relates any time we don’t consider the human experience of The Other—seeing them only so much as they relate to our experience of them.
December 21, 2012 § 10 Comments
“Apocalypse does not point to a fiery Armageddon but to the fact that our ignorance and our complacency are coming to an end. Our divided, schizophrenic worldview, with no mythology adequate to coordinate our conscious and unconscious — that is what is coming to an end.” ~ Joseph Campbell, Thou Art That
“If there is an Armegeddon it is within each of us.” ~ Robert Ghost Wolf
I write on the eve of the Mayan Apocalypse, Dec 21st 2012 — a date they are calling “the most anticipated date in history,” which has been gaining power and momentum in the collective mythic imagination for literally decades.
2012 has become a cultural phenomenon, far exceeding any basis in Mayan history, expressing, rather, our own collective sense of dread — that we are heading for destruction, and change of a radical nature is needed if we are to survive.
Archeologist, anthropologist and author Michael D. Coe was perhaps the first to put forth an apocalyptic interpretations of the ancient Mayan codices, writing in his 1966 book The Maya:
“There is a suggestion … that Armageddon would overtake the degenerate peoples of the world and all creation on the final day of the 13th [b’ak’tun]. Thus … our present universe [would] be annihilated [in December 2012] when the Great Cycle of the Long Count reaches completion.”
Since then, apocalyptic prophecies have proliferated exponentially, leading up to the fervor of the 2012 phenomenon. The film industry has capitalized off this fear/trend with a mounting plethora of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic movies. Post-apocalyptic video games like Fallout abound. New Age bookstores are exploding with 2012 material. Youtube features a veritable frenzy of 2012 videos…
Yet actual modern day Maya and Mayan scholars insist that the end of the ancient calender simply signifies the end of an era, known as the thirteen ba’kt’un (each ba’kt’un being equivalent to 394.26 years.) It is the end of an age of man, what the Maya called the fourth world.
Ricardo Cajas, president of the Colectivo de Organizaciones Indígenas de Guatemala, states that the date does not represent an end of humanity, but of a new cycle, which “supposes changes in human consciousness.”
According to a diverse group of indigenous peoples’ creation myths, from Mexico to New Zealand, there have been three failed worlds before our current age (could these legends refer to lost continents such as Plato’s Atlantis?).
The Hindus believe that earth goes through four world cycles, or ages of man, which repeat indefinitely. Most interpreters of Hindu scriptures believe that earth is currently in a Kali Yuga cycle, a dark time marked by destruction and degeneration in human values, known as “the age of the demon” or the “age of vice.” Eventually, the Kali Yuga will evolve into three more cycles, each one improving, until we reach a Golden Age.
“We Hopi believe that the human race has passed through three different worlds and life ways since the beginning,” details Hopi Elder Dan Evehema. “At the end of each prior world, human life has been purified or punished by the Great Spirit, or Massau, due mainly to corruption, greed and turning away from the Great Spirit’s teachings. The last great destruction was the flood which destroyed all but a few faithful ones who asked and received a permission from the Great Spirit to live with Him in this new land.”
According to Chief Evehema, the famous rock inscribed with Hopi hieroglyphs (Hopi Prophecy Rock) foretold both world wars and indicates an upcoming time of choice, where humankind will be offered a choice between the path of the heart and the path of the intellect and materialism.
“Modern man is out of balance because he lives in a left-brain dominated society,” asserts the Hopi elder, “leading to imbalance and conflict, and ultimately to destruction.”
We find ourselves in a runaway culture of technological advancement, where authentic human connection –to the earth and one another — threatens to be left behind. Isolation and distraction abound. As Daniel Pinchbeck, author of Breaking Open the Head, says, “We live in a culture where everything tastes good but nothing satisfies.”
Violent outbursts, like the recent tragic Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre and the stabbing of 20 school children in China — bizarrely, on the same day — create a disquieting atmosphere of building tension and mounting darkness. It’s as though we are experiencing a dark night of the world soul.
“A dark night of the soul,” writes Erin Reese in her post of the same name, “primarily occurs when the old self-image is ready to go. This is the outdated identification of who you think you are – the ego structure. When the self-image becomes calcified in any way, a dark night of the soul comes rumbling in like storm clouds.” (For more, check out Parallax’s Navigating the Dark Night of the Soul.)
Astrologically Pluto and Uranus have been, and continue to be, influential.
“The effect of Uranus is to shatter old outworn forms so as to allow new life to be born. Pluto is the Lord of the Underworld in the Roman archetypal pantheon. In traditional astrology Pluto represents the eternal cycle of death and rebirth. In the Egyptian pantheon Pluto is Osiris, the God of Regeneration; Uranus is Wadjet, the Great Awakener. The long lasting square between these two astrological giants [during 2012 and for the next few years] suggests that we have only just begun our journey of incredible transformation and change.”(Astrological Insights.)
“Uranus represents change, invention, revolution, and higher awareness,” details astrologer Jamie Partridge. “It’s effect is shocking, unpredictable, and erratic. Pluto represents globalization, destruction, transformation, and renewal. It’s effect is grinding, ruthless and extreme. Both of these planets are distinctly non-personal and emotionless, yet their effect is dramatic and deeply felt. The square is the most challenging of the planetary aspects, representing tests and challenges. It’s effect is stressful and frustrating.”
