Friday, April 10, 2020

Being Consumed By That Which We Want To Consume

            The elephant in the room of public discourse today is obviously the Corona virus.  We are bombarded with so much information about the disease, as if all the information in the world could truly give us a sense of control over this scary apparition.  We don’t have either a cure or a vaccine yet for an illness that is so new in its presentation in our lives.  All we know is that we are supposed to stay home as much as possible and when we have to interact with other people, to maintain social distancing.  And yet the number of new cases keeps rising all over the world except for now ironically China where an authoritarian government has forced compliance with some draconian rules.

            At any rate, the optimistic part of me likes to feel that there is always something to learn from events, even catastrophes like this pandemic.  In particular, I am interested in focusing on the notion of causality as it relates to the Corona virus.  Certain surface facts seem to be fairly well established.  Some wild animal meat from different animals was comingled at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China.  Some viruses leaped from some bat meat to one of the other kinds of meat, possibly pangolin, which amplified the virus.  Then some people ate the meat with the amplified virus.  And the rest, as they say, is history.  Like an unwanted party crasher, the virus crossed into human society.

            We know there is a long history of the use of wild animals in Chinese cuisine.  The Chinese feel that the meat from these animals gives them a special strength and resilience that they would not obtain from eating the meat of domesticated animals.  Supposedly, there are 112 different wild animals that are eaten in China.  At the same time, we all know this is not the first pandemic that has come out of that Asian country.  People in China have known about the connection between wild meat and dangerous disease for years.  So why do people there continue to engage in such risky behavior?

            I have talked in many previous articles about how people in pre-industrial times were much more connected to nature and much more immersed in organic stimuli.  This is the world in which early humans evolved, and their nervous systems were geared to receiving the surge of stimuli produced in nature.  Nevertheless, there were many dangerous aspects of nature against which humans needed protection: earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, extreme cold, extreme heat, famine, drought, wild animals, poisonous plants, and many other phenomena.  All these aspects of nature made people highly perishable.  Which is why humans from earliest times used their superior intellect to invent themselves out of vulnerability.  It started with primitive tools and horticulture and continued into our modern technological society.  But over the centuries, there have always been some people who enjoyed the kicks from the interactions with these dangerous aspects of nature.  People who hunker down in their homes when hurricanes pass through.  People who chase tornadoes.  People who like to wrestle dangerous animals like bears and alligators.  And then there are people who like to trek through and explore dangerous wild terrains and waterways.  Taking rafting trips in rivers with lots of rapids.  Climbing tall mountains.  Exploring jungles. 

And then there are the people who explore the world by putting it inside of them.  By eating wild animals put the wild energy, the wild flowing blendable continual stimuli inside of them.  People believe they get some of the essence such animals, the strength and the resilience these animals seem to demonstrate.  And, in particular, the Chinese have been known to maintain this predilection for a long long time.  They use elements of these wild animals not only for food but also for medicine.  Much of Chinese medicine is based on extracts of these animals.

            But it is one thing to desire to ingest elements of these animals.  It is another thing to be able to absorb them without harmful side effects.  Obviously, if the negative side effects were a certainty, the Chinese would stop ingesting these wild animals.  But in most cases, nothing bad happens.  Unfortunately, sometimes these harmful side effects present themselves.  And yet many Chinese are willing to take the risk.  They want the special organic flowing blendable continual stimuli that come from ingesting all these exotic creatures.  They play with the potential natural disasters created by the viruses attached to these creatures, just like the people who chase tornadoes and the people who hunker down in hurricanes when they have opportunities to leave.  All these people feel that, in some magical way, they are going to be able to control their reaction to the disaster and they are going to be able to protect themselves from any negative dangerous consequences.

            Another analogy for these ingesting experiences is the addictions connected with alcohol and drugs.  In both of these cases, people feel they can experience the pleasures associated with them without experiencing any negative side effects. They feel they can compartmentalize the experience, and absorb the pleasure without absorbing any pain.  But for addicts, this is a risky dangerous situation.  Now granted the people ingesting wild animals don’t get high from them, and most of the time, don’t get sick from them.  We would all be dead now if that were the case.  And there is the sense that animals are there on this earth to be used by humans, and much like the alcoholic and drug addict that want to control their reactions to the substances they ingest, so the eater of exotic animals, on a certain level, wants to control his reactions, wants to absorb the special powers of the wild animals without absorbing the illnesses they also have.

            Except, of course, the ingestion of wild animals has potentially more far reaching consequences than ingesting drugs or alcohol on the one hand, or chasing after tornadoes on the other.  All we have to do is look around us at the world today.  And yet in spite of these horrific effects, the people in China who have sustained these risky dangerous tastes, will probably continue to sustain them.  And for many of them, they see nothing wrong with it.

            But there is something we can learn from them.  It’s one thing to want something from a distance, something that is a defined discrete entity.  It’s another thing to be able to absorb that something as a flowing blendable continual experience when we finally get it.  Wanting and absorbing don’t always coincide.  The wild meat situation is one all too perfect example.  And one other lesson to learn from this is that if one engages in a kind of primary experience he can’t absorb, he may have to retreat to an extremely mediated level of experience in order to protect himself and recover.  Today the world is relying on smartphones and computers for interpersonal communication.  Thus pushing us all into a deeper level of numbness. 

