Post-Identity Culture, part 2: Growing Up in the Burbs

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My Facebook feed is quiet this morning about the Oscars, except for a few memes about Patricia Arquette (where are the Graham Moore memes?). In my opinion, Boyhood was robbed, along with Selma and The Grand Budapest Hotel, by Birdman. Admittedly, I haven’t seen Birdman, and will happily rethink my position once I do. A friend of mine asked about Boyhood‘s whiteness, which prompted today’s reflection on post-identity culture.

My early-morning, pre-coffee reply was:

[T]he mythic whiteness of Boyhood very much aligns with my experience growing up in Suburban Houston. It’s certainly there, but in the 80s and 90s we were taught–enculturated, programmed–to ignore differences. My high school was considered the district’s “ghetto” partially because of our comparatively large black and Latin populations. In smaller towns, the willingness to ignore blacks and Latinos is even stronger, because it’s not like they can live in their own neighborhood. Remember, this is the same state that elected George W. Bush and elevated Rick Perry to the national stage. And while Ted Cruz and Wendy Davis represent different ends of the spectrum, more people still think more like Ted Cruz. I’m not saying this is a good thing, nor as I proud that this is the mythos of my state that’s reaching contemporary audiences…but it is how Richard Linkletter rolls and I suppose I’m glad that it’s him taking up the cause rather than someone else.

How does this happen? H0w can someone grow up so completely blind to the surrounding environment?

  • It happens when a cherished role model makes disparaging comments about Affirmative Action.
  • …when the media wants us to believe that every different person wants to do us harm (especially to women).
  • …when the number of rude and mean people from a group outweighs the number friends.
  • …when the only time African-Americans are taught in school is during “Black History Month” (which happens during the shortest month of the year…what’s up with that?).
  • …when the school reading list excludes stories of empowerment in favor of stories of slavery, violence, and rape.
  • …when a cherished role model strongly suggests that I carry mace.
  • …when African-American characters are regulated to being either silly or sidekicks.

We recently watched the film, Dear White People. I feel like this one has gotten overlooked. The main African-American characters of the film have to reconcile their own identity in this film, in the setting of a prestigious private university. Their quest for understanding their identity in a very white environment speaks, I think, to the larger problem plaguing society, which, I think, is the release of the myth of post-identity culture.

This has to do with shadow, and dealing with it. I don’t think we can repress our cultural shadow any longer, but I’m not sure how to make it a peaceful transition. It seems to me that the starting point would be to sort out our individual shadows, but in order to do that we have to be willing to be aware that they’re there in the first place. And herein is the biggest issue, I think.

*to be continued*

Post-Identity Culture

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I started writing this post awhile back, and just decided to go ahead and post it, regardless of its state of “finished.”

It’s one of my firmly held beliefs that to analyze a culture’s beliefs and values, look at what that culture offers children. This is especially true of post-Enlightenment societies that decided to value children as more than drains on resources or as more than little workers. In the modern era, we sing about children being our future, so a lot of effort, or at least lip service, is paid to their education and enculturation by institutions and corporations that increasingly rely on media.

I’ve also recently been giving some thought to the idea of post-identity culture. This is a mode of thought that declares that the larger society has moved beyond our various identities (woman, black, Indian, etc.) and are truly an equal society. This mode of thought also proliferates the utopian illusion that we no longer need activism. When this thinking was mainstreamed during the 1980s, the utopian vision was more a cover for the systemic racism and sexism that is recently returning to the national conversation.

As a child of the 1980s, I very clearly remember diversity education that taught us the contributions of significant “minorities,” but gave us the illusion that we were beyond their activism. While I’ve been called out before for wearing my Blinders of White Privilege, it wasn’t until I recognized the effects of the post-identity illusion (and its counter-perspective) on younger Millennials, my students, that I started trying to look under the cover of the propaganda that has shaped my worldviews.

But here’s the catch: the cultural transmissions we receive as children are the hardest to break if we don’t transcend their limitations as youth. During my window of identity rebellion, I was never challenged to rethink my utopian illusion–why should I? The prosperity of the 1990s helped support the vision! So, I grew into adulthood still carrying this perception (and why I get into awkward debates with my peers who shattered their Mirrors of Illusion a time ago).

But, the conflict between this perception and its reality always gnawed at me, which led me to studying myth and America. When I was actively researching my dissertation, new layers of the country’s mythos kept revealing just how complex a problem I’d taken on. Except, even *then,* I was still wearing my Blinders. It took a massive move and plunge into the Underworld to finally get the language I was looking for.

