Chapter 1: A Disembodied Culture
When you lose touch with inner stillness you lose touch with yourself, when you lose touch with yourself you lose yourself in the world – Eckhart Tolle
How we, as parents and educators, understand heightened sensory sensitivity and the senses is influenced by our culture and greatly affects our ability to help our highly sensitive children. Heightened sensory sensitivities create real distinctions between HSC and other children. One is that their sensory life defies the general culture (Aron et al, 2010)[i]. A second is that space is crucial to how they understand themselves.
This makes being highly sensitive a tremendous disadvantage within our Cartesian Western Culture. While it is understood that the body, self and social interaction are intimately interrelated and constantly reconfigured, our western scientific perspective presumes the senses and our use of the body to be regulated by the rules of our dominant culture (Walskul and Vanninni, 2012)[ii].
When our own understanding of the senses is disembodied, we assume our children can be molded via cultural learning and we become frustrated when their behaviors do not correspond to our cultural and social norms. We confuse our overwhelmed children’s behaviors for defiance, emerging from their intellect, instead of recognizing that they stem from natural embodied reactions to sensory distress. These reactions are considered aberrations to be eliminated from our behaviors. Unfortunately, those who cannot adapt to the disembodied sensorial norms and standards of the dominant culture are seen as deviants and often assumed to be ill.
The more we deny the embodied nature of these reactions, the further way we are from finding solutions to reduce the sensory processing input that is causing the problem. All too often, a common story of insanity, disability and madness is associated with behaviors related to sensitive senses, often leading to HSC experiencing deep forms of trauma in places like home, schools or hospitals where a disembodied intellect is expected and where, in order to cope with a sensitive body, children have to learn to suppress their senses. While this suppression creates an immediate change in their behavior and seems to make them integrate into our social settings, we are beginning to understand that without proper development of sensorial self-awareness and self-regulation, it can lead in adulthood to extreme behaviors such as suicide, addictions, and other harmful ways of dealing with what western culture has defined as inadequacies.
If our understanding of sensory life is deeply rooted in our cultural customs, social norms and belief systems, it is arbitrary and can be altered. We forget that Culture is not “real”, it is a form of learned tacit language that carries the specific values and beliefs of a social group via its narratives. Culture participates in defining a landscape of behaviors and thinking as “normal”. This definition of “normal” is then mistaken for the world itself (Sheperd, 2010, p.2)[iii]. Given that its rules become embedded into our sensory, oral and other forms of languages, it passes off as an absolute reality.
We must remind ourselves that our current disembodied cultural norms are fabricated and this alienation of the senses in Western Culture is a recent phenomenon. We can alter this sense of reality and develop a different approach to the senses that can help us insure our children’s senses are included in how we approach life. This can help us create a framework for them to learn to “be” without suppressing what they feel. Oppression of the sense is what leads to extreme behaviors in our children. If the body of an HSC is not allowed to be, it will always rebel. Through different time periods and cultures the senses have been understood differently (Howes, 2006)[iv]. Many cultures prior to ours were built on the existence of a close connection between psychological states, our sensory experiences and space.
Our Sensorial Ancestors
While our culture has evolved to discount the senses, our bodies still operate according to instincts and perceptions necessary to survive and adapt to the natural world. The notion the senses are essential to a healthy life was prevalent in many ancient traditions. Ancient myths and stories show us that the notion of “being” has been associated with sensory experiences since the beginning of Mankind. Ancient North American and Asian belief systems are deeply connected to the senses. These cultures emerged out of shamanistic cultures founded on an animist beliefs. In the article “Animism, Perception, and Earthly Craft of the Magician”, David Abram explains the belief system underlying animism, as a sensory way of thinking and being:
“ When the natural world is perceived not from the spectator-like position of a detached or disembodied intellect, but rather from an embodied position situated entirely within that world, one encounters no aspect of that world that is definitively inert or inanimate. “Animism” remains a useful term for this highly embodied, and embedded, mode of perception. In this sense, “animism” may be said to name a primordial mode of perception that admits of no clear distinction between that which is animate and that which is inanimate.“(Abram, 2005)[v]
Animism represents an embodied perspective, where the world is encountered as a complex system of relational fields in which we humans are participants.
If this idea is far fetch from Eurocentric belief systems, examples of it can be found in many indigenous cultures:
“ Oral, indigenous peoples from around the world — whether hunters or rudimentary horticulturalists — commonly assert that the land itself is alive and aware, that the local animals, the plants, and the earthly elements around them have their own sensitivity and sentience. They claim that the earthly world we experience also experiences us. And hence that we must be respectful toward that world, lest we offend the very ground that supports us, the winds and waters that nourish us.“(Abram, 2005)[vi]
Such unity with nature was essential to the first humans, for whom the knowledge and skills associated with a fluid existence amidst the environment were crucial to their survival. Our ancestors, nomadic hunter-gatherers moved around, following their food sources with the seasons. Given that hunting and gathering was their subsistence mode of existence, they needed to be able to feel and read their environments for clues of where food was and to discern danger. A sensorial language helped understand the environment. Being in the present while able to sense the past was a crucial skill in tracking animals, a lingering scent, for instance, potentially revealing who was there a few hours ago. As important was also the ability to gage distance and spatial relations.