© 2020 Laurence Mesirow  

The Hurricane Of Modern Political Change

            The United States is having a very exciting presidential campaign season this year.  From a field of over twenty candidates, a field of extremely diverse candidates who battled mightily in making their positions known and in trying to convince the American public of the righteousness of their claims to the Democratic presidential candidacy, we are now down to just two candidates: Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.  Many of those who dropped out were more moderate politically like Joe Biden and threw their support to him.  Candidates like Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Kamala Harris, Corey Booker and Mike Bloomberg were deadly afraid of Bernie Sanders getting the Democratic nomination for president.  They’re afraid for several reasons.  First, they’re afraid that too many people won’t vote for a Democratic socialist for president and Trump will win the election.  Second, because he has a good chance of losing to Trump, he could easily bring down all the Democratic candidates for the Senate and for Congress, candidates who would have great difficulty defending Sanders’ socialist aspirations to many people.  Third, the moderates are also afraid of what would happen if by some chance, Sanders actually won the election. They are afraid that Sanders would try to implement his costly plans without having any means to pay for them.  And the moderates are also afraid that Sanders’ campaign is that of a cult leader surrounded by his devoted followers who want to carry out a populist revolution.

            Sound familiar.  It’s very similar to another cult leader in the U.S. with a devoted following and a populist political movement.  Without formally labeling it as such, Donald Trump wanted his own political revolution after winning his election.  And although he considers himself a conservative, the fact that he flip-flops on so many different issues means that people have to believe in him unconditionally if they are going to support him at all.  This is very different from Bernie Sanders, who pretty much remains consistent in the political positions he promotes.  However, what Sanders does have in common with Trump is a belief in a radical transformation of the political, social and economic landscape in the U.S.  And people like the rush, the high that comes from the experience of such a radical transformation.  It helps to pull people out of the numbness that they feel living in modern technological society and experiencing the excessive frictionlessness which ultimately leads to numbness.  In both cases, it is not just the events of the transformation that interest the followers, but the experience of these events.

            At least in my lifetime, it used to be that politicians of the two major political parties in the United States would hover around the center: left of center and right of center.  There were fairly conventional positions that defined the Democrats and Republicans and yet, because they weren’t that far apart from each other, they could work together to get legislation passed in the Senate and Congress.  But over the years, particularly since Reagan, the Republican Party in government has moved more and more to the right.  Now, increasingly, a part of the Democratic Party is moving more and more to the left.  The ideas of the far left and the far right are so different, that it is very difficult for them to work together on almost anything.  Gridlock results.  But for the supporters of these two diverging philosophies, it doesn’t matter.  What matters is the rush from participating in the cause.  In the case of Bernie Sander’s followers, the cause is Democratic socialism.  In the case of Trump’s followers, the cause is partly some traditional conservative Republican positions but mostly Trump himself with his disruptive unpredictable personality.

            But the point is what would happen to the people if they actually achieve all of these important policy goals.  With nothing to fight for, they would sink back into numbness.  Of course, with Trump’s personality, he can never accomplish all of his goals, because he is always creating new ones with his flip-flops.  He is very aggressive in his attempts to pull himself out of his own numbness, and this is why so many people like him and follow him.

            Now let’s assume for the moment that Biden wins the Democratic nomination and ultimately the election.  So both Sanders and Trump, the two transformative revolutionaries, are defeated.  Does this mean that things are going to go back to what they were in the old days?  Does this mean that people will have learned their lesson from the presidency of Donald Trump?  The answer is that maybe some people will have switched over from Trump to a more moderate stance.  But not most of them.  And, of course, many student Bernie supporters will hold their ground and stick with their leader.  In short, we are in for some rocky political situations in the U.S. for a long time.  And not just here, but similar political situations are going to occur in many countries around the world.  And Americans can and will find alternatives to Trump and Sanders.  Not necessarily exact replacements, but still extreme political activists of different stripes.  The important thing for many people today is to be shocked out of the fundamental apathy that underlies their surface urgent ideology.  I’m not saying that these people don’t have beliefs or political positions.  But these beliefs and political positions just aren’t as important as the rush that comes from joining a cult’s leader’s crusade.  Of course with Trump, the rush may be even more intense because of his constant flip-flopping.

            What can be said is just as we have created the conditions for extreme climactic events as a result of our lack of respect for the environment, so we are in for a lot of extreme political events as a result of our support for a lot of eccentric cult leaders and our growing impatience with democracy.  As different as they are, both Trump and Sanders are demagogues who want to lead their followers to the promised land of revolutionary change.  And granted that Sanders change is based on a coherent vision, while Trump’s change is not, in both cases the followers get to be swept up by a political wind of hurricane proportions that help them to feel alive again.  And for many people, a revolutionary leader is the kicks drug of change.  And an extreme political event – a rally or an election or a revolution – is like an extreme drug experience.  Which means that politics is moving further and further away from the arena of sanity and feasible political compromise.  Our politics is in for a lot of very strong weather.  Let’s hope that our political house has a strong enough foundation to withstand it.

(c) 2020 Laurence Mesirow

Giving Up Free Will To A Charismatic Leader

            One of the philosophical foundations of a democracy is the belief in free will.  We are free to make choices that involve our moral values: our freedom in what we are going to say to others about the social, political and economic issues, our freedom to assemble with others and with whom we want to assemble, our freedom to write what we want to say in articles, our freedom to worship the way we want to worship and with whom.  But all of us, nevertheless, have some limitations on the kinds of actions we can will ourselves to do.  To start with we are all bound by gravity to walk on and stay connected with the earth.  We can fly off in airplanes, but then we are bound to the floor of the cabin.  The possible exception to this is parachuting for the select few and that primarily leads to falling back to earth anyway.

             Then there are the limitations to our free will that come from our innate skills and our opportunities.  What we do best in terms of our studies and our work is usually what we choose to engage in.  Of course, this can be limited by our opportunities.  Sometimes a particular community or society very simply doesn’t have good work opportunities for people with particular skills or people with a particular education.  People who are good at physical work are increasingly being replaced by machines and robots.

