Monday, November 21, 2016

One Reason That Trump Won The Election

            Trump!  Trump!  Trump!  That’s practically the only story that is being discussed by the news analysts in the United States these days.  And it’s practically the only story that is being discussed by my friends in Chicago.  Everybody is in disbelief.  How did this happen?  This man who comes across as a narcissistic, vulgar, offensive, racist, sexist shapeshifter, a man who shocks his audiences by constantly putting on new faces for them and constantly modifying and contradicting things he had previously said.

            News analysts are explaining the Trump election surprise by suggesting that the fundamental problem was that the established Democratic and Republican power structures had simply not taken into sufficient consideration the anger of white working class men, who saw their jobs going overseas as a result of the multinational trade agreements or else being taken over by machines and robots and who felt that the principal beneficiaries of these economic changes were the very wealthy.  I share this analysis as far as it goes.  Trump has focused on the issue of economic policy, although he has not come up with any specific solutions.

            But I feel very strongly that the content of Trump’s message was not the only level on which he seduced people to take up his cause.  As people who have regularly read my column know, I am very interested in the way people experience life situations.  And the way his supporters experience Trump tells us a lot not only about Trump himself, but also about his supporters.

            To some of us, the fact that Trump was constantly switching his positions on many different issues and that he was constantly finding novel outrageous ways to attack his opponents and other people was a really indicative sign of his lack of emotional stability.  Was this the kind of person one would want to have as the person who could determine whether or not the U.S. would use a nuclear bomb?  But what us skeptics did not understand was that what we found to be concerning, a lot of other people found to be delightful.  This second group of people liked Trump’s vulgar, offensive, outrageous comments, his threats to put Hillary in jail and to carry out law suits against different imagined enemies.  This second group loved all the media coverage that Trump got for nothing.  They loved the fact that he was always throwing us skeptics off balance and making us angry with his comments.  They loved the fact that he was always adding so much tension, so much friction to normally orderly campaign events.  To his supporters, Trump gave vulgarity, offensiveness and outrageousness a good name.

            And, of course, the news media ate up Trump’s behavior.  Every time Trump changed his position on something or attacked somebody verbally, it became a newsworthy event.  Trump didn’t have to spend a whole lot of money on campaign advertising, because his outrageous behavior drew so much media coverage.  The media paid attention to him the way an audience  would have paid attention to a clown, a magician, or a mud wrestler.  He was simply mesmerizing.

            But it is one thing to pay a lot of attention to someone, and it is another thing to vote for him.  To vote for him is to say you want to see his continued presence in your life.  It is to say that you don’t want the stage act to end for a while.  The truth is that many people in the United States, including the people in the news media, got kicks out of his constantly shifting positions on most things as well as his outrageous attitudes and behavior.  Trump jolted them out of the experiential vacuum in which they live, all the mediated experience in which they were living.  These people spend a lot of time being numb spectators of consumer technological processes on their televisions, computers, and smartphones.  And all those workers who had been displaced by technology and the movement of factory work overseas had another layer of numbing vacuum in which to live: all the unemployment, all the partially employing jobs and all the underemploying jobs.  For numb people like this, what could be more exciting than a presidential candidate who was constantly in people’s faces, a person who acted assertively on his impulses.  To experience Trump is not the same as getting the organic stimulation from a more traditional natural living environment.  Such an environment would give a more sustained source of stimulation that would pull them more completely and more permanently out from their numbness.  But lacking this sustained organic stimulation, people in modern technological society look for quick fixes: alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex and risk-taking in general.

            And Trump falls into this category.  He has become a high-risk addiction for many Americans.  And the more changeable he is, the more outrageous he is, the more intense is the kick that he gives.  The more he pulls Americans out of their numbness and their jadedness. The more abrasive and unpredictable he is, the more these people feel the shock, the kick.

            Since winning the election, Trump has been very conciliatory and has pulled back from many of the threats he has made.  He is no longer going to try and lock up Hillary.  He is going to save parts of Obamacare.  And suddenly, Obama is a man who advises him and is a man with whom he wants to continue to confer.

