Read This Human: Ernest Becker

December 14, 2013
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This week, none of my favorite television shows are airing, so I decided to read a whole bunch of literary business. In doing so, I’ve rediscovered one of my favorite thinkers, mostly because he’s the best sort of theoretical jerk bag. So, Internet friends, my challenge for you this week is to take a hearty bite out of post-Freudian Ernest Becker (but only if you like the kind of social science that makes you think too hard and maybe get just a bit over-critical and angry).

Zen: A rational CritiqueThe Birth and Death of MeaningErnest Becker is by no means an easy writer to tackle. His social phenomenology is ridiculous and often monstrously over complicated in its treatment of simple but tremendous ideas. Becker’s basic obsession is with the human creature’s necessity to impose symbolic meaning on the raw stuff of life. According to Becker (and others before him), culture and society can be classified as complex games, leading to the creation of one big fictional, cosmic experience we all share in one way or another. Our societies are symbolic playgrounds; we as creatures actually have a lot less freedom than we’d like to imagine, as said freedom is created, part of the broad fabrication.

The scary thing to think about is the fragility of our game, or our collective fictions. To Becker, they are frail, tenuous stories that act as defense against impending doom (the despair that comes free with being a human). We creatures happen to know about our own mortality and need to maintain our belief in ourselves, but also the possibility of immortality, at least symbolically. Becker believes a lot of society boils down to the striving for some form of immortality, and that’s ultimately a game we’ll keep failing at. The striving creates evils all across human experience, manifesting in greed, violence, the lot.

The Denial of Death

So, Becker’s kinda a downer. But reading his stuff is super interesting and can be deconstructed into simple analytical components, tools you can use in further reading (or observation of anything really). Try your literary hand at The Denial of Death (1973) or Escape from Evil (1975). Both are awesome (if at times slow) sociological tomes, offering dark spins on day-to-day experience. And once you’ve read a little of Becker, look into Karen Horney, or even some Freud (you know, for fun!). I’m not saying that Freudian thinking is correct scientifically or psychologically, but the material that fattens his legacy is hard to ignore.

And that’s my challenge to you, Internet thinkers and researchers. A dose of literary theory, philosophy, or social science is good for the brain in weekly doses. Go find a thinker that can shatter the ways you look at the world and your personal experience in it. I promise it won’t hurt (that much).

Reading Becker in particular is excellent because it offers the chance to strip away the layers of culture and see the utter fear and dread that exists under even the merriest of cultural traditions and activities. Have fun!

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