            And then there are the limitations to our free will that paradoxically come as a result of  making modern life too easy.  There are two ways that modern technology can affect our free will by making life too easy.   One is by speeding up the processes by which all our daily chores get done.  That can leave us with free time on our hands that we don’t know what to do with.  So we become bored and then with a lack of tasks among which to choose, our capacity to exercise our free will goes dormant.

            Then there is the limitation that comes from getting rid of the physical and mental resistance in our life activities, the organic friction that was previously always a part of our daily lives.  Life activities become so smooth and seamless as a result of modern technology.  This smooth, seamless, frictionless, experiential vacuum living environment leaves a person in a state of almost no experiential gravity holding him down to earth.  It’s almost as if the person is confronted with too much freedom in his life, and this ends up paralyzing his free will.  His excessive frictionless freedom paradoxically ends up being a limitation on his free will, almost as if he was locked up or in handcuffs or shackles.

            One way people have of dealing with this lasting numbness is to find someone who has the metaphorical keys to let an afflicted person out of his metaphorical handcuffs and shackles and jail cells.  Finding a person who has the capacity to fight the numbness in his own life through unpredictable aggressive abrasive behavior.  Such a person can give other people the psychological traction to move forward in their own lives.   Hence the rise today of the authoritarian populist leader.  When people find their capacity to exercise their free will to be considerably damaged as a result of a pervasive numbness, an authoritarian populist leader is the perfect antidote.

            Numb people can live their lives through the authoritarian leader.  If they feel that as individuals their will is weak, that their lives are directionless and boring, they can hitch their lives onto that of the authoritarian populist leader, and let him give their lives direction, interest, and impact.  If as individuals, they are too numb to exercise their free will freely, they can merge themselves with an authoritarian populist leader and become a part of a strong collective will.  And the strength is in the numbers.  Individuals can feel the rush that comes from the collective will in movement and pull themselves out of their numbness and feel very much alive.  They feel very much alive from making all the collective organic imprints with all the other followers of the authoritarian populist leader and feel very content in the knowledge that many of the imprints will be preserved and become a part of a collective surrogate immortality in order to help all the followers prepare for death.

            We lose our free will when machines start doing more and more for us, and there is less and less for us to do in our daily lives.  We think we are going to be free to do so many different things, now that machines have relieved us of our drudge work.  But the more tasks that machines take over, the more new relatively frictionless tasks get redefined as drudge work, because in our increasing numbness, we start to tolerate less and less.  And then we either stagnate painfully in a living death and have our free will numbed by conative anesthesia (a fancy way of saying anesthetizing our will), or we abrasively activate our will ourselves by making up all sorts of new tasks to do through conative acceleration (speeding up the will) or we hitch our destiny onto a leader who himself has an acceleration of his will and who takes on the role of an authoritarian populist autocrat.  The first posture involves living in the understimulation of an experiential vacuum.  The second posture involves living in the overstimulation of a private tension pocket filled with abrasive friction.  And the third posture involves living in a private experiential vacuum which propels a person to merge with a charismatic leader and become a part of a public collective acceleration of a collective will.  If the first posture leads to a living death from numbness, the second posture leads to burn-out from overstimulation and the third posture leads to a loss of a person’s individual sense of self.

            Actually there is a fourth posture to be considered here: that of merging one’s numbed will with the collective numbed will of a mystical guru immersed in meditation and yoga.  This represents an attempt to sublimate one’s living death numbness into something positive.  Numbness becomes something positive through meditation and yoga experiences.  But here is where one’s values come into play.  Is it a vibrant life if one spends it primarily withdrawn from engagement with the external world?  It means accepting one’s inability to maintain an active sense of control over the direction of one’s life activities.  To me, renouncing of control and fatalistically accepting the flow of things to where they want to flow is not a positive state of affairs.  It represents the glorification of giving up one’s free will.

            Obviously meditation and yoga have been around since way before the transformation of daily life by modern technology.  In the old days, they were used to rise above an overly intense immersion and involvement with passionate interactions involving other humans and with nature and with one’s predisposition to perishability surrounded by so much organic stimulation within natural environments.  In other words, meditation and yoga used to help prevent people from being consumed by passion.  Now meditation and yoga serve to help a person become accustomed to a numbing environment.

            But I have strayed far from the original focus of this article which was to show that the frictionless existence within modern technological society leaves some people who take on a certain posture predisposed to want to give up their free will and their individual sense of self and merge with an authoritarian populist leader in order to feel alive by participating in a collective will.  Needless to say, this can become very dangerous both for the individual and for the society as a whole.

© 2020 Laurence Mesirow

Will We Be Too Numb To Save Our Planet?

            A problem which I have not really covered in this column, but which is sort of like the metaphorical elephant in the room of modern terrestrial society, is that of climate change.  I must admit that for a long time I had difficulty connecting climate change up with the principal topic of this column which is the effects of modern technology on living environments and the effects of those transformed living environments on human behavior.  But lately I have begun to see how strongly these two problem areas are related. In previous articles, I have discussed how many people who live overly frictionless lives try to find ways of creating intensely abrasive friction in order to pull themselves out of the numbness they experience as a result of this excessive frictionlessness.  Among these ways are actions leading to physical self-harm and even suicide.

            Nowadays we see how harmful the way we have developed our modern technological society has been to our living environment.  And we are at the threshold of paying the price with the growth of extreme weather events that are so destructive to natural landscapes, physical property, and human lives.  Yet with so much evidence coming in from scientists all over the globe, why is it that human beings are so slow, almost reluctant to take the appropriate steps to stop or at least significantly slow down the progression towards this destruction.

