In today’s world, it is increasingly difficult for the average citizen to obtain a sense of prestige, a sense even of recognition from a coherent social grouping. Such social groupings, such organic communities have more difficulty surviving within an anonymous vacuumized urban setting, than they do within a preliterate tribe or a rural village. And when such groupings do survive, they don’t exert the same kind of influence, because they have to compete with each other for the attentions of members of the larger community within modern technological societies. Without strong cohesive organic groupings, there is a loss of a meaningful audience for many of the kinds of achievement that warrant prestige or recognition.
Here I am not necessarily talking about the kind of prestige that comes from unusual achievements, a kind of prestige that is still available to the select few. Modern digital media are good for promoting such achievements. Rather, I am talking about the kind of positive appreciation for the more modest achievements that can nevertheless stand out in smaller social groupings. Examples in more traditional social groupings include a good hunter in a hunting and gathering society or a good artisan in a rural village. Even just a good family leader in a strong-bonded extended family.
But not only has there been a loss of audience in our more anonymous modern society for prestige-creating achievements for the average person, there is also a loss of opportunity for such achievements. In a modern technological living environment, there are few organic surfaces on which to make and preserve strong organic imprints, and there is little organic friction available to generate the processes involved in making organic imprints. The frictionlessness of modern technology makes more and more modern life activities seem trivial.
At any rate, without strong meaningful organic imprints, there is less opportunity for meaningful prestige from a coherent audience. Prestige reinforces self-esteem. Without meaningful opportunities for organic imprints, there is less opportunity for a person to obtain self-esteem.
This is particularly a problem today for men as opposed to women. A woman has one important natural opportunity to create a preserved organic imprint that a man does not have. That of course is giving birth to a baby. A fertile woman of age without reproductive problems can often have a baby when she wants, and many women today have babies to increase their self-esteem from a meaningful imprint whether or not they are married. There is much less of an onus to having a child out of wedlock today, and single mothers often find encouraging support groups both from their family as well as from their friends. Family and friends can form ad hoc social groups around the single mother to give her positive reinforcement.
So when a fertile young woman wants to leave her imprint on an anonymous urban environment, she can do it, in spite of a lack of available recognition or prestige from conventional social groupings and in spite of a lack of opportunity to leave an imprint through some kind of meaningful accomplishment in the public external world. A man has no such equivalent opportunity. He is much more reliant on the experiential surfaces of the public external world for making and preserving meaningful organic imprints. Yes, a man makes a crucial contribution to making a baby, but he is not directly involved in gestating the baby or delivering the baby to the external world. A lot was written by Freudians about the notion of penis envy among girls, but also important in the history of humanity has been the envy by men of a woman’s ability to have babies. In many preliterate societies, there exists a cultural institution called the couvade, in which a man goes into confinement before, during and/or after his wife’s birth of a child and is required to observe certain dietary restrictions and other taboos. It is as if a man becomes pregnant and gives birth himself.
But, of course, the man does not actually become pregnant. Nevertheless, this institution shows the importance of creating meaningful opportunities for a man to make and preserve organic imprints, and not only, as has been discussed before, to create a bundle of preserved organic imprints to function as a surrogate immortality in preparation for death. A person needs to make and preserve organic imprints to validate his life, to give meaning to his life, while he is still living. And a man, in spite of the couvade, has to really do this in the public sphere of life, because he can’t do it in the personal or family sphere through giving birth to babies.
But today, the public sphere – the modern technological living environment – offers relatively few opportunities for most people to leave meaningful imprints. People experience the sensory distortion in their living environment – the understimulation from the vacuum aspects such as the frictionless technological processes, the monotonous housing projects and the decorationless modern architecture on the one hand, and the overstimulation from the tension-pocket aspects like the overpopulated city centers, the construction sites for modern buildings and the traffic jams on the other – and people become numbed and hardened. But men, in particular, still have this unsatisfied need to make and preserve organic imprints to validate their lives, to gain recognition and prestige. And if a man can’t validate his life by making and preserving organic imprints, then often he will find a way to pull himself out of his numbness and his jadedness and to validate his life by destroying other people’s organic imprints, including destroying other people’s capacity to create organic imprints, by destroying their lives. Instead of prestige and positive validation, the man gains notoriety and negative validation. Such destruction can start with graffiti, which combine aspects of making and preserving organic imprints by making artistic images and aspects of destroying other people’s organic imprints as a result of defacing property. Arson is an unadulterated form of destroying other people’s organic imprints. To the extent that the accumulation of personal property can constitute a kind of organic imprint as a result of demonstrating a person’s taste, then robbery or burglary of property represents a destruction of an organic imprint. Robbing another person’s money is robbing a symbol of the imprint created by work or astute investment. But by far the most heinous of all destructive imprints is taking another person’s life. This, of course, is magnified when a killer goes on a rampage and tries to kill as many people as possible.
These killing rampages represent the quintessential nihilistic attempt by a man to leave an organic imprint when there are few experiential surfaces on which to leave positive organic imprints, and when the killer finds no other meaningful way to pull himself out of his numbness and restore his full sense of feeling alive. The killer, of course, gets notoriety, because his horrendous actions make him stand out in the public’s awareness. And he gets an incredible kick out of it to pull himself out of his numbness. Even if he is going to get caught, even if he is going to get killed, for a certain period of time, the adrenalin is flowing, and he has succeeded in pulling himself out of his experiential vacuum. At least for a short while, he has validated his life.
If lacking the opportunity to make and preserve positive organic imprints is a major component in the growth of the killing rampages in modern technological society, then a possible solution is to find a way to meaningfully reconfigure society and meaningfully reconfigure living environments such that men, in particular, have a greater opportunity to make and preserve positive organic imprints and to do so in such a way that they can win validation from some appreciative social groupings. But this requires a sense of collective responsibility that is hard to muster in modern democratic societies where people are becoming increasingly individualistic and unwilling to submit to the requirements that are part of being a member of traditional coherent groupings.
Without some sort of fundamental change in our social structure and in our social attitudes and expectations, we may just as well resign ourselves to more random violent actions. Discussions about improving early childhood care and education, about more available job training both in and out of prison, while important for human wellbeing, don’t deal with the problem under discussion here. Even with the best childhood care, the best education and the best job training, a man particularly has to feel that he is doing something that allows him to leave meaningful organic imprints in such a way that he receives some kind of validation, approval, prestige from some receptive audience, some coherent social grouping. And the more that we try to make our fields of experience frictionless through modern technology, the more difficult it will be to find the organic surfaces in our fields of experience that are necessary for a man to have the opportunity to leave imprints and to obtain positive validation, so that he doesn’t have to resort to the range of destructive activities, the destruction of organic imprints that include the mass murders about which we are all more and more concerned.
(c) 2015 Laurence Mesirow