The Ernest Becker Foundation
Daniel Sullivan in Seattle to Discuss Death in Classic and Contemporary Film: Fade to Black
Book Review by Patrick Shen
Death in Classic and Contemporary Film: Fade to Black is a fantastic collection of essays which surgically examines cinema as a lens through which to understand our relationship with death. If cinema is as Shakespeare believed the role of dramatic performance to be “whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure” then it’s no surprise that the authors of this book would look to it for insight into our relationship with mortality. Indeed, throughout history artists have often found more illuminating and interesting ways to shed light on the things that lie at the core of being human than many other disciplines could. And which other medium best embodies the art Dewey referred to as “refined and intensified forms of experience” and which so regularly gives us a glimpse of life under extreme circumstances, life in extremis?
Read more of this book review by clicking here. Event details below.
Daniel Sullivan, Ph.D.
Thursday, October 16, 7:00 pm
Seattle U. Casey Building, 5th Floor
Death in Film; Exploring Becker's Relevance in Cinema Studies
Co-sponsors: Seattle U graduate psychology program
This event is free and open to the public. A donation basket will welcome your help.
General Info: 206-232-2994
Daniel Sullivan's abstract of his talk
Death in Film; Exploring Becker's Relevance in Cinema Studies
"Since the birth of cinema a century ago, death, fear of death, and desire for immortality have been pervasive themes in movies from around the world. Ernest Becker—who has contributed profoundly to our scientific understanding of death anxiety—believed that films provide key insights into cultural concerns and psychological concepts. Drawing on our recent interdisciplinary volume Death in Classic and Contemporary Film: Fade to Black (2013; co-edited with Jeff Greenberg), I will consider several aspects of the intersection of death concerns and cinema, with examples from various films. Movies can contribute to death denial and even to violence, but they can also provide opportunities for serious engagement with the idea of mortality. I will conclude with a concrete example of Beckerian film analysis. Specifically, I will apply Becker's and Otto Rank's ideas about immortality concerns in modernity to films about the psychology of educators, such as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (1972), and Waterland (1992)."
A background note relating the EBF to the co-editors of Fade to Black, Sullivan and Greenberg
Way back around 1990, a close friend told me that some psychologists referenced Becker in the NY Times. I was lucky my friend even told me because he was sure I had gone off the deep end in my enthusiasm for Becker’s synthesis. Well, that reluctant tip led me to Jeff Greenberg, co-editor and contributor to today’s Fade to Black. Jeff was most cordial and said of the “Terror Management Theory (TMT) originating trio” that he and Tom Pyszczynski deferred to Sheldon Solomon for public speaking. The EBF began in 1993 and Sheldon was our first invited speaker.
There have been many protégées and protégés, now numbering twenty-some, who have earned Ph.D.’s in this TMT tradition. Daniel Sullivan is a recent one, a brand-new Assistant Professor at the University of Arizona with Jeff Greenberg, and is the lead editor of their Fade to Black.
John Rector's Objectification Spectrum
By Daniel Liechty
Of Recent Interest… is the new book by John M. Rector, The Objectification Spectrum: Understanding and Transcending Our Diminishment and
Dehumanization of Others (Oxford University Press 2014). In this high quality book, Rector offers a sensitive and creative exploration of objectification theory. Objectification theory in psychology and philosophy includes a lot of territory, some of which is quite esoteric, but all of it in one way or another attempts to address our tendencies to view and treat self and others as objects. Building especially on the work of Martha Nussbaum and others, Rector’s examination digs deeper than previous studies by looking at objectification within the context of recent work in emotions, cognition and neuroscience. This is quite welcome, because often academic treatments of philosophical and psychological issues become completely bogged down in parsing sentences or the minutiae of research methodology. By keeping his discussion rooted in clinical and empirical studies, Rector admirably avoids this mire. His book will be of interest to a wide audience, and certainly to any reader of the EBF Newsletter.
Clinicians will be especially interested in Rector’s demonstration that many of the common emotional disorders can be traced to misperceptions of the symbolic Self and its place in the social environment. This parallels much of Ernest Becker’s own recasting of emotional disorders as relational problems in his early book, Revolution in Psychiatry (1964), and again as reactions to death anxiety (that is, self-in-relation-to-death) in Denial of Death (1973). Rector is very generous in references to Becker’s later work. Unfortunately, because he has read Becker more or less exclusively through the eyes of Terror Management Theory, he highlights Becker’s social psychology (cultural worldview defense) only and misses the many significant connections that could be made with Becker’s work in wider areas of individual psychology, education, and spirituality.
