Putting One’s “Transvaluation” House In Order

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Over the weekend I enjoyed reading Mary Eberstadt’s 2012 book entitled Adam and Eve after the Pill—Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution. In many ways Adam and Eve after the Pill expands on themes Eberstadt delivers in her 2004 book entitled Home-alone America—The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs, and Other Parent Substitutes (a book I have mentioned many times before in my blog posts). In Home-alone America, Eberstadt points out the following paradox: If parents, educators, politicians, and practitioners (i.e., pediatricians, child psychologists, mental health therapists, etc.) are so concerned with the welfare of children, then why are they actively pushing parent substitutes such as behavioral drugs (i.e., Ritalin, Adderall, Prozac, Zoloft, Xanax, etc.), day care, and consumer products (i.e., Einstein DVDs, baby gym memberships, etc.)? In Adam and Eve after the Pill, Eberstadt continues looking at the paradoxes often displayed by Western society by asking, “What’s the source of these paradoxes and what possible purpose do these paradoxes serve?”

To cut to the chase, here’s how I would frame the polemic that Eberstadt delivers in Adam and Eve after the Pill:

History will ultimately view the introduction of the birth control pill in 1960 as representing one of the greatest wedges of all time, the purpose of which is to separate nature from nurture.

Simply, Eberstadt argues that when you separate or liberate nature from nurture, paradoxes are sure to arrive on the societal scene. We’ll look at a few of these paradoxes in the rest of this blog post.

Using the work of philosopher and social critic Friedrich Nietzsche as a background, Eberstadt suggests that when paradoxes arise as the result of nature being separated from nurture, these paradoxes often take the form of what Nietzche called the “trans-valuation of values.” Transvaluation describes the process whereby a system of societal norms is moved from one area of society to another often in response to some seismic societal shift (like the introduction of the birth control pill in the early 1960s). Eberstadt spends the lion’s share of her book looking at two particular transvaluations. Before looking at these two transvaluations, allow me to interject a bit of psychoanalytic thought into the mix.

Freud introduced us to the idea of psychological displacement: putting thoughts and feelings into a foreign context or onto a foreign object so as to protect an unconscious but yet familiar context or object. As a simple example, a boss may unconsciously hate his or her mother or father and, as a result, displace that hatred onto underlings who constantly disappoint. In family systems theory, a family may choose a young family member to be the identified patient, that is to say, to embody and give form to problems that are otherwise shared by the family system as a whole. The part (the identified patient) comes to represent the whole (the family system) in what can only be called a process of objectification.

If the above sounds a bit like scapegoating, you would be correct. Scapegoating shares much in common with displacement and objectification. As a matter of fact, John Bowlby in his first book entitled Personal Aggressiveness and War (which Bowlby co-authored with economist and political activist Evan Durbin in 1939) talks about how there is a continuum that connects displacement and scapegoating at the personal level with these same processes contained within war at the societal level. I take this detour to point out that transvaluation shares much in common with displacement, scapegoating, and objectification, and exists on a continuum that connects the personal with the societal.

I found Eberstadt’s observations to be most trenchant because recently I uncovered a transvaluation that carries with it high levels of displacement, scapegoating, and objectification. I wrote about this transvaluation in my March 13, 2012, blog post entitled Is There An Objectification Double Standard? This transvaluation concerns the “other control pill,” namely, the “behavior control pill” (a topic Eberstadt does look at in Home-alone America). A few days ago I emailed a colleague concerning this post. Here’s part of what I had to say (edited for clarity and brevity with my new comments in brackets):

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In my March, 2012, post I argue that we condemn athletes for using performance enhancing drugs while at the same time effectively force feeding our kids “study enhancing drugs” like Ritalin and Adderall. In essence, we ask our athletes to play clean while we ask our kids to study dirty. I further argue that the public outrage over examples like Lance Armstrong covers over the unconscious knowing that we are asking our kids to do the very thing we condemn in athletes: take performance enhancing drugs. So, when children beseech their parents to let them take Ritalin to stay competitive in the classroom “because all the other kids take such drugs,” this is in essence the “Lance Armstrong defense.”

So, when we advocate for connecting children to nature or natural environments, we are in effect advocating for a “clean” or natural way of life. A connection to nature is about a connection to a natural way of life: clean living, clean studying, and clean playing. But this clean approach to life has to be (to use a term that [cognitive scientist] George Lakoff often uses) “through-going.” In my March, 2012, blog post, I point out the contradiction and conflict that a student athlete must face being told to play clean but study dirty. So, it seems disingenuous to ask kids and families to play clean in natural environments while placing little focus on those environments wherein adults are asking kids to study dirty, namely, in our schools. A clean worldview should be through-going: playing clean, studying clean, and living clean. In the same way there are many clean (e.g., drug free) bodybuilding competitions, there is a need for clean schools, clean communities, and clean play environments. Otherwise so-called “clean experiences” (families going out in nature, teachers and therapists taking kids outdoors, etc.) amount to respites from what has been otherwise normalized: a dirty worldview that sees fit to force feed kids behavioral [control] drugs (kids as young as three).

I think one reason Nicholas Carr [author of The Shallows—What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains] tells his audiences that Silicon Valley types send their kids to Montessori schools is because they wish for a clean, through-going worldview. Just a guess here. I’m pulling this from my read of the book “Nerds” by David Anderegg. Anderegg argues that Nerds (e.g., high functioning autistics) are the new normal and should not be medicated to be controlled. Medication prevents digital creativity from emerging.

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Before moving away from Anderegg’s work, I’d like to mention that Anderegg argues that nerds are being bullied and scapegoated because unconsciously society sees old analog values (and the privilege that goes with them) being transferred to nerds and the digital worlds they represent. As Anderegg makes clear, nerds will be (nay, are) the main economic drivers, as figures such as Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, the late Steve Jobs, and Yahoo’s Jerry Yang attest. And all of this agrees with work by Elaine Graham.

In her 2002 book Representations of the Post/Human—Monsters, Aliens and Others in Popular Culture, Graham argues that when we encounter transvaluation, we also tend to encounter monsters, or aliens, or the other. Witness the current fascination with vampires and zombies. Graham points out that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was a cautionary tale centered on an epic form of separating nature from nurture, namely, the move from pastoral village life (represented by the villagers) to mechanical urban life (represented by the lab that Dr. Frankenstein sets up in his castle). In the same way village values were transferred to lab values starting in the time of Mary Shelley (the early 1800s), today, analog, back worker values are being transferred to brainworkers of all stripes. (For more on this theme, see Richard Florida’s 2002 book entitled The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life.) Back to Eberstadt.

So, here are the transvaluations that Eberstadt points to and discusses in detail in Adam and Eve after the Pill:

1) Food is the new sex

2) Pornography is the new tobacco

When Eberstadt suggests that we are moving into an era where food is the new sex, she also suggests that we are engaging in “mindful eating” while at the same time engaging in “mindless sex.” In other words, the moral systems that used to surround and control sexual appetites have been transferred over to food, which in turn separates sexual activity from any moral code at all. Eberstadt queries, “Do today’s influential dietