Tuesday, February 24, 2009


According to a theory advanced by Dr. Ernest Becker in his book The Denial of Death, all human endeavors are part of an innate, symbolic survival mechanism. Our ongoing evolution has intrinsically individuated each of us to the point of incredible awareness of self and the self’s relationship to a mysterious universe, and we look for ways to transcend the terror of our mortality in the form of immortality projects; making ourselves part of something that is larger than ourselves and which will perpetuate long past our own deaths. In short, since for the majority of humans in Western society our instinct for basic survival necessities has been more or less satisfied, symbolic needs have been elevated to give us some additional insurance against the possibility of dying, and to give us some existential relief; some way of transcending the smallness of our own lives cast upon the temporal scale of the whole human story.

We devise social devices such as fame, celebrity, cultural roles, social status, wealth, and art, in order to have a metric of our significance, and a way of settling the questions of why we’re here and why it is that we must die. Social recognition is a form of capital that many in our society try to accumulate throughout their lives, and as Becker says,

“Man…must desperately justify himself as an object of primary value in the universe; he must stand out, be a hero, make the biggest possible contribution to world life, show that he counts more than anything or anyone else.”

He goes on to say that this heroism, or drive for the accumulation of maximum social capital, is in fact propelled by a fear of dying like an insignificant animal, to be forgotten and turned into fertilizer after expiring. Of course, capital is not primarily social in nature, and many humans consider the accumulation of material wealth to be the holy grail of immortality projects. If one has enough money, one can comfortably escape the cruder and more basic anxiety of meeting physical survival needs, can be considered ‘successful’ and thus heroic by one’s peers, and if one still has capital left over at the end of life, this capital can be given away to causes or to offspring, thus extending the individual’s influence past the grave in some way.

Design Implications of Becker’s theory

Art and Artist

Otto Rank, in his book Art and Artist, posits that artists have a special type of survival drive manifest in their talent to first perceive their world in a unique way that sets them apart from others, and second to present that perception in a unique creative work. But the power of the art piece is in its reception by a preferably large number of people; in a reaction, hopefully positive, by admirers which might help the artist’s work to be woven into the cultural story of his or her society, thus preserving a place in social immortality for the creator of the work.

Suburban Development & the Automobile

People want insulation from death, a baffle, a way of blocking the knowledge of one’s own mortality. They want symbols, not reality, and they want those symbols like pack-rats want a new acquisition. They hoard them, materially and psychically, for years, desperately, in the greatest quantities possible. The common hero rises in the world in material wealth or social capital. The suburban dwelling is scaled to the hoard’s conglomerate size. Isn’t suburbia a purely rational expression of human comfort, which some cynical types might call ‘numbness’? What is more accurate to say, is that suburban living provides satisfactory solutions to many anxieties that people can develop regarding survival. Physical tokens of security of person aside, symbolically suburbia represents status. Having a house that’s just a little nicer than the neighbour’s, with fancy shiny automobiles on the driveway, and other material displays of wealth, are in fact a rational accumulation of symbols that the individual can cling to in order to have a feeling of comfort, or a barrier against the inevitable surrender to the universe which is the process of aging and dying. New homes and new cars, the newest technological gadgets, new clothes, this process of constantly consuming new consumer goods (which suburban sprawl seems to represent) is in fact a defense that a lot of people have against the loss of their youth, and ultimately their vitality.

Driving along in my car the other day, I had a moment of clarity with respect to how it feels to be in a car, using its motion and accessories to elevate my status relative to the universe or to nature on a local scale. Driving a car is to be physically separated from the world, and all of the mysterious threats to the body that could act upon me with ruthless indifference to my well being. In our little capsules, we have at our fingertips the power to control our own little microclimates – to protect ourselves from the elements of weather and natural atmosphere. Especially in a town like Winnipeg, where both the extreme summer heat and winter cold can kill, the control over temperature and the protection from winds, rain, hail and snow has a powerful effect on our senses of personal security. We can lock ourselves away from other potentially dangerous humans if we’re driving through an area that is perceived to be saturated with criminal or violent activities and intent. We can race along to any destination we choose at terrible speeds, comfortable in knowing that even if we crash we have a pretty good chance of survival, and thus we feel somewhat more powerful against the rules of chance and nature. The car becomes an armor coat that we wear to enhance our relatively frail bodies. It is no wonder then, that humans love cars so much. Cars give us strength that we could never have and provide a shelter and microcosm in the world where we have much greater control and power.

