ALCStudies Journal

Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies Web Site & Blog

Category Archives: Psychology

You Are There

Sixty-plus people attended our live radio presentation of ‘The Thin Man’ Comes to Pittsburgh at the Omni William Penn Saturday November 23rd. One of the first questions people asked me was, ‘Are you going to record it?’, followed by ‘Are you going to put it on YouTube?’ We could just as well have done this for people to enjoy anonymously behind their screens — in between checking e-mails and Facebook. Instead, people braved the first real winter weather of the season to join other audience members and ourselves for the experience of hearing Nick and Nora and an array of lowlifes and highflyers do their thing. My thanks to Sarah, Bob, Tamer, Jessica and the staff at the Omni for providing a great venue.

Omni William Penn Lobby

Omni William Penn Lobby

In these days of twitter and instagram, human activity is endlessly digitized, replicated and deconstructed. Eight-word text messages count for meaningful conversation. Experience must be compressed into 144 characters. I was privileged to collaborate with a wonderful group of people who made our event come alive. Only two perform full-time. One is a musician and poet, in addition to working in the financial services industry. The rest have day jobs. We rehearsed for two months to put together a show to knock the socks off our audience. ‘Astonish me’ the theater critic said. What seems astonishing is that we pulled it off.

Whether painting or music, theater or dance, the arts at their best connect us to our deepest selves as individuals and as a community. This is more important than ever as our lives become preoccupied with self-promotion and dependent on duplication of experience — endlessly replicated and mass- produced. This trend affects everything from clothing to relationships to our emotions to the food we eat. We seek the ‘authentic’ in a safe, standardized, mass-produced palatable format — one that won’t challenge our expectations too much or result in a less than optimal experience. Andy Warhol, still revered here in his home town, reframed and resold us our own memes (the familiar artifacts of consumer culture) and took the proceeds all the way to the bank.

So we update our Facebook pages, send tweets on our own time and convenience, screen our calls (if we talk to anyone at all) — endlessly reiterating what someone else has said and what we already know. Our lives themselves are circumscribed by the virtual and vicarious so that we barely have a thought that is not predigested and shared immediately with others, hardly knowing ourselves what we think.

We are in danger of becoming commodities ourselves. We are encouraged to this by consumer advertisements and depictions of what life should be (speaking of Warhol). Smart phones, helmet cams, GPS coordinates allow us to track, monitor and share our most profound and innocuous thoughts. We watch ourselves constantly. The consequence of all this sharing with strangers who do not know us – is that experience is isolated and fragmented. We form judgments of others (and have judgments formed about us) without regard to personal history, circumstances or context.

But the process of ensuring a perfect cup of coffee every time1 does not scale easily to the arts or to being human. The happiest and most tragic aspects of living are fraught, unpredictable, messy. True art reflects this. It contains an element of the sacred, an immanence that cannot be manufactured. To be more than than just the sound of one hand clapping, it must involve an audience and a performer (or presenter) taking a mutual risk on an unknown quantity. As Stefany Anne Goldberg writes2:

“A magic trick is not a can of peas. A pirouette is not a product. A performance is just a person, creating an experience for other people, making them laugh, making them gasp, annoying them, delighting them. “

“… in a live performance, there’s a symbiotic relationship between audience and performer, in a recorded performance, audience and performer are divorced from each other, unreal to each other.”

” Nothing else has the feeling of standing on that precipice between failure and success — the puddle of sweat at the small of the back, the fluttering heartbeat, the tingling knees; to experience that moment when everything just might fall apart and probably should and you know it will, but then it doesn’t…. “

A live performance invites strangers to invest individually and together in a communal experience that will never be repeated. On good days the result can be transcendent, enlightening, uplifting. On other days, well, at least you can make up your mind yourself. Because you were there. – CDL

1See Julian Baggini, Joy in the Task, in Aeon Magazine

2Stefany Anne Goldberg , Send in Whatever Clowns are Left, The Smart Set

A Purpose-Riven Life

David Abramoff Ph.D.

As an émigré to these shores, I am familiar with the ambivalent place America holds in the hearts of those from other countries. An the one hand America represents a beacon of hope, a city on a hill to those from war-torn areas, victims of oppression and suppression or economic hardship, whose lives are less than hopeful. To these America represents the exuberant opportunity to remake one’s life and reap the reward of hard work, industry and luck.

But one person’s success is another’s excess. As consumers of 25 – 30 percent of the world’s resources, Americans have provoked the resentment and envy of others as the image of consumerism run amuck (a wonderfully evocative English word implying a pig rooting happily as well as someone gone insane).

Getting and spending precedes the Founding Fathers, of course. Entrepreneurs and settlers from the old world brought that notion with them to the new. But here it  flourished extravagantly among the purple mountain’s majesty and the amber waves of grain, becoming commingled with a religious, if not evangelical, impulse toward self-improvement.

A few years ago a colleague was going through a rough patch in life. Someone gave him Rick Warren’s book A Purpose-Driven Life. For several weeks my colleague read through the book with a group of men confronting their mid-life crises (and increasingly imminent mortality) and wondering what on earth it had all been for.

