Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Individual Imprints and Group Imprints

In discussing the notions of making and preserving imprints, I have not focused enough on an important distinction regarding sources of imprints.  Some imprints are made by individuals and others are made by groups.  Some imprints are preserved by individuals and others by groups.  When an individual preserves an imprint as part of his preparation for death, it becomes part of his personal surrogate immortality.  This represents some of the imprints we have talked about like a book, a work of art, a planted tree, and a small business.  It also includes the memories he leaves with other people.  When a group preserves an imprint as part of its eventual preparation for death, the imprint becomes a part of its surrogate immortality.  Such imprints include a building, a mural, a dam, a family, a large business, a culture, and the memories it leaves with other groups and individuals.  Different kinds of mentality are needed to produce a personal surrogate immortality and a collective surrogate immortality.

A very good example of a group interested in preserving a collective surrogate immortality is the members of a traditional society, that want to preserve their culture and cultural artifacts.  In order to be able to do this, a specific kind of mentality has to be bred in these group members.  A traditional society is a group that is usually built on the continual stimuli from the grounding in a more organic environment.  The group is grounded in the environment and the individual members are grounded in the group.  The individual members have senses of self that are based on a strong sense of coherence to the group.  They are immersed in and surrounded by the continual stimuli of bondedness to the members of their family, their clan and all the other sub groups within their group as well as to the larger group itself.  The individual members of the group are allowed to differentiate themselves as individuals, but only up to a point.  For example, a crafts person is encouraged to make beautiful pieces of craft, but only within the confines of the categories of the structures and designs permitted within the culture.

Furthermore, an individual in a traditional group goes through life stages in his life cycle that flow into one another.  There is a unity to the life cycle.  A child sees the adults around him who model the roles he will assume.  He starts learning the general modalities of behavior that will lead into adulthood.  As an adolescent, he starts more actively learning, sometimes as a kind of apprentice, the adult role.  As an adult, he starts creating a place for himself in the community by getting married and forming a family, by working and by direct social participation in the community.  This place earns him the respect that allows him to grow into a revered old age, should he live that long.

Everything fits into place in order that the individual can participate in the coherent group imprints used to form the collective surrogate immortality.  The strength of a person’s sense of self in a traditional society is based more on self coherence rather than self definition.  There is some self definition, but it is a self definition which allows a person to play a particular role in the collective imprint being left by the society on the larger community field of experience.  In such a society, the danger for a person is that there is so much submersion in the group that there is not enough self definition.  The person doesn’t feel alive enough, because he doesn’t feel defined enough.  He feels too blurred in all ways to really be able to focus and think clearly and crisply.

One way a person in a traditional society can deal with such a danger is through the discrete stimulation of violence either directed towards others or towards himself.  Among the Plains Indians in the U.S., a young man sticks a bone or a wooden skewer through his chest in order to have a vision that will give him his unique male adult identity.  In some traditional societies, a man has proved his valor through different feats of war or perhaps through his skill in the hunt.  All these acts or tasks allow a man to give himself some self definition in a society and an environment that could potentially threaten to swallow him up.  There is an ongoing tension between the individual and the group.

In modern society, the focus has been on the individual, who is a free-floating figure along with all the other free-floating figures of people, animals, things and places, floating in the laminated vacuum and the tension pockets of modern technological environments.  The individual is in an environment of primarily discrete stimuli from the floating figures and continuous stimuli from the emptiness of the vacuum.  In today‘s world, a person with access to economic resources and opportunities is focused on creating and preserving a personal surrogate immortality.  This occurs as a result of the person unfolding his potential in different directions as much as possible.  As he grows up, he develops different capacities through school and additional lessons that give him a unique set of competencies.  For example, the person becomes a good trumpet player and makes the varsity baseball team at school.  He majors in mathematics as an undergraduate and then decides to go to law school, where he becomes a lawyer.  In addition, he goes to live in Italy for his junior year abroad, and visit’s a distant relative in South Africa for a summer after he graduates college.  During college, he has summer jobs at a sushi restaurant and as a  carpenter working on new homes.  I have perhaps exaggerated the quantity and diversity of life experiences of this hypothetical person to make a point.  A great diversity of life skills and life experiences leads to a unique self definition, but sometimes this very diversity leads to a kind of mental disjunction which I shal discuss shortly.

