When I worked at the National Gallery of Canada as contract art educator in the 1990s I remember viewing an art clip in which the videographer chased a plastic bag in a mundane urban setting as it was picked up by the breeze and eventually carried out over the waters. The sound track consisted of transient noises including the videographer’s breathing and footsteps which increased in intensity when the breeze picked up.

This Noruz film directed by Ramin Bahrani entitled Plastic Bag (2009) expands on this concept into a 20 minute saga narrated by Werner Herzog who gives a dramatic rendering of the journey from its creation, discovery of its purpose, the meaning of its existence, finding love and freedom, then eternal entrapment in the plastic vortex with 100 million plastic objects in the Pacific Ocean.

Death of paradox

April 30, 2011


James Arthur Baldwin (August 2, 1924 – December 1, 1987) was an American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist. Baldwin described the ambiguous situation of black Americans in the 1950s as Kafkaesque. He predicted that American nation will be put to death by paradox, itself a paradox since Americans seemed intent on putting paradox to death. He then situates American author Richard Wright fictional character Bigger Thomas in Native Son (1940) as a character controlled, defined by hatred and fear as a descendant of Uncle Tom. Bigger Tom’s hatred and fear later drive him to murder and rape. Baldwin saw Richard Wright as the 1940s Negro novelist locked with the 19th century New England author in a deadly timeless battle. He decries the fact that Bigger Tom’s tragedy is that he has accepted a theology that situates him as subhuman eternally constrained to fight for his humanity. Baldwin then summarizes, “But our humanity is our burden, our life, we need not battle for it; we need only do what is infinitely more difficult, that is accept it. The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended (Baldwin “Everybody’s Protest Novel” in Zero 1955: 58).”

1852 American author Harriet Beecher Stowe published her anti-slavery novel entitled Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly. Although some argued that the novel “helped lay the groundwork for the Civil War” (Will Kaufman) James Baldwin claimed that is reeked of self-righteousness and virtuous sentimentality. Baldwin argued that sentimentality is the mark of dishonesty which betray the sentamentalist’s aversion of experience, fear of life and an arid heart. Baldwin states that sentimentalism is a signal of secret and violent inhumanity, a mask for cruelty. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a “catalogue of violence”. He described Harriet Beecher Stowe as an impassioned pampheteer not a novelist who wrote solely to reveal the immorality of slavery (Baldwin “Everybody’s Protest Novel” Zero 1955: 57).

1924 James Baldwin was born

1938 Shoghi Effendi (1938:36) Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, wrote that racial prejudice was the most vital and challenging issue confronting the Americas.

“Freedom from racial prejudice, in any of its forms, should, at such a time as this when an increasingly large section of the human race is falling a victim to its devastating ferocity, be adopted as the watchword of the entire body of the…believers, in whichever state they reside, in whatever circles they move, whatever their age, traditions, tastes, and habits (1938:36).”

“The ceaseless exertions which this issue of paramount importance calls for, the sacrifices it must impose, the care and vigilance it demands, the moral courage and fortitude it requires, the tact and sympathy it necessitates, invest this problem…with an urgency and importance that cannot be overestimated (1938:34).”

” [Freedom from racial prejudice] should be deliberately cultivated through the various and everyday opportunities, no matter how insignificant, that present themselves, whether in their homes, their business offices, their schools and colleges, their social parties and recreation grounds, their Bahá’í meetings, conferences, conventions, summer schools and Assemblies (1938:36).”

1940 American author Richard Wright published Native Son. James Baldwin in his essay entitled “Everybody’s Protest Novel” (c. 1950s?: 54-59) published in Zero situated American author Richard Wright fictional character Bigger Thomas in Native Son (1940) as a character controlled, defined by hatred and fear as a descendant of Uncle Tom. Bigger Tom’s hatred and fear later drive him to murder and rape. Baldwin saw Richard Wright as the 1940s Negro novelist locked with the 19th century New England author in a deadly timeless battle. He decries the fact that Bigger Tom’s tragedy is that he has accepted a theology that situates him as subhuman eternally constrained to fight for his humanity. Native Son is number 71 on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000. The Modern Library placed it number 20 on its list of the 100 best novels of the 20th Century. Time Magazine also included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.

1941 Seventeen-year-old James Baldwin studied at The New School, Greenwich Village, New York City.

1948 James Baldwin lived in Paris, France and became involved in the cultural radicalism of the Left Bank. His work started to be published in literary anthologies, notably Zero.

