The Politics of Normalcy

July 6, 2011 § 45 Comments

By Tai Carmen

“…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.

In Madness and CivilizationMichel Foucalt notices the link between society’s labor needs and their attitude towards the socially maladjusted:

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.

Interestingly, angst as put forth by the existential philosophers refers to the spiritual dread one experiences in the face of one’s own freedom. As Kierkegaard said in The Concept of Dread:

 “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?

The Mad Cult of the World

June 16, 2011 § 42 Comments

By Tai Carmen

“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.”

In her interesting article on the mind control techniques of cults, writer Amy Sillup elaborates:

“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.

 

 

See “The Role Of The Dreamer & The Falseness Of Civilization.” 

The Death and Resurrection Show

May 10, 2011 § 13 Comments

By Tai Carmen

“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.

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. 

The Mythology of Conformity: Totem and Taboo

March 30, 2011 § 7 Comments

By Tai Carmen

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 upon 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 his explosively titled work, Totem and Taboo: Resemblances Between The Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics, 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, or other 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?

The Ghost in the Machine

February 24, 2011 § 9 Comments

By: Tai Carmen

“….Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold…”

W.B. Yeats, from  Sailing to Byzantium

Coined by British philosopher Gilbert Ryle to describe Rene Descartes‘ concept of mind-body dualism, the phrase “The ghost in the machine” was originally intended as a metaphor. These days it takes on a more literal meaning.

Author/inventor Raymond Kurzweil, for instance, postulates that by 2045 we will have incorporated our technology into our very selves. He predicts this will be out of necessity, to keep up with the super-intelligent machines we ourselves have created.

Not just that, but he suspects that within the next thirty years we will witness the uploading of the human consciousness or brain to computer systems, an ambition upon which  many are working to make reality as I write.

Coming from just anyone, these predictions would seem outlandish. But Kurzweil is a respected and accomplished inventor, holding 19 honorary doctorates, honored by American presidents for his contributions to the scientific community. Bill Gates has called him “the best person I know at predicting the future of artificial intelligence.”

In a recent Time magazine article on Kurzweil and his futurist ideas, author Lev Grossman encourages the reader to leave their gut reactions at the door:

“There’s an intellectual gag reflex that kicks in anytime you try to swallow an idea that involves super-intelligent immortal cyborgs, but suppress it if you can, because while the Singularity appears to be, on the face of it, preposterous, it’s an idea that rewards sober, careful evaluation.”

According to Kurzweil, a technological singularity –– known more popularly as “The Singularity” — will occur in the foreseeable future, wherein rapidly accelerating knowledge about nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, computer science, biotechnology and genetics will combine to create the perfect storm wherein a paradigm shift will occur so profound that it will change “the world as we know it” in record time. After all,  technology is developing exponentially, each breakthrough generating a new constellation of breakthroughs.

There are already transhumanist clubs and conventions that attract thousands.

Transhumanism is a cultural/intellectual movement advocating human augmentation through technology. But we’re not just talking prosthetic arms here, we’re talking goals of human immortality through machines — scientists working quite seriously towards transferring human consciousness from its corporeal form into the body of a robot.

If this sounds like science fiction, keep in mind that science fiction has predicted nearly every technological advancement we now perceive as commonplace, from space travel to submarines.

In 1998, a British scientist and professor of cybernetics, Kevin Warwick, became the first human cyborg. Warwick had a small radio transmitter chip implanted under his skin, which could affect lights turning on and off, doors opening and closing, etc. (Hasn’t he ever heard of “clap on, clap off?”)

Encouraged by this success, in 2002 Warwick had a neural interface implanted in his nervous system. That too was successful. Later, a simpler array was implanted into Warwick’s wife. The aim was to create a form of telepathy or empathy using the Internet to communicate the signal from afar. Though significant telepathy was not achieved, some signals were exchanged, resulting in the first purely electronic communication between the nervous systems of two humans.

The transhumanist trend has been showing up more and more in pop culture as well…

It’s not a question of if our humanity will become augmented (and simultaneously, paradoxically, perhaps diminished) by technology, but when and how.

The potential for nightmare scenarios — the Darwinian error of creating entities more powerful than oneself with minds of their own — remains a realistic concern, but not a momentum-stopper, apparently. And perhaps reasonably so: if we let fear and paranoia rule our imaginations, after all, we repress our potential. On the other hand, brazen utopianism with hubristic disregard for basic intuitive reservation has gotten more than a few people in trouble. I suppose the phrase “proceed with caution” would be particularly meaningful here.

“We will transcend all of the limitations of our biology,” says Raymond Kurzweil. “That is what it means to be human — to extend who we are.”