This is a very different set of developmental life experiences from a person in a traditional society.  The latter tends to stay in his community on the community land.  There are not a lot of highly individualized life experiences to have.  For the person in modern technological society, his whole life tends to be individual life experiences and a variety of life skills that mold the mind and body to leave unique imprints and a unique set of imprints in preparation for death.  And wheras the traditional society person worries about losing his sense of self to the large group, to other humans, the modern society person worries about holding together the different fragments of events, experiences and skills he has accumulated, and preventing his sense of self from breaking apart.  In other words, excessive self definition leads to self fragmentation.  It becomes harder and harder to integrate all the fragments of different life events, different life experiences and different life skills.  Unlike the traditional society person, the modern Western society person does not have to worry about loss of self from submersion in a group (unless he voluntarily joins a cult, in order to escape the vacuum.)  Instead the modern society person has to worry about loss of self to many self-fragments.

In effect, I am saying that an additional explanation for mental illness today - along with such other theories as dysfunctional families and chemical imbalances - is the sensory distortion of modern technological environments.  This latter influence leads people to experience themselves as isolated figures and eventually isolated fragments of figures.  The focus on the individual that started in the Renaissance in Europe evolves until eventually, the grounded community connection for a person withers away into relative insignificance, as the individual loses the the experiential glue that holds him together.  So it is not only the lack of organic experiential surfaces that makes it difficult for modern industrial people to leave the individual imprints that were so cherished in breaking away from traditional communities and collective surrogate immortalities.  It is the lack of a coherent impress or stamp from the self in making and preserving the individual imprints necessary for a personal surrogate immortality.

A healthy sense of self is based on a balance between internal coherence and external definition.  Perhaps, as one looks across the flow of human history, one can identify certain transitional periods in societies when there was an approximate balance between these two aspects of a sense of self.  Periods when technology was somewhat developed, but it had not yet taken over the whole landscape.  In the Western world,  such periods would probably be located some time between the Renaissance and the nineteenth century.  As one looks across the flow of history, one can see that as the push for technological dominance over the environment has moved forward, such a  period of balance has not had favorable conditions for lasting very long.  In today’s world, the imbalance towards self definition is quite strong.  And in such a hypothetical transitional period, there would have been an opportunity to participate relatively equally in a collective surrogate immortality and in a personal surrogate immortality.  Preserving the imprints of the group that gives an individual his grounding as well as preserving his own imprints.  Such an opportunity definitely does not exist today.

c 2011 Laurence Mesirow

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Defenses Against Sensory Distortion

One important way that sensory distortion from modern technological environments affects our behavior is in the velocity of our activity.  By changing the velocity of our activity, we can create a self-generated field of stimuli that supplants the uncomfortable configuration of stimuli we are experiencing around us.  There are two principal ways we can generate this.  Both involve transformations of our will.  In other words, a transformation of an internal aspect of the mind leads to the transformation of the presentation of human activity.

The first way is one that I will call conative acceleration: the speeding up of the will.  One posture for a person in sensory distortion is to speed up the will and the activity it creates to such an extent that the stimuli from the activity prevents the experience of the sensory distortion in the external surroundings.  Why is it that people seem to be moving so quickly in crowded urban environments like Manhattan.  They are creating an intense level of stimuli by moving quickly, but it is a level of stimulation over which they have control.  It is an intense organic level of stimulation.  In truth, it is like an intense self-generated field of experience.  And the intensity from the accelerated stimuli blocks the sensory distortion from reaching the brain.
Now conative acceleration can be effective against two very different types of technological environments.  It can combat the sensory overstimulation of tension-pocket environments like crowded noisy urban neighborhoods.  In many modern corporations, employees are expected to be more productive than ever and work longer hours.  This attitude is the foundation of a psychological defense.  People have to fill their time all the time, slot every moment, in order not to experience the overstimulation on the streets below.