            But Trump is a shapeshifter.  He is constantly reinventing himself.  Right now he wants to pacify all the groups of people he has offended, although as the demonstrators show, he is obviously not succeeding.  Nevertheless, the people who voted for him, believe in him, and believe in him no matter what.  When asked about his offensive behavior or some of his controversial positions, many people defend him by saying that he will change.  He will change all right.  He will change and change again and change again, giving whatever presentation of himself is appropriate for a particular situation.  Such is the nature of a shapeshifter.  And this is what is so worrisome.  He can take some very dangerous positions for the purpose of expediency.  Like verbally attacking certain groups, so that his followers can have their scapegoats.  And he can turn the hatred on and off as is needed.  All for the purpose of solidifying his strongman position by being a supposed savior.

            And, on one level, he is a “savior”, even if it is just for short periods of time.  He is a “savior” by shocking people to life temporarily with his attacks and with his vulgarity, much the way heroin is a “savior” that shocks drug addicts temporarily to life.  So on a certain level, Trump is definitely like an addiction for the people who voted for him.  He pulls them out of their experiential vacuum, their numb lives, with his abrasive attitudes and behavior.  He gives them a stimulation that allows them to feel something strong in their lives.

            The problem with Trump’s election is not just related to Trump himself.  It relates to a good chunk of the American population that connect with him.  And they will continue to be here after Trump’s term or terms in office.  If they continue to exert the influence they did in this election, we could have another disruptive person as president after Trump is gone.  Wouldn’t that be something to look forward to?

(c) 2016 Laurence Mesirow

The Changing Panorama Of Human Artifacts

            The evolution of using things in the external world to obtain food goes back a long way among animals.  Many non-human animals use pre-existing objects in their living environment.  These consist primarily of twigs and rocks.  Twigs can be slightly modified for tool purposes as when a chimpanzee uses a twig to fish out termites from a termite nest. This modification of a twig would constitute a very minimal imprint being made on an object by an animal.   There is not a significant imprint made on the object in its fabrication as a tool.  Furthermore, the products on which these primitive tools are used are forms of food, not another object like a craft product.  The latter would consist of a meaningful made imprint that is worthy of being preserved in and of itself. 

            With the appearance of humans on the planet, we get the first presence of things on which a complex animal both makes and preserves significant imprints.  Stones were struck against other stones to make tools with edges, and these tools included hammers, hand axes, spear parts and blades.  Capuchin monkeys in Brazil strike stones against other stones to produce stone flakes, but then they do nothing with them.  However, the broken stones made by early humans were used as tools for basic survival functions like hunting and preparing food.  They were not for the most part used at that point in human development to create craft products with meaningful made and preserved imprints.

            One major exception of a prehistoric creative product was the cave paintings.  These paintings were made with a combination of rocks, shells, twigs, feathers, brushes of animal hairs and hollow bones to achieve different effects on the walls.  Certainly, this represented an early attempt to make and preserve a product imprint from at least some implements that were made and preserved to be useful in the production of the painting.

            For the purposes of this article, the next span of history that we will talk about covers a period of time that starts when prehistoric humans started to make cave paintings and ends up at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.  It’s a long time period, but it represents an ongoing pattern of dealing with human artifacts.  This was a time when people increasingly refined techniques to make and preserve imprints on tools so that these tools could be used to help make and preserve imprints on products.  Because there was no mass production by machines, each tool and each product of the tools had an element of refined craftsmanship.  The person who made the tools was making and preserving his own imprints on the world.  Many times, the person who made the tools was the person who made the products, but eventually, tools and products became separate specializations.  And because the development of the artisan mentality meant that most people had to acquire tools and products from other artisans, market economies were created to allow for the exchange of goods, to allow for people to receive each other’s tool and product imprints.