50 Shades of…Myth?

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My Facebook is a-twitter (see what I did there?) with articles and responses to 50 Shades of Grey. While I did once read the Twilight series (and have since come to my senses about it), I refuse to read 50 Shades. One of my friends, posted this article, which perfectly captures why. But reading the article, and commenting on his post, has left me feeling something. The such of something that’s preventing me from grading student responses, or reading my book while I wait for a training meeting. I can only identify this feeling as anger? frustration? gas? So, I’m turning to the blogosphere to hash this one out, so this post may be kind of stream-of-consciousnessy. Here’s the reply I posted:

This is so much of why I just can’t condone 50 Shades. Now, I’m not one to blame society’s ills on a single piece of pop culture (I am a Disney Defender after all), and I see 50 Shades as an extreme example of so many wrong things in our society. What concerns me more is that there aren’t counter-myths being played on the same stage. Sure, there are stories about love and romance, but they aren’t on the same viral level of 50 Shades and Twilight. And it concerns me that people see these as good… But looking at it from an Aristotelian perspective, these series have helped bring the conversation about women’s roles to the national, mainstream conversation. They have raised awareness through their warped attempt at catharsis. From a mythic perspective, I would hope this would help usher a new era, but my fear for the media-saturated generations is that their complacency will lead to our downfall–Hellenistic America, perhaps.

Like I said, I’m not one to blame the ills of society on one piece of popular culture. I’ve posted here a few times about why I can’t blame Disney Princesses for America’s warped relationship with itself. They are one cog in a larger problem, a problem that manifests in all areas of media. We *want* a media-savvy society that equally respects all of the various differences people have, but we don’t want to *live* that equal society. For example, if Disney constructs a utopian, populist kingdom that celebrates people for playing to their strengths, they aren’t being diverse enough in their portrayal (and when they are diverse, they do it wrong. Can’t have it both ways, people!). Similarly, the waves of feminism over the last several years have advocated for a certain image of Woman in media, which is all well and good…until the new generations decide they want to be a different kind of woman. We’re in a phase of feminism that seems to want to strike a balance between perfect women who can be both June Cleaver AND Hillary Clinton at the same time, which is causing massive amounts of burn-out among young women. We’re in a phase of hyper-media in which users have developed a disconnect between the permanence of technology and the fleeting moment of “Feels.”

As I become ever more a “Fuddy-Duddy,” I find myself looking down my nose at young women. Don’t they know that pictures last forever on the Internet, so keep your boobs in your shirt? Don’t they know that Edward Cullen and Christian Grey are exemplars of the kind of boyfriend you DON’T want?

The greater problem I see with this current generational divide is that there is SO MUCH media to sift through. How can we expect any one to grow up media-savvy? What means “media-savvy” anyway? Sounds kind of like an adultism–something the “grups” would say–to me.

It occurs to me that stories like Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey are epic tragedies. They are epics because of the extent to which they communicate cultural norms setting a larger-than-life character against a mere mortal, reminding us of our place as lesser-beings. They are tragedies, because they certainly aren’t comedies. They focus on the bringing down of the female protagonist, not on her elevation.

So, here’s a thought. Are these stories more shocking because they are written from the perspective of the submissee as opposed to the dominant character?

A friend of mine posted THIS post on her blog, and I fully agree. I wrote about Twilight and “Cupid and Psyche” while I was at Pacifica, I am fascinated by the seductive power of the Demon Lover. What is it about us today that we even need a Demon Lover? What is so unfulfilled about us that we are trying to find thrilling experience from stories that promote the wholesale mistreatment of women? There’s some serious shadow stuff being worked through in this culture. I wish I could offer solution, but maybe the best solution is to ride it out? To teach our children the counter-myths to the stories that us Fuddy-Duddies think shouldn’t have been made in the first place.

It’s timely, then, that my friends just published the book based on her dissertation, in which she challenges the accepted model for the Heroine’s Journey (you can get her book HERE).

Persephone got legs

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Several years ago, as a fresh graduate student at Pacifica Graduate Institute, I wrote a paper about Persephone, interpreting her story less as a mother’s loss for an abducted child, and more as a teenager’s rebellion for the sake of identity formation. My thinking hinges on the very tiny detail that if Persephone really wanted to leave the Underworld and return to her mother, then why did she capitulate and eat pomegranate seeds? Sure, you could say it was because she was hungry, but determined women are rarely bothered by minor inconveniences as hunger. I think that Hades made her an offer she couldn’t refuse. Notice, after all, that the story is written from Demeter’s perspective. The only perspective we get of Persephone’s experience is when she is crying to her mother. Do we really think that she’s telling her mother the whole truth? She didn’t even want to reveal that she ate the pomegranate. Let’s pretend that Persephone donned a leather jacket and jumped onto the back of Hades’ motorcycle early one morning. Of course, her mother would see it as an abduction. The little snot didn’t even say goodbye.

