Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Mirroring and Modeling in Modern Technological Society

An important theme in the history of Western Civilization has been the increasing domination over natural environments through technological development.  This flow of improving forms of technology not only enables humans to rise above and separate themselves from the perishability caused by wild animals, poisonous plants, diseases and climatological and geological catastrophes, it also allows humans to pull themselves away from the inadvertent mirroring and modeling that occurs with the interaction with natural phenomena and, in particular, with wild animals.

By mirroring, I am referring to how different natural phenomena reflect back certain characteristics that a person then sees in himself.  By modeling, I am referring to how a phenomenon, through certain characteristics acts as an idealized version of what a person aspires to be consciously or unconsciously through emulation.  Both of these terms are customarily used in modern psychodynamic psychology to refer to relationships that an individual has with parental figures.  The focus is on how parental figures mirror a person and how parental figures act as models or are turned into models for a person.  But I feel that a controlling psychological influence can issue from any powerful phenomenon, even when a person thinks he is standing apart from it.  The influence leaches out, even from phenomena held at arms length.  As long as the phenomenon has a sustained presence in the person’s experiential neighborhood and has active complex processes, it can end up being a mirror and/or a model.  This is true for phenomena like animals, natural climactic and geologic phenomena, and complex machines.  It is also true of subject peoples or individuals who can have a very strong indirect influence of mirroring and modeling on the dominant peoples or individuals.  A subject person can be a very good analogy for a “subject” machine that also caters to the wishes of its master.

Anyway, people in traditional organic environments naturally became and aspired to become like the natural phenomena that surrounded them.  In most cases, these natural phenomena represented potential dangers.  By incorporating some of the traits of these natural phenomena, people could then protect themselves against the dangers.  The people would end up having their own strengths as well as the strengths of their adversaries.  The incorporation of these phenomena occurred through religious practices:  animals were anthropomorphized into totems who protected clans within tribes.  In some early civilizations still close to nature like Babylonia and Egypt, animals were combined with human beings to become gods.  Various inanimate natural phenomena were anthropomorphized into deities in Babylonia and Egypt as well as other polytheistic religions like those of the Greeks, the Romans, and the Norse.  The sun, the moon, the sea, the sky, agriculture, thunder, the earth among others were all incorporated into the gods of these polytheistic religions.  To the extent that these phenomena mirrored people, it was as if certain traits naturally leached into people’s minds and behavior.  To the extent that natural phenomena were models for people, people aspired consciously or unconsciously to become more like certain traits of certain phenomena in their living environments.

As Western cultures industrialized and modernized, people from them looked at people from certain more traditional cultures as “savages” - people who were still immersed in living environments with wild animals and other potentially dangerous phenomena, and who, to survive, had seemed to take on some traits of these potentially dangerous phenomena.  According to people in the West, “savages” were not people who had evolved into a more culturally transcendent state where they could hold themselves away from the seemingly wild uncontrollable phenomena that surrounded them.

So “civilized” Westerners became more and more separated by their increasingly technologized living environments from the leaching influences of the dangerous phenomena from traditional organic environments.  In terms of my previous models, these phenomena could be categorized as incipient figures: figures rising into differentiation from the undifferentiated and undifferentiating aspects of a natural environment that swallowed up perishable phenomena through decay and rot.  Violence was a way by which many people in traditional preindustrial organic environments could psychologically separate themselves to some extent from organic living environments that threatened to swallow them up.  Violence is sharp and direct and focuses the mind and makes it more defined.  It was a way that humans could imitate some of the totem wild animals and anthropomorphized natural phenomena and create strong psychological boundaries and fight perishability.  The irony is that “civilized” people have continued to behave with agression and violence but in more mediated ways.  As modern technological society continues to move people away from natural environments, guns and bombs allow people to express the violence of animals but in more transcendent ways.  The influences of animals and machines come together here as we transition to a more and more technologized society.

In modern technological living environments, humans have succeeded in separating themselves, to a great extent, from the ongoing perishable tendencies found in traditional organic living environments.  They live in sanitized environments with laminated surfaces free from decay and rot.  They no longer have wild animals present except in zoos, and most dangerous natural phenomena like lightning and floods are kept at a mediated psychological distance from most people.  Earthquakes and hurricanes are somewhat the exceptions, but modern technological cleanup and rebuilding responses are relatively swift and thorough.  Today, people feel fairly safe from natural danger in their technological evnironment.

But there are the dangers that we have discussed related to sensory distortion.  These are the new dangers that people have to deal with in modern technological environments.  And just as people would identify with totemic animals and anthropomorphized natural phenomena to survive in traditional organic environments and use mirroring and modeling to do this, today people are unconsciously beginning to identify with modern complex machines - computers and robots - to survive the dangers of modern technological environments.  Modern complex machines mirror and act as totemic models for humans.  Computers, smart phones, and video games.  According to Dr. Jorge Cappon, a well-known psychoanalyst in Mexico City and professor emeritus at the UNAM, we surround ourselves with different brands and different models that correspond to different totemic animals.  For example some people swear by Macs, others by P.C.’s.

And as we immerse ourselves in these different consumer machines, we begin to take on the traits we experience in them.  We think we have control over them, but through our interactions with them, they indirectly shape us.  The influence from them leaches out.

Just as before in traditional living environments, there are phenomena that reshape us into becoming not-fully human beings.  In the traditional living environments, there was the threat that we would imitate too much the animals and other natural phenomena that filled our environment.  There was the threat that we would become wild and unregulated.  Today, the problem is that we are imitating too much the computers, robots and other high technology phenomena that surround us now.  And as long as we regularly interact with such phenomena, their influence will continue to leach out.  Instead of being wild and unregulated, today the threat is of our becoming numb and remote and losing our social connection to other people.  Computers and industrial machines make it possible for people to be available for work 24/7.  We get drawn into the rhythms of the technology that surrounds us and with which we interact.  We move in pace with the discrete well-defined processes that require our involvement to complete tasks.  Today, instead of having to worry about sliding into becoming “savages”, we have to worry about becoming androids or cyborgs.  And society is not providing a concerted effort to break the slide in any way.

c 2011 Laurence Mesirow

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