            With the start of the Industrial Revolution and mass production, a whole different pattern of humans dealing with their artifacts emerged.  Individual innovators designed the machines that were used in the factories.  These inventors were the only people actually involved in making new original imprints with regard to human artifacts.  The people who actually made tools and consumer products were the people who operated the machines, worked on assembly lines, assembling parts to create finished products.  Each new factory product created was a new affirmation of the inventor’s design, a new presentation of the imprint the inventor wanted to make with his machine.  With the creation of the factory system, all the focus turned to the presentation of the established imprints of the mechanical artifact makers.  The imprints of the relatively few innovators distinct from the work of the vast number of factory workers.  Something fundamental had been lost by the factory workers – the opportunity to make and preserve their own imprints through individually crafted artifacts.  The focus in the factories shifted to how much exchange value or money the factory workers could make in order to buy other different consumer artifacts, other already preserved imprints.  Making and preserving new individual imprints among the workers got lost in the factory process.  Only making and preserving already established imprints and receiving other different established imprints remained.

            The workers who participated in this system gave up something very important: an important aspect of their self-worth.  But perhaps even more is going to be lost as the use of 3-D printers starts to grow.  These machines have the capacity to make extremely complex artifacts with only the minimal intervention of a worker who sets the process going.  On the one hand, it is true that in some situations a person can design his own artifact, such as a child designing his own toy.  And that, of course, sounds very creative and very positive.  But the designer is totally separated from the process of constructing the artifact in the external world.  He is totally separated from the process of physically making the imprint in the external world.  There is no focus on his own craftsmanship.  And a lot of people are just going to make a partial imprint from their minds or none at all (if it is a standardized artifact design) and then focus on the imprint they will receive when the 3D printer is done with its operation.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a toy or a gun or a car or even a body organ.  Increasingly, we are going to be moving into an age of very passive consumerism, where our main connection to artifacts is going to be based on receiving them.  Just a minimal participation in the process of constructing them if at all.

            Whereas the process of constructing artifacts was an integral part of preindustrial human participation in the field of experience in the external world, a process that gave a person grounding in the external world, a process that allowed him to feel fully alive and to prepare for death through the imprints he made and preserved, today the average person is left in an experiential vacuum with regard to the artifacts he uses.  His primary connection to artifacts is to take already constructed ones and to use them.  For the most part, he no longer directly makes his tools with his hands, and he no longer directly makes his products with tools.  The exceptions are a relatively few usually professional artisans – people who seem eccentric and anachronistic in relation to the trends of modern life.  Increasingly disappearing is the struggle to put some order to one’s world through the use of basic tools and the creation of other more basic artifacts.  Increasingly disappearing is the possibility of finding the sense of purpose that comes with engaging in this struggle.  We have traveled a long way in our evolution from pre-industrial humans.  The question is if this long way has always been and will always continue to be a uniformly good way.

(c) 2016 Laurence Mesirow

Waiting On A Mechanical Cloud

            As most people know, Nissan is a Japanese company that produces some of the best automobiles in their particular price range.  Not content to rest on its laurels as a manufacturer of cars, Nissan is venturing into other areas of human mobility with the idea of improving the life of the average person.  One truly astounding device is the Pro PILOT Chair, a self-driving chair that is designed to take all of the discomfort out of waiting in line.  The chair has wheels to move on as well as a camera and sensors that are used to keep the chair at a fixed distance from the chair in front of it.  The chairs wait in a chair line.  When a person’s chair has moved to the front of the line, and it is time for the person to take his turn, he gets out of the chair, and the chair, sensing the loss of the passenger, moves to the back of the line.  This system of chairs is going to be tested at restaurants in Japan in the near future.

            No more spending time waiting long periods while standing on one’s feet.  Think of all the energy that a person can conserve.  And no more having to contend with people pushing you as they try to move forward or people trying to cut into line ahead of you.  Waiting in line becomes a totally orderly frictionless experience.

            Is there anything wrong with feeling more comfortable?  Perhaps, there is.  Standing creates a different mental state from sitting.  It is precisely the low-key discomfort of standing that keeps a person in a state of alertness with an attitude of  “I want to engage a situation and take control of it.”  One has the role of a dormant agent, waiting to spring into action.  It is a role similar to that of a hunter in prehistoric times or in certain preliterate societies.  One follows an animal from a distance and waits for the right moment to attack it.  The ability to wait as a dormant agent becomes a very important component of being successful at obtaining one’s next meal when one is a hunter.