Anyway, the other day I was watching Disney’s The Little Mermaid. I work from home, and don’t have daycare, so my daughter and I watch a LOT of Disney Junior (far more than I’d like). When they broadcast a movie that gives me some relief from Mickey Mouse Clubhouse or Doc MacStuffins that takes me to my Laughing Place, then I’m all for it.

Perhaps it’s because this time I watched the movie as a mother, or perhaps it’s because I’ve been recently giving new consideration to the Princess phenomenon, but I just happened to see Persephone in Ariel, only in reverse–Ariel wants to leave the Underworld for the human world, not the other way around. She wanted to shed her goddess powers (as a mermaid) so she could walk and dance. She, too, made a defiant departure from her father. She felt restricted and confined. He wouldn’t even allow her to dream about the human world. So she left. And got a pair of legs.

The story is far more complex, with a sea witch and losing her voice and such. But the point of any mythic story is that we put our own spin on the details, but the basic structure carries from version to version. Stories such as The Little Mermaid help answer the question of Persephone’s story–just what was her experience while she was gone? Disney’s version tells this story to a modern audience, with Ariel experiencing many of the same growing pains as the American teenager. Even 25 years after its initial release, The Little Mermaid continues to tell the story of the American teenager who is trying to separate herself from parental control and become her own woman. (I’ll save the Eric bit, and the leaving home for a boy bit, for another conversation.)

True Love’s Kiss is today’s pomegranate. It’s a literary symbol that symbolizes union with someone or something else other than a parent, the divine marriage, a key step in the Individuation process. Regardless of what one things about love in the real world, the symbolic marriage in literature and myth speaks on a psychological level, helps elevate the inner reaches of psyche to a conscious level, leading to wholeness.

I contend that Persephone, and Ariel, had to leave. Without the departure, a daughter can’t become her own woman. Disney’s Rapunzel and Pixar’s Brave both illustrate the problems of an over-bearing mother on a girl’s identity formation. Sometimes, it comes with sacrifice, like trading fins for legs, but often, as The Little Mermaid II demonstrates, it doesn’t mean forever.

Some Further Thoughts on Instructions

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Yesterday, I wrote about The Lego Movie and instructions. Last night, as my Munchkin game group taught the game to a newbie, I gave instructions a further think.

When was the last time you read The Instructions? Let’s back up a second–what are The Instructions?

Perhaps I’m a little biased in a particular direction, but my answer to that question lies in myth. I take that very broad Campbellian definition of myth that myths are the stories and guides that define people as a culture or as individuals. But I don’t consider these stories as just “stories.” A story can be, literally, a story. It can be a novel, a film, a comic, a play, etc etc etc. But a story could also be a football game, a business journal, a textbook. It could be a dance party, a furniture store, or a 3-course dinner. In other words, anything can be storied if we ascribe any special meaning to it.

There is no universal rule to what can become storied. Each of us find our myths in different things. Jung’s now-legendary story is that he once asked what his myth was, then remembered how much he enjoyed building with blocks as a child–so he built himself Bollengen tower.

As it happens, I’m attracted to the literary form of stories, so I have the tendency to talk about myth from the perspective of an armchair-Lit major. So for that reason, books, films, and media are, for me, The Instructions.

So, when was the last time you read The Instructions? For most of you, my dear readers, you probably read some form of Instructions recently. Perhaps you read a religious text, or a scholarly text. Perhaps you read a Cookbook, or a comic book. But did you actually read them? Absorb them? Take them to heart? Allow yourself to be changed by them? Or did you read The Instructions with the sole intent of not following them?

What do The Instructions mean to you?

Lego Instructions Are Useful

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My research frequently takes me down a rabbit hole in pursuit of “the American identity.” I frequently find laudatory analyses of American individualism, the symbolism of the rugged cowboy, and many, many questions about the faults of American iconography and imagery since World War II. American myth and media is filled with savior-type heroes who are either saving the worlds by themselves or are rallying the people to save themselves, or are rallying with other superheroes to save the world together.

Enter into this discussion, The Lego Movie (2014).

*Spoilers may follow.*

We can poke fun at the fact that the Wise Old Man figure is a Master Builder/architect named Vitruvius:

Or that the secret hide-out of the Master Builders is a sky-city named Cloudcukooland (reference: Aristophanes, The Birds):

Or even that there is a Kragle gun:

This movie is filled with all of the expected cliches: Lots of jokes, an unexpected hero, father atonement, so on. For our purposes, I want to consider a very, specific turning point in the film.