            Some people will say that fighting climate change will significantly harm the world’s economies, that we need fracking and rapacious mineral extraction and despoiling of forests and manufacturing plastic products and high energy consumption among other economic phenomena in order to maintain our comfortable standard of life and maintain the jobs that many workers need in order to participate in this comfortable technology-based standard of life.  For me, this is basically a rationalization.  There is no reason why workers can’t transfer from the extraction of oil and coal and natural gas and from working in nuclear power plants to so-called clean energy: solar, wind, and biomass.  To some extent this transition is occurring now, but it is not occurring fast enough.  And there is no reason that forests in the Amazon have to be razed to convert land that was not meant to be cattle ranches or soybean farms into these inappropriate uses.  Similar despoliation is occurring in Indonesian rainforest, only there the land gets converted to palm oil production.  And one must not forget that the wood itself from all the beautiful tropical forests is itself a major economic commodity.

But there are ecologically sound ways of exploiting the resources of the Amazon without destroying them.  For instance, harvesting the forest plants from the Amazon, plants that, in many cases have marvelous medicinal properties.  And, of course, there are many edible plants in the Amazon, many fruits and vegetables.  So the Amazon doesn’t have to be destroyed to provide enormous benefits.  But the present president of Brazil is supporting the economic rampage that is occurring in his country, just as the president of the U.S. is supporting the economic rampage that is occurring to some of our wilderness areas.

            So what is going on here?  Is it simply the desire to reap economic benefits that is leading so many people all over the world to destroy the nature that sustains us?  The Amazon, for instance, is a crucial producer of oxygen for the planet.

            I would suggest that the ground reason for this destruction is the need to pull out of the numbness that is created by our frictionless vacuumized living environment.  Destroying our natural living environment is another way of committing self-harm.  It is like cutting our wrists or overdosing on recreational drugs.  It is like committing suicide.  In order to fight the living death of numbness, one has a big bang short period of feeling alive in the process of killing oneself.  Because, if we continue to destroy nature the way we are doing now, we will create a climate with so many extreme climate events that it will become very difficult for humans and other life forms to survive.  The pleasurable kicks of unbounded economic exploitation of our natural environment will be followed by the unavoidable pain of extreme climactic instability.  Some of these events, like the recent Australian fires, are already happening.

            In previous articles, I have discussed this phenomenon of an existential situation of a living death in modern times leading to an urge to carry out an abrasive explosive destructive action to jolt a person out of his numbness.  For instance, sometimes a person pulls out of his numbness not so much by directly harming himself, but rather by directly harming others.  All what I have called in the past the crimes of numbness, and, in particular, the senseless random massacres of innocent people.  In the case of these massacres, the abrasive pain is not felt directly by the perpetrator, unlike all the different cases of self-harm.  But it certainly is felt indirectly.  In truth, in the case of harm carried out on natural environments, everyone is directly affected in the long run: the perpetrator, the people around him, the animals around him, the vegetation around him and ultimately the planet earth as a whole.  In the long run, to the extent that all the acts of destruction against nature lead cumulatively to the destruction of the planet earth as a tolerable living environment, we can say that these acts have the most serious long-term consequences for human beings.  I say long-term, because, unlike self-harm, suicides, homicides and massacres, the negative effects to the health and lives of human beings are not usually apparent with any one given act of destruction against nature.

            Nevertheless, it is our growing feelings of numbness, as a result of our lives becoming overly frictionless from all the modern technology in our lives, that are a major cause of the three increasingly random modern forms of destruction perpetrated by humans: self-harm, harm to others and harm to nature.  And the only way we can prevent these different forms of harm from destroying us is by getting in touch with the nature in us again.  Instead of using more and more devices to make our lives more and more frictionless, we should move away from mediated experience, which makes us increasingly numb, and develop the ability to absorb the stimulation again of directly engaging the world with primary experience.  We must develop our capacity again to absorb organic stimulation as the mammals that we are, and, in particular, to tolerate the organic friction - the difficulties, the resistance, the stumbles – that have been a part of every traditional life narrative.  This is distinct from the abrasive friction of technological tension-pockets and our recreational kicks which are sensory distortion, forms of stimulation that humans are not built to absorb very well. 

I know all this sounds very nebulous, very abstract, but the changes we need to make in ourselves are very subtle.  And yet only after we make these changes can we truly get back into a meaningful human narrative: making, receiving and preserving organic imprints, living vibrant lives, and preparing for death with surrogate immortalities.  Only after making these important changes can we develop the capacity to absorb and appreciate more traditional natural living environments which will make us want to more effectively preserve and cultivate them.  Which will pull us out of our numbness and diminish our predisposition towards destructive actions directed against ourselves, others and nature.  And, in particular, maybe we will be able to save our planet from the worst effects of climate change, and maybe we humans, as well as the animals and vegetation, will be able to survive.

© 2020 Laurence Mesirow

Magic That Is Close To The Skin

            In most cultures, people have worn things around their neck to protect them from negative energies, from evil forces, and also to give them positive energies, constructive powers.  It is a way of projecting themselves onto the world in order to take a more effective control over their lives.  Amulets are the objects used to protect against negative energy and talismans are the objects used to generate positive energy.  Both of them are attempts to deal with the inchoate flowing blendable continual phenomena, the existence of which people sometimes feel.  Evil is a concept for dealing with everything from natural catastrophes to criminal minds, and sometimes when natural catastrophes occur, they are seen as being caused by criminal minds.  Criminal minds that cause natural catastrophes are called sorcerers in some cultures.  Anyway, amulets supposedly help people ward off the effects of sorcerers and other inchoate evil forces.

            On the other hand, talismans confer magical powers and endow a person with good fortune.  Although nowadays, the distinction between witches and sorcerers tend to be blurred, traditionally witches tend to use their powers for good purposes, at least in many cultures.  Also nowadays, the use of talismans doesn’t make a person a witch, but rather the emphasis is on giving a person good luck.