Thankfulness and Praise Are Key
to a Well-Integrated Life!
By Daniel Liechty
[Editor's note: This is a write-up of a Sheldon Solomon talk that can be viewed at YouTube]
Huh? I thought I was reading the Ernest Becker Foundation Newsletter. Has the EBF been hijacked by some evangelizing religious organization? Well, don’t worry, you are on the right page here. The phrase above is actually the conclusion of a talk based on social scientific evidence, presented by Sheldon Solomon on the morning of May 11th (Mothers’ Day!) at the Plymouth Congregational Church in Seattle. After a brief and entertaining review of Ernest Becker’s ideas, Solomon emphasized a conclusion that is too often overlooked, but about which Becker was quite adamant. On the one hand, we are pushed by our psychological and emotional need to assert ourselves as meaningful creatures, both individually and in groups. But on the other hand, in strictly “this worldly” terms, the assertions of superiority (heroism, standing above the rest) by one person or group more or less by necessity undermines the assertions of others. That is to say, the “king of the hill” type of heroism our cultural constructs push us toward is too often a zero-sum game, both conceptually and in fact. We see this in stark outline in current American culture, in which large numbers of people who in almost any other time or place in our species history would be considered wealthy beyond wildest dreams are constantly pushed by dominant cultural channels to compare themselves to those even wealthier, and thus find themselves inferior and dissatisfied. Since by definition there can only be 1% in the top 1%, a culture pushing heroism through wealth accumulation is a clear example of a “this worldly” hero system that is ultimately self-defeating for most of its participants.
Now clearly, not every culture focuses so narrowly and exclusively on wealth accumulation as does the current American culture. Even within the American culture there are many who refuse to play at life by those rules. But even in the best of circumstances, any purely “this worldly” hero system will be built fundamentally on hierarchies of wealth, power or both. For example, even in the university system in which I function, in which it could be argued that “knowledge” rather than wealth or power is the cultural Holy Grail, it is very easy to see how the system quickly turns pursuit of Knowledge into a hierarchy in which rewards are distributed in the form of wealth and power. The same is going to hold true to one extent or another in any sphere, whether professional or otherwise, in which heroism is defined in strictly “this worldly” terms.
From this recognition, Becker concluded and Solomon emphasized in his talk, that “earthly heroics finally just won’t cut it, and the pursuit of earthly heroics eventually gets us into trouble.” That is, earthly heroics are so rooted in zero-sum dynamics, in which the gains of one person or group comes at the expense of others, that there is a hidden dynamic of violence underlying the entire competitive system (note the congruence here with the Girardian idea of cultural mimesis) and furthermore, since there is no actual Omega Point of achievement in which our accumulation of wealth or power solves the problem of death (the top 10 richest and most powerful will die just as surely and agonizingly as the 10 poorest and meekest) such earthly heroics are ultimately (and obviously) self defeating, condemning us to the competitive violence of a self-constructed and inescapable spiral of striving for more and more.
It’s a pretty bleak picture, to be sure. But here is exactly where Becker suggested, and Solomon emphasized, antidotes to this kind of heroics are available to us, if we cultivate them. In the most broad terms, we might classify this as “spirituality,” that is, an encounter of the world the moves explicitly away from a strictly “this worldly” view and towards that which is transcending and transcendent of this world. Keep well in mind that neither Becker nor Solomon are talking here about “religion”; in fact, organized religion in this perspective would most often be viewed as simply yet another of the “this worldly” hierarchical hero systems. What this perspective does emphasize, in contrast, is cultivation of an ongoing awareness that one does not “own” one’s life and identity, that one’s life and identity is an unearned gift, and that the resources we have available to us are also gifts to us, not possessions we need must hoard and defend. Cultivation of this attitudinal awareness leads to a deep sense of generosity and humility. The implied hypothesis is that a much more satisfying life for human beings, one that is rooted in heroics compatible with our mortal nature rather than heroics struggling frantically against our mortal nature, will be a life in which our desires and values are heavily tempered by cultivation of generosity and humility. Or, to put this in the language of our hymns, cultivation of an attitude of habitual Thanks and Praise!