Emmett, the construction worker who is marked as “The Special,” finds himself stranded in the ocean with a bunch of Master Builders. The Master Builders have tried to vanquish Mr. Business through rebellion, lawlessness, and their original constructions. Emmett, in an inspired moment, encourages these self-righteous Masters to follow the instructions, because that’s exactly what the bad guys aren’t expected.

All Lego sets come with an instruction book. Piece by piece, page by page, one can successfully build the model on the outside of the box as long as one follows the directions. These instructions become the tools of mass control in this film. Everyone is expected to follow the rules and deviating from the rules is severely punished. As such, Emmett has never actually had any of his own building ideas (except for a double-decker couch with coolers in the seats), and has a “prodigiously empty” imagination. The Master Builders, on the other hand, can see useful pieces anywhere, and can turn seemingly random blocks into vehicles or other useful tools. Haven’t we all found ourselves in similar dualities? Having that one friend who wants to follow the instructions versus that other friend who would rather dump all the pieces on the floor and see where the imagination takes them?

As someone who always follows the instructions, I personally find it frustrating that I can’t build an awesome spaceship out of random pieces, but I find it even more frustrating when people buy Lego sets then mix all the pieces in with their other pieces and have a giant bucket of random Lego pieces. My Lego sets, when not put together on display, are in Ziploc bags, sorted by set for easy reconstruction (no, I don’t sort my pieces beyond the overall set. I like the fun of the dig for that 1-pip, clear blue piece needed in step 150).

The instructions are the means of mass control in this Lego land. The God-like Father (Will Farrell) treats his Legos as models and collector items, not as the toys his son sees them to be (overtly, this is the point of the movie–to bring Father around to enjoying his Legos are the toys they are). But they also provide the secret to infiltrating the Infinity Tower and were almost successful in stopping Tako Tuesday.

In the American identity, we favor the rebellious Master Builder mentality–that the only way to overcome something that makes us unhappy is to break the rules. But what if the secret to change comes from rebuilding the system from within instead of without? This is a constant conflict in our society. Americans want community, but they don’t want to be herded into sameness. They want change, but not necessarily at the hand of revolution. (As always, I’m speaking to a generalized middle.) So what The Lego Movie seems to be telling us is that the first point of rebellion is to follow the instructions. And then, everything can be awesome.

The Hobby Lobby Decision

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Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled in the case, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. The overt argument in the case is whether a company with a certain set of religious values can be required by the government to provide contraceptives to female employees under the Affordable Healthcare Act. The Supreme Court ruled 5-3 that companies do NOT have to meet this requirement. My Facebook feed since the ruling has been aflutter with criticism about how this is a major step backwards for women’s rights, because this decision allows a corporation to decide–for religious reasons–how to control a woman’s body. As far as woman’s rights, yes, this sets a nasty precedent. There’s also a lot of nuance to the discussion about how birth control can be accessed by women, and, as one might imagine, the Internet is divided on this ruling.

If you want, here’s the Supreme Court document. I haven’t read it, and don’t really intend to.

My concern is less about the implications for women’s rights, which is a major concern, don’t get me wrong. My concern is that this ruling effectively ensures that a corporation–a business–has personhood with the rights and liberties of the Bill of Rights, and that this corporation can make decisions that impact all of its employees that supersede government regulation.

Take a moment and think about this.

I mean, really think about this.

Whatever your opinion of government may be, a corporation is not a person. It’s not even a governing entity. But this ruling, and other rulings over the last few years, grants that power to the corporation.

Let’s stop and consider what a corporation is. It’s a hierarchical, micro-civilization that functions in service to some service. At the top of the hierarchy sits a CEO, like a king or queen, surrounded by his or her Board of Directors. This limited elite, with a few other Chief Officers, are the lawmakers in this hierarchy. The Presidents and Vice Officers that sit below them are the enforcers of this law, and so on down the food chain to the largest population in this micro-civilization: the basic employee, the frontline trooper the public has immediate interaction with who must put on the happy face that represents the corporate values.

The corporation is not a person, nor does it function as a collective entity. That limited elite who sit at the top of the food chain spread their values down to the bottom, and the decisions of this elite may or may not be in the best interest of the workforce.

I know what you’re thinking, why doesn’t the employee just find a new job or why don’t we as a consumer just not shop there? Well, yes, but corporate control is growing–and we’re letting it. Increasingly, we as employees are encountering difficulty not having to compromise our own morals and values in service to a corporation. Increasingly, we as consumers are facing a limited pool of consumption options. 