This animist unity is also important to ancient Asian tradition, which reflects an extraordinary sensitivity toward Nature and considers health to be the harmonious interaction of bodily functions and the outside world. The Atharvaveda for instance, a sacred text of Hinduism written approximately between the 12th to 10th centuries BC, defines “being” as including the mind and the five senses.
Many cultures celebrate sensory sensitivities as a form of language and as a gift to be developed. If sensory language is still important to aboriginal and nomadic cultures, “being” in space also has a long tradition in Western thoughts.
Pre platonic Ancient Greece, influenced by Asian belief systems, also considered the senses in its health system. Hippocrates in 400 BCE devised a health system based on the influence of natural elements on the body.
Later, the Greek philosopher Aristotle regarded perception to be distinguishing between the qualities of outward things and a movement of the soul through the medium of the body. Aristotle considered the interplay between mind-body as key to our sense of reality. Today these believes are at the basis contemporary western embodied cognitive science, which: “has modeled cognition as the product of dynamic interplay between neural and non-neural processes, with no general fracture between cognition, the agent’s bodily experience, and real-life contexts.”(Wilson and Foglia, 2011)[vii].
Often on the margins, many western philosophers have examined the relationship of sensory experience to consciousness and argued that we cannot perceive without the influence of our senses. In later period such as the seventeen century, philosopher and dramatist Margaret Cavendish believed that the eye, ear, nose, tongue and all the body had knowledge just like the mind, which put her at odds with the main stream philosophy of the time. She was ignored by masculine thinkers and often dismissed as mad (Howes, 2006, p. 16)[viii].
More recently, the “phenomelogical” movement established itself in reaction to the Cartesian method of analysis that sees the world as objects:
“Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in his classic work, Phenomenology of Perception, suggests that the primordial event of perception is always experienced as a reciprocal encounter between the perceiver and the perceived, an open dialectic wherein my sensing body continually responds and adjusts itself to the things it senses, and wherein the perceived phenomenon responds in turn, disclosing its nuances to me only as I allow myself to be affected by its unique style, its particular dynamism or active agency.”(Abram, 2004)
Key to this sensorial reality is that we formulate our sense of self not only in the body but also in space. In his book Poetics of Space (1958)[ix], French philosopher Gaston Bachelard described our “being” as defined by our experience of the world. For the whole of its existence, the individual is surrounded by matter, of which space is one important element. Our experience of that matter shapes our very being.
While for Bachelard this is a pre-language experience, could sensory experience be the universal grammar Chomsky discusses (2007)[x]? Not a grammar existing within the mental structures of thoughts or informed by culture but a universal sensing mechanism.
Sensory intelligence is a form of communication, thereby a form of language, which is universal not only to humans but to animals and plants who all possess a common sensory organ, in the human case, called the skin.
Skin is our largest organ and we clearly underestimate its role as a sensor. An organ that not only senses via touch, it also senses the unseen chemical, heat and other kinds of invisible energy trails that scientists are barely beginning to measure. The skin sends out chemical messages as much as it receives them and adapts in accordance to what it receives.
The smell created by the skin is invisible but one of the most important factor in many survival decision making process. For instance, a baby’s first developed sense is that of smell. He/she smells the milk source, through the pheromones released by the mother’s skin. For Deleuze and Guattari, the skin is in a constant process of change, a flux, which illustrates our constant, ever changing self (2004)[xi]. Like the skin, the self must be allowed to always be “becoming”. The emergent self is contained and regulated by linguistic and social rules, but its primary reality is one of material sensuality and flows of becoming. Let it be a person or society, becoming fluid is a desired tendency (Deleuze and Guattari, 1994, p.177)[xii].
Like Bachelard, Deleuze and Gattari believed that the inside and outside makes everything take form, even infinity. Time joins space as an essential element of sensory being. When the self is whole, it is fully present and awake, responsive to and participant in the here and now. Being present allows feeling the world and our “self” in it.
Those who know how to listen to space, and its energy, can use it as a form of communication. French philosopher M. Serres believes that the body hears in three different ways: the propriocentric hearing, the hearing of oneself, hearing of our internal processes. The second form of hearing is the social contract, in other words the tacite cultural norms we learn since infanthood. The third kind of hearing reaches beyond words, the “exposed hearing”:
“ In myriads, things cry out. Often deaf to alien emissions, hearing is astonished by that which cries out without a name in no language. The third cycle, initiated by the rarest of hearing, and which requires that one be deaf both to oneself and to the group, requires an interruption of the closed cycles of consciousness and the social contract, may already be called knowledge. (Serres, 2009, 141)[xiii]
This embodied spatial form of knowledge, while invisible to the intellect, has been key to many of our ancient traditions is also key to highly sensitive children. Their behaviors change when their spatial listening informs them of shifts that we cannot hear.