I wouldn’t include an astrological analysis if I hadn’t felt the truth of these interpretations in my own life. So many people in my life tell me they feel it too: that 2012 was one of their most intense, full years. Many have had very hard years, while others have had intensely wonderful years. Most of us have had a mixed bag of extreme highs and lows. Few people found 2012 to be “just another year.”
For many, a pressure is building. The need to burn away all that is false (a trait associated with Pluto.) Many I speak with seem to be going through an emotional-spiritual purge or some kind of shadow work at the moment. I think many of us feel innately that it’s a good time to purify and detoxify (look for tips on this in future posts!). Many feel pushed to their limit and filled with a desire to restructure their life. Old behaviors which no longer serve us are becoming increasingly uncomfortable. I realize this doesn’t apply to everyone, but it strikes me as significant that so many people I know are experiencing one or all of these things right now — more than usual, it seems.
And so the 2012 phenomenon, the so-called Mayan Apocalypse, can be seen as an expression of our personal and collective discomfort with old existing structures and outmoded patterns of behavior. When Dec. 21st comes and goes and the world remains in all it’s chaos, we will be left with the anti-climatic but significant realization that there is no escaping ourselves.
Let’s die to the past through this inner apocalypse — harness the intense energy of this time and use it for personal rebirth and transformation. We are collectively craving it. But it can only start with each of us, individually, and it can only take place in the present, right now.
May 12, 2012 § 28 Comments
“The warm, the richly colored, the infinitely friendly world of soma-holiday. How kind, how good-looking, how delightfully amusing every one was! […] Swallowing half an hour before closing time, that second dose of soma had raised a quite impenetrable wall between the actual universe and their minds.”
You may soon be able to get a prescription for falling in love.
A team of Oxford researchers are working on a pill to recreate the feeling of being in the honeymoon stage. They aim to accomplish this by combining pheromones, testosterone (to up sex drive,) Oxytocin and Vasopressin — naturally occurring “bonding chemicals” produced by the body at the early stages of a relationship — CRH (a hormone that induces the fear of separation) and Entactogens, a “feel good” drug similar to MDMA.
There you have it folks, the recipe for love: one part sex, another part bonding, mix in the fear of separation and some ecstasy. Or so the Oxford research team is hoping.
While the love pill might seem to many like the absurd and even chilling culmination of a cultural trajectory best left to science fiction, others wonder if perhaps it might not have some therapeutic effect.
Take for instance the success researchers have had with treating Post Traumatic Shock with MDMA (known for its street name, ecstasy.) According to Science Daily, “participants treated with a combination of MDMA and psychotherapy saw clinically and statistically significant improvements in their PTSD — over 80% of the trial group no longer met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, stipulated in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (DSM-IV-TR) following the trial, compared to only 25% of the placebo group. In addition, all three subjects who reported being unable to work due to PTSD were able to return to work following treatment with MDMA.”
Likewise, psychologists like Harvard researcher Richard Doblin have long been interested in the empathy enhancing effects of MDMA for possible use in marriage counseling. Though the 1986 criminalization of the drug has hampered such investigation, there has been renewed interest on this front in the past few years.
The theory goes that breakthroughs in communication and emotional vulnerability could be stimulated by this kind of neurochemical enhancement in a therapy situation.
But where do we draw the line when tinkering with brain chemistry? Is happiness more important than authenticity? Judging from the statistics — one in ten Americans is currently taking antidepressants — it would appear the answer for many is yes.
In their paper, Neuroenhancement of Love and Marriage: The Chemicals Between Us, the scientists researching the new love pill suggest:
“Even if love were not authentic, authenticity is not an overriding or exclusive value. People can trade a degree of authenticity for other values in their lives.”
And somewhere Aldous Huxley is rolling over in his grave.
Huxley penned the classic and increasingly prophetic dystopian novel, Brave New World, in 1931, about a future society imprisoned by their own addiction to escapism. A key medium of escape: soma, a drug of the future masses.
Huxley creates the vision of an overmedicated society, wherein, as author Neil Postman puts it: people have “come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.
“Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.”
The propagandized phrase “A gram is better than a damn” floats around Huxley’s world and people routinely check out for “holidays” via pharmaceutical enhancement:
“I don’t understand anything,” she said with decision, determined to preserve her incomprehension intact. “Nothing. Least of all,” she continued in another tone “why you don’t take soma when you have these dreadful ideas of yours. You’d forget all about them. And instead of feeling miserable, you’d be jolly. So jolly.” (Brave New World.)
Of course, people have been hawking love potions for time immemorial, and it hasn’t worked yet. But with science on their side, today’s researchers might be the first to create a true love drug.
There is something about seeing the same thing — the face of your beloved, for instance — over and over again, which creates a kind of automatic pilot of the mind. It seems that often the more we see something, the less we see it. Consciously grounding oneself in the moment can help. But to create a way to see our partners with fresh eyes could indeed have a revitalizing effect on stalled relationships.
