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Speaker Bios and Blurbs

Kirby Farrell Ph.D. is much published Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst: a novelist, critic, and a jazz pianist. For the EBF he has lectured and written on radical existential criticism, the psychology of violence, and social justice. His expanding online presence is noted in the Clearing House News.

Criminal Court
Policing the Nation through the Politics of Citizens United

By empowering corporations to influence the electoral process with unlimited money, politicized Supreme Court justices have projected an aggressive fantasy that compensates for an anxious vision of the United States in a time of radical change and mounting global stress.

Classic Becker themes underlie the politicization of the court and the particular fantasies encouraged in the electorate. Like all jurisprudence, the Citizens United decision plays out personal and cultural fantasies. By empowering corporations to influence the electoral process with unlimited money, politicized Supreme Court justices have projected an aggressive fantasy that compensates for an anxious vision of the United States in a time of radical change and mounting global stress. Their fantasy empowers corporate elites (organized labor is marginal by comparison) to police the electorate with unlimited propaganda. As envisioned by the court’s majority, elites are opaque and invulnerable. Their power is distributed throughout corporate communication, advertising, think tanks, foundations, lawyers, lobbyists, and the like. It is therefore unaccountable. The judicial illusion is that their decision empowers elite voices to impose concentrated, coherent authority on voters and the culture, policing public thought. Despite unprecedented criminal behavior in finance and corporate culture, Citizens United allows accountability to be deflected away from reform and instead toward scapegoats, attacks on “big government and political opponents, crackdowns on low status people who can’t defend themselves, guilty or not, as in reality cop shows, headlined drug busts, foreclosures, a bloated and cruel prison system, and criminalized gender controversies.

The structure of corporate propaganda is evident in the transformation of news media in the age of the Internet and the new scale of mass-market manipulation. There are significant analogies to the social upheavals of the 1930s in the US, Europe, and Japan. Distributed corporate tyranny resembles the coalescence of fascism, which came to subsume the courts and the boardroom. As in today’s American struggle for empire, fascist propaganda inflamed aggression by emphasizing fears of terrorism, social decay, and resource scarcity. Corporations are now global agents, beyond national jurisdiction and accountability. The justices appear to have invested in the expansive neoliberal and neoconservative fantasy of executive empire and more aggressive policing of labor and democracy itself.

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Bill Bornschein is a Theology, Philosophy and Psychology teacher St. Xavier High in Louisville KY. He is interested in developing specific guidelines and exercises for presenting Becker to teenagers, and is a regular contributor at The Denial File.


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Dave Whitson teaches History at the Catlin Gabel School in Portland, Oregon. At different times, he has integrated Becker into courses including The Modern World, 9/11, and Life, Death, and Immortality. His current academic interest is the pursuit of transitional justice in post-conflict societies, in support of which he has taken students to Poland, South Africa, Chile, Argentina, and Canada.


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Sue Hoffman and John Kornichuk continue to team-teach a course on Terror Management Theory and Becker at Confederation College in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Inspired by the work of the Becker Foundation, they continue to provide Community College students access to Becker’s ideas. Sue is a Professor in the General Arts and Science program whose interests and background focus on Psychology, while John continues to Coordinate the General Arts and Science program as well as teach within it.

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Patrick Shen made his directorial debut in 2005 with Flight from Death: The Quest for Immortality which was hailed by critics as being "one of the most ambitious films ever made" and "moving and thought-provoking". Filmed in eight different countries and three years in the making, Flight from Death was awarded seven "Best Documentary" awards at film festivals all over the United States. In 2009, Patrick released The Philosopher Kingswhich premiered to sold-out audiences at the AFI-Discovery Channel SILVERDOCS Documentary Festival, opened theatrically in L.A. and N.Y. in May 2010 and premiered on The Documentary Channel in September 2010. Hailed as being a "terrific documentary about janitors" by the SF Chronicle, the award-winning film sheds light on the wisdom found among janitors employed at some of America’s top universities. His most recent film La Source, narrated by Oscar-nominated actor Don Cheadle, tells the story of a janitor from New Jersey and his efforts to bring clean water to his village in post-earthquake Haiti. La Source opened theatrically to sold-out audiences in LA and New York in August 2012. Patrick is currently developing a scripted feature film as well as a TV show based on The Philosopher Kings.