            In both cases, these objects confer an atmosphere to the people who wear them, a spiritual atmosphere that transforms a person’s life in a positive way by transforming his field of experience.  This atmosphere from the spiritual world subtly transforms a field of experience in the material world.

            Today most people in modern technological society don’t wear amulets or talismans.  Most people today would think of such objects as being objects of superstition: a way of thinking that has little relevance for most of us today.  But I wonder if people have truly moved so far away from traditional amulets and talismans in today’s world.  To the extent that modern technology is so complex that most people today really have no feel as to how it really works, such people would experience it as magical, something of great power whose real workings are impenetrable to the average person.  And to the extent that modern people wear digital devices to either protect themselves from negative situations or to give them positive powers, these people are, in effect, creating digital amulets and digital talismans.  On the surface, it would seem that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

            And yet perhaps that is not exactly true.  Modern wearable digital devices are different from traditional amulets and talismans in a number of ways.  First of all, the activation of a wearable digital device leads to a somewhat predictable purpose within a predictable time period.  Granted that the mechanism and energy which activate a particular process for a given goal may not be fully understood by the average user, but the external presentation of the process is fully understood.  The cause of the process emanating from the device is connected temporally to the effect or goal of the process in a way that can be readily perceived.

            This is not true with traditional amulets and talismans.  First of all, the precise defined discrete goal of a process and energy activated in an amulet or talisman cannot be easily grasped in advance.  Many times, events or situations occur after a person starts wearing a traditional amulet or talisman that are claimed to be the result of wearing the amulet or talisman, even though a direct causal chain cannot be visually established.  Furthermore, no one can predict ahead of time at what time intervals such an event or situation will occur after the person starts to wear the amulet or talisman.  In the case of the wearable device, a person knows what will happen after he starts to set in motion the process for which the device is being used.  Furthermore, the person will know what amount of time would have to elapse before the device  reaches the desired goal.  In other words, with wearable devices, there is much more control in terms of the nature of the outcome and the time elapse to the outcome.  Part of this control is based on the fact that the outcome of the wearable device is a defined discrete phenomenon with a defined discrete beginning and a defined discrete ending.  This is true even though paradoxically there is this flowing blendable continual spiritual faith in the  technological processes involved, even though most people have no real understanding of how they work.  So most people today have a transcendent spiritual faith in a very concrete though, at the same time, mysterious technological process.

            Mystery is the key word here.  The mystery of today’s extremely complex technological processes blur into an almost religious wonder, the kind that surround traditional amulets and talismans.  And both modern technological processes and traditional magical processes are powered by sources of energy that people can’t mentally grasp easily.  But the fact that people can more easily control the presentations of modern technological processes and energy than the presentations of traditional magical processes and energy means that they can interact with the machine manifestations more easily.  I would venture to say that these more frequent interactions lead to a kind of addiction.  Modern technology ends up almost magically controlling its uses, particularly now that we have so many different wearable devices.  The more people end up using modern technology, the more it ends up controlling them.  Traditional magical events and experiences, because people can’t control when or where they will occur with the same accuracy, simply don’t have the same compelling effect on believers. Some might say that precisely because traditional magical powers are so unpredictable, that that would make people believe even more intensely to make them work.  But I think that nothing convinces like successful outcomes.  The effects of wearable devices are constant, the effects of traditional magic in terms of manifestations are more spread out.  So paradoxically, today we are controlled by a more powerful magic than any that traditional cultures ever experienced.

© 2020 Laurence Mesirow

When Life Becomes A Game

            Apart from the purely recreational element, games serve another very important purpose both for human individuals as well as social groups.  Through a game, a person is able to extract defined discrete principles in the form of rules from the streaming of life activity and is able to use those rules as the foundation for a series of defined discrete actions within structured interactions with one or more other people.  The non-delimited infinity of possible path crossings with others in daily life is reduced to a delimited infinity of formal interactions within the formal structure of a game.  In math, a non-delimited infinity is all the points on a line of any given length.  A delimited infinity is, for example, all the positive discrete numbers: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc.  It is beyond the scope of this article, but mathematicians can prove that a non-delimited infinity is larger than a delimited infinity.

            Anyway, by reducing the flowing, blendable, continual stimuli of a stream of life activity to the defined discrete stimuli of defined discrete rules and defined discrete game actions, people can gain technique in controlling many aspects of life and, in particular, in dealing with other people.  Games help people to regulate interactions with other people. To deal with primal differences, competition and conflict in a somewhat restrained civilized way. 

            Now in most games, the stream of life activity cannot be totally kept out of the defined discrete structural interactions of the game.  The stream of life activity makes its appearance in the form of luck.  The dealing of cards, the selection of tiles, and the roll of the dice are examples of aspects of many games that can’t be controlled through the defined discrete rules of a game.  There is, however, one game I can think of where such a lack of control through luck plays a very minimal role.  I’m thinking of chess.  In chess, the only luck aspect I can think of is if a person gets to play the white pieces (and thus opens the game) or if he plays black.

            In sports, the unstructured stream of life activity intercedes in a different way than it does in board and card games.  Because humans aren’t robots, it is much more difficult to control precisely all the muscles involved in bodily movements than it is to control the mental decisions made to make moves in card and board games.  Mental decisions are frequently the result of inevitable moves required as responses to the decisions and moves of one’s opponents.  Now, poker and bridge may be considered to be a little bit closer to physical sports, because presentation of facial expression and vocal inflection or the lack thereof are kinds of physical sporting movements.  Controlling facial and vocal muscles can be thought of as being somewhat analogous to controlling hand, arm, chest, leg and foot muscles in traditional sports.