Today this type of understanding of the world is still unthinkable to a majority of people. Yet, it has being demonstrated that we live in a conscious world and that space is crucial in identity formation. This begs the question, how did we get so far from our original belief systems or from believing what is being scientifically demonstrated? And more importantly, why? Part of the answer can be found in our relation to representation.
Representation and the Senses
Our understanding of the senses has been greatly impoverished by our contemporary notion of representation. Much has changed in how we understand representation since its inception. The idea of representation was developed during ancient Greece time. Aristotle’s perspective encompassed each senses as a specific mode of representation, verbal, visual or musical, which are natural to human beings and necessary to our learning and to “being” in the world (Vukcevich, 2002)[xxii].
While Artistotle considered representation to be grounded in our senses, another perspective became dominant in western culture, which eventually lead to the suppression of our senses. Another Greek thinker, Parmenides of Elea believed our world to be a world of appearances in which one’s sensory faculties lead to conceptions that are false and deceitful. These ideas strongly influenced the whole of Western culture as they became essential to Plato’s perspective. Plato believed that representations create worlds of illusion leading one away from the “real things”(Hall, 1997)[xxiii]. Instead of understanding our “being” as constructed through our senses, Plato considered such representation as something that needed to be controlled and monitored due to the possible dangers resulting in its ability to foster antisocial emotions or encourage the imitation of evil (Mitchell, 1990)[xxiv].
With Plato, social norms began to replace our senses as central to our understanding of the world and ourselves, a perspective which opened the door to the colonization of our sensorial “being” by the social values of the dominant group of the time.
As Plato’s notions propagated through our civilization, so did his ideas about representation and social order. As societies evolved, so did the need for control over flows of actions: ”The prime function incumbent on the socius, has always been to codify the flows of desire, to inscribe them, to record them, to see to it that no flows exists that is not properly damned up, channeled, regulated”(Deleuze and Guattari, 1994, p.33)[xxv].
Sensory Life as a Female Domain to be Controlled and Dominated
At this time, another change took place, which removed the senses from our understanding of ourselves, the removal of female knowledge from thoughts. Until the age of Plato, women participated in healing practices. In very ancient Greece, 400 BCE, at the time of Hippocrates, one of the most famous ancient healers, women such as Artemisia were respected healers. One hundred years later however, Greek culture marked a significant departure from prior cultures by eliminated the importance of “females” in culture.
As a more patriarchal system of government and politics developed, women were increasingly restricted from every aspects of public life, including healing. Their main function became the reproduction of children, especially of sons. While all sons would be raised within the family, ordinarily only one daughter, at most, would be reared. The others would have a life of slavery, prostitution, or both (Pomeroy, 1975)[xxvi].
Such a devaluation is clear in Plato’s Republic, in which women are considered degeneration from perfect human nature:
“It is only males who are created directly by the gods and are given souls. Those who live rightly return to the stars, but those who are ‘cowards or [lead unrighteous lives] may with reason be supposed to have changed into the nature of women in the second generation’. This downward progress may continue through successive reincarnations unless reversed. In this situation, obviously it is only men who are complete human beings and can hope for ultimate fulfillment; the best a woman can hope for is to become a man” (Plato, Timaeus 90e)[xxvii].
By 300 BCE, women were no longer allowed to be practicing healers. For instance, Agnodice, an Athenian who wanted to be a doctor, could only do so disguised as a man. These show a significant shift in thinking towards sensory life. Senses, like emotions, were and are still culturally understood as being female characteristics. As women’s knowledge began to be devalued in western society their importance was denied.
This principle was reinforced centuries later by Descartes’ famous sentence: “I think therefore I am”. Descartes separated our body from our mind and turned us into thinkers who developed the scientific method of seeing the world and developing knowledge. We were to stop being in the world, watching it from our minds’ eye. We were to stop “sensing” and only accept reality that emerged from rational, demonstrable “facts”, thinking and objectification surpassed intuition and sensory knowledge. We were to know instead of to be.
Ever since Descartes, western society has been plunged in a “Cartesian anxiety” (Bernstein, 1983), an examination of the world as separate from ourselves based on the use of scientific methods that should be able to lead us to a firm and unchanging knowledge of ourselves and the world around us. A culture that positioned our embodied sensory nature as a “salvage” self, that needed to be disciplined and eradicated by the disembodied intellect.
Each on of us is exposed to many Cartesian representations of ourselves, via family, work, school and/or other important communities in our lives, all of which have been so far tied to specific physical spaces such as the home, school, church, etc. While our personal life may have been influenced by many different cultures, our society has a few cultures in common, the one accessible via and its myths.
From Being To Thinking Through Myths
This devaluation of the senses and emotions is very noticeable in the myths western society used to define and frame western understanding of spirituality and of ethical life. And in their place, control and codification of life became prevalent.
