Big Thoughts

This is an excerpt from an essay I wrote for school. Have you ever heard the parable about the blind men and the elephant? Each grabs a different part of the creature, claiming that the thing he is encountering is a different object – a rope (the tail), a pillar (the leg), a fan (the ear), and so on. I feel like that. I’m all the blind men at one time. How do I become a specialist, or THE specialist in an area of research, without contextualizing it? I got my first two degrees in music, so I didn’t study a lot of philosophy. I decided to cram a chunk of the history of sociology into a few weeks and see what came out the other end. Ahem.

I needed a socio-historical context for my research. I’m interested in how people express aggression online. The question is why? What does how we behave online tell us about ourselves? About our era? Our future? So I boned up on Marx, Freud, Jung, and Campbell and came up with some ideas.

Marx, Freud, Jung, and the Postmodern Crisis

Marx deconstructed the idea of wage labor as a natural or virtuous endeavor, claiming instead that it created alienation in workers and encouraged labor exploitation by capitalists. He essentially saw the worker as superior to the capitalist (in modern parlance, perhaps a manager, executive, shareholder, or business owner) because a worker produces actual goods, whereas a capitalist derives profit from the labor of others. Marx believed that claiming the fruits of this labor in exchange for wages alienated the worker from his own creations; Marx saw labor as central to human fulfillment. He viewed religion as a false, externalized repository of human fulfillment, and the reclamation of exchange-value for labor as the path towards a liberated society that made religion superfluous. (Singer, 2000)

Similarly, Freud saw religion as the externalization of the self; the Devil and his works were really the sublimated, repressed desires of the Id, while our need for a loving God was the sublimated desire for the infantile relationship with the parents. Freud exploded the idea of a genetic or predetermined difference between social classes, and challenged the domination of the church at the most fundamental level.

Insofar as the idea of God being “out there” instead of “in here,” Jung shared Freud’s view of the interpretation of religion as being immature and parentified. However, Jung was not as dismissive of the mythic or religious impulse. He recognized the mystic experience as a way of connecting to an internal source of energy that humanity shares across cultures and throughout time. (Stevens, 2001) Joseph Campbell built on this idea, identifying the idea of the God within in multiple mythologies, religions, and cultures. (n.d.)

Marx saw religion as enslaving, and the industrial revolution as terribly dehumanizing. But in dismissing religion and Hegel’s more spiritual idea of Mind as God (which is echoed by Bateson), Marx also ignored human development. While Marx saw money and possessions (greed) as an unnatural cultural constraint used to concentrate power and money around a select few, my anecdotal experience does not support this.

I spend a lot of time around little kids who don’t have the neurological hardware yet for much social indoctrination. At around 2 years old, kids start wanting to possess things (and watching parents’ endless machinations to get their toddlers to behave as if they are socialized is comical) and keep other kids from taking them. Developmentally, small children seem to see possessions as potential extensions of themselves. I think, as many developmental theorists thought, they’ve got a whole operating system pre-programmed as part of their innate survival instinct. I don’t think, as Marx did, that possession and competition are all the result of unnatural indoctrination. It is perhaps at the junction of religion, government, and corporation (the self-preservation of an elite few) that “unnatural” social norms are created, alongside the necessary ones. Our salvation, perhaps, lies in understanding that our survival as individuals as predicated on our survival as a species.

While Marx described the endgame of capitalism remarkably clearly, he didn’t foresee the post-modern crisis. Many of his predictions about the increasing inequalities in capitalism were correct (unemployment, subsistence wages, income inequality), but instead of a united revolution or cooperative culture, we now have a cult culture. The destruction of the central socio-religious idea has given way to a multiplicity of social, political, and religious skirmishes. Instead of world wars, we have civil wars. Instead of a major ideology, we have ideological cults.

For example, the cult of capitalism claims that making money is innately moral and natural. Reagan’s “trickle-down economics” still influences politicians who seek election based on platforms that claim to “fix” our economy by giving tax breaks to corporations and the rich. The cult of consumerism trades the numinous religious sacrament for the transient glow of owning products whose advertising promises everything that we desire (heaven). The cult of science and rationality promises salvation through rejection of the emotional, irrational, and mystical impulses. The cult of health and beauty promises us unending youth and admiration (eternal life). Cults of political and social ideologies coalesce and decompose around issues like homosexuality, gun ownership, reproductive rights, and bullying. Our religions have become so factionalized as to be unrecognizable. The most consistent characteristic of our postmodern ideologies, is that they are subject to change rather quickly.