            But all these different competitions have one thing in common.  They are all based on discrete actions that are distinct from the processes in the streaming of normal life activity.  These actions would never be confused with real life processes.  And that is good.  Because real life has many aspects that games don’t.  Real life processes make and preserve organic imprints on human fields of experience that have lasting meaningful effects on people’s lives.  These imprints relate to social, political, economic and spiritual survival.

            Nowadays, there are whole new groups of games based on video, computer and virtual reality.  These games continue to be based on defined discrete phenomena and not the flowing, blendable, continual phenomena built on organic stimuli.  But the amount of defined discrete phenomena and defined discrete stimuli found in these video, computer and virtual reality games is so much greater than those phenomena and stimuli found with board games, card games, and in sports.  So much so, that all the defined discrete phenomena and defined discrete stimuli found in video, computer and virtual reality games start to blur together in people’s minds and start to be experienced as flowing blendable continual phenomena and flowing blendable continual stimuli.  As a result, people increasingly find themselves immersed in modern technological games as if the games were part of the regular flow in the streaming of life activities.  In other words, these modern technological games threaten to totally break down the barriers that exist between primary experience and mediated experience.  They cause people to lose their normal perspective on when things really matter.

            One difference of course between video, computer and virtual reality games and real life activities is that the phenomena in these new games lack mass, matter and substance. They are infused with the experiential vacuum in which they exist.  So all the actions generated within these vacuum environments, even though on some levels they appear to be real life actions, result in no making, receiving or preserving of organic imprints.  These actions neither help a person to feel fully alive nor to prepare for death.
            Except for professionals, who are relatively few, games, in general, are meant for most people to be a kind of metaphorical rehearsal for external world life.  When people start treating games as life, then the reverse becomes true as well.  Life becomes a game.  People start to manipulate one another as if they were simply defined discrete pieces on a game board or else playing cards.  Other people can be disposed of easily, much the same as game pieces or cards.  In a game, a person cannot afford to form a deep-bonded relationship with a particular piece or a particular card.  Relationships with game pieces and cards are contingent, much as they increasingly are with humans in modern technological society.  A piece or a card is kept by a player only as long as it is useful to advancing a person’s game strategy.  The same is true today in people’s attitudes in the external world, whether it relates to a person moving up a corporate ladder or making a sexual conquest.  People today tend to relate to other people not so much for forming a meaningful relationship, but instead for some extrinsic utilitarian goal.  Game competition begins today when one is strategizing to get one’s kids in the right kindergarten. 

            When most or all interactions in life become implicit competitions, real sustained bonding and intimacy becomes very problematic.  When one feels a constant need to strategize in order to survive, it becomes very difficult to feel grounded in one’s living environment and in oneself.  Stress balloons.  Life becomes very uncomfortable.  It really is important to keep a barrier between the world of life and the world of games, which is simply a reduction of life to certain particular aspects.  It really is important if we want to prevent society from fragmenting apart and us as individuals with it.

© 2020 Laurence Mesirow

The Impossible Task Of Always Pinning Down What Is True

            In today’s world, the main entity of knowledge by which people apprehend the world is a datum. Unless something lends itself to verification by the empirical evidence that a datum represents, it is not really considered knowledge.  Because a datum is a defined discrete entity, its clear boundaries and clear sharp substance get rid of any ambiguity in terms of what it is giving information about.  It’s firm, it’s solid.  If one examines it tomorrow, it will still convey the same picture that it is conveying today.  And data lay the foundation for any elaborate cognitive analysis.  Data are like the legos that form the building blocks of scientific theories.  Data are obtained through the hard empiricism of scientific experiments or surveys or polls.  They are the base entity of statistics, of any kind of research paper.  They totally dominate thinking in modern technological society.

The total domination by data squeezes out another basic entity of knowledge from the human field of experience.  I’m talking about the vague global impression that is the foundation of intuition.  Unlike a datum, a vague impression doesn’t have a defined discrete boundary, a defined discrete structure or a defined discrete surface.  A vague impression is basically, a flowing, blendable continual stimulus.  It lacks both a defined discrete time of entry into our lives and a defined discrete time of exit from our lives.  It lacks defined discrete boundaries both visually and physically within our fields of experience.  And it lacks a defined discrete surface in its presentation to the external world such that it presents a blurry separation from everything around it including us.  We internalize it, it becomes one with us.  It deep-bonds with us.  It is a truth that lasts with us.  It grounds with us.  The sayings and adages that are parts of culture and that are passed on from generation to generation are vague impressions that are grounded in intuition.  On the other hand, a person can intuitively group some aspects of a situation in the present either as an observation or a solution, can form an inchoate vague impression based on intuition.  Intuition can lead us to form opinions about people we have just met.

            Data, as defined discrete entities of knowledge, do not deep-bond with a person; do not become one with a person.  People today like this state of affairs.  They like to be able to stand apart from their knowledge entities in order to more effectively judge them in terms of their veracity and objectivity.  Objective truth is considered to be the only meaningful kind of truth today.

            On the other hand, people tend to feel uncomfortable with the vague impressions that are the foundation of intuition.  Without clear boundaries, it is hard to focus on them, in order to define what they are doing and in order to affirm their veracity.  The fact that a vague impression is meant to be grasped quickly, so that one can quickly pick up on its essence, goes against the notion that truth can only be obtained through a sustained focus on an unshifting entity.  In truth, the vague impressions of intuition are the result of fleeting observations of shifting phenomena that, nevertheless, have solid core essences.  These essences have to be grasped from within the shifting phenomena, in order to gain the knowledge that they offer.  But because so much related to these phenomena is constantly shifting, it is not as if one can set up a situation in which to pin down intuitive insights.  The phenomena that contain the sources of intuitive insights are not controlled or controllable phenomena.  One does not pin down intuitive images.  One grasps them fleetingly with a vague impression.