A good argument. But many would argue that becoming machinelike is the exact opposite of what it means to be human. Without the prospect of death to motivate living each day to the fullest, without imperfection to give poignancy, what will we become? And what if we are the spiritual equivalent of caterpillars designing ways to remain caterpillars indefinitely, unwittingly thwarting our destiny as butterflies?

The Art of Madness

January 10, 2011 § 3 Comments

By Tai Carmen

By Minjai Lee; site credit: www.hdw.eweb4.com/search/surrealism/

“Madness is to think too many things in succession too fast, or one thing too exclusively.” ~ Voltaire

“A person needs a little madness, or else they never dare cut the rope and be free.” ~ Nikos Kazantzakis

“You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” ~ Robin Williams

In his seminal work, “Madness and Civilization,” French philosopher Michael Faucault posits that psychiatry uses labeling language (known as positive science) to camouflage the bourgeois values imposed on social deviancy.

In other words, the mental health system acts as a kind of suppressive goon against nonconformity.

site credit: http://floatinginthebellyofawhale.tumblr.com/post/69345544932

Vincent Van Gogh, famous for his sunflowers, wheat fields and ear-chopping, acknowledged that:

“It is only too true that a lot of artists are mentally ill — it’s a life which, to put it mildly, makes one an outsider. I’m all right when I completely immerse myself in work, but I’ll always remain half crazy.”

From an evolutionary perspective, survival depends on some kind of social acceptance. So it’s natural that we attempt to avoid stigmatization. Yet, the seeker-dreamer feels compelled towards living authentically and will often sacrifice herd acceptance for the satisfaction of true self-expression.

Still, there is the ever-present, if subconscious, awareness that if you go too far, you could lose liberty. If you act too differently, you could be institutionalized.

Once deemed clinically insane, the individual’s rights become blurry, as with criminals.

The incarceration of psychological dissidents acts as a kind of warning to wayward thinkers; a cautionary tale to not let one’s mind run too far into the fanciful woods. 

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Edgar Allen Poe observed:

“Men have called me mad, but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence—whether much that is glorious—whether all that is profound—does not spring from disease of thought—from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect. Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.” 

In the Renaissance,  the mentally ill were considered to have gotten too close to “the Reason of God.”

Tribal cultures throughout the world consider madness the first sign of a shaman’s birth into his power, marking him as one who can communicate between the physical and the invisible worlds.

Dr Adele Juda, researcher at the Institute for Psychiatry of Munich, interviewed over 5,000 people between 1927 –1943. She found what was considered neurosis and personality disorder in 27% of the artists & 19% of the scientists and statesmen studied, against the general rate of 10-12%.

The highest rates of psychic disruption were seen among poets (50%).

As French poet Arthur Rimbaud writes:

“A poet makes himself a visionary through a long, boundless, and systematized disorganization of all the senses. All forms of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he exhausts within himself all poisons, and preserves their quintessences. Unspeakable torment, where he will need the greatest faith, a superhuman strength, where he becomes all men… Because he has cultivated his soul, already rich, more than anyone, he attains the unknown.”

The lowest rates of neurosis were found among architects (17%).

A good friend of mine once worked as a personal assistant for an Oscar-winning talent who shall remain nameless. She has shared moments with me wherein the successful entertainer barreled through the living room in boxer shorts, a newsboy hat and cowboy boots, a manuscript of papers clutched to his chest, saying, “I’m going mad!”—after dumping his papers in a pile to play a beautiful fit of piano music & jumping up to scribble in a notebook.

He smiled of course when he said it, because he had managed to play the most beautiful hoodwink upon society that a creative mind can play: he made money being slightly mad.

And that is the art of insanity: valuing creative chaos and giving it room to unfold without premature critique or analysis. Order and reason can come later. As Nietzsche says:

“You must have chaos within to give birth to a dancing star.”

Creative process doesn’t have to make sense, and some of the world’s greatest visionaries have proven that it’s better if it doesn’t. Far-fetched processes yield unusual thoughts, and novel ideas garner more attention than pedestrian ones.

Am I suggesting that one can not be brilliant without being insane? Certainly not. But in order to have great thoughts, one’s mind must certainly be open to a broader scope than the average thinker, and when a mind is broad in expanse, the impressions therein will be unusually varied.

Madness and art are not mutually exclusive, but they do go well together, and often turn up as a pair to the same party. If you’re one of those who dreams awake and finds yourself an “outsider” like van Gogh, consider yourself lucky: you’re in good company and that much closer to doing something original.

So use your madness to your own advantage. Rather than stuffing it in a drawer, take it out to play.

“Imagination,” Einstein says, “is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

There is no genius free from some tincture of madness.Seneca

If you liked this post, you might also The Outsider, The Outsider As Visionary & The Mythology of Conformity 

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