Still, the Huxlian implications have this author wondering what kind of pain could be repressed, what kind of problems ignored, with the help of such a pill. We touch fire, it hurts, we withdraw our hand. What would happen if we anesthetized that hand? We might wind up playing with fire until our hand fell off.
Take this metaphor to the emotional level. Pain is our body’s natural warning mechanism, telling us that something is wrong, indicating a need for change. If we simply synthetically engineer our chemicals to send us messages that everything is wonderful when, in reality, it is not, the danger of losing touch with one’s natural sense of truth — for choosing self-deception over needed change — seems great.
And if a feeling of connection can be artificially induced, what true breakthroughs — which would require, perhaps, facing unpleasant truths — could remain unplumbed in a relationship? To me, it seems like a recipe for arresting growth, both in the individual and the relationship.
But in a society where many people would rather be happy than authentic, and most women would rather look young than real — there could be a true market for the love pill.
My authenticity, and all the feelings which go along with it, is important to me. My feelings, both good and bad, guide me like a compass, and tell me when I’m languishing in some un-constructive headspace or circumstance by increasing emotional pain, like a warning. Like most artists — and I’d wager to guess, most people — I have my ups and downs. But my “downs” mean something to me, as much as my “ups.” Coming through a bad time, I always feel like I have managed to change something awry in myself or my life. Something I wouldn’t have been forced to address if I had synthetically induced the sensation of feeling better.
I know these statements are considered controversial by some. When I suggested in The Politics of Normalcy that the dominance and commonplace usage of anti-anxiety medication in today’s culture was perhaps depriving us of the important philosophical journey of facing our existential angst head-on, I received a deluge of comments — some hostile — suggesting that I simply didn’t understand what it was like for those seriously crippled by anxiety.
It’s a personal choice for each, certainly. But my (admittedly self-assigned) job here at Parallax is to investigate cultural trends and their implication across the wider historical backdrop of mankind’s journey, and the truth is, these pharmaceutical developments are incredibly new. It’s only prudent to discuss all angles.
I don’t mean to imply that taking medication is equivalent to a lobotomy. Obviously, a slight boost in serotonin doesn’t change a person’s essential values. But the whole idea that we are chemically “fixing” a problem when we “normalize” a person’s neurochemistry contains language which, to me, is a red flag. What is normal? Someone who is happy working nine hours a day? Interesting. Who does that equation benefit?
Could it be the machine of society? That Prozac makes for happy worker bees, while discontent citizens brew rebellion?
My concern is that in a future where love and happiness can both be artificially induced, we make ourselves incredibly vulnerable to becoming a society like Huxley’s Brave New World. The subliminal message seems to be: Why change your life when you can just change your chemistry? Why change the world when you can just change how you feel about it?
What do you think?
November 26, 2011 § 35 Comments
“It is advertising and the logic of consumerism that governs the depiction of reality in the mass media.” ~ Christopher Lasch
“Who covets more, is evermore a slave.” ~ Robert Herrick
So named to imply the state of profit for retailers known as being “in the black,” Black Friday, which should perhaps be renamed Bloody Friday, is getting darker every year.
in 2008 a 34-year-old Long Island Wal-Mart employee was trampled to death by a crowd of product-and-savings-crazed customers who pushed the door off its hinges before the store was open, chanting, “Push the doors in.”
“She was competitive shopping,” quipped Los Angeles Fire Captain, James Carson. But it has apparently become a bloody sport.
In San Leandro, California, a family was accosted by two men demanding their recently purchased products in a park. In what could be called misguided attachment, the family refused to fork over the loot, and the assailant opened gunfire. The victim was rushed to the hospital in critical condition.
In a less bloody but equally poignant example of the madness, a grandpa in Phoenix, Arizona, was slammed to the ground by amped up police for putting a game in his waistband to lift his grandson up over the crowd.
People are blaming the economy, but in this author’s opinion that’s a flimsy excuse. We’re not talking about food here. We’re talking about stuff. Gadgets, games, flat screen TVs. These are luxury items. And yet the madness is being framed increasingly in the light of class.
A conspiracy theorist might point out how much more convenient it is for us to turn on each other than to recognize the problem of our blatant overconsumption.
Yesterday, The New York Times, for instance, commented that,”Budget-minded shoppers will be racing for bargains at ever-earlier hours while the rich mostly will not be bothering to leave home.”
The rich, and also the wise, not willing to suffer the bloody sport of “competitive shopping” in the name of material acquisition.
In an article for Business Week elaborating on the class angle, Dan Beucke discusses the subject with Marshal Cohen, the chief industry analyst of The NPD Group, which studies consumers and retailing:
“Time and again, Cohen saw consumers whose shopping reach had exceeded their spending grasp. A credit card maxes out and a member of the shopping party is sent outside to collect another card from the waiting car. Or the cashier offers up a sub-total and the shopper starts striking items until the bill fits the cash on hand.”
The story is supposed to illustrate the budget-strained struggles of a pressured working class. But is there a deeper story going on?
It seems more symptomatic of a mentality that people are willing to spend their last dollar on, go into debt for, “stuff.”