According to Joseph Campbell, mythology in most cultures is about reconciling the mind into the brutal precondition of all life, which lives by the killing and eating of lives. Myths are where we can learn how to live an ethical life. Ancient spirituality integrated our senses. For instance, as Joseph Campbell explains in his book the “Power of Myth”, the Upanishads people of India realized in the ninth century B.C. that:
“All the gods, all the heavens, all the worlds, are within us. They are magnified dreams, and dreams are manifestations in image form of the energies of the body in conflict with each other. That is what myth is. Myth is the manifestation in symbolic images, in metaphorical images, of the energies of the organs of the body in conflict with each other. This organ wants this, that organ wants that. The brain is one of these organs” (Campbell, 1988, 39)[xxviii].
The Greeks and later the Christians transformed myths from ethical messages regarding human existence into messages of territorialization of time, space and being, marking a shift towards values of control and colonization by force. Force became a weapon to develop instead of a dangerous natural condition to be balanced.
The same became true of knowledge. It became a rational tool to be developed instead of part of a bigger system of understanding that needed to be balanced. The goal of creating balance and harmony with “other” became replaced with the goal to overtake and control “other”. The will, replaced the need. Being became thinking and the self stopped being a united whole. In this process, the senses were eliminated from our notions of self.
Philip Sheperd (2010) building upon the work of Joseph Campbell’s work shows that our ancient myths had two primary themes, the polarity between male and female, and the other, the polarity between hero and tyrant.
These myths affirm that until the inner tyrant is ousted, there can be no true marriage within the male and female elements of the self. The male element is associated with doing and the female with being and sensing. These two elements of the self -doing and being- unite in us to form a unity. Neither by itself can constitute an evolving whole. In mythological terms, the female element in each of us just is, at rest within the unfolding present – receiving, integrating, and massively connecting and communicating with all that is. The female represents the “felt self” and the male, the “known self”.
Ancient myths tell us that these two elements of the self -doing and being- unite in us to form a unity. Neither by itself can constitute an evolving whole. In mythological terms, the female element in each of us just is, at rest within the unfolding present – receiving, integrating, and massively connecting and communicating with all that is. The female represents the “felt self” and the male, the “known self”. With modern greek myths, identity became embedded within predefined schemas of our “objective knowledge”, instead of emergent out of our lived experiences and senses (Shepard, 2010)[xxix].
Our self became an object to be possessed, conquered and controlled, instead of a subject that grows via its presence in the moment. For Shepard, the dominance of the “know self” stopped us from being in the present as we increasingly grew impatient to assign rather than live meaning.
As we moved away from our embodied self, we began to develop systems of control to reshape how we understood the world and created a dualistic belief system focused on valuing “good” over “evil”, male over female, fact over senses, pathology over difference, negating diversity. We eliminated fluidity of the senses in favor of rigidity of the mind.
This is very evident in some of the most popular creation myth of the West, Adam and Eve. The departure from ancient traditions of a self formed by the joining of a male and female component is at the core of the differences between the “Adam and Eve” and “Adam and Lillith” myth.
The story of Adam and Eve reinforced the primacy of man and the centrality of his place in the universe, while making it clear that women play a subordinate role. Key to Christian culture, the story of Eve has provided men with reasons to restrain and restrict the social, sexual, religious, political, and economic freedom of women while also giving men the justification to hold women responsible for all the misfortunes suffered by mankind (Witcombe, 2013)[xxx].
As Witcombe explains, the story contains largely negative “truths” about the nature of women. It perfected what Greek culture began: to diminish the female part of the self and cultural perspective in our meta-narratives. Eve represents everything about a woman a man should guard against. No matter what women might achieve in the world, the message of Genesis warns men not to trust them, and women not to trust themselves or each other.
This trend of women as “bad” does not start with Eve but with the myth of Lillith which can be found in many cultures. Lilith was Adam’s first wife. One story is that God created Adam and Lilith as twins joined together at the back. She demanded equality with Adam, failing to achieve it, she left him in anger. God then gave Adam the docile Eve and Lillith became a demon, in some stories considered the wife of Satan.
These stories have in common the rejection of the feminine as an equal. Looking closer at some of the symbols within the myth, the elimination of “natural knowledge” of a “felt self” in favor of the man constructed knowledge of the know self can be seen. The myth asked us to ignore that we exist within flesh and within nature and to repudiate natural and female knowledge, source of sensorial and carnal health.
In the story of Eve, the snake posses a devious form of cleverness described as “cunning”. The term is related to the female genitals, and refers to the source, of women’s learning, insight, wisdom and knowledge (literally “carnal knowledge”) (Witcombe, 2013). But the snake can also be a symbol of rebirth, transformation, immortality, health and healing. In ancient Greece, the rod of Asclepius, the god of healing , was a snake-entwined staff that to this day remains a symbol of medicine.
The symbolism of the snake has multiple meaning some of which can shade some light on how HSP began to be ostracized from western culture by the denial of sensorial life, fluid time, space and being.