I write this blog not because I want to try to persuade you to see things my way. If you support Hobby Lobby, by all means continue to do so. By the same token, respect my decision to no longer shop there.

No, I write this blog for another reason. As a student of the Humanities, I have spent my share of time delving into a wide range of history, myth and religion, and culture. As a teacher of the Humanities, I have lectured about the relationship between lack of government oversight, propaganda, and the fall of the Roman Empire. I’ve lectured about the power of the Church in Medieval politics. I’ve lectured about how Humanism and Nationalism helped bring about the Renaissance. I’ve also devoted a lot of research to American mythology and how Disney used it to feed mid-century Nationalism, while also nurturing the American hunger to consume. The American people need to wake up and pay attention about corporate control.

But I don’t think we will. And that’s where I I find myself feeling very, very sad.

Side Note: If we think of consumption as an addiction, then corporations are our drug dealers. Or, if we think of consumption as a religion, then corporations are our cult leaders. Either perspective is problematic to the needs of the people, because the people are denied their own personhood in the service to the dealer or cult leader. But corporations, the embodiment of mid-century white privilege, have leverage and can get away with much more than drug dealers or cult leaders. If we as a culture can stop consuming, perhaps we can reduce their power. But the Stop Shopping movement is small, radical, and not taken seriously. Perhaps we can educate a generational shift and teach the children of today how not to consume.

Side Note Number 2: Another problem is that American consumption, or at least the right to consume, is seen around the world as equal to freedom and “democracy.” We need a world-wide shift, and it *could* happen if everyone got on board. We are globalized enough to enact such change. My skepticism of humanity leads me to think it won’t happen, even for all my Disney-colored optimism.

Side Note Number 3: Yes, I’m a consumer, and I admit it. My recent year in poverty has restructured much of my consumptive behaviors, but I’m still consuming nonetheless. One way to change consumptive behaviors is to unplug, and for some reason, I can’t bring myself to do that. And in that way, telecomm corporations have won this round.

This Problem of Poverty

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I’ve seen a few things across my Facebook recently, ranging from “Welfare is a handout!” to property owners putting spikes outside their front doors (presumably to prevent people from sleeping there–seems like a dangerous liability issue to me). Such comments concern me because they don’t reflect what poverty is. Now, I’m not going to pretend to be a holier-than-thou expert on poverty. Rather, I’d just like to throw my perspective into this very complicated subject. Because I can. So there.

“Poverty” is defined by the OED as “the state of being extremely poor.” “Poor” is then defined as “lacking sufficient money to live at a standard considered comfortable or normal in a society.” Already, I have a problem with this understanding of poverty. There is an episode of the Twilight Zone that can illustrate this. The episode is 1961’s “Rip Van Winkle Caper” (season 2). A group of men steal a ton of gold and hide in a secret cave, cryogenically freezing themselves until their crime blows over. The plan was to wake up, and be free and wealthy. Not all of the men wake up–their machines were damaged–and the remaining men end up fighting amongst themselves for how they were going to divide the gold. In the end, one man is left, and goes in search of civilization. Since this show is filmed in California, the search for civilization inevitably involves a trek through the American desert. Along the way, he trades a bar of his gold for a sip of water. Eventually, he spends his last brick of gold, but dies from dehydration all the same. The man who watched him die, gets back into his car with his wife, and tells her: “Can you imagine that? He offered this to me as if it was really worth something.” (Rod Serling was a genius.) In another example, Sir Thomas Moore (1516) envisions a Utopia where gold isn’t a currency, but instead marks the slaves apart from the rest of the citizens.

My point is that what defines “money” is subjective to a society. What we use to define money this year will eventually change (perhaps not during my lifetime, but that depends on whether one is listening to the ecologists or not). More importantly, as long as one lives in a system of Civilization, understood from an anthropological viewpoint as a means of managing a large number of people in a fashion that necessarily requires a hierarchy, there will be poverty. In any society where there is a class system (manifest or latent), there will be poverty. Someone has to be excluded from the privileged class, and, historically, it’s the largest percentage of the population within the society. This is not the result of “lower classes breeding too much” or any such nonsense. Nor is this the result of “poorer people have sex more because they’re less educated.” Also baloney. People in privileged states like to tell themselves such stories to justify themselves. So now, I turn to Jung.

In Aion (or CW 9.2 for us hip Jung folks), Jung defines the shadow as:

The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge. (par 14).