The truth is that many of the phenomena in the world, be they physical, mental or emotional, are not defined discrete entities.  Rather they are flowing blendable continual entities with shifting blurry boundaries.  One can momentarily grasp their essences, but they are constantly changing their external parameters and constantly on the move.  And the truth is, drawing on analogies with infinity theory in mathematics, there is a greater infinity in the world of these blurry shifting entities than there is of defined discrete entities.  Which means that there is a greater infinity of material in the world that is susceptible to being apprehended by intuition than there is material susceptible to being apprehended by scientific empiricism and cognitive analysis.

So when we refuse to accept the authenticity and the veracity of intuitive impressions, we are eliminating the more prevalent source of human knowledge, the more prevalent source of human understanding.  We are cutting ourselves off from the more prevalent form of mental connection to the world.  And we are cutting ourselves off from the more prevalent form of self-understanding.

            When we grasp something intuitively, we don’t pin down a piece of knowledge the way we do when we perceive something empirically.  The entity we grasp through intuition is not a fully developed figure of knowledge.  It is an inchoate figure of knowledge at the core of a flowing blendable continual phenomenon – the essence at the center of an inchoate shifting phenomenon.  As was previously stated, many of these intuitive insights become the foundation of folk sayings, folk wisdom as expressed in different cultures around the world.  They tend to be general commentaries about life, vague impressions that imperfectly cover many shifting life situations.  Other intuitive insights are hunches we get about some aspect of just one life situation.  For instance, we intuitively feel that a situation is going to move towards a particular outcome.  Or we intuitively get a feeling about the character of a particular person.  It’s nothing that we can put our finger on.  It’s just something that we fleetingly grasp about that person.

Unfortunately, as people lose their desire to ever rely on intuition, thinking that it is too fuzzy, they lose their capacity to utilize it effectively.  Sometimes, in trying to understand a particular person or situation, there isn’t enough time to study the person or situation using reason or formal empiricism.  By losing our capacity for intuition, we lose not only an important source of understanding, but an important way to ground ourselves in the world.  Without intuition, we are much more likely to float in an experiential vacuum.

(c) 2020 Laurence Mesirow

Living On A Psychological Treadmill

            In today’s world, people increasingly define themselves and are defined by others with regard to what they do rather than who they are.  The more that daily life becomes easier, becomes more frictionless, the more people feel a need to generate abrasive friction through their daily activities, in order to pull themselves out of their numbness.  In truth, many if not most workers today are on call 24/7.  The fact that people can be shocked or jolted out of their recreation or rest by a text or an email, requiring them to perform  some task for work, is to be expected in today’s world and, on some level, almost welcomed, because it pulls people out of the numbing routine involved in their work.  So, on one level, keeping busy with work can be considered an anti-numbness strategy, because the person has to stay somewhat conscious and focused in order to carry out his work activities.  On the other hand, doing frictionless mediated routine work on a computer or a smartphone has a highly numbing aspect to it.

            So the paradox today is that as life gets more and more frictionless, and, in general, easier, people feel a need to work harder and harder in order to pull themselves out of the numbness that their frictionless way of life creates for them.  In order to pull themselves together and prevent the entropy and the resulting entropic disintegration that is a part of any vacuum, people keep moving.  In a physical vacuum, entropy means the random distribution of atoms that occurs to matter in such a situation.  In an experiential vacuum, the random distribution and disintegration within a person’s mind and sense of self is more subtle, but nevertheless, very present.  And numbness is the obvious external symptom.

            Anyway, one can relax in an organic natural environment filled with organic stimuli, an environment that provides real grounding such that relaxing doesn’t lead to disintegration.  Of course, in an organic natural living environment, one does not have the framework of modern technology to make daily work activities so frictionless.  So life requires more effort and exertion to survive both physically and economically.  But it is precisely this effort and exertion that allows one to actively engage with his living environment, that is used to make and preserve organic imprints on this more natural living environment in order to help create a meaningful life narrative and prepare for death with a surrogate immortality.  So a certain amount of friction is good and necessary.

            Which is why people are conflicted today.  On the one hand, they embrace all the new devices that make life more and more frictionless, and they embrace the ease that is created by them.  Furthermore, they like what they feel is the sense of control that they have by pushing the buttons or keys or by giving the voice commands that set all these processes in motion, processes that replace what used to be all the efforts and exertions that humans used to have to expend.  It really is almost a sense of magical control, because all one sees are one’s rational efforts which set going a whole bunch of technological processes with which, in truth, one has no direct participation.  On the one hand, one deludes oneself into thinking one is doing something really significant, making a meaningful imprint by pressing buttons and keys and giving out voice commands.  But these actions are so shallow and require so little effort.  They don’t engage a person, and they do nothing to pull him out of an experiential vacuum.

            The same, of course, is true with modern work patterns.  A person spends hours working on a computer or sending and receiving texts and emails on his smartphone, keeping busy.  But at the end of the day, he remains stuck as it were in his numbness.  Keeping busy is not the same as being truly engaged, and feeling truly alive.

            But people today continue to seek out more and more labor-saving technology, thinking that it will give them a life of ease.  They keep searching for more and more ease through technology, and then to defend themselves against the numbness, they search for more and more ways to keep busy through technology.  They can’t tolerate this technology-based ease that ultimately results in more and more uncomfortable numbness.  People become addicted to labor-saving technology, while at the same time, they have to fight back against its numbing effects.  There is a conflict, a tension between what is needed in the short term, in order to satisfy the addiction, and what is needed in the long term: the organic stimuli from more natural, more traditional living environments after a person is reconfigured to be able to absorb organic stimuli again.  The conflict or tension creates tremendous stress for an individual.  A stress that affects both mental and physical health.