Again, these are luxury items people are buying. They are not necessities. The perversion of the American dream has resulted in a bloated, yet ever-hungry consumeristic monster.
The only difference between the Black Friday people pinning sales clerks against the wall in their rush to snatch their plastic prize and the consumers who stay home and buy their shiny toys another day is spectacle.
To call this simply an issue of recession is to read the situation on a very superficial level. Rather, we must assume it is indicative of a gross misplacement of priority. What else can we call it when people become so crazed for things that a fellow human being becomes just one more obstacle between themselves and an XBox?
As economist Paul Heyne notes, “The gap in our economy is between what we have and what we think we ought to have – and that is a moral problem, not an economic one.”
“Experts in ancient Greek culture say that people back then didn’t see their thoughts as belonging to them. When ancient Greeks had a thought, it occurred to them as a god or goddess giving an order. Apollo was telling them to be brave. Athena was telling them to fall in love. Now people hear a commercial for sour cream potato chips and rush out to buy, but now they call this free will. At least the ancient Greeks were being honest.”
And so we, as conscientious dreamers, must ask ourselves, as the crazed shoppers of Black Friday do not, what are we really hungry for? And what should we truly be feeding that hunger inside?
I say feed it experience, feed it human relationship, feed it books (you don’t have to buy them, go to the library!) feed it art (every museum has a free admission day!) feed it good music (in the city weekly papers, there are always free music events!) Feed it the sound of the wind in the trees, and rivers running. Feed it campfire stories, the sky and the stars. Feed it significance through reading, thinking, dreaming. Feed it love. Feed it beauty. Feed it knowledge.
We are hungry, but as a nation we are stuffing ourselves with metaphorical and literal junk food. If you’re reading this, you already know this. So what can we do?
In the bracing and vitalizing words of fellow journeyer Terrence McKenna:
“We have to create culture, don’t watch TV, don’t read magazines, don’t even listen to NPR. Create your own roadshow. The nexus of space and time where you are now is the most immediate sector of your universe, and if you’re worrying about Michael Jackson or Bill Clinton or somebody else, then you are disempowered, you’re giving it all away to icons, icons which are maintained by an electronic media so that you want to dress like X or have lips like Y.
This is shit-brained, this kind of thinking. That is all cultural diversion, and what is real is you and your friends and your associations, your highs, your orgasms, your hopes, your plans, your fears. And we are told ‘no’, we’re unimportant, we’re peripheral. ‘Get a degree, get a job, get a this, get a that.’ And then you’re a player, you don’t want to even play in that game. You want to reclaim your mind and get it out of the hands of the cultural engineers who want to turn you into a half-baked moron consuming all this trash that’s being manufactured out of the bones of a dying world.”
What form does this take? You decide.
For me it takes the form of writing this blog and informs the direction of my work. It takes the form of conversations with fellow journeyers and conscious decisions to identify, and sometimes curtail, the buying urge that’s been implanted in my brain via psychological programming. Of recognizing and celebrating my difference from mainstream consumer-based culture and its distorted value system, and in further investigating how I can be part of creating something better.
For George Carlin, it took the form of fantastically searing philosophical comedic diatribes:
July 6, 2011 § 45 Comments
“…if you are not like everybody else, then you are abnormal, if you are abnormal , then you are sick. These three categories, not being like everybody else, not being normal and being sick are in fact very different but have been reduced to the same thing.” Michel Foucault
Perhaps you noticed it, too. The word ‘anxiety’ appearing more and more in conversation, ads and media. People talking, not about ‘being anxious,’ (a moment that can pass) but about ‘having anxiety’ (a permanent affliction).
In “The Age of Anxiety,” a poem written in 1947, W.H. Auden links modern angst with man’s quest to find substance and identity in a shifting and increasingly industrialized world: …It is getting late / Shall we ever be asked for? Are we simply / not wanted at all?
Writer-philosopher Albert Camus dubbed the 20th century “The Century of Fear.” One wonders what he would say about the 21st.
Writer Herman Hesse, exploring the age of angst in his novel Steppenwolf, attributes the feelings of isolation and loneliness in his protagonist to the breakdown of repressive bourgeoisie values, which let loose the wild, irrational forces within man without offering a new standard or value system for support, thereby creating an uneasy limbo, lacking guidance and direction.
Though the subject has been explored for centuries by writers and philosophers, social anxiety disorder did not officially exist until it appeared in 1980’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the DSM-III — the psychiatrist’s bible of psychological afflictions — under the name “social phobia,” the same book which once classified homosexuality as a mental disorder.
Not that the problem didn’t exist before — it was the ancient Greeks, after all, who coined the word agoraphobic — but during the latter half of the 20th century, anxiety seems to have shifted culturally from a covert issue to an overt one.
By the 1990’s pharmaceutical companies received F.D.A. approval to treat social anxiety and poured tens of millions of dollars into advertising its existence. In 2002, Anxiety Disorders Association of America reported that 19.1 million (or 13%) of adults ages 18-54 were affected with a form of anxiety disorder. Now the percentage has climbed to 40 million (or 18%) of the population.
The current version of the DSM-IV describes diagnosis as warranted when anxiety “interferes significantly with work performance” (italics mine) or if the sufferer shows marked distress about it.