Positivism is alive and well, but it is applied to whatever gives the individual the strongest buffer between himself and fear of death, despair, or the unknown. Positivism seems to be working in service to a multiplicity of tenuous positions, rather than to any one pervasive perspective. Such is the post-modern world.

The Schism: The Internet, Pop Culture, and Interconnectedness

While Marx foresaw the corrosive effects of unchecked capitalism, just as Habermas recognized the numbing and self-destructive effects of the culture industry (Habermas used the term culture industry to describe the combination of media, corporate interests, and political interests that control the perceptions and decisions of citizens through media like television and advertising), particularly in the US), neither foresaw the current schism wherein capitalism continues to grow and consume itself and its resources through its religion-like status, while the culture industry is being dismantled through open access to information sharing.

While we have not done away with our consumerist tendencies, when it comes to information and entertainment, we have taken more control over what we consume. This is not to say that the internet has created a balanced and critical discourse; the wide availability of misinformation has perhaps further polarized the existing cults of belief. However dialogue, cooperation, compassion, and self-organization are taking place using the internet as a vehicle. Largely beholden to corporate interests (meaning the interests of a few very rich people) television, radio, and newspapers have typically been the vehicle used to control the emotions and perceptions of voters/consumers. Now we watch fewer and fewer commercials; the most successful television is on commercial-free channels like HBO, AMC and Netflix, and we get our news through multiple sources rather than reading the local newspaper in the morning and watching the television news at night. We curate our consumption of media and entertainment instead of having it curated for us.

Despite the chaos of our post-modern world, our need for a more universal story about our collective identity and future is reflected in popular culture in the form of superheroes, vampires, apocalyptic epics, and other mythological and archetypal stories that have been with us in some form throughout recorded history. Popular culture explores dystopian futures (Battlestar Galactica), multiplistic moral dilemmas (Ender’s Game), and complex hero characters (The Dark Knight).

While we cling to simplistic, untenable “facts” in our deeply divided political lives, we explore complexity and ambiguity in our art. Although our society is largely dismissive of pop culture, we forget that “real” art (European opera, literature, and visual art) was actually the pop of its day. The relationship of art to society is a function of history; not validity. The music of Mozart was not less artistic than that of Beethoven, but society’s view of art shifted radically from the classical to the romantic era, from a frippery of the upper classes to a vital force of human expression.

I realize it may seem lightweight to explore movies, television, and popular music, but they are the repository of the mythology of our time. To ignore them is to ignore some of the best impulses of our humanity. Fiction and fantasy are a barometer for collective hopes and fears and an outlet for the images that seek expression in our dreams and nightmares.

I see a deep juxtaposition between the post-modern fracturing of our societies and the universal, unifying themes in our popular art.

The socio-economic engine that benefits the privileged few is losing the hearts and minds of the masses through the dismantling of the culture industry. But to what then do we give our hearts and minds? Is the new age of Mind or Self or Brahman or Unity Consciousness actually coming to pass? Is something more whole and beautiful emerging from the chaos and violence of our century? Are we as a species finally moving from this concrete, cultish way of being into something more holistic and interconnected?

I have been listening to some interviews with Joseph Campbell from the late 1970s-early 1980s. In one, he posed a futuristic question. If we are becoming a world community, or an in group without an out group, what do we do with aggression? Campbell claimed we needed to transform it. Is that possible? Can we make poverty, ignorance, rape, murder our enemies, instead of people? Is it possible to stop “othering”? Or, is that just the consequence of being an animal species?

The internet seems to be simultaneously creating a ground for unity consciousness, while giving people endless opportunities to create and destroy perceived enemies. Freud and Jung identified this phenomenon: that the mythical enemy, or other, is really the projected shadow of the self. Yet wisdom traditions have also held that god/heaven is here and in all of us. Campbell points out that this is the foundation of Buddhism, and is also found in the mystical traditions of Christianity and Hinduism.

Is the internet intensifying division, or will we perhaps burn out on “othering” and find a more connected way of being? Will we realize that our individual survival is predicated on our survival as a species, which is predicated on the survival of our ecosystem? Can we focus on destructive behavior, instead of destructive people? Can we eradicate rape instead of rapists; murder instead of murderers? Or will we always need someone to point the finger at?

