punchOctober 5, 6 and 7 was the annual conference gathering of the Ernest Becker Foundation. This year was special, marking the conclusion of two decades for the Foundation. The EBF has come a long way and done so much since those initial nine people met in the living room of Dr. Neil Elgee’s Seattle home back in October of 1993, and the first evening of this year’s gathering was dedicated to a celebration of this event and a tribute to Dr. Elgee as the Founder and President of the Foundation. It is difficult to capture in review the spirit of that evening, but suffice to say that many people had opportunity to express publically their appreciation and admiration of Dr. Elgee and his work. The evening was capped by a short presentation by Sheldon Solomon summarizing what various Becker-influenced Terror Management Theory researchers were finding in areas particularly relevant to the November political election.

Dr. Solomon also set the stage for the Saturday program with a stimulating interpretation of a lesser-known book by Becker, The Lost Science of Man (1971). This book, consisting of two lengthy essays, has been largely overlooked for a number of reasons. As it came out in 1971, it was quickly eclipsed by Becker’s final trilogy. It was something of an afterthought. The lead essay was originally commissioned as an entry on Albion Small for a biographical dictionary. However, Becker’s essay contrasted Small’s original vision of a socially engaged sociology with the distanced academic data-crunching sociology had become, and the essay was rejected. The second essay examines the founding of anthropology, from which Becker drew much the same picture. A field of study originally conceived as actively engaged in providing material for concrete social engagement to better society traded its activist vision for academic distance in the name of scientific legitimacy and respect. Solomon helpfully underlined the fact that these trade offs between activist vision and scientific legitimacy are still with us, and that continuing to responsibly navigate the terrain is the challenge faced by the Foundation as it enters its third decade.

Next Prof. Kirby Farrell reported on his study of the legalese in which the Supreme Court majority has been expressing itself in rulings favoring the power of corporations, up to and including the Citizens’ United decision allowing unlimited funding of political campaigns from corporation coffers. Literary and cultural critic Farrell showed us how this legalese language tricks us. Obscured and hidden by the language in which it is expressed, it supposes an underlying and unspoken assumption about power and order in society that runs rather directly contrary to the popular will. John Wynn concurred in discussion.

The morning program was filled out by reports and examples by Bill Bornschein, Dave Whitson, Sue Hoffman and John Kornichuk on their experiences in teaching Becker’s books and ideas in secondary and junior college level classrooms. They fielded penetrating questions from an engaged audience and clearly demonstrated that this is a fertile area open for expanded application, interest and support by the EBF.

Opening the afternoon program, Prof. Philip Hansten presented on the topic of climate change denial. Characteristically deep and humorous simultaneously, Hansten expanded on a concept he coined, the logical fallacy of “premature factulation,” and its correlative synonym, “ignorant certainty.” This is the process, in a nutshell, of coming to hard and fast conclusions (certainty) about an issue without having given the topic adequate study or thought. Hansten wrote his 2009 book on Premature Factulation quite unaware of Becker’s work so it is exciting for all hands to experience the convergence, which is well displayed in this PowerPoint presentation.

Jeremy Sherman, an independent scholar whose work is focused on Emergent Dynamics, spoke on the mental phenomenon he calls partialization, the effective equivalent of Becker’s fetishism. We focus attention on important aspects of what is in front of us, while most of reality slips by unnoticed, unrecognized. This partializing move is necessary because we would be overwhelmed by the multiplicity of reality if we were unable to narrow things down (Becker noted that a life in which there are inadequate attentional filters is at least one way to imagine what schizophrenia must feel like from the inside.) Reflection on our situation leads to the conclusion, therefore, that most of what we perceive as “reality” is, in fact, a creative illusion of our own making. Our epistemological problem, then, is to try to achieve evermore-close approximations even while recognizing that this is a receding horizon. As Sherman put it (in his consistently pithy phrasing) we must learn to prefer the likeliest instead of only the most liked illusions.

Becker and Religion. In a panel discussion update Sheldon Solomon described, explained and fielded questions about a major advance in a 2011 doctoral thesis “Scaring the bejesus into people: The effects of mortality salience on explicit and implicit religious belief.” It cleverly shows that professed atheists expressing explicit denial of any interest in the supernatural are, given the mortality salience induction of Terror Management Theory, implicitly affected unconsciously. It’s the lab demo of the “atheists in foxholes” adage, reinforcing Becker’s insistence that in his synthesis religion not be slighted.

The afternoon concluded with project reports by Patrick Shen on his inspired and famous documentary film, Flight From Death, Psychology Prof Jack Martin of Simon Fraser U on his forthcoming biographical book on Becker’s years at SFU, and Jim Swift, PhD and Susan Kucera, documentary film maker on the Becker-inspired doc film they’re working on..

Although Sunday mornings at these annual conferences are often lighter material, this year two of the weightiest papers awaited the sleepy soon-travelers who gathered in a fourth floor meeting room on the Seattle University campus. The first of these, presented by Lori Marino and Michael Mountain, extended the ongoing interest in climate issues into the realm of the human relationship with other animal species. It was noted that the animal protection movement has been quite successful in some areas of concern, but absolutely unsuccessful in others that flow just as clearly from protection concerns. Their suggestion is that the mortality denial paradigm helps us understand these seeming contradictions.

Finally, Jason Hawreliak tried once again to convince us that there is more to video games than distraction from focusing on what is really important in life, like reading and socialization. This time around, it looks like Jason made some real headway. Whether this is because of his unquestionably fine presentation content, or because the conference audience is slowly becoming less technophobic remains to be seen! But in any case, Jason made a learned summary of what Becker, Huizinga and others of the pool of “trusted” scholars have written about the importance of play and pageantry in human life and society, and then once he had the audience nodding in agreement about this wisdom, he moved on to apply it to the world of video and online gaming. It was a bold and tricky move on his part, but one that was largely successful and that sent many of us of the professional Old Guard on our ways home with more than enough for considered cogitation during airport layovers.

Audio recordings of the EBF's Fall 2012 event can be found in our Store.

Have you seen the EBF's online store? Check it out >>

Becker on Otto Rank

"Rank goes so far as to say that the 'need for a truly religious ideology is inherent in human nature and its fulfillment is basic to any kind of social life.' Only in this way, says Rank, only by surrendering to the bigness of nature on the highest, least-fetishized level, can man conquer death. In other words, the true heroic validation or one's life, lies beyond sex, beyond the other, beyond the private religion-all these are makeshifts that pull man down or that hem him in, leaving him torn with ambiguity."

-From Denial of Death, Chapter 8

more on Otto Rank here