So in other words, according to the DSM, if you can’t adjust to your life as an employee, you may have a disorder. If it affects your productivity within the system, that’s the true indicator of a problem.
Of course, this makes sense on an individual basis — why wouldn’t job performance be an issue for individual workers? We all have bills to pay.
But on a broader level, from the perspective of analyzing cultural trends and messages, it strikes me as eerily dystopian that humans should be viewed like malfunctioning robots who need repair because their efficiency has faltered, rather then looking into possible problems with the work places themselves (environment, demands, etc).
Not “Maybe we need more breaks to maximize efficiency,” but “Maybe you have a problem. Take a pill and get back to work.”
There is a lack of humanity in the description, an emphasis on product over person.
Before having the medical meaning we give it, or that at least we like to suppose it has, confinement [of the insane] was required by something quite different from any concern with curing the sick. What made it necessary was an imperative of labor. Our philanthropy prefers to recognize the signs of a benevolence towards sickness where there is only a condemnation of idleness.
I want to be clear that I am not criticizing individuals for taking anxiety medication. I am not telling anyone to stop taking their medication or saying it’s weak or wrong to do so. It’s a personal choice. We need all the help we can get, and I understand that medication is one form of help for many people.
My interrogation, rather, is aimed at our perception of anxiety as a society — our knee-jerk reaction of repression over investigation, of labeling the feeling a disorder, rather than seeing it as a potential initiation into deeper mastery of one’s will and character, or as a symptom of an imbalanced social system.
“I would say that learning to know anxiety is an adventure which every man has to affront if he would not go to perdition, either by not having known anxiety or by sinking under it. He therefore who has learned rightly to be anxious has learned the most important thing.”
In that context, there begins to appear something ominous about the medication of such a feeling, which may be uncomfortable, but also suggests the presence of our own grand possibility. If anxiety is a natural reaction to the experience of our own overwhelming freedom, what will it mean to repress that sensation?
Some might take issue with the fact that I am not drawing a distinct line between philosophical anxiety and physiological/psychological anxiety. I am aware that our society sees them as different issues — one as garden-variety-human-condition-angst, which everyone experiences to some degree, and the other as the more pathological, in-need-of-medication-chemical-imbalance anxiety. This is because I don’t believe they are different. Rather, I think they are gradations of the same experience.
I see the varying interpretations of anxiety by different fields as exactly that: interpretations. The difference between, say, a poet’s description of an elephant and a zoologist’s. The elephant remains the same.
Just because one field has identified the chemicals related to the feeling does not mean the chemicals are the beginning, or the end, of the story.
Social anxiety is often linked with introverts — incidentally, a much misunderstood personality type within our modern culture.
“The day may come,” says Susan Cain in her recent New York Times article, “Shyness: An Evolutionary Tactic?” “when we have pills that ‘cure’ shyness and turn introverts into social butterflies […] [But] the act of treating shyness as an illness obscures the value of that temperament.”
As a culture we need both the shy, sensitive introverts to ponder the deeper meanings of things and the assertive, bold extraverts to take action and get things done. Diversity in a species is an evolutionary advantage.
Case in point: evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson performed a simple but telling experiment on a school of unknowing pumpkinseed sun fish. About 15-20 % of animals display introvert characteristics of caution (interestingly, the same percentage as in humans,) called “sitters,” compared to the more curious, assertive “rover” types…
The biologist lowered a metal trap into the water and a large number of “rover” sunfish went inside to investigate — only to be caught. While the more tentative “sitter” sunfish, who sat back and watched, remained free.
“Had Professor Wilson’s traps posed a real threat, only the sitters would have survived,” points out Cain. “But had the sitters taken Zoloft and become more like bold rovers, the entire family of pumpkinseed sunfish would have been wiped out. ‘Anxiety’ about the trap saved the fishes’ lives.”
Wilson then caught all the sunfish and took them back to his lab. The rovers acclimated faster, eating a full five days earlier than their sitter brethren. In this case, the rovers had the evolutionary advantage.
“There is no single best … personality,” Professor Wilson concludes in his book, “Evolution for Everyone,” “but rather a diversity of personalities maintained by natural selection.”
Yet we live in a culture which treats the sitter personality as freakish. “Just do it!” our slogans roar. Action is prized over contemplation, assertiveness over timidity. One way we manifest this bias as a society is by encouraging perfectly healthy shy people to see their tendencies as problematic, needing to be cured.
Studies show that introverts, who tend to digest information thoroughly, do better in school than their extroverted peers, despite having the same I.Q. The careful, sensitive temperament from which both shyness and anxiety can spring is not only rich in observational skill, insight and inner vision, it may well be essential to the survival of our species — a point well illustrated by our friends the pumpkinseed sunfish.
As science journalist Winifred Gallagher points out: “The glory of the disposition that stops to consider stimuli rather than rushing to engage with them is its long association with intellectual and artistic achievement. Neither E=mc2 nor ‘Paradise Lost’ was dashed off by a party animal.”