Jung speaks specifically to the individual, but his theories reflect well into the larger society as well. People in poverty, the Poor, or anyone who does not meet the status quo of the privileged, become the social shadow. Think about this: in a Capitalist Democracy (or Republic–whatever the USA is these days), in a society that defines privilege and success on how much money one has, then those that fail to meet those measures are pushed aside.

Let me back up a minute. The “shadow” as Jung uses it is that part of the psyche that is buried in the unconscious. If one imagines the actual shadow (and get a good, long sunset shadow for this image), our bodies represent our conscious selves, while that shadow on the ground represents our unconscious life, formed by our dreams, our experiences, but also by our identity formation that “keeps” certain characteristics in our personality and buries others. The shadow has a tendency to not be ignored. In the individual, the shadow appears that moment when you say or do something uncharacteristic. Or it may weigh you down, leaving you unfulfilled and unsatisfied in life. We all have a shadow. We can deny it, but it will play its part on us if we don’t do something about it:

Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected. (CW 11, “Psychology and Religion,” par. 131)

I struggle with Jung’s definition of the “collective shadow.” Much of his writing comes at a time in history when the “collective mind” was something to be avoided in the West, thanks to a fear of Communism and the European events of World War II. So he writes about how the “collective shadow” manifests as war (but I can’t find that quote). In my reading of Jung, it seems that the collective shadow manifests among the people, especially when the enemy cannot be easily identified (just what does a “Terrorist” or a “Communist” look like?). When we start projecting our shadows onto our own people, then we can hear many of the debates that are all over the news these days, and we start hearing buzz words like “entitlement.”

Again the OED: Entitlement is “the fact of having a right to something.” An entitlement isn’t a guarantee. It isn’t even a privilege. It’s simply the “right to something.” So I have a “right” to education, a “right” to welfare, a “right” to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And the reason I have these “rights” is because “rights” are “morally good, justifiable, or acceptable.” (again, “morally good” is also definable by the civilization. This kind of subjectivity is why poverty is such a murky issue!)

Confronting the collective shadow of poverty means facing and accepting that a particular dark underbelly of the culture is entitled–has the right to–the same privileges and opportunities of the higher players in the hierarchy. American individualism permits this–by our bootstraps and cunning, we can rise from rags to riches, and we should be rewarded for our hard work. Once power is achieved, no one wants to let it go easily, and the idea that someone could rise from rags to riches threatens that security.

Whenever contents of the collective unconscious become activated, they have a disturbing effect on the conscious mind, and contusion ensued. If the activation is due to the collapse of the individual’s hopes and expectations, there is a danger that the collective unconscious may take the place of reality. This state would be pathological. If, on the other hand, the activation is the result of psychological processes in the unconscious of the people, the individual may feel threatened or at any rate disoriented, but the resultant state is not pathological, at least so far as the individual is concerned. Nevertheless, the mental state of the people as a whole might well be compared to psychosis. (CW 8, “The Psychological Foundation for the Belief in Spirits,” par. 595)

Right now, the USA is in the first state–that pathological state. Our collective shadow is staring us in the face because of a failure of the American Dream to withstand the power of Economics. With the housing crisis seven years ago and the ridiculous amount of student loan debt that is crushing a large piece of the population, those who had to turn to welfare to help them through a phase of poverty changed face from the usual expectations. It was easier as a society to believe that poverty = “minority,” to write off the state of poverty as a problem of the “black people” and the “brown people.” But in the last several years we’ve seen increased numbers of highly educated “[black, white, brown, red, yellow] people” living in a state of poverty, or hard-working “[black, white, brown, red, yellow] people” in a state of homelessness because of a bad loan or a hurricane. Or older people who find themselves unemployed for longer than the requisite 8-month window because they’re too old, or their skills are outdated, or they are asking for too much. The face of poverty is no longer as clearcut as it used to be.

Is there a solution? Not an easy one, because the first and foremost thing we have to do is rewrite our Myth of Poverty. Anytime such an overturn of ideas needs to happen, it takes at least a generation. A few well-meaning adults (read: “Elders”) have to teach the new generation to see the world in this way, who then come to accept it as the norm. And while this can work, the inter-generational conversations are still speaking different stories, making the tension between New Ways of Thinking and Tradition that much more difficult. I’d like to say we could eradicate poverty, but that would also involve taking away the tax cuts of the wealthy. I’d love to say we can all live in harmony, but that would involve restructuring civilization as a whole. One last Jung quote:

Filling the conscious mind with ideal conceptions is a characteristic of Western theosophy, but not the confrontation with the shadow and the world of darkness. One does not become enlightened by imaging figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. (CW 13, “The Philosophical Tree,” par. 335)