Th Greatest Showman on Earth

America is a nation which has always encouraged, if not compelled, people arriving on its shores to seek their purpose. The wretched refuse flock to its teeming shore fleeing atrocities, persecution or personal tragedy. And someone is waiting to sell them the means to making money, finding spiritual redemption or self-improvement. The great story of America is of prevailing against all odds to achieve success. It’s no accident that figures from P.T. Barnum to Andrew Carnegie are heroes. Everyone loves a winner, and to be assured by others achieving their goals that they can do the same.

And if not? Failure is not an option. For Americans not achieving one’s fifteen minutes of fame is a fate worse than death. Better to fade into the shadows like Andrew Carnegie’s father, a weaver from Scotland displaced by the relentless march of the industrial revolution. He brought his family to America in 1848 to seek a better life. By luck and pluck (combined with ruthless business practices and an indomitable will), his son succeeded. Carnegie père became an embarrassment. Since he did not fit the Horatio Alger version of the story, he was all but disowned by his own family and eldest son. Who now remembers William Carnegie’s name? He faded from the story for his failure to adhere to the proper narrative.

We are all immigrants from the existential beyond, strangers in a strange land lured by consumer culture promoting streets paved with gold and I-Phones with the latest apps and bling. We wonder what our mission-statement and goal are supposed to be. But our purposes can divide as much as unite us –from gun control to vegetarianism and global warming. Some of our causes take us to the dark side. John Brown believed it was allowable to kill in the name of abolishing slavery. Thoreau sympathized with him. What is the line between prophet and provocateur? Jesus came bringing not peace but a sword. Reverend Warren’s book describes Christ using explosives to blow open the doors of our resistance to God’s love for us.*

With A Terrible Swift Sword

My colleague called disturbed. He had seen the mayhem and death at the Boston Marathon interposed on his Smartphone between twitter feeds of celebrity gossip and Groupons for the latest products meeting his shopping profile. But there was more.

“The younger of the two alleged perpetrators is a dead ringer for my son.”

“Ah,” I said. “The young men from the family with a Chechen background.”

“Yes. Michael is in his late twenties now. When I saw the photo, I thought ‘My God, if I hadn’t just seen him, it could have been him in Boston, with dark eyes and hair, that smile.

“A good looking young man.”

“– Who with his brother did a terrible thing to innocent people.”

Who are the innocent? Thoreau might ask. Or Marx or Che. School children in Connecticut. People shot going to the movie theater for the evening. Or the mall. Too many.

I said, “They were promising young men. The older was a skilled boxer, a fighter who was contender for the golden gloves. The younger especially was talented, well-liked by his friends, winner of a scholarship.”

“The older brother said he would never understand Americans.”

“I don’t understand Americans. They don’t understand themselves.

“Their uncle called them losers.”

The worst epithet in America.

“The police caught him in that boat; the evil-doer wounded and bloodied. Everyone is cheering.” Why don’t I?”

“Perhaps they are cheering so loudly to avoid the anger and disappointment that are part of their lives and ours, and the violent feelings we all have.”

“That doesn’t make me want to blow people up.”

“The resemblance to your son disturbs you?” I said.


“It’s not your son.”

“He is somebody’s son! What would drive him to do such a thing?”

Young men are impressionable. The seek a way to belong, a cause to prove themselves worthy. It’s why they join gangs. Or the army. American society does not do a good job of helping people grow up and find a purpose. How much more difficult if you are a stranger?

Dzhokar’s brother’s heart of darkness apparently influenced him. Together they found one.

David Abramoff is Director Emeritus of Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies

*Rick Warren’s son Mathew committed suicide in April 2013 at the age of 27 after years of struggling with depression.

Learning to Master the World

The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) recently provided $3,447,740 USD to organizations in the U.S., including one in Southwestern Pennsylvania. The goals of the award are to:

  • Create engaging learning experiences
  • Support the role of museums as community anchor institutions
  • Enhance collections stewardship

The local recipient in SW PA plans to use the award to ‘conduct a research study of family participation in museum-based “makerspaces.” As one staff member told a colleague, “Basically, we are going to use the award to research how children play and learn.” The organization will work with academic researchers at Carnegie Mellon University “to design tools that recognize and measure productive patterns of family participation and their associated learning outcomes in these spaces.” Most likely this will involve the use of computer technology. Every hammer must find its nail.

When I was a boy barely knee-high, I often stopped on the way home  from school when it rained to watch water flowing from a downspout. Left to their devices, kids are naturally little physicists. They try to figure out how the world and people work. Perhaps it is easier to understand the function of dark matter than plumb the mysteries of the human heart. When children play, they try different roles. They cast pieces of wood adrift in mud puddles. They build forts outside. They get messy. Sometimes they do things that result in conflict, bruises or tears. This is how they learn, have fun and practice being human. To do this they need a balance of structured and unstructured (read, unsupervised) time.

Of course childhood may be viewed as an invention, a construct of society that become possible since about the eighteenth century when one in five children stopped dying before the age of three and the rest were put to work in coal mines. Now that children are our future, they have been turned into a preoccupation (if not fetish) of society and a multi-billion dollar industry.