I’m not saying that people who take medication are doing so to “conform to the status quo,” (obviously they are doing it to feel better and to function more effectively in their life) but the increase of medication use in the Western world does suggest the possibility of an increasingly homogenized human experience.
Though some might argue that such “increased homogeny” is just fine if it entails a more well-adjusted life experience, I am suspicious of terms like “well adjusted,” because they require that we hold a yardstick up against the majority to measure the minority; it fails to account for individual temperament or the gifts that come with eccentricity.
Back to the original thought: being anxious vs having anxiety. This is a shift of language I have witnessed in my lifetime. And what a consequence the simple replacement of “having” with “being” implies: one is an emotion that passes through you, another is something you are stuck with, a state, part of your personality, even your identity.
And could it have anything to do with the multi-million dollar pharmaceutical companies filling the airwaves with the language of “having?”
What great symphonies, works of literature and philosophies would not have been created had the sensitive temperaments creating them been medicated? And what will our society look like in 100 years if it continues down its current trajectory?
June 16, 2011 § 42 Comments
“Our society is run by insane people for insane objectives.” John Lennon
“Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.” Edgar Allan Poe
“The world we see that seems so insane is the result of a belief system that is not working. To perceive the world differently, we must be willing to change our belief system, let the past slip away, expand our sense of now, and dissolve the fear in our minds.” William James
Imagine how our world would look to an alien observer. The notes taken by an evolved and sensitive species might look something like this:
Humans appear to be creatures of routine — the majority wake up before they have rested sufficiently, needing a loud beeping alarm to prematurely stir them from their slumber, and a liquid stimulant to force them into unnatural alertness. They then get into small metal vehicles, which emit toxic gasses and were assembled by mostly miserable factory workers.
A large number of humans take these small metal vehicles to small, sterile cubicles, where they stare at a small rectangular screen for eight hours, pressing buttons, with one hour off to eat.
For their time in front of the screen, they receive tokens (some people have their own private cubicle and receive more tokens than the rest,) which they exchange for shelter (which is left empty most of the day, while they go off and earn the tokens which obtained it in the first place).
Other items of interest requiring tokens are packaged food of mostly poor quality and various large unnecessary upgrades to their stronghold of posessions, the desire for which is stimulated by large rectangular screens in their shelters, for which they exchange a large amount of tokens willingly.
On these screens (which most humans watch, mesmerized, for hours at a time, when they are not staring at the screen in the cubicle) they see images designed to simulate reality (a form of entertainment which has all but replaced the experience of reality) and stimulate covetousness, which seems to mesmerize them into exchanging their hard-earned tokens for items which appear to have social significance for them.
Another large percentage of the population goes to work in factories which produce (or stores which feature) these coveted and mostly useless items.
This exchange is considered desirable. The rationale is that it creates more jobs and keeps the economy in good health. No one seems to question the point of this self-perpetuating wheel of psychological enslavement, and those who do are deflected and dismissed.
The primary activities expected to be carried out by these adult humans seem to be almost unanimously joyless, but the tokens received appear to be incentive enough.
Individuals who refuse to conform and pay homage to the tokens are almost unanimously ridiculed as lazy, good-for-nothing, mentally unsound, losers, etc. Unless individuals can find some way to earn tokens, they can not afford to buy or rent shelter and as a result become cemented in their roles as social pariahs.
Often these pariahs abused liquid downers to numb their misery in the world described above. Their status as shelter-less social rejects only fuels their need for this numbing agent. It seems reasonable to blame the numbing agent, or the individual’s inability to cope with reality. However, few blame the reality which made them have to cope to begin with.
Such probing strikes close to home: as every socially functional person is aware, there is no escape from the need to conform to the all-consuming demand of the token. And so those who do put forth the effort to work are forced to ennoble their enslavement, calling it a good hard day’s work.
Though hard work is a virtue, there is a stickier truth surrounding this truth, which is more convenient to ignore.
If our ET observer were to have read up on the nature of cult indoctrination, he might notice what writer Bettina Drew observes, “[…] there are similarities between corporate indoctrination and what’s thought of as organizational brainwashing.”
“The victim must first be isolated from society, so that the cult or other coercive entity need not compete with outside influences. Access to outside information must be eliminated or at least rigidly controlled; the information is then reinterpreted according to the precepts of the cult. Questions from the victim are not be tolerated, nor are replies given.
During the early isolation period, certain psychological pressure or even physical torture techniques are usually employed. These measures can include […] sleep deprivation […] humiliation […] and constant repetition of indoctrinating ideas.
Repetitive tasks may be assigned to dull the senses and reasoning skills, while also hastening the breakdown of the will. Threats of violence, death, or destruction of the victim’s soul if she rebels against the “groupthink” are frequently utilized. A period of punishment followed by the doling out of small rewards or privileges keeps the victim off-balance.”
Sensory overload, such as drugs, flashing lights and overwhelming visuals, she notes, are also employed.
To our old friend the alien observer, the Westernized world itself could seem like a kind of cult.
Repetitive tasks? Check. Small rewards? Check. Sensory overload? Check. Drugs? Check (Prozac anyone?) Sleep deprivation? Check. Limited access to information? In a sense: while the modern world does have access to international media in most cases, the information itself is limited to the focus of our contemporary culture. Those with ideas not in line with the accepted reality face the threat of social rejection — in the past they have even been put to death, and still are in some parts of the world. Threats of death? Check.