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Philip Hansten, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington in Seattle. He received his Doctor of Pharmacy from the University of California at San Francisco, and was a Research Associate in the Division of Clinical Pharmacology at Stanford University School of Medicine. His books on drug interactions have sold over one million copies since 1971 and have been translated into 6 languages. He has lectured widely in North American and abroad. He teaches a philosophy of science class at the University of Washington entitled “The Nature of Scientific Truth.” Hansten’s primary philosophical interests are the Roman Stoics (including Boethius), Nietzsche, Montaigne, Popper, Unamuno, and (more recently) Ernest Becker. His book Premature Factulation: The Ignorance of Certainty and the Ghost of Montaigne was published in 2009 (His synonym for Premature Factulation is Ignorant Certainty).

Premature Factulation and Climate Change Denial

One could probably assemble all the people in the world who truly understand the science of climate change—in all its nuances and complexities—in a medium-sized auditorium. Yet almost everyone outside that auditorium has formulated strong opinions on the subject, even though they are unencumbered by true scientific understanding. This is a classic case of “Premature Factulation.” Nonetheless, these are the very people who—as inhabitants of legislatures, corporations and other organizations—hold the fate of the earth in their hands. We cannot replace these decision-makers with climatologists, but non-climatologists can (and must) apply the principles of philosophy and history of science to their decisions on climate change. Hansten will explore these philosophical principles, and make recommendations as to how non-climatologists can apply rational thinking to this topic. Becker told us there were no guarantees that the human race would survive, and we have never needed Becker’s insights more than we do today.


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Jason Hawreliak is a doctoral candidate examining the cultural and psychological functions of new media. Drawing on the works of Ernest Becker and Kenneth Burke, his research focuses on rhetorics of heroism
and immortality in videogames, particularly within the First Person Shooter genre.

Becker and the Death Denying Function of Play


Although it is often associated with juvenility, play in fact serves a vital psychological function. Drawing on Becker’s concept of heroism, this paper will examine how play provides a safe and accessible
arena in which individuals can quantifiably demonstrate excellence, self-worth, and superiority over others.

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Lori Marino, PhD,
is a neuroscientist at Emory University and founder and Executive Director of The Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, a non-profit organization that applies science and scholarship to animal advocacy. She has authored close to 90 peer-reviewed papers, book chapters and magazine articles on intelligence and self-awareness in other animals and the ethics of human-nonhuman relationships.

Michael Mountain is Past President of Best Friends Animal Society. He now devotes his energies to the plight of animals of all kinds, from wildlife to farm animals to animals in entertainment and research. Michael also advocates for legal personhood for certain nonhuman animals, and maintains a website at www.earthintransition.org.

Terror Management Theory and the Relationship Between Humans and Other Animals

Marino and Mountain explore two mysteries: First, why is it that, with more support than ever, has the animal protection movement overall been such a failure? Second, how, as a species, can we get beyond our terror of death? We suggest that the two questions are related, and that each of them may, in fact, be the key to answering the other.

Terror Management Theory explains important aspects of our relationship with nonhuman animals. Throughout our history, our relationship with the other animals has been fraught with contradictions and abuses. Despite the fact that there are now more animal protection groups than ever, the situation continues to deteriorate: e.g. more factory farming, more vivisection, mass extinction of wildlife species, ocean life under severe stress.

TMT suggests that the core of this problem lies in our need to deny our creatureliness, and that the inability to improve our relationships with other animals is tied to the psychological need to proclaim, as humans, that “I am not an animal; I am a spiritual being.”

It follows, then, that animal rights and animal welfare efforts are unlikely to make significant advances until and unless they can take Becker’s ideas and TMT into account. Denial is as strong in the area of how we relate to other animals as it is in relation to climate change. Both of these areas go to the core of our relationship to the world of nature.

An abundance of peer-reviewed experimental literature shows that when we are reminded of our own mortality, we increase our psychological distance from those we consider “other” or part of an out-group, especially nonhuman animals and the world of nature. Most of the scientific world agrees that we are now well into a Sixth Great Extinction of Species. An understanding of TMT is critical to mitigation of the damage and adaptation to the new circumstances that we humans are bringing about.