Poverty isn’t a partisan issue. It exists. How we handle it speaks volumes to how we handle the shadow. When one speaks of “compassion,” it’s meant to motivate us toward Jung’s idea of enlightenment. We can’t all give money to the guy sitting on the corner with his dog. But we can acknowledge how we address poverty in our communities. Pretending it isn’t there isn’t an option. Fighting government bills that increase access to resources shouldn’t be an option either (the hit to the economy of not providing public assistance is far worse than what we do provide). Yes, there are trolls out there who abuse the system, preferring to live in a state of poverty than try to get out of it, but the larger majority of people in poverty would really like to get out of it. Because poverty is a state of mind. It weighs on us like an anvil around the neck, the world on our back, while trying to push a bolder up a mountain all at the same time. Oh, while walking on hot coals.

And yes, I’m speaking to American poverty. Much attention is given to African poverty by major celebrities, who want to address poverty but don’t want to face the problems in their own backyards. The USA is still a country of privilege, but that doesn’t mean we’re distributing our resources wisely. If we want to maintain the illusion that the USA is the world’s anchor, we need to sort out these social issues, among others that run the very real risk of breaking down the Matrix.

[Since all of my books are in boxes, I’d like to thank jungcurrents.com for Jung’s quotes.]

NOTE: One thing I’m not addressing in this post is the perspective of poverty by those who live in it. If poverty is the cultural shadow, as I’m claiming here, then those who live in the state of poverty are the shadow elements. Because I have spent the last year living–struggling–in poverty, I won’t be able to delve into this perspective until I’m in a safe place to heal from the psychic wounds this past year has given me. I invite anyone who is willing and able to share their perspective–of being the shadow, vilified simply for being poor. And with permission, I’d love to share it here.

Themed Spaces and AstroWorld

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I’m in the early phase of an awesome post-doc research opportunity that I’m calling my Epic German Adventure. The project is researching theme parks (I’m leaning strongly toward a Disney focus–imagine that), postmodernism, temporality, and aesthetics. And it’s funded for three years. So basically, I have a three year subsidy to continue my dissertation research and write “The Second Book.” A totally groovy opportunity.

My colleagues–my new Deutsche Besties–have turned me onto a scholar named Scott Lukas. They speak of him with awe; I wish I’d known of him when I was writing my dissertation. He seems like Kind of a Big Deal. I’ll meet him this September, and maybe join the Scott Lukas fan club.  What makes his work stand out is that he, a cultural anthropologist, writes about theme parks and themed spaces with an ethnographer’s eye (a refreshing validation to my own perspective). When he was studying at Rice University, he had a gig working at Six Flags AstroWorld as a trainer.

So I figured I should find out what this guy is all about. I took a nice little field trip up to the University of Massachusetts library (a building that reminds me of Louis Sachar’s book, Sideways Stories of Wayside School) and picked up a copy of The Themed Space: Locating Culture, Nation, and Self. This is an edited volume that looks at themed spaces of varying sorts around the world. I’m going to confess that I haven’t read the whole volume yet. This is one of those aggravating books in which I find myself underlining every other paragraph and wanting to make lots of commentary in the margins, except that this is a library book, so I have to conduct these thought exercises in my notebook. I shouldn’t complain, though. Too many books don’t invite conversation, and I am very glad to be able to interact with this book at all.

Anyway, as one might imagine, I’m very Disney-centric when it comes to the kind of theming I’m looking for in a theme park. Six Flags parks, as a rule, tend to fall short of my very high expectations. So when Lukas writes fondly about AstroWorld, I question what AstroWorld he’s writing about. See, his tenure as a trainer overlapped with part of my angsty teenage years, growing up in Suburban Houston, and spending a very limited amount of my summer vacation at AstroWorld. Back then, ticket prices weren’t heinous, and I drank enough Dr. Pepper or Coca-Cola to guarantee cheaper ticket prices. My limited time at AstroWorld comes from a limited amount of interest and a vehement loathing of Houston summers.

For one thing, I don’t remember the themed boundaries that he describes. Sure, I remember that there were areas where there was more of one thing or another, but not a clear container to the theming. Perhaps one reason for this is that there were too many “lands” for the space available. It’s totally possible to pull off seven themed lands in a single park, but it takes skill to not make them so small as to be inconsequential or so overwhelming that the guest has a bad time. Disneyland in Anaheim has eight lands in a little more space. The big difference is that Disney doesn’t pack it’s theme park with a bunch of roller coasters, so many that it’s difficult to escape the screams and coaster rattles.