            An addiction is an attempt to satisfy oneself with an abrasive tension-pocket experience or experiences that has been internalized in order to fight numbness.  And because the internalized vacuum can never be truly filled with abrasive tension-pocket experience, the addictive behavior just goes on and on and on.  Today people are becoming increasingly addicted to busy behavior.  They go from task to task, from email to email in an attempt to fill the experiential voids in which they live.  Perhaps, the exception to this rule is those people who are fortunate enough to be able to retire comfortably.  In the U.S., many of these people go to live in retirement communities in Florida, California and Arizona.  They move to places that have warm organic natural fields of experience in which to live, at least, with regards to the basic living environment.  But one of the things that make these living environments so appealing is that they have an overlay of modern technology to make life so frictionless.  It is like living in paradise, only without the need for the primary experience work needed to maintain it.  However, many of these people end up living in an experiential vacuum in “paradise” without even the busy work needed to defend themselves against entropic disintegration.  So many of these retirees end up dying after a few years.  The retirees have difficulty tolerating their retirement in a modern technological world.

            One important point has to be emphasized again. Years of labor-saving technology during their pre-retirement years has left many of these retirees incapable of properly absorbing organic stimuli even without the distractions of labor-saving technology.  They go south to embrace the organic stimulation there, but by that time, they are too numb to do it.  By the time they are economically ready to retire, they are psychologically incapable of absorbing it.

            Compulsive busy-ness is simply a symptom of a much deeper problem that affects all of us to a greater or lesser extent.  As long as we continue to live in the experiential vacuum created by modern technological society, this busy-ness will continue to serve as a defense against falling apart.

(c) 2019 Laurence Mesirow

Solving Meaningless Problems To Feel Alive

            The human need to have some kind of control over his living environment has been fundamental to his survival.  Control comes in many forms: superior knowledge, sharpened skills, good financial resources, powerful modern technology, and effective manipulation of people in one’s relationships.  However, for many people in today’s world, control has to do with being able to hold oneself together.   Maintaining a routine of both individual actions and sequences of actions to effectively take care of the personal business of one’s life.  Most people have always needed some kind of routine to keep them going, but today the tendency has been aggravated by the sensory distortion in modern technological society.  The experiential vacuum created by our frictionless and mediated lives leads to numbness which leads, as one possible reaction, to a need to pull out of the numbness through activities that give us a greater personal sense of control.

             Many of us feel a need to find areas of our lives where we can have a feeling of control, an almost total control, to compensate for our sense of a lack of control over the flow of narrative in our lives as a whole.  This control can manifest itself in typical obsessive-compulsive behavior like keeping things around oneself in a very neat, close and orderly manner.  Or it can manifest itself in taking on different work projects that can give us a sense of dominion in different areas of our lives.  Projects to which we give unusually intense focus in order to get them done just right.  And then there are the relationships that many people like to control in order to experience minimum organic friction.  Once a person becomes very numb, he loses his capacity to properly absorb the organic friction that he actually totally craves.  When it comes to relationships, children require some control in order that they learn their limits and, also, in order to feel protected.  On the other hand, excessive control of children can ultimately lead to pathological behavior including self-destructive behavior and an extreme rebellion.  And certainly excessive control among adults can lead to a loss of capacity for real intimacy.  The need for excessive control leads ultimately to people tending to isolate from one another.

            So because the need for excessive control can cause a lot of harm to the people who exercise it, we need to find a way of dealing with it.  Should we say that we need to find a way to control our need to control.  The problem is that the cause of our need to control is not some neatly defined discrete figure that we can somehow effectively confront and manage.  The cause is not a focused force, but rather a more diffuse state of being.  In Aristotelian terms, the cause is not an easily identifiable efficient cause, but rather a more nebulous material cause.  It cannot be easily focused on, because it surrounds us.  It is not tangible; it cannot be grabbed onto or held onto.  The experiential vacuum permeates everywhere in our modern technological living environment.

            Both the causes and the effects generated by the experiential vacuum are subtle and are not readily obvious to casual observation. Most people feel much more comfortable attributing causes that are focused and tangible, that can be mentally and/or physically encompassed and thus, more easily managed, contained and solved.  How does one deal effectively with something that is as intangible and diffuse as a vacuum?  The notion of an experiential vacuum is somehow too nebulous, too inchoate for most people, who tend to be concrete thinkers and who tend to feel comfortable only with concrete patterns of causation. The problem is that a concrete pattern of causation lends itself more readily to an incomplete pattern of solution.

            And this is why when a concrete pattern of causation doesn’t work as a roadmap for dealing with many of the experiential problems that exist for people in modern technological society, these people tend to fabricate smaller simpler problems with smaller simpler efficient causes that do lend themselves to being dealt with through simpler solutions.  But there is something very compulsive and very exhausting about solving smaller simpler problems endlessly, problems that have no real impact on the one big problem that is overwhelming them.  It is like being a hamster on an endless treadmill.

            The truth is there are solutions to dealing with the experiential vacuum.  However, because it is so all encompassing, it is not a problem that can be solved in a short period of time.  It must be solved little by little, finding ways of reintroducing more sources of organic stimulation gradually back into the environment.  It has to be done over many generations, because it took many generations to create the environment of modern technological society.  It will take time for people to be able to learn how to absorb again the organic stimulation that they crave.  We need a gradual flowing blendable continual solution to the problem.  And, of course, as we start feeling less numb, we won’t have a need to create solutions where we can have control for control’s sake, in order to create an artificial abrasive friction and feel more alive.  Instead as we regenerate more organic living environments, we will be regenerating an organic friction that is an intrinsic part of these living environments, and we will get used to it again.  And we will get used to really start living again.

(c) 2019 Laurence Mesirow