            But one might say, the waiting involved in going on a hunt is part of an exciting adventure filled with meaningful risk.  Man meeting the challenge of his survival.  There is no such adventure, no such challenge in waiting in line at a very busy restaurant.  One is simply waiting in line for the passive consumer experience of a restaurant meal.  If there is meat or poultry involved, the slaughter has already taken place.  But just as one has hopes that the restaurant meal will be a pleasant passive consumer experience, why shouldn’t one expect the waiting component that comes before a meal to be a pleasant passive consumer experience?

            First, although there is no adventure while waiting in line that is analogous to the challenge of the elements in a hunt, there is a potential adventure in talking to some of the other people that are close to one in the line.  People are sometimes more open to one another when they share discomfort.  It is similar to conversations that start up in London about the cold rainy weather that occurs there.  People in line can start to talk about how frustrating it is to wait so long, and then, before you know it, the conversation moves into other areas of life.  Sometimes new friends or acquaintances can be made this way.

            Second, in general, most waiting is a frustration that creates an organic friction inside the person waiting.  And, in general, without organic friction, a person cannot gain the traction to carry on the narrative of his life  Overly frictionless environments make a person numb, incapable of having rich vibrant experiences, of making, receiving and preserving organic imprints, of creating a surrogate immortality as a preparation for death.  Waiting in a smart chair that keeps a precise distance from the chairs in front of and behind it, is simply one more kind of experience that people in modern technological society can have to put them in an increasingly encompassing experiential vacuum.  It is one more kind of experience that can make a person more numb and therefore more passive and therefore more incapable of engaging the world.

            As we continue to make our living environment increasingly frictionless through the application of increasingly advanced forms of modern technology, we become increasingly intolerant of smaller and smaller amounts of friction.  We become more incapable of tolerating any kind of discomfort, and when we want something, we require immediate gratification.  Waiting in line might be one of the last types of life situations that we encounter on a regular basis that produces low but sustained levels of uncomfortable organic friction.

 There is another kind of waiting that people encounter regularly and that is the waiting in bumper-to-bumper traffic.  This kind of waiting occurs in a technological tension-pocket, an abrasive overstimulating situation filled with abrasive static friction that is the result of the juxtaposition of many freely moving, noisy, fumes-emitting machines.  Other cars surround a driver.  One has to be very careful not to hit another car. The noise of other drivers honking can become intolerable. The fumes of so many cars moving slowly and/or stopping in such close quarters can give a person a headache or sinus problems. In general, it is a situation that creates a lot of stress and even physical discomfort in a driver who experiences it.

            But standing in line at a very busy restaurant is usually a much more civilized matter.  The potential restaurant patron is not naturally separated and isolated from other people, the way that a driver is in a car.  He becomes a part of a flowing continual physical corporal movement as he gradually moves up closer and closer to the goal of being seated for his meal.   He can strike up conversations if he wants to.  Usually, other people don’t push or cut into the line.  In addition, the patron has something concrete and enjoyable to which he can look forward.  The waiting can be used to elaborate images of himself enjoying his favorite dishes at the restaurant.  He endows these dishes with the flowing blendable continual stimuli of his fantasies.  And then when the time comes to actually partake of the meal, the elaborated fantasies increase the appreciation of the meal.  But it is the low-level discomfort factor that increases the appreciation derived from the standing in line.  Waiting in a motorized chair in a line of orderly motorized chairs is not going to stimulate that same sustained low-key friction discomfort that leads to the greater appreciation.

            As we continue to develop technology that helps us to deal with what for many people has increasingly become the intolerable experience of waiting, the art of civilized anticipation of the fulfillment of our desires is going to disappear.  People will lose their capacity for elaborated fantasies of the future.  Living for the moment or living in numbness results not only in an incapacity to tolerate any kind of frustration, but also, as a result of this lack of tolerance, in a weakened sense of self with flattened affect.  The kind of thing that leaves a person predisposed to becoming a selfless robot.

© 2016 Laurence Mesirow