AstroWorld mid 1990s

AstroWorld mid 1990s

You can observe from the AstroWorld map that the coasters defined the berm of the park. They were the lure. They were what you could see as you rounded the bend on 610, competing for skyline with the Astrodome in what was called the AstroDomain.

Really Old Photo of the AstroDomain

Really Old Photo of the AstroDomain

The problem with defining the berm with roller coasters is that a) they don’t close the theme park off from the rest of the world, but more importantly b) already from the outset they establish a tone for the park as one of fast-paced movement. Disney’s berm is built up almost like a fortress wall that is designed to keep the outside world out of the park, because the outside world is full of enough of its own issues–let the park be a place of fun.

Plus, most of the roller coasters, though they looked cool, completely freaked me out. The Texas Cyclone was my favorite:

And though the Ultra Twister looked cool, I could never convince myself to go on it:

Excalibur was my first coaster ever:

But I never could convince anyone to go on XLR8 with me:

With these coasters, you’ll notice that you can see more than just the park. Because of their position on the berm, you can see Houston. It breaks the theme. No, I’m going to rephrase that–it breaks the sacredness of the space. It’s the ability to completely encapsulate me that I expect from a theme park, and it’s the fact that Six Flags fails in this detail that keeps me from regularly visiting those parks. That and this year Six Flags has developed some record-breaking doozies of death-defying rides that my inner roller-coward just wants to stay home.

As a kid, I was afraid of roller coasters, and never really had the opportunity to get over it. I think it has more to do with people telling me I’d lose my glasses if I didn’t secure them before going on the coaster, and the very real problem of not being able to see any of the sights without my glasses. One of the reasons I like Disney coasters like Space Mountain or Big Thunder Railroad is that I know my glasses will stay on without granny librarian strings to hold them in place. I can see the coaster’s narrative this way, enhancing my experience. Perhaps this is why I trust Disney so much, and not so much the other guys.

To me, the track of the coaster is a narrative, and our ride vehicle is our opportunity to read it. So I’m actually excited about the new Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at Walt Disney World, and I’ll close with that video. I’m not sure why other theme parks struggle with coaster narrative so much. This one fuses a coaster narrative with my favorite attraction format, the “dark ride.”

Dionysos and Theme Parks

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The only reason I’m not a rabid supporter of Archetypal Psychology is that the research I was exposed to as a student at Pacifica concentrated on Greek Myth as its basis for imagery, and I find that too limiting. But I will admit that the archetypal method can be very fun, which is why I delve into it from time to time on my blog, but I likely won’t use this in the methodology of my larger research projects.

The more I contemplate Greek myth, the more I like Dionysos. He had a rough childhood. I mean, come on, his family almost ate him. No wonder he was/is a complete drunk.

So Dionysos came to symbolize drunken excess, with the idea being that one needs the release that being drunk characterizes. It does get exhausting being uptight and proper for society. Dionysos provided a container for this excess. Boundaries, if you will, to allow each of us what we need without impacting greater society.

One mode of celebrating Dionysos was in the theater, and as such he’s also the god associated with theater and stage craft. In his Poetics, Aristotle writes about the experience of going to theater and the elements of a well-written play that would lead to catharsis, a powerful emotional, collective release.

My new delicious thought is this: the theme park—the well-crafted, well-staged theme park—is the realm of Dionysos. Disney designed Disneyland as a movie set, applying Hollywood’s version of set design that evolved from theater. So, then, the kinetic experience of the park is akin to a Dionysian catharsis (perhaps it’s my Walt Disney-colored glasses, but I prefer to find Dionysian experiences that don’t involve drunken or drug-induced releases, but much could be said about such catharsis in other areas of culture).

I’ve wondered about the attraction to thrill. Compared to attractions at parks such as Six Flags or Universal, Disney’s thrilling rides are relatively tame, but that speaks to the overall goal of Disney’s storytelling and the intended audience. Theme park and amusement park attractions bring us catharsis, with the added level of kinetic experience. We don’t simply take in the story and process it through our emotional framework. Attractions allow us to become a part of the story. The Fantasyland Dark Rides were constructed as though the guests in the ride vehicles were the main characters of the story. But what about roller coasters? It’s difficult to execute an entire narrative for a roller coaster. But perhaps the narrative ceases to be the point when we’re going that fast.

Roller coasters force us back into our bodies. The mind shuts down and instincts take over as we react with fear or pleasure. Although there are many attempts to rectify the mind-body (or Cartesian) split, it still governs many of our experiences, especially in the computer age. Riding a roller coaster allows us to spend some time in that body of ours. It invites us to let go and allow our sensation to soak in the experience.

It’s like this:
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