1949-1956 Albert Benveniste and Themistocles and Hoetis were editors of Zero, Gotham Book Mart Selection. James Baldwin’s essay entitled “Everybody’s Protest Novel” (pp 54-59) was published in Zero. http://books.google.com/books?id=9wdVDKAZZFoC&pg=PP5&lpg=PP5&dq=New+York+Times+’Zero’+Themistocles+Hoetis&q=New+York+Times+’Zero’+Themistocles+Hoetis&hl=en#v=snippet&q=New%20York%20Times%20′Zero’%20Themistocles%20Hoetis&f=false

“It is the peculiar triumph of society – and its loss – that it is able to convince those people to whom it has given inferior status of the reality of this decree; it has the force and the weapons to translate its dictum into fact, so that the allegedly inferior are actually made so, insofar as the societal realities are concerned. This is a hidden phenomenon now than it was in the days of serfdom, but it is no less implacable. Now, as then, we find ourselves bound, first without, then within, by the nature of categorization. And escape is not effected through a bitter railing against this trap upon us. We take our shape, it is true, within and against that cage of reality bequeathed us at our birth; and yet it is precisely betrayed. Society is held together by our need; we bind it together with legend, myth, coercion, fearing that without it we will be hurled into that void, within which, like the earth before the Word was spoken, the foundations of society are hidden. From this void – ourselves – it is the function of society to protect us; but it is only this void, our unknown selves, demanding forever, a new act of creation, which can save us – “from the evil that is in the world.” With the same motion, at the same time, it is this toward which we endlessly struggle and from which, endlessly, we struggle to escape(Baldwin “Everybody’s Protest Novel” Zero 1955: 57).”

“It must be remembered that the oppressed and oppressor are bound within the same society; they accept the same criteria, they share the same beliefs, they both alike depend on the same reality. Within this cage it is (Baldwin “Everybody’s Protest Novel” Zero 1955: 57) romantic, more, meaningless, to speak of a “new” society as the desire of the oppressed, for that shivering independence on the props of reality wyhich he shares with the herrenvolk makes a truly “new” society impossible to conceive. What vengeance will be exacted; either there will be no oppressed at all or the oppressed and the oppressor will change places (Baldwin “Everybody’s Protest Novel” Zero 1955: 58).”

1955 James Baldwin published Notes of a Native Son. The title refers to Richard Wright’s 1940 protest novel entitled Native Son.

1963 James Baldwin’s book entitled The Fire Next Time was considered to be one of the most influential books about race relations. In it Baldwin predicted, “The Negroes of this country may never be able to rise to power, but they are very well placed indeed to precipitate chaos and ring down the curtain on the American dream.” Could he have imagined President Obama?

“James Baldwin’s collection of essays, The Fire Next Time, is considered one of the most influential books on race relations published during the 1960s. Divided into two sections, the book urges the politicization of both African Americans and European Americans on the issue of racism. Baldwin explains that the radicalism and militancy of many prominent African Americans is a reaction to feelings of alienation inspired by traditional American society. Originally published as two separate works – “Letter from a Region in My Mind” in The New Yorker and “A Letter to My Nephew” in the Progressive – the essays were retitled “Down at the Cross” and “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation” for their appearance in book form. Using rhetorical devices learned in his youth as a Pentecostal preacher and examples from his own life, Baldwin argues for an end to racism (Gale Free Resources).”

“In order to survive as a human, moving, moral weight in the world, America and all the Western nations will be forced to reexamine themselves and release themselves from many things that are now taken to be sacred, and to discard nearly all the assumptions that have been used to justify their lives and their anguish and their crimes so long (Baldwin).”

1979-1981 Atlanta Child Murders were a series of murders committed in Atlanta, Georgia, United States in which a minimum of twenty-eight African-American children, adolescents and adults were killed creating an atmosphere of panic and paranoia. James Baldwin documented these murders in his nonfiction book entitled The Evidence of Things Not Seen. Although Atlanta African American Wayne Williams was convicted of two murders and suspected to be guilty of more Baldwin criticized the “untidy” criminal investigation process and felt it was incomplete.

1987 James Baldwin died.

Who’s Who

James Arthur Baldwin (August 2, 1924 – December 1, 1987) was an American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist.

Webliography and Bibliography

Baldwin, James. 1962-11-17. “Letter From a Region of My Mind.The New Yorker. “Letter from a Region in My Mind.” p. 59.

Baldwin, James. 1963. “Down At the Cross; Letter From a Region of My Mind.” The Fire Next Time. Dial Press. USA.
Baldwin, James. 1963. The Fire Next Time. Dial Press. USA.
Baldwin, James. 1964. The Fire Next Time. Penguin Books. UK.


Charles Taylor’s book entitled The Ethics of Authenticity was first published in Canada under the name “The Malaise of Modernity” which was broadcast in November 1991 on the CBC’s Ideas series. By 2003 it was in its 11th printing.

Three Malaises of Modernity.