Another posture that people can take to deal with sensory distortion is numbing themselves and psychological withdrawing from their external surroundings.  This is done with meditation or using drugs like marijuana, sometimes with the support of mystical groups, and the people become very passive and calm themselves to float in reverie. This I will call conative anesthesia: the numbing of the will.  Rather than try to grapple with and suppress the sensory distortion as in conative acceleration, in conative anesthesia, the person withdraws from the sensory distortion in the external environment and into a world of alternate stimuli inside his  head.

Conative acceleration can also act as a defense against some of the dangerous effects of vacuum environments.  Although people like to think of vacuum environments as environments where figure and ground phenomena can be preserved indefinitely, there actually is a destructive danger present.  This danger is entropy.  Entropy is the tendency for matter to distribute randomly and uniformly in a physical vacuum.  So if you leave something in a vacuum for a long enough period of time, it starts to fall apart.  But this is a much more subtle long-term disintegration than perishability in grounded natural environments.  For humans, the psychological effect of entropy is the gradual crumbling of consciousness.  All sorts of weird things happen to people when they are placed in sensory deprivation chambers.  They start imagining things and hallucinating.  This is much like the mirages thirsty men have when they are lost in a North African desert - a natural environment that is very influenced by vacuum aspects.  Miles and miles of sand particles that don’t bond with one another and that create a scene with little grounded sensory variety and with no significant figure landmarks to the untrained eye except an occasional oasis.

As a defense against the overstimulation in tension-pocket environments, conative anesthesia and withdrawal is a way of removing oneself into a calming vacuum environment.  In the internal vacuum environment, the person can temporarily preserve his psychological integrity by partly shutting out all the abrasive static stimuli that impinge on his boundaries.  These stimuli continue to impinge to a certain extent on the person and, in a way, continue to connect him to the external environment.  Nevertheless, they are not able to disrupt the psychological integrity of the person, because the person is floating in his own internal psychological vacuum space.

Now we have previously talked about how vacuum external environments do involve the subtle dangers of entropy.  But entropy makes its presence strongly felt when one is in a vacuum environment for a long period of time.  Entropy is not as much of an issue during short periods of meditation.

Finally, some people assume a meditative vacuum posture as a defense against a primarily vacuum external environment.  The advantage of the meditative vacuum posture is that a person maintains his psychological integrity, because he or she is at least in control of his own vacuum.  The person has reduced the size of the vacuum in which he dwells to manageable proportions.

So are there any significant problems for people in assuming these postures.  Each of these postures has important side effects and consequences.  Conative acceleration is exhausting and wears us down.  Conative anesthesia is numbing in such a way that we somehow don’t feel fully alive and connected to the external world.  In both cases, people survive.  But without organic grounding in the external world and organic grounding in the internal world of the mind, there are no templates to allow a person to develop deep sustained intimacy with another person.

These postures allow individuals to survive as isolated units.  They are not very helpful for the sustenance of social connection.  When one is moving very fast, they are moving too fast to bond.  When they stop moving or move too slow, there is not enough energy to reach out and engage in bonding.  There is a reason for the high percentage of marriages that end in divorce today.  There is a rhythm to organic connectivity that is very difficult to maintain in modern technological environments.

Speeding up or numbing the will is conducive to survival today, but it is not conducive to making, receiving or preserving organic imprints.  This is true both because there are fewer organic surfaces on which to make imprints in our field of experience today, and because the velocity of our mental activity is such that we are too detached from our external field of experience, even if we wanted to make, receive and preserve imprints.  This is simply one more aspect of the way in which modern technological environments interfere with fundamental human needs.

c 2011 Laurence Mesirow