Concluding Thoughts

So what are my Big Thoughts after considering all of this material? While Marx, Freud, and Jung recognized the dehumanizing effects of modernity, nobody foresaw the internet and its implications (except maybe a few sci fi writers).

In 1980, Campbell pointed out that globalization was taking away our ability to “other” others, even before the spread of internet technology. Gareth Morgan (2006), too, makes an interesting comment about the potential for communication technology when discussing how technology is often harnessed to reinforce existing power structures, “…this misses the true potential [of information technology], which rests in creating networks of interaction that can self-organize and be shaped and driven by the intelligence of everyone involved.” (p.116)

Fifteen years later, society seems to take part in “othering” in smaller and smaller factions. While gay marriage was not even on the radar of most political candidates fifteen years ago, today most of the country accepts it as a basic civil right. Arguments over the scientific basis of global warming are giving way to more pervasive use of alternative energy sources. Simplicity gives way to complexity and concreteness gives way to ambiguity. Traditional battle lines break down and reform, then break down and reform anew.

While the human family seems increasingly fractured and tribal, and the internet facilitates this phenomenon through the easy creation and dissolution of communities, our pop culture is consistently reflecting universal, mythic themes. Our heroes and heroines are more complex; our stories more dystopian and complex. Yet when I look at the usual battery of summer blockbusters, the themes that emerge are about the rebirth of humanity from its own ashes (X-Men), or the retelling of ages old fairy tales from a different vantage point (Malificent).

I recently took my daughter to see How to Train Your Dragon 2. The movie portrays a battle between two fictional Viking tribes. One that espouses a patriarchal, dominator culture that harnesses the power of dragons (nature) to dominate other tribes. The other tribe has a cooperative and innovative relationship with dragons that it uses for collective prosperity. The movie also portrays a cultural transition from a fear-driven culture to a cooperation/love-driven culture.

The chief of the tribe is grooming his son Hiccup, the main character, to succeed him. Hiccup’s mother was thought to have been killed by a dragon when he was a baby. A teenager in the first movie, he tried to kill a dragon to gain adult status, but instead befriended it and learned to ride it, eventually convincing his father and the rest of the tribe to end their war on dragons. He lost his foot in a battle with a huge dragon that his father had challenged, but his dragon (Toothless) saved him and won his father’s trust.

In this movie, Hiccup encounters a tribe whose leader lost his arm to a dragon and consequently took revenge on dragons by learning to dominate their alpha. Hiccup encounters his mother, who has lived in peace with another alpha for the last 20 years. Without detailing the entire plot, Hiccup’s father dies and Hiccup takes his place as leader, with his mother and and warrior girlfriend Astrid as his counselors. The nascent cooperative culture is tested and strengthened by its interdependence between men and women; dragons and humans. I’m also giving some thought to the symbolism of the missing foot and the missing arm; the foot helps us balance, while the arm can be used to wield a weapon or defend from attack. Perhaps both characters are compensating for what they have lost.

Contrast this with summer blockbusters of yore, such as Independence Day (1996) where the world unites under the leadership of the American president to battle creepy, uncomplicated aliens, while celebrating the irreverent cowboy archetype in the hero character played by Will Smith. This “space western” summer movie dominated my childhood, but seems to be giving way to far more complex and multiplistic themes that consider the identity and history of the “other,” our relationship to the earth, and our collective fate as a species.. While we still seem to be intent on “othering” in our politics and political discourse, there are hopeful signs in our art that we may be moving beyond this. One can only hope.

DeBlois, D. (2014). How to Train Your Dragon 2. Animation, Action, Adventure.

Edinger, E. F. (1991). Ego and archetype: Individuation and the religious function of the psyche. Boston: Shambhala.

Morgan, G. (2006). Images of organization. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Singer, P. (2000). Marx: A very short introduction. Oxford University Press.

Stevens, A. (2001). Jung: A very short introduction (New edition edition.). Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Weick, K. E. (1979). The social psychology of organizing. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co.

The Wisdom of Joseph Campbell. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.audible.com/pd/Religion-Spirituality/The-Wisdom-of-Joseph-Campbell-Audiobook/B002VA9TR2

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