Studies show that “the same regions of the brain that become active in response to painful sensory experiences are activated during intense experiences of social rejection.” So in a very real way, the threat of outcast status can act with the same coercive force as threatened physical violence. Threats of pain/humiliation? Check.
The average American watches more than 4 hours of TV each day, which adds up to two months of non-stop TV-watching per year. By age 65, that person will have spent 9 years watching television. 99 % of American homes own at least one television. Sensory overload and repetition of ideas? Check.
As social media mogul Joe Summerhays points out:
[During the advent of the industrial revolution] gin carts filled the street of London, numbing the dehumanizing pain of mindless factory work into submission. The 1800′s lacquered workforce lubricated the march of industry […] As the efficiency of industrialized society produced more free time, the gin cart became television. This new lubricant oiled things into the late 20th century.
And so our sensitive and saddened extraterrestrial anthropologist would have to report that humans have essentially cornered themselves into having to conform to an insane system, where they are required to spend the majority of their lives gritting their teeth through joyless activities to earn tokens to support their enslaved existence.
We have built a society where, in order to survive, we must, in effect, build our own cages, even paying to consume our own propaganda.
Our interplanetary visitor might feel obliged to make one final note in his evaluation of 21st century human culture:
It appears, none the less, that some individuals are not entirely hypnotized. They still turn inward to the private flickerings of their dreams, which whisper of possibilities greater than the reality before them.
May 10, 2011 § 13 Comments
“Beat the drum and sing songs. If you are an ordinary man, nothing will come of it; but if you are to be a shaman, you will be no ordinary one.” ~ Siberian shaman
“The unfathomable experience that humanity has symbolically expressed for millennia through myths, fables, rituals and ecstasies, remains one of the hidden centers of our culture, of the way we exist in the world.” ~ Carlo Ginzburg, Ecstasies
“Listen, wait, and be patient. Every shaman knows you have to deal with the fire that’s in your audience’s eye.”~ Ken Kesey
The word shaman, originally Siberian, is an anthropological term. In the Tungus language, a saman is a person who “beats the drum, enters into trance, and cures people”(The Cosmic Serpent, Jeremy Narby).
Almost universally, indigenous people have sought meaning and clarity through ritual ecstasies. The word “ecstasy,” despite its modern connotation of supreme bliss, originally meant “to be out of ones head.” The Greco-Roman Dionysian Mysteries (aka the Cult of Dionysus) parallel the shamanic practices of tribal cultures — a systematized disorganization of the senses via trance states induced by intoxicants/hallucinogenics, music and/or dance, with the goal of personal transformation/liberation from social constraints, and communion with a divine or supernatural principal.
(If that sounds like a pretty good time, keep in mind that there are tales of humans being hunted like animals and sacrificed by wild Dionysians).
“In intoxication,” muses Bertrand Russell in A History of Western Philosophy, “in physical or spiritual, the initiate recovers an intensity of feeling which prudence had destroyed; he finds the world full of delight and beauty, and his imagination is suddenly liberated from the prison of everyday preoccupations. The [Dionysian] ritual produced what was called ‘enthusiasm’, which means etymologically having the god enter the worshipper, who believed that he became one with the god.”
The idea of the shamanic ritual was to go through a symbolic death of sorts, to shed old psychic skins, and emerge, in a sense, reborn.
Interestingly, rock shows and raves more closely resemble these archaic rituals than modern religious services. Show business has taken the place of shamanism.
Celebrities are the medicine men and women of modern society. The shaman addresses the collective psychic state of the participants through ceremonial performance, guiding the group through a transformative experience, usually accompanied by hypnotic rhythm. Archaic man’s ecstatic mysteries have much in common with modern man’s rock shows.
John Lennon famously complained about the vast amount of godlike power assigned him and his band-mates as Beatles. People would show up in wheelchairs wanting Lennon to heal them. “The Beatles,” relates Rogan Taylor, “had been mistaken for medicine-men. Soon they began to look and act like medicine men.”
“By the mid-sixties,” continues Taylor,”something strange was happening on a scale never previously seen. Rock’n’roll had burst out of its adolescent shell to become a full-blown sacred cult.
“[…] The star performers were being hailed as culture heroes and worshipped with an ecstatitic intensity more usually reserved for religious rites […] soon they even began to look like weird prophets from another age.
“Their bizarre regalia and wild manner were framed in fantastic lifestyles and their powers acclaimed as extraordinary […] it was as if the old shamans had cast away the last vestiges of disguise to stand openly on stage at last.”
And just as gods must journey into the underworld, modern celebrities do what they can to do this mythic requirement justice, often living in a ceaseless Dionysian frenzy until they self-destruct and die young, as so many young musicians and actors have so tragically done. But such is the price of a shaman.
A shaman gets his powers in some way from the other worlds he journeys to, from his strange lifestyle, and through his ability to transform and articulate transformation to the tribe.