Parents and adults in positions of self-appointed authority feel compelled to direct the efforts of children to make sure they are equipped for our dubious future. Many of these efforts (and the money invested) involve applying new technology to create learning environments and products. They take the form of initiatives to promote literacy and early learning. Millions of dollars are invested by schools (and parents) in technology to address the so-called digital divide.

One product advertised on TV allows a child to draw in different colors on a digital tablet. This offers an advantage over a pad of newsprint and crayons or water colors in that it’s less messy. There is no danger the child will express his or her creativity and fingerprints on the walls or furniture. All the child’s efforts are neatly packaged within the digital environment for the parent to save and admire and post on Facebook — ensuring John or Judy fifteen minutes of fame before the age of five. The company that sells the device has occasion to hire programmers, designers and marketing personnel, and turns a profit to create an artificial environment for children to play in.

Are we doing children and ourselves a favor by creating such adult-designed, carefully circumscribed  ‘spaces’ on their behalf in which they can develop their 21st-century skills and practice social interaction (presumably learning to type with their thumbs and talking to themselves while crossing the street)?

After thousands of years human beings have still not mastered the control of nature or ourselves. Despite our remarkable advances in technology and prognostications for the future, our creations will  inevitably reflect our imperfections. We spend our brief time on this earth futilely trying to impose our will upon the entropy within our souls and in the void without. We can choose do this in enlightened or idolatrous ways.

Our freedom to play may extend into our adult lives and at least elements of our jobs. The Wall Street trader plays Monopoly with other people’s money. The CEO organizes and runs part of the playground by his or her rules and gets others to play their game. In creative pursuits such as the arts we can try on different roles, write our own stories, leave our fingerprints on the wall where none have been left before. But we still need to pay the bills, pay the piper, make a living by putting our fingerprints in the service of someone else (or the public taste). When play becomes indistinguishable from work, the fun of creation may be lost in drudgery despite employers’ attempts to make the workplace a barrel of laughs and convince employees that work/life balance means dedicating one’s life 24/7 for profit.

Children play in the present with every ounce of their being. Becoming adults means making a transition to building sand castles on the beach knowing that eventually the ocean will overwhelm our creation. We persevere, living our lives in the midst of joy and sadness until we exit this confused, confusing, unfinished world leaving behind whatever contributions or depredations we have made.

The seductive promise that technology and the marketplace seem to offer to us is to become creators of our own reality; either controlling the world to suit our whims and desires, or divorcing ourselves from it to live in our own cocoon of virtual reality. The legacy of this may be to deny (or spare) future generations the pleasures and frustrations of discovering how the world works alongside their own limitations and possibilities. What kind of future will it be if human beings are arrogantly devoted to controlling what they don’t understand and remaking the world in their own egotistic image, or retreating  into an alternative world restricted to rules and possibilities devised solely themselves? — DA

Related References:

Me, Meyers-Briggs and I

In a recent CNN article  Susan Cain highlights the unappreciated accomplishments and value of introverts. She quotes from her 2012 book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.

In his New Yorker article in 2004 Malcolm Gladwell cites Cult of Personality by Annie Murphy Paul and examines the Meyers-Briggs Type Inventory (MBTI) and other personality tests widely used as a way of measuring introversion vs. extroversion and other personality traits in people.

For being an loosely-validated testing instrument created by a housewife and her daughter in the 1940s,  Meyers-Briggs exerts a lot of influence still. Inspired by Carl Jung’s notion of personality types, it is based on the assumption that these can be extrapolated from our responses to questions indicating our preferences in certain situations.

Businesses use personality tests such as Meyers-Briggs to evaluate (and exclude) job candidates. Psychologists use them to provide clients with insight. Children are classified with them. Our culture accepts the notion of inherent personality types. People love categories. It’s somehow comforting to measure and know where we stand in relation to others. So we are judged and judge ourselves by our conformity to these labels. But of course, what we use as convenient shorthand can become either limiting or self-fulfilling.

In college after reading David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd, I was sure I was inner-directed . (How do Riesman’s and his co-author’s Glazer and Denney’s notion of inner-, outer- and traditionally-directed relate to Myers-Briggs definitions of introverted and extroverted?)

I present public lectures and performances. At professional and social gatherings I am happy to introduce myself and talk to strangers. I enjoy getting to know people and having conversations with them. You might decide based on this that I am an extrovert.

As a kid I could read for hours and shut the world out. I still like solitude and happily do activities like camping and canoing by myself. So am I an introvert?

The answer, as Gladwell points out, is that it depends. We change, adapt, grow. (Well, some of us.)

Ironically, Kenneth Gergen has written not uncritically about the chameleon-like personality that the Internet and technology of social networking supposedly promote. Virtual relationships favor a certain adaptability, if not plasticity, of character. If we are only what we perceive others (employers, friends, frenemies, relatives, acquaintances) require us to be, what is left at the center of our (selves? soul?), assuming we have one?  Or have we become like T.S. Eliot’s Hollow Men?

What do you think (assuming you’re not too introverted to share)? ; – )


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