Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Subject Peoples and Subject Machines

One of the ongoing themes in my writing has been the tendency of complex machines in modern society to have a leaching influence on people.  Obviously, I am using the term metaphorically and not talking about the leaching that occurs in certain chemical processes.  I use the term “leaching” to describe the influence of these complex machines as sources of mirroring and modeling for human beings much like parental figures and totemic animals can be.  The concepts of mirroring and modeling usually refer in psychodynamic psychology to the influence that older more powerful human beings have on younger less powerful and even helpless human beings.  In anthropology, they can be used to refer to the attempts by technologically less-powerful societies to try and make a psychological connection to certain powerful elements in their natural living environment that could be potentially threatening or that could offer them secrets to survival.

Modern humanity supposedly has a certain control over its natural environment as a result of the incredible technological progress it has made over the last few centuries.  Technology has allowed people to transcend above their natural living environment and to transcend above many sources of perishability that occur in more primitive environments.  During these times, the official posture was not to let the psychological influences of perishable phenomena leach into or blend with people’s psyches, but rather that people should stand apart from the things in their environment in order to control and dominate them.  People stood apart from other people, when one group conquered another people and set up a colonial or master-slave relationship with them.  Granted that, as I have said previously, subject peoples did have an influence that leached out to their conquerors.  But for a long time, conquerors made the attempt to maintain a stand-apart relationship in some areas of life with their subject peoples.

The question is at what point do people that are trying to stand apart from the phenomena in their environment, lose control and become more open to mirroring and modeling, to psychological leaching and blending.  It seems to me that people are most predisposed to leaching and blending precisely at that point when they have psychologically cut themselves off from the significant organic surfaces in their field of experience or when there really are too few organic surfaces in their field of experience.  In both situations, a lack of opportunity to commune with grounded surfaces makes people feel starved for grounded surfaces with which to commune.  In the case of colonial or slave societies, the need for some dominant people to maintain brittle boundaries in order to stand apart from the subject people they control, leads to an explosive desire in some of them to break through the boundaries that have been created.  The colonial and slave society master mentality just leads to a person cutting himself off psychologically from too many grounded surfaces in his living environment in order to keep his dominant position.  The enforced psychological distances that are maintained means that the ruling person ends up in a psychological vacuum.  So it is not only the subject people that gets hurt in a colonial situation.

The breaking through the boundaries by the master people can take different forms.  However, it generally means that the master peoples start “going native” and become more like the subject people they rule.  Frequently, it means racially mixing with the subject people,  although in the American South, racially mixing with blacks primarily resulted in the creation of light-skinned slaves, who maybe had a little more power and a little higher status.  Nevertheless, the fact that the white daughters of plantation owners began to pick up the English dialect of the black slaves in the plantation house led to the daughters being sent to boarding schools, where they could learn proper English again.  Some boundaries had to be maintained in order to maintain white domination.  However, an important point is that in a situation like this one, the subject peoples were human beings, who had grounded surfaces and were open to blending with their colonial masters.

A very different situation exists for people living in modern technological societies.  The subject technology - the computers and robots and smart phones and other consumer technological devices - are not organisms and do not have grounded surfaces with which to commune and blend with their human masters.  So any leaching influence of modern machines on human behavior is not done as a result of a predisposition of these machines to blend organically with phenomena in their environment.  The blending is all done by the human masters in their minds.  The machines are not overtly seducing their masters the way a pretty woman from a subject people might in order to gain some power through a connection with the master.

Master people lose control of their capacity to stand apart in a power relationship from a particular complex phenomenon, when the phenomenon has a large enough critical mass in numbers, that it can surround the master people in their field of experience.  Colonial Americans adopted few customs from the Native Americans, because, from the very beginning, the British had brought over their wives.  Therefore, there was little racial mixing with the natives.  Furthermore, the Indians in North and South America died in vast numbers as a result of contact with European diseases.  Nevertheless, there was much more influence from native customs in Spanish, and French colonies, because the men in these colonies tended not to bring their women over to the New World very much initially.  For the Spaniards, their colonies were initially primarily places to exploit natural resources like gold and silver, rather than places to establish permanent self-sustaining settlements. The colonial Portuguese were much more influenced by their African slaves, with whom they mixed a lot, rather than the Native Americans in Brazil.

At any rate, the period of technological transformation is well advanced, and modern people are totally immersed in technologically-based laminated environments and surrounded by machines.  This is a much more extreme situation for brittle boundaries than the situation of colonial and master-slave societies, because it is the environment itself that enforces strong experiential boundaries.  Machines and technological environments cannot naturally open up and develop grounded surfaces, even if  the master people would change their attitudes.  The only literal blending that can be done is through replacement of body parts and the development of cyborgs.  But for most people today, the merging occurs in the mind through the implicit mirroring and modeling that complex machines like computers, smart phones and robots can provide.

What we have with both colonial societies and slave societies on the one hand, and modern technological societies on the other is a situation of a subservient subject phenomenon taking a subtly controlling position over a supposedly master group of people as a result of the latter’s need to make and receive imprints and, in so doing, revitalize itself.  The phenomenon fills a fundamental need that can’t be filled within the normal boundaries of the dominant people.

Some sources of mirroring and modeling remain dominant throughout and overtly controlling throughout their relationships with the people seeking the connection.  But the point I am making is that the sources of mirroring and modeling and leaching and blending do not always have to become dominant and overtly controlling.  Sometimes they can take some control by being simply seductive, and also by providing the possibility of communion and blending in a situation where the dominant people are experiencing overly rigid boundaries.  This is paradoxically true even for sources of mirroring and modeling like modern complex machines: computers, smart phones and robots that have strong figure boundaries themselves.  But with the destruction and displacement of traditional sources of grounding, communing and blending like nature and nature-inspired art, archtecture and artifacts, people psychologically reach out in a communing mode to these modern machines.  These machines are the major complex phenomena in the human living environment today.  But by reaching out to commune with phenomena with such strong boundaries, people open themselves wide psychologically to selfless machines.  In the process, the integrity of the sense of self of these people is greatly damaged.

c 2011 Laurence Mesirow

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