Just as spirits often “possess” the shaman during his trance, musicians often report feeling possessed by a greater spirit than themselves on stage. R & B singer Beyonce has said of her alter-ego “Sasha Fierce:”
I have someone else that takes over when it’s time for me to work and when I’m on stage, this alter ego that I’ve created that kind of protects me and who I really am.
Religious Historian Mircea Eliade sums up the vast anthropological literature on shamanic ritual as “the death and mystical resurrection of the candidate by means of a descent to the underworld and an ascent to the sky.”
Some of today’s most mainstream performers re-enact these ancient transformative rituals with startling precision. Take for instance shock-pop icon Lady Gaga’s infamous MTV Video Awards performance wherein she smeared her white dress with (hopefully fake) blood . . .
. . . and then walked around looking like a living sacrifice for the rest of the night.
In a strange interview Lady Gaga acknowledges her awareness of her role:
What are you looking for? What you’re looking for is magic…magic is what happens on the stage … I’m here to entertain you and I’m here to be a martyr for show business… I will die in front of all of you so that you can watch and enjoy.
But a coked-up, gyrating, scantily clad pop star singing about sex is a far cry from a peyote-smoking medicine man pounding a drum and guiding the tribe through a night of cathartic dance, ritual and sacredly framed drug-induced vision questing.
One primary difference is training and tradition: archaic medicine men and women had the tradition of their tribal elders to draw upon, trained often for years to become the spiritual guides of their community.
Today’s would-be rock shamans have only the mantra of “sex, drugs and rock’n’roll” chanted by their hedonistic heroes to go by, and stardom is a map-less road known for inspiring egomania, isolation, addiction and suicide. These are our shamans, the blind leading the blind, and millions of children aspire to be just like their heroes.
“We live in a culture where everything tastes good,” says Daniel Pinchbeck, author of Breaking Open The Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Modern Shamanism, “but nothing satisfies.”
In today’s culture of distraction, where humankind is increasingly isolated from nature and from a sense of visceral community, we can still pursue the sacred art of the vision quest (for inspiration, check of The Modern Vision Quest on Parallax.)
We must make our own reality-maps, as those leading are blind themselves, our healers, wounded. We can create new ceremonies and transformative techniques that have meaning to us personally.
The important thing is to take the time to stop and commune with our inner visions, tap into the greater cosmic wisdom, etc — in short, to take the time to dream. In a culture of media overload and technological gadgetry, we must remember to honor our need for deeper meaning.
April 26, 2011 § 2 Comments
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.
March 30, 2011 § 8 Comments
The story goes like a joke: five monkeys and a banana. Or a parable: under the banana there was a ladder, and every time a monkey climbed the ladder to reach for the banana, he and the other monkeys in the group received a shock of cold water. Eventually no one reached for the banana at all.
In this famous experiment, monkeys conditioned not to pursue the banana were replaced one by one with unconditioned monkeys. Each time a new member of the group began to climb the ladder to get the forbidden fruit, the rest of the group dissuaded him by force, regardless of whether they themselves had experienced the cold water spray. The banana had become taboo.
Eventually the entire group was replaced with monkeys who had never experienced the water spray firsthand, yet the banana remained untouched. The conditioning had become self-perpetuating, independently functioning on its own momentum.
Studies in group theory indicate that we naturally bend our opinions at least marginally if not majorly to conform to group values and standards. Who among us hasn’t found themselves laughing in a moment of group solidarity without quite getting the joke?
In the Asch Conformity Experiment, test subjects were placed in groups consisting of fake participants and asked a variety of questions. Such as, “Compare the length of A to an everyday object,” “Which line is longer than the other?” and “Which lines are the same length?” etc.
When alone, the answers people gave were almost unanimously correct. In the groups of fake participants, however, when each person had to say their answer out loud, incorrect answers proffered confidently by fake group members caused test subjects to falter and give 30 % incorrect answers to these deceptively simple visual tests.
In Totem and Taboo: Freud speculates that modern institutions such as family, law, and religion still closely resemble the tribal cultures from which they sprang, specifically in totemic projection and conformity achieved through the exercise of taboo.
Derived from the term “ototeman” in the Ojibwe language, meaning “brother-sister kin,” Totemism indicates the veneration of sacred objects as symbols. A totem is any animal, plant, object, natural or supernatural, which provides deeply symbolic meaning for a person or social group. A great example of modern totemism can be found in sports fans.
For Alan Watts, the primary taboo in today’s culture is against knowing the true nature of the self, which he suggests is multi-dimensional and universally connected. “If you go off into a far, far forest and get very quiet, you’ll come to understand that you’re connected with everything.”
Watts elaborates, “Although our bodies are bounded with skin, and we can differentiate between outside and inside, they cannot exist except in a certain kind of natural environment. […]We do not ‘come into’ this world. We come out of it, like leaves from a tree.”
In 1954 Robert Bannister was the first man recorded to run a mile in under four minutes. Though never before achieved, after Bannister proved it possible, the four minute mile barrier was soon broken by others.
What are the grand, socially defining taboos that hold power today in your country? What taboos exist within your social culture? Do they make sense, or are the conditioned monkeys dissuading you from reaching for your banana?