samuel n gillian (1)

Ernest Becker's Fearist Choice (?)

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Introduction: Fear Studies and The Fearist's Dilemma

And, I have been struggling cheerfully (mostly) with trying to figure out this Beckerian (fear) problem ..since late 1989.

And, just when I think I have it figured out, and can make up my mind, I get thrown off-track by the data, the evidence, the arguments of someone else. I feel a bit of 'nausea' or is it intellectual 'vertigo' (?); re-evaluation and critical self-reflection are non-stop.  

This has been with my latest serious encounter and re-reading of the work of the late Samuel Nathan Gillian Jr. And, I'm still trying to make up my mind. I also have always had problems with the binary of the two camps/schools (see diagram above)--yet, I also see their value in describing a real dynamic of thought, of ideas, of philosophies and ultimately of choices that each human makes (be they conscious or not in doing so).

You may know, the fearists [1] that have been collecting around the work of Desh Subba [2] have more or less been ambivalent, non-concise or decided on this problem--albeit, they have done so without consulting the work of Ernest Becker--as far as I can tell. There is much more discussion to be had there. It is essential to the general advancement of a truly postmodern and post-postmodern Fear Studies that I have proposed in many of my publications since 2006 at least [3]. 

Which Way To Go: Positive(?) vs. Negative(?)

Studying (see last two FM blogs) the work on fear by Sam Gillian Jr. (1939-2016), I have noted that he is a self-confessed Beckerian [4], albeit, very unique in his thinking and philosophy (I am writing an intellectual biography on his life and work). You'll note in the last FM blog I placed Gillian and Ernest Becker in the "Fear-Positivist" camp of thinkers (both happen to be existentialists) because they are out to re-cast and transform the overly-negative valuation and mis-understanding that "fear" (and anxiety and death) have received for hundreds of years, particularly in the Western world and modernity. They are not (therefore) "Fear-Negativists." The latter, would reject the claim that Subba (for e.g.) makes that: "life is conducted, directed and controlled by fear." That is too negative and not how they want to think about reality, the human being or Creation itself--thus, they adopt and/or develop a lighter-positive attitude, and set of beliefs (ideologies) and philosophies or theologies. The choice of direction (camp) taken, deeply impacts how we design our organizations, our cultures, and how we institute socialization, education and live our lives. No small consequences. 

Earliest of the Historical Fearists [5]: The work of Ernest Becker in the 1960-70s especially ought to be regarded as the first (proto-) fearist philosopher we have to draw upon in the West--although, he was writing with a modernist's universalist perspective in his claims. Desh Subba and I came along two-three decades later to build our own fearist philosophizing, of which a few others (in the East) have followed in our tracks. Gillian, uniquely followed Becker's fearism. He did not know of Subba's or my work. Albeit, I did contact Gillian and we exchanged email correspondence for nearly a year (which, will be published in my new book on him and his work). From what I can tell of his 2005 book, my thought had no influence on him and his writing and teaching. We clashed on some basic issues, although we agreed on others.

After teaching in The Fearology Institute's new 2018 programming several students who wanted to study fear(ism) and fearlessness, and fearology, it became very clear that I was disenchanted with their thinking and imaginaries regarding fear (and 'fear'). I sensed often, we were in a discourse battle (not a bad thing)--and, at one point I wrote a long intense paper and sent it to them to study. It was a critical paper (albeit, nascent one) of the entire problem of dividing the conversation into issues of "good fear" and "bad fear" (i.e., fear-positive vs. fear-negative). At times, I too was puzzled what was going on and I questioned the "fearists" and myself. I won't go into that longer analysis, and I haven't read my own paper from that time in years either. So, I will drop that discusson. I have some new thoughts shaping to share. 

Perhaps, to confuse things a little, for the purpose of finding more clarity; my fearanalysis of Becker's and Gillian's work of late is telling me, because of their agenda, that it is best to classify them both as human "Negativists" overall in terms of the (darker-side; shadow-side) context and perspective in how they conceive of reality and human nature--that is, they do not believe as the human "Positivists" do that humans are more lighter-side dominant (i.e., benign, love-based). The Negativists and Positivists clash on human nature and they clash on their orientation of the importance of "fear" in relations to human existence and behavior and human potential. 

Becker and the Fear Problem: "Terror" at the Base of Human Nature (Existence)

When I read in Becker's Pulitzer prize winning book The Denial of Death (1973), published at the end of his life (died early due to cancer), that he layed out the argumentation of both the human Positivists and Negativists (these are my terms, he used respectively, "Healthy-Minded" argument vs. "Morbidly-Minded" argument--for naming the two camps of thought)--and, Becker concluded after examining the evidence carefully that:

"I frankly side with this second school--in fact, this whole book is a network of arguments based on the universality of the

fear of death, or "terror" [for short], as I prefer to call it, in order to convey how all consuming it is when we look it full in the face." (p. 15) [6]

I am struck with the poignancy of his declaration of the two camps, and that he labeled them (albeit, with the cautionary of " marks)--whereby, the Postive is Healthy and the Negative is Morbid (or unhealthy). It seems he is being somewhat facetious or critical at the same time, and thus reverses the positive valuation in fact (for his liking) because of his choice to approve of and work with the Negative or Morbid (so-called) kind of thinking about reality and human nature. That meant, he accepted a reality of existence for the human being and henceforth, was an inveterate Fear-Positivist. I have problems with that commitment, although I see its validity to a point, and Gillian pushes the fear-analysis even farther and more importantly I think than Becker does. Gillian is a real hard-core fearist (even though, he did not use that label). 