Now of course, this wouldn’t be a Sheldon Solomon talk without report on the results of studies testing this hypothesis! And indeed, Solomon directed the audience toward a new book by psychology professor Richard Beck, entitled The Slavery of Death, that makes much this same point, as well as to recent journal publications demonstrating that “humble” people tend to score lower on death anxiety scales, and higher on general well-being and life satisfaction scales than people who tend to see themselves as entitled and better than other people. In Beckerian terms, we would see this distinction between the humble and the not-humble (itself based on validated testing scales) as indicating the cooperative or competitive heroics in which the person is involved.
Brisk discussion followed Solomon’s talk, which, after a break for lunch, carried on well into the afternoon.
Daniel Liechty is Professor of Social Work and a member of the Graduate Faculty at Illinois State University,and also serves as Vice-President of the EBF.
Julio Costa's To Be More Person: A Reading of Otto Rank
By E. James Lieberman, M.D. M.P.H.
[Editors note: For Becker newcomers, Rank was a major source for Becker during the writing of Denial of Death and Escape from Evil.]
Julio Roberto Costa, a Brazilian sociologist concerned with sustainable development, has been a student of Otto Rank’s life and work for 30 years. In his view a person becomes less when acting selfishly, criminally, wastefully. The book’s title reflects the antithesis of such behavior, and the factors inherent in Rank’s thinking that makes us more--expanded, improved, better.
Otto Rank (1884-1939) was Freud’s student and secretary beginning in 1906 when Freud turned 60 and Rank was 22. Freud supported Rank’s studies at the University of Vienna, where he got his Ph.D. in 1911. Rank was a member of the secret Committee formed in 1913 to guide the psychoanalytic movement; he and Freud were the only two (of seven) in Vienna. With his growing dissatisfaction with formulaic analysis, Rank published The Trauma of Birth (1923), emphasizing the tie between mother and infant, and the process of separation and individuation. He broke with his mentor in 1926, moved to Paris, and finally, in 1935, to New York. Rank is known for his books on myth, art, education, and humanistic or existential therapy.
J. R. Costa is well-informed about Rank. He offers a thoughtful, provocative, sometimes paradoxical treatment of his subject. He presents many a dramatic, complicated idea, e.g., “It is impossible for subjectivity to testify against itself. A message discoursing about its own non-existence is impossible.” And, “…the life project to be more is nourished by cultural elements contrary to the images of decadence and finitude.”
“We must remember that in Rank’s thought both the person and the community have the same roots: starting with a will to live given by existence itself, subjectivity will cultivate values relative to the renunciation of the finite and search for the eternal, in such a way as to create a specifically human experience and will represent this creation in the community symbolic repertoire which is accessible to everyone. In this conception the individual-group conflict ceases to be an unquestionable fact, and we are obliged to think of a person-community collaboration in favor of the creation of human experience.”
Costa asserts that “person and community yearn for the same things: the permanence and intensification of a specifically human experience.” He condemns excessive selfish, criminal, or wasteful behavior—all forms of being less person, anti-life—and deplores these tendencies among opinion leaders.
This book is small but carries much weight, many challenging and worthwhile ideas. He credits Otto Rank in new and interesting ways. Those who are steeped in Rank’s works will be surprised and some will consider Costa to have over-extended his interpretation. This is a stimulating, creative commentary that will challenge those already familiar with Rank while bringing him to new readers in an attractive light.
After medical school (UCSF) and psychiatry residency (Harvard) James Lieberman came to Bethesda in 1963. After 7 years at NIMH he began psychotherapy practice with emphasis on couples and family therapy. He first encountered Rank in 1977 and published a biography in 1985. Since then he edited new translations of several Rank works. He has been active in end-of-life issues through Compassion and Choices. He is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Emeritus, GWU School of Medicine.
Becker on Otto Rank
"Rank's thought always spanned several fields of knowledge: when he talked about, say, anthropological data and you expected anthropological insight, you got something else, something more. Living as we do in an era of hyperspecialization we have lost the expectation of this kind of delight: the experts give us manageable thrills—if they thrill us at all."
From the preface to Denial of Death