Campbell demonstrated that the snake in most cultures is given a positive interpretation. In India, the serpent represents the power of life engaged in the fields of time, death, yet eternally alive. Similarly, for the American aboriginal tribe of the Pueblos and the Hopi people, the snakes are used in sacred dances to carry human messages to the hills, and to bring humans messages from the hills. (Campbell, 1988, 46)
The snake in many cultures is also the symbol of life throwing off the past and continuing to live (Campbell, 1988, 45). The serpent has a double meaning, representing the cyclical nature of life. Sometimes the serpent is represented as a circle eating its own tail. Campbell saw this image at a societal representation of life. Life sheds one generation after another, to be born again. The serpent can also represent immortal energy and consciousness engaged in the field of time, constantly throwing off death and being born again. This representation of inner life, is essential to Highly Sensitive People, as it is a manifestation of a process of positive disintegration as we will see in chapter 3.
By demonizing the snake, it is our carnal health that has been denied. This marked the denial of the belief system that the Greek physician Hippocrates established, that the body healed itself, and the physician served to assist in the process. With the advent of Christianity, we were told through the Adam and Eve not to trust our ability to take care of ourselves and trust our lived experiences as valid forms of knowledge. This autonomy was replaced by obedience to an all knowing god and eventually dependence on the church for health matters.
With the Adam and Eve myth, the negative interpretation of the snake represents a refusal to affirm life. The power of life becomes a sin, it is corrupt, our natural impulses sinful unless they have been circumcised or baptized. The identification of the woman with sin, of the serpent with sin, and thus of life with sin, is the twist that has been given to the whole story in the biblical myth and doctrine of the fall.
In the case of Lillith, independence, autonomy, self-knowledge, personal voice, resilience and resisting male as dominant are considered demonic. In both Lillith and Eve’s cases, women are seen as untrustworthy, feminine and carnal and/or sensory knowledge as evil, dangerous, dirty and unhealthy.
By accepting these myths as religious truths, Western culture has denied life itself, our embodied self, cut off access to our ancestral embodied knowledge and paved the way for us to forget the language of our senses. These myths asked us to stop considering living in the moment, the present and freeze our “self” in a sanitized and disembodied image of ourselves. By accepting the snake as a negative icon, we agreed to forget how to be naturally healthy and how to heal ourselves. The “know self” became a “no voice”, a voice of criticism, denial and repression.
Eventually in time, we internalized these lessons and have taken over the no self. The no self is part of an internal mechanism of understanding that makes us doubt who we are and that makes us accept that our “difference” is not a unique gift but a disease to be cured. In some cases, the no self internally activates the rules of a hidden social curriculum and makes us accept external cultural forces as our internal truth, as being.
Children grow up within these cultural ideas and internalize from an early age negative feelings about their bodies, their nature, their sensations and their “female” sensorial and emotional selves. To add to the complexity of how engrained disembodied culture is in our lives, we must look at how these cultural norms are being reinforced in our modern myths, those accessible via mass media.
Mass Mediated Collective Myths
Media play a central role in many children’s lives. As such they have an important influence on the values children develop about themselves, their bodies and the world. This is an important relationship to think about as mass media, just like religion, are part of our cultural institutions. As such, they are invisible tools of power crucial to political and economic life (Miège, 1995)[xxxi].
Mediated communication is not neutral and often serves to prepare the public to specific institutional agendas, ideas and/or markets (de La Haye and Miège, 1983)[xxxii]. Sociologists have long established that organizations that strive for power will try to influence the ideology of a society to become closer to what they want it to be. Political organizations, governments included, and other groups such as lobbyists, have historically tried to influence the public. Those who controlled access to mass media production and distribution could influence a larger portion of the public’s perception of societal evolution by broadcasting meta-narratives tailored to their needs.
Meta-narratives are considered the main tool of legitimation of modern society where cultural superstructures (social organizations such as school, churches or media) serve to create ideology (Lyotard, 1979)[xxxiii]. An ideology represents the interests of a specific social class, tacitly carried within the actions of actors (Weber, 1930)[xxxiv], which in turn affects individuals’ notions of reality (Althusser, 1971)[xxxv]. This has been possible because mass media content have been implicit representations of specific ideologies that still participate in creating what sociologists call societal imaginaries.
Societal imaginaries become the set of values that governs an entire society (Castoriadis, 1975)[xxxvi]. In his book The Imaginary Institution of Society, Cornelius Castoriadis explained that social change cannot be understood in terms of any determinate causes or presented as a sequence of events. Change emerges through social imaginaries without determinations. A societal imaginary bounds the members of the society by establishing what is considered “real” often via culture.
Each historical period is marked by a specific dominant societal imaginary. Ideology organizations that have most control over access to messages, or can amplify their voice, can influence the public’s imaginary of the self and societal evolution and obtain a dominant place in history.