Political Positions
The world of politics is very similar to the organization of other mammals into herds, packs, flocks, or gaggles. The root of this behaviour is the drive towards auto-organization - high level identification with others. Why? Political positions are purely strategic decisions of human pack animals. The premise is safety in numbers, usually, but also careful calculation of advantages and disadvantages one has compared to some large societal group, and collecting together in alliances with others of comparable positions, to protect each other from the rest - Symbolically in the beginning, but with an ultimate motive of physical protection. Unfortunately, it still doesn’t save them. In fact, usually a group will begin to become hypnotized by a leader who has clearer ideas, exercises more personal power, and thus can bear the anxious guilt that the less powerful have about their own vulnerabilities. In short, groups gradually auto-organize into a parent-children relationship whereupon strong leaders give the followers a strong sense of safety behind the ideas and actions of the leader(s). This is where danger lies, ironically, as the leaders are usually men who have immortality projects of their own which involve the exploitation of their personal power and the power of the group in order to carry out their designs and work in the world. Destructive and authoritarian governments rise in the process, eventually threatening the lives of those that they rule.


The largest failure in sending the environmental catastrophe message has been in not building an overwhelmingly convincing argument that there is personal and immediate danger to the life of the individual. Warning about the ‘health of the environment’ has the same impact that driving past an accident, or watching a crime show on television does, in that the salient thought is always ‘it could never happen to me’, or as Becker says of soldiers on the battleground watching his fellows die:

“One of the main reasons that it is so easy to march men off to war is that each of them feels sorry for the man next to him who will die."

It is my view that environmentalism’s successes are wherein attempts at instilling fear of death have been emotionally accurate.

The word utopia, in my opinion, is pregnant with the promise of completely peaceful, eternal existence, where every human need is met.
But utopist visions, by Becker’s implication, are stillborn. Just as materialism, automobiles, and social rank are examples of immortality devices; the ideal utopist existence would exclude the possibility of death. Planners seek a built form that would provide maximum physical and symbolic protection from the ultimate fate of all biological entities. To make things more complicated, these days planners are looking for ways to protect not only humans, but also every species.
But as Becker says,

“Creation is a nightmare spectacular taking place on a planet that has been soaked for hundreds of millions of years in the blood of all its creatures. The soberest conclusion that we could make about what has actually been taking place on the planet for about three billion years is that it is being turned into a vast pit of fertilizer.”

Who are we, as mere humans and having always succumbed to our ultimate fate, to believe that we have any control whatsoever over it?

But, tragically, the drive for immortality is too strong for reason, as it is as instinctual and animalistic as any other creature’s survival mechanism. Political parties, as alluded to previously, are prone to hypnosis by a strong leader, whose motives are immortality and social heroism, and will stop at nothing to fulfill his/her perceived role. In a book called Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, James C. Scott says:

“…certain kinds of states, driven by utopian plans and an authoritarian disregard for the values, desires, and objections of their subjects, are indeed a mortal thread to human well-being”

Thus, the political party who can gain control of a society, and is cursed with a blindly driven leader, can violently trample over the immortality projects of any opposing parties or peoples, in order to complete its immortality projects and perform its works upon society. This in turn usually makes people feel less secure in life, and more exposed to the threat of death.

Design Directions
It is critical for designers and urban planners to appreciate that in Becker’s view humans are simply animals with a self-consciousness that while separating us from the earth’s myriad species, is simply another animalistic survival instinct mechanism. All endeavors undertaken by us are desperate, clawing attempts at avoiding death, and at deeper subconscious levels, even the entire concept of dying. Aside from eating, sleeping, procreating, and finding shelter, our goals are symbolic, and our actions virtually unconscious. We have largely learned the lessons of violent movements towards utopist visions, and cannot go back to that kind of intervention. So if suburbia and car-centric urban forms are the problem, how do we get an effective solution? We will never be able to design a way out of our car-oriented cities, or our perfect cookie cutter suburbs, until we can design a form which competes with and exceeds the death-avoidance symbols which are so popular with such large groups of people. We will not have superior public transportation until that form is perceived to be more conducive to a greater degree of death avoidance than cars, by the greatest number of people. We will not have better planned and more community-oriented places than suburbs until the forms that can replace them give the greatest number of people a higher degree of perceived immortality and symbolic capital (social and material). Politically, and perceptually, suburbia is in the hands of the majority, who will need a very convincing reason to change. Aside from that, as the great Winnipeg poet John K. Sampson says,

“There’s no structured narrative, no neat storyline to explain”.

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