As regards the second mystery (how, as a species, can we get beyond our terror of death?), we propose that a new kind of relationship to the world of nature – one that offers us a meaningful connection to the cycles of life and death – holds the key to the unanswered question of how we can begin to get beyond our terror of personal mortality.

Marino and Mountain will discuss both issues, and conclude that each of these questions helps to provide an answer to the other.

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Jeremy Sherman, Ph.D., M.P.P. is an evolutionary epistemologist teaching rhetoric and psychology at University of San Francisco. He has been a core collaborator for 16 years with UC Berkeley’s Terrence Deacon in research on what could be called origins of life, the ontology of epistemology, the physical origins of purposive systems, the minimal chemical conditions for evolvability or the differences between and emergence of information from energy, life from chemistry, telos from efficient cause, or mattering from matter. Sherman writes a Beckerian column for Psychology Today called "Ambigamy: Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical," and is self-appointed pope of a pseudo-religion he cheekily calls Taowinism (Tao; Darwin). He writes and sings doggerel, including the Beckerian hit “I’m sure gonna miss me when I’m gone” and the limerick:
Reincarnation is real.
Just how, will reduce its appeal.
It’s your seeds and your deeds,
Not your soul, it recedes
Hopping off after once round the wheel.

I'm sure gonna miss me when I'm gone:
www.mindreasderdictionary.com/Jersongs/Imsuregonnamissme.mp3
Downhill from here:
www.mindreadersdictionary.com/Jersongs/Downhillfromhere.mp3

Partialization: Synthesizing Rank, Becker, and New Origins of Life Research

Other organisms don’t foresee their own deaths the way humans do, but they work to avoid death nonetheless. Inanimate things don’t. Causality itself changes at the transition from chemistry to life. A new approach called Emergent Dynamics Theory suggests that what’s different about life at all levels from organelles to organizations, is something akin to Rank and Becker’s partialization, selves biting off what they can chew and no more, and in the process becoming rather partial to that which they have bitten off. We know living systems by the biased (partial) constrained (partializing) work they do to maintain partnership with that to which they are part and partial, and by the way that, deprived of such partnership they become unsustainable. This presentation takes us step by un-slippery scientific step from classic thermodynamics to the physical emergence of mattering from matter, suggesting a general theory of partialization that provides a new way of thinking about life’s range of immortality campaigns, from the primordial to those illuminated by Becker.


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Sheldon Solomon, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at Skidmore College, provides comprehensive, accessible, and amazingly humorous insights into Ernest Becker’s interdisciplinary synthesis, making him our most popular speaker. The trio of experimental social psychologists, Solomon, Greenberg and PyszczynskI, developed Terror Management Theory (TMT) in 1980, to explore how death motivates human behavior. They and their students are substantiating Becker's understanding of death-induced unconscious motivations, heretofore assumed to be untestable. Their 2003 book, In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror, uses TMT to analyze the roots of terrorism.

Friday -- Death at the Polling Booth in 2012: The Politics of Mortal Terror

Sheldon will describe how political preferences are altered when existential concerns are aroused, and explore how this may influence the upcoming 2012 presidential election. According to Ernest Becker, the uniquely human awareness of death engenders potentially debilitating terror that is managed through devotion to cultural worldviews that give individuals a sense that they are persons of value in a world of meaning. In accord with this view, research shows that reminders of death increases adherence to cherished cultural values and instigates efforts to bolster self-esteem. Sheldon will present research demonstrating that death reminders increase support for charismatic leaders who share one’s cherished beliefs and aggression against those who hold rival beliefs -- and show how subtle alternations in psychological conditions influenced political inclinations and voting preferences in the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections, and how manipulating existential concerns for political advantage may influence the outcome of the upcoming election.

Saturday AM keynote -- Back to the Future: Ernest Becker's Lost Science of Man

An overview of Ernest Becker's monumental interdisciplinary synthesis delineating the pervasive role of death-denial in human affairs, followed by a summary of how Becker's project to juxtapose reason, critical thinking, and faith in order to, as Becker put it in The Lost Science of Man, keep the "world somewhat in balance, to “save it from itself” and its own inherent forces of destruction" has been advanced by people working under the auspices of Ernest Becker Foundation, concluding with some musings about the future of the foundation and continuing Becker's legacy.

 

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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

more on Otto Rank here