1. The first malaise concerns the dangers of individualism and the loss of meaning.

“. [...] The worry has been repeatedly expressed that the individual lost something important along with the larger social and cosmic horizons of action. Some have written of this as the loss of a heroic dimension to life.  People no longer have a sense of a higher purpose, of something worth dying for.  Alex de Tocqueville [author of Democracy in America] sometimes talked like this in the last century, referring to the “petits et vulgaires plaisirs” [“petty and vulgar pleasures”] that people tend to seek in the democratic age.  In another articulation, we suffer from a lack of passion.  Kierkegaard saw “the present age” in these terms. And Nietzsche’s “last men” are at the final nadir of this decline; they have no aspiration left in life but to a “pitiable comfort.” This loss of purpose was linked to a narrowing. People lost the broader vision because they focused on their individual lives. Democratic equality, says Tocqueville, draws the individual towards himself, “et menace de le renfermer enfin tout entier dans la solitude de son propre coeur” [“and threatens finally to enclose him entirely within the solitude of his own heart”].  In other words, the dark side of individualism is a centring on the self, which both flattens and narrows our lives, makes  them poorer in meaning, and less concerned with  others or society (Taylor, Charles. 1991. “Taylor 1991:4 .”

2. The second malaise is the disenchantment of the world.

“Once society no longer has a sacred structure, once social arrangements and modes of action are no longer grounded in the order of things or the will of God, they are in a sense up for grabs. They can be redesigned with their consequences for the happiness and well-being of individuals as our goal. The yardstick that henceforth applies is that of instrumental reason Taylor 1991:5 .”

3. The third malaise concerns the atomism of the self-absorbed individual who is so “enclosed in their own hearts” and comfortable in their own homes that they no longer participate actively in self-government. This results in an “immense tutelary power” of a mild and paternalistic government, democratic in form with periodic elections but in reality a form of soft despotism as predicted by Tocqueville. (Tocqueville 1835) cited in Taylor 1991:9 .

“After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd. I have always thought that servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind which I have just described might be combined more easily than is commonly believed with some of the outward forms of freedom, and that it might even establish itself under the wing of the sovereignty of the people. Our contemporaries are constantly excited by two conflicting passions: they want to be led, and they wish to remain free. As they cannot destroy either the one or the other of these contrary propensities, they strive to satisfy them both at once. They devise a sole, tutelary, and all-powerful form of government, but elected by the people. They combine the principle of centralization and that of popular sovereignty; this gives them a respite: they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians. Every man allows himself to be put in leading-strings, because he sees that it is not a person or a class of persons, but the people at large who hold the end of his chain (de Tocqueville 1835.” Democracy in America).”

de Tocqueville, Alexis. 1835. “What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear.” Democracy in America.

Taylor, Charles. 1991. “Three Malaises.” The Ethics of Authenticity. Harvard University Press. pp. 1-12.


1939 Heinz Kohut (1913-1981) was forced to emigrate from Vienna to Chicago when the Nazis took power. He was trained as a medical doctor in Austria but became known as Mr. Psychoanalysis in America where he played a central role in the twentieth-century psychoanalytic movement (Strozier 2001).

1966 Academics challenged the scientific establishment’s faith in objective science creating a schism among academics. Abraham H. Maslow contributed to the debate in his influential book entitled The Psychology of Science: a Renaissance (1966). In it he argued that by integrating experience (practice) and abstraction (theory), he wished to enlarge not destroy science.  However, Maslow rejected the concept of a neutral observer removed from reality and experience. Rifkin described how Maslow following Goethe and Kohut argued for more sensitive observers capable of incorporating more of the world into the self. These emphatic observers identify with “wider and more inclusive circles of living and nonliving things (Maslow 1966).” Maslow used AA as an argument for the legitimacy of knowledge claims from experience versus theory. Rifkin (2009:610) referred to Maslow’s “receptive strategy” of knowing in section entitled “Teaching Emphatic Science” in the chapter entitled “Biosphere Consciousness in a Climax Economy” in The Emphatic Civilization (2009). He cited Maslow:

“Can all the sciences, all knowledge be conceptualized as a resultant of loving and caring interrelationship between knower and known? What would be the advantages to us of setting this epistemology alongside the one that now reigns in “objective science”? Can we simultaneosly use both?” (Maslow 1966).

1970s The Chicago Institute had a lively intellectual atmosphere was polarized into two factions those who supported Freudian traditional psychoanalysis with its emphasis on drives (instinctual motivations of sex and aggression), internal conflicts, and fantasies and individual guilt and those who accepted Kohut’s empathic approach which embraced the post WWII zeitgeist with is emphasis on how issues of identity, meaning, ideals, and self-expression impact on emotional needs and concerns (Strozier 2001).

1978 The first self psychology conference was held in Chicago. Kohut replaced Freud’s structural theory of the id, ego, and superego with his own concept of the tripartite self (Flanagan 1996), self psychology with its emphasis on relationships. One’s “self states,” including one’s sense of worth and well-being, are met in relationships with others.