What is unique about an imaginary, is that it emerges out of a field of images, imagination and deception (Lacan, 1962-1963)[xxxvii]. It is a sort of mirror that reflects an image of reality that is in conflict with our Ego. The French psychologist Jacques Lacan understood the Imaginary order to be a place of alienation and its relationship to the Ego to promote narcistic tendencies, valuing egotism, vanity, conceit and competition. These values could be argued to insure that by keeping the mass public self-absorbed and focused on consumption via its media, promoting social ascension via competition for the best replica of the ideal fashionable middle class life style of the time, the dominant ruling class could operate freely with very little resistance. Occupying the middle class with its own reflections of the imaginary could prevent this class from joining lower classes and excluded groups in their struggle to subsist (Miège, 1995).
These imaginaries have become our collective myths. According to Joseph Campbell a myth is a society’s dream. Given that: “ the myth is the public dream and the dream is the private myth” (Campbell, 1988, 40)[xxxviii]. Dreaming is important to our lives, as a dream:
“ is a personal experience of that deep, dark ground that is the support of our conscious lives, and a myth is a society’s dream. If your private myth, your dream, happens to coincide with that of society, you are in accord with your group. If it isn’t, you’ve got an adventure in the dark forest ahead of you. (…) If you are forced to live in that system, you’ll be neurotic” (Campbell, 1988, 40)”.
Mediated myths replaced personal dreams. Without personal dreams, we become denaturalized and much less aware of what is happening to our lives and much easier to control. The less aware of our senses we became, the less able to listen to ourselves. Images replaced sensorial experiences as “truth”.
Disembodied Images of Disembodied Selves
Dreams, which were a gateway to our authentic self, became replaced within western culture by societal and mediated “meanings”. Images and representation became main forms of understanding of the world and ourselves. Representation introduced a world arrested by description, a mere duplicate of the world. Ironically, it severed ties with the world it seeked to represent and replaced it within an “image” of reality. In this process, we stopped to understand life as constantly evolving and changing, we began to construct our lives to mirror our duplicates as they became increasingly meaningful to us – and in their static abstraction they preserve that meaning, the way a photograph freezes a moment (Sheperd, 2010, p. 22-23)[xxxix]. An image is a frozen moment in time that abridges representations of reality and negates sensory life and difference. We began to want life to be a static moment in time instead of a flow of ever changing experiences.
The rise of mass image making brought us into an era of intense de-individualization, where social norms became equated with simplified versions of ourselves (Debord, 1967)[xl]. Social life became replaced with its representation, “being” became “having” and eventually “appearing” (Debord, 1967). In such a society of spectacles, individuals are reduced to the role of performers instead of living being.
Such an idea is echoed in the work of Sociologist Ervin Goffman who believed that all participants in social interactions are engaged in certain practices to avoid being embarrassed or embarrassing others[xli]. Key to Goffman’s argument is that a certain secrecy underlies social interactions. Peoples’ daily life has in many cases become theatrical performances. Social interactions are a stage and individuals simultaneously actors and audience. Only within private space can individuals be themselves and get rid of their role or identity in society (Ritzer, 2008, p. 372)[xlii]. The shame that a person may feel when they fail to meet other people’s standards, leads to a fear of being stigmatized, which, in turn, creates the need to hide elements of the self that are “faulty” or could be judged negatively (Goffman, 1963)[xliii].
But within a social system governed by representations: “we all CREATE IMAGES of things we fear or glorify. These images never remain abstractions: we understand them as real-world entities. We assign them labels that serve to set them apart from ourselves. We create “stereotypes”.” (Gilman, 1985, p. 15)[xliv]
Stereotypes reflect the cultural categories of seeing objects as a reflection or distortion of the self. “Pathology” is part of this system of stereotypes, which help drawn between “good” and “bad”. Pathological categories of “differences” are protean, but appear absolutes. They categorize the sense of the self, but establish an order – the illusion of order in the world (Gilman, 1985, p. 24).
Eventually, the stereotype of a Cartesian self has allowed for a conceptual technological remapping of the body and, as Katherine Hayles observed, the erasure of embodiment from subjectivity (Hayles, 1999, p.4)[xlv]. Cognition takes precedence over the body, which is narrated as an object to possess and master. Popular conceptions of the cybernetic post-human imagine the body as merely a container for information and code. This is a cultural perception where “information and materiality are conceptually distinct and that information is in some sense more essential, more important and more fundamental than materiality.”(Hayles, 1999, p.18)
Cybernetics, a modern science at the heart of many current development in computing, embraces such reductionist understanding of human senses. As is rendered evident by the following words of post-humanist Kevin Warwick:
“Humans have limited capabilities. Humans sense the world in a restricted way, vision being the best of the senses. Humans understand the world in only 3 dimensions and communicate in a very slow, serial fashion called speech. But can this be improved on. Can we use technology to upgrade humans?”[xlvi]
As western culture separated our “selves” from the sensory world, many of us forgot how to “be” in the world. We have become persuaded to separate the body and mind, to live in our mind by a culture that passes off this pathological dissociation as completely normal, natural and unavoidable (Sheperd, 2010).
In this process, we learned to censor our senses. As our technologies are evolving, some of us are denaturalizing life to the point of rendering it toxic to others. Instead of stewarding our world and ourselves, we are mechanizing it. A pretty grim understanding of ourselves, man reshaping himself in the image of his communication technologies becoming himself a mass media of consumption.