I wonder where he would have gone with this Fear-Positivist and human Negativist philosophy and theorizing if he had lived a few more decades as a great thinker and synthesizer across disciplines of knowledge (see his Wikipedia:Ernest Becker); for some who knew Becker well and studied his work, they have told me that Becker likely would have got "darker" in his interpretations and understanding of the reality of Homo sapiens sapiens, that is, human nature and human destiny (along with planet earth) [7]. That aside, what we do see in Becker's (1973) book, so influential in many quarters of international discussion (at least, in its hey day)--that, if one starts with the argument that the human being is an animal, and recall that had great influence since Darwin (mid-19th century)--that, in the end, most empirical evidence points to the reality of what basically comes down to Homo sapiens can best be characterized and rather uniquely (in Becker's words): 

The result was the emergence of man [sic] as we know him: a hyperanxious 

animal who constantly invents reasons for anxiety even when there are none. [8]

So Vulnerably Human

Humans (a la Beckerian Negativists) = living terrified, hyperanxious, constantly 'out of touch' with their actual level of threats in their environment (and/or inside themselves). It does not sound like a very pretty happy picture of our species and lives. Those qualties make for a troublesome mix altogether; although, recall that being terrified and anxious (i.e., "fear-based" in terms of the two choices in the diagram above that is one way of interpreting Becker's (fear) problem)--is not the problem, for the Fear-Positivists are totally okay with accepting that is just fine, it is even positive to be terrified and anxious all the time--because reality is just that! Now, you can see the twist is in the fine details of that claim and one would have to critically ask, but what about "hyper" and the being out-of-touch part--how can these be healthy and just fine--even ontologically justifiable? [I won't go into that argumentation here] [also note: my definition of "fear-based" is way more complicated and intentionally troublesome than is the way it is used above and is implicitly understood in the Beckerian (fear) problem]

One the other hand, the human Positivists rally against it all (as they also do generally against anything Darwinian-informed). For myself, my first 1/3 of life as a thinker was absorbed completely in biology, ecology, evolutionary, ethological and environmentalist critique. How could I not be in agreement with the second solution to the Beckerian (fear) problem? 

That aside, we now have a whole lot of people, of all stripes really, that want us to be animal, and those that don't. Sure, some will try to 'mix and match' and 'blend' the animal-human (even Becker, and Gillian do somewhat)--but, then you have to scrape down--sit in the primal depths of reality/truth and look-at (not avoid) the layers of the real problem with the problem of being a terrified hyperanxious out-of-touch with reality kind of critter. From the latter characteristic in the list, the Repression Problem then comes forth [9], which I will not elaborate in this short blog. Anyways, the (primal) Negativists, often push down to where they relentlessly end up with their strongest pragmatist truth: humans are afraid to die and "fear of death" is thus the new primal motivational base reference point for where to begin a philosophy of human nature and all that follows from that. We are animal, they say, but we are a unique (vulnerable) animal--e.g., premature young incredibly helpless for a long period of their early development, big brains sensitive to knowing we are dying sooner or later, etc.   

[to be continued... perhaps...]

Endnotes

1. "Fearist" refers to anyone who systematically makes "fear" central to their investigations of human behavior and reality itself. There are more complex nuanced definitions and meanings that can be found too, but the basic meaning (above) is taken from Subba (2014) and the original articulation "The fearist perspective is a new dimension to look at life and the world" (p. 11). Subba, D. (2014). Philosophy of fearism: Life is conducted, directed and controlled by the fear. Australia: Xlibris. 

2. E.g., Subba coined his "fearism" notion in 1999 as part of his literary (novel and poetic) productions and literary criticism interests, which merged with his growing initiative to become a philosopher. He wrote the standard text for his new philosophy (see Subba (2014). 

3. Note, I did cite Becker's famous book The Denial of Death as one vector of inquiry, essential in developing the sub-field of Fear Studies; see, Fisher, R. M. (2006). Invoking 'Fear' Studies. Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 22(4), 39-71.

4. True in general, there's many other influences I am finding in Gillian's thought; also Daniel Liechty, in a book review of Gillian (2002), noted Gillian was also "very 'Rankian'" (Liechty, 2004). Referring to the psychoanalyst-theorist Otto Rank. This book review was published originally "Book Review of The Beauty of Fear in Ernest Becker Foundation Newsletter, December; and reprinted by Gillian in the front matter of his next book in 2005. See the two books by Gillian: Gillian, S. N. (2002). The beauty of fear: How to be positively afraid. Phemore Press; and Gillian, S. N. (2005). Terrified by education: Teaching children to fear learning. Phemore Press. 

5. If pushed, and she's much lesser known than Becker, I would argue that the American adult educator-poet, activist, Bonaro W. Overstreet (1950's) is the first fearist--but, I'll leave that case for another place and time to argue. 

6. Becker, E. (1973/97). The denial of death. NY: Free Press Paperbacks/Simon & Schuster.

7. E.g., correspondence in 2020 with Dr. Daniel Liechty and Dr. Jack Martin. 

8. Becker (1973), p. 17.

9. The repression complexity (theorizing) in the Beckerian model has a long tradition in depth psychology and critical philosophy but easily it goes back to Arthur Schopenhaur, through Fredriech Nietzsche to Freud, and to Becker...etc. Tying reality-fear-repression together as one dynamic is key to understand--if one wants to understand the Beckerian Negativist perspective. I have only recently been thinking of repression-fear-fearlessness dynamics but it is too soon to share more. I guess, I see myself as post-Beckerian (meaning, I adopt the best of his work and transcend and create beyond it's limitations--that is, of existentialism itself). 

 

 

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