1980 A major conference on history and psychoanalysis was organized by Arnold Goldberg and Heinz Kohut.

Webliography and Bibliography

Rifkin, Jeremy. 2009. The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World of Crisis. New York: Jeremy T. Tarcher.

Strozier, Charles B. 2001 “Heinz Kohut: The Making of a Psychoanalyst.” New York:Farrar, Straus & Giroux.  See also this critical review of Strozier’s biography.

Flanagan, L.M. 1996. “The theory of self psychology”. In (Eds.) Berzoff, J., Flanagan, L.M., & Hertz, P. Inside out and outside in, New Jersey:Jason Aronson Inc.)

Maslow, Abraham H. 1966. The Psychology of Science: a Renaissance. South Bend: Gateway Editions, Ltd.  McIsaac, David S. 1997. “Empathy Reconsidered: New Directions in Psychotherapy. Washington: American Psychological Association. (McIsaac 1997:248 cited in Rifkin EC 2009) ftn 19

Kohut, Heinz. 1978. The Psychoanalyst in the Community of Scholars.” In Paul H. Ornstein Ed. The Search for the Self: Selected Writings of Heinz Kohut: 1950-1978. Vol. a. New York: International University Press. (Kohut 1978:702 cited in Rifkin EC 2009) ftn 20

Ornstein, Paul H.  Ed. The Search for the Self: Selected Writings of Heinz Kohut: 1950-1978. Vol. a. New York: International University Press. (Kohut 1978:82 cited in Rifkin EC 2009) ftn 21

Paul H. Ornstein Ed. The Search for the Self: Selected Writings of Heinz Kohut: 1950-1978. Vol. a. New York: International University Press. (Kohut 1978:714 cited in Rifkin EC 2009) ftn 22

Ornstein, Paul H.  Ed. The Search for the Self: Selected Writings of Heinz Kohut: 1950-1978. Vol. 1. New York: International University Press. (Kohut 1978:529 cited in Rifkin EC 2009) ftn 23

Ornstein, Paul H.  Ed. The Search for the Self: Selected Writings of Heinz Kohut: 1950-1978. Vol. 1. New York: International University Press. (Kohut 1978:707 cited in Rifkin EC 2009) ftn 24

Memory: Floods and Flows

December 9, 2009


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has been collecting and analysing data on the question, “What is the good life?” since 1967. He explores issues such as the structure of everyday life, develops well-known concepts such as psychic entropy and challenge-skill ratio (CSR). MC’s flow model and the Experience Sampling Method blend the science of pyschology and folksy-self-help (1997) He reveals that the moments of flow where an individual experiences a good challenge-skill ratio, are likely to happen at work (2000:121-123) although they can also occur when an artist is at work in her studio, or a Nintendo players is up to her game.

Memory: Floods and Flows

“The American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has written about the concept of flow, which is the feeling we have of being completely focused on and absorbed in the work we are doing. An artist painting a picture who is so engrossed in his work that he becomes unaware of himself and the passage of time is in a state of flow. Flow can also be attained when a surgeon performs a difficult operation in which she has to use all her abilities and skills. What Csikszentmihalyi has tried to do is identify the circumstances that elicit flow. He reasons that if we analyze situations in terms of the challenges they present and the skills of the person involved in them, we find that flow arises in contexts characterized by a high level of challenge and skill, in which capacity of the doer exactly matches the demands of the task being done (Klingberg 2009:167-8).”

“Considering Csikszentmihalyi’s diagram as a cognitive map with north at the top, it is in the northeast sector where we find the state of flow. When the challenge exceeds skill, we get stres. When skill exceeds challenge we get a sense of control, which becomes boredom as the level of challenge drops. Exchange “skill” for “working memory capacity” and “challenge” for “Information overload,” and perhaps we have a map illustrating the subjective side of the information demand. When this demand exceeds our capacity, we experience the relative attention deficit due north of the map. However, we should not simply avoid these demands, for when they are too low we become bored and apathetic. In other words, there is a reason for us to cater to our need for stimulation and information. It is when demand and capacity, or skill and challenge, are in a state of equilibrium that the situation is conducive to flow. And perhaps it is precisely here, where we exploit our full capacity, that we develop and train our abilities (Klingberg 2009:168)”

“While our working memory load exactly matches working memory capacity and we hover around the magical number seven, the training effect is its most powerful. Now that we know this, it is up to us to control our environments and reshape the work we do to our abilities. Let us hope that we can learn to perfect the compass that will show us where to find balance and help us navigate into the northeast corner of the map, where we can feel the flow and develop to our full capacity (Klingberg 2009:169).” Read the rest of this entry »

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