But as with any discourse and value systems in society, others exist that contradict and challenge these dominant views of the world. In media, “new media” became one of the places where opposition to this simplistic view of humanity has been challenged.
New Media: Battleground for Ideological Power
The advent of “new media” as a concept was meant to create an alternative imaginary to those of mass media’s visual culture. Marshall McLuhan, in the late 1960s, established a counter value system based on the use of media designed specifically to become “extensions” of our human senses, bodies and minds and he foresaw that they would eventually form large media ecologies (McLuhan, 1964)[xlvii]. These ecologies where characterized by a shift in thinking within which the public would become actors of social change, a mode of thinking which is now central to a wide array of techno-cultures.
McLuhan believed that the wide adoption of new media would participate in major changes in how “man” viewed the world and would eventually lead humans to find a new type of spirituality based on a technological collective consciousness (Carpenter, 2001)[xlviii]. While McLuhan was speaking from within a modernist and a catholic framework, he introduced the possibility of different ideologies in media practices than those of the dominant mass media of the time. He also opened the door to different ways of thinking about media design and popularized the idea that we would eventually create a mediated public sphere. In contrast to the traditional media culture, which was based on the institutionally controlled presentation and consumption of culture, the emerging new media culture became about facilitating mediated social and cultural innovations of makers, which included the public.
The notion of new media did create the possibility for new ways of thinking about media and for considering alternate production frameworks as legitimate. Instead of considering the public as composed of viewers who passively consume images within a one way communication system, the public became active, composed of users use media a two way systems to find information, create content, share experiences and/or invent new awareness and new social imaginaries; participants involved in a social process. These differences in values legitimized different approaches to how one understands the “mass” or public but also who can produce mediated myths and societal imaginaries.
Social Media: evolving public societal imaginaries
Social media is the first innovation to have become a massive “new media”. Prior to its adoption, visual culture was the dominant media culture.
Visual culture represents media, film, television, photography and web 1.0 that all served to present messages to a rather anonymous public that could only watch and admire the aesthetics of visual artefacts and of an imaginary based on greed, narcissism and alienation.
Given how expensive broadcasting was in the late 20th century, only a few had the monopoly over the production and distribution of media messages. And traditionally, at least in North America, mass media has been financed and distributed by groups or individuals who support the meta-narratives of the military industrial complex.
Similarly, until digital networks and the falling prices of computing, new media innovation was the monopoly of institutions, universities usually at the forefront of expensive new forms of production, which would then be made available to the public and private industrial sectors (Moeglin, 1994)[xlix].
The rise of network culture altered these financing, production and distribution processes and as a result the social processes involved in some forms of media innovation. In effect, digital networks have challenged the institutional monopoly over media innovation. Today, the public can participate in all aspect of the media life cycle as much in the process of innovation or narrative construction.
Digital networks as Sociological Spaces
Social constructivist theorists, building on Lev Vygotsky[l] contructivist approach to knowledge, consider that in social settings, groups construct knowledge for one another, collaboratively creating a small culture of shared artifacts with shared meanings. When one is immersed within a culture of this sort, one is learning all the time about how to be a part of that culture on many levels.
This is what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu[li] referred to as a “habitus”, the values, the dispositions and expectation of particular social groups that are acquired through the activities and experiences of everyday life. The habitus is a type of structure of the mind characterized by a set of acquired schemata, sensibilities, dispositions and taste.The habitus is not a tool of rational thought, it is the unconsciously hidden context of a social group. Indeed, these values which exist in any given social group, let it be professional, cultural, familial, communal, etc, are undetectable by an outsider because, during childhood, each member of the group has, often unconsciously, internalized this specific set of rules which govern language, behaviors, social hierarchies and conventions.
In the familial sphere, control of space has meant that parents and adults had monopoly over the meta-narratives and habitus children were learning from and with this control were counter balancing and to some degree controlling the degree of influence of the societal values children were exposed to at schools, in religious institutions, peer group, TV, movies, books and other media.
Today, the new media ecologies we live in have challenged this control over space and in the process, children have gained access to narratives that are altering their sense of reality far beyond what their parents used to be able to control.
Children are learning not necessarily by using media, but also and at first by watching us using them. According to Doctor Laura Marham, a Clinical Psychologist, author of the parenting blog: Ahaparenting.com:
“The way children learn values, simply put, is by observing what you do, and drawing conclusions about what you think is important in life. Regardless of what you consciously teach them, your children will emerge from childhood with clear views on what their parents really value, and with a well developed value system of their own.”[lii]
Children are constantly observing the adults in their lives and noticing their values and paradoxes. While we more or less recognize many of familial habitus, the influence of mediated ones is less obvious.
Our children are currently witnessing their parents shifting into the habitus of a new media society, where the DIY cultural ethos is now being propagated in all sectors of life, not just creative or cultural sectors.
Increasingly, children are watching their parents and other individuals use technologies to create their own myths, redefine their ideals of reality. Networked media have drastically altered the way people are potentially exposed to, and has introduced the potential of participating in the creation of, new values that have by-passed the social filters put in place by cultural institutions, what sociologists call the obligatory passage points (Callon, 1986)[liii] of social and cultural reproduction (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1970)[liv].
Social media are based on communication models that encompass both dissemination of ideas via content and dialogue with others. Over time, social media have facilitated the development of technological selves, by being environments where people experiment and recreate their human identity, capture and share their lived experiences, and represent themselves in relation to the world in which they live (Foth, et al. 2011)[lv].
They entered life at a time when Youtube has become a visual “human” library, similar to the “memex”, imagined by Vannevar Bush: “an electromechanical device enabling individuals to develop and read a large self-contained research library, create and follow associative trails of links and personal annotations, and recall these trails at any time to share them with other researchers. [lvi].
Children are beginning to do their own research and production online (Ito, 2008)[lvii] at a time when virtual social groups have now levied the power of informal communities to create official and legally binding social organizations that legitimize and protect the values they cherish. An example of such structures is Creative Commons that has emerged to protect humanist values and the right to share information and content.
Many of our children do not know of a world that distinguishes between online and offline worlds. Their parents are people who are incorporating and relying heavily upon virtuality within their everyday personal realities (Miller, 2008)[lviii]. They are used to the non-narrative nature of social media and expect its content to influence real life events.
Some of them may come across as a youtube video documenting the use of Second Life within the health sector. They may form an idea of a mental health system where digital space is used as an informal meeting place by people suffering from chronic depression who can use it to re-accustom themselves to human contact and social rules before re-entering physical social life. It may become quite normal to them to become part of collective technological identities.
Other children may have seen their digital activists parents rallying people to their causes. In 2012, the “idle no more” movement in Canada is demonstrating the power social media now has in creating a public force of resistance demanding new social and cultural realities. To children witnessing or participating with their parents to these activities, having the ability to undermine the power of the dominant social, cultural and economical class may seem like a right.
Within a more neo-conservative family, other children may have watch their parents collapsed commercial and social interests by using their individual buying power and their social networks to put pressure on institutions and influence their actions. These children may have learned already that it is possible to take advantage of the fact that reputation influences market shares by becoming political consumers who convert the apolitical marketplace into a site of contestation at the intersection of globalization and individualization that influence corporations, international organizations, general labour and production practices.
Our children are born in a world where industrial enterprises have also derived substantial value from informal collectives and user-created content. Businesses are honing upon this process and softening the boundaries between their institutions and the public sphere. Users are invited to participate in the economy as an equal, co-creating value with peers and companies to meet their personal needs (Tapscott and Williams, 2006)[lix].
This comes at a time of great social unrest due to economic and social decline. Today’s adults have seen the transformation and seemingly perpetual demise of western economies and know that today’s young adults, will find themselves without the promised future of a professional that education once guaranteed. The elimination of retirement age, the decrease in salaries and cost of life all have created impossible futures within the current capitalist framework. The aggregation of these pressures throughout their everyday lives, combined with the understanding that the expectation that they should meet or exceed the standards of living of their parents is unsustainable, is the context for a quiet revolution that may grow to be very loud in the next few years.
According to Bill Moyers, the middle class of America is dying (Moyers, 2010)[lx] and, in Canada, at least in Toronto, it is expected that the middle class will represent less then 10% of the urban population within 25 years (Hulchanski, 2010)[lxi]. The lack of availability of clean food and other products is affecting families and as more children are suffering from reaction to an increasing toxic environment. Parents and others are quietly changing their modes of life, creating alternative forms of markets, collectives and legitimizing other values of living.
The massification of new media ethoses is reintroducing on a large scale, the notion of personalized norms and values. Via the Internet, Mobile phones and digital media, some people are finding their own voice. In parallel, science is also experiencing a paradigm shift where the demonstrated individuality of our genes, neural systems and cells is challenging many of the medical beliefs of the last few centuries.
Such a shift is exemplified by the way in which the notions of difference (physical, mental, cultural, etc) and diversity have been portrayed as pathologies and/or diseases that must be rectified, cured, and/or eliminated. Yet, difference is core to our “being” (Deleuze, 1968, p. 39), it refers to a real system of differential relations that creates actual spaces, times, and sensations. (Deleuze, 2002). As we will examine in the next chapter.
[i] Arthur Aron, Sarah Ketay, Trey Hedden, Elaine N. Aron, Hazel Rose Markus, John D. E. Gabrieli (2010). Temperament trait of sensory processing sensitivity moderates cultural differences in neural response in Social Cognitive Affective Neuroscience. 2010 Jun-Sep; 5(2-3): 219–226. Published online 2010 April 13.
[ii] Waskul, Dennis D. and Vannini, Phillip (2012). “The body and symbolic interaction” In (ed Waskul, Dennis D. and Vannini, Phillip 2012.) Body/Embodiment, Symbolic Interaction and the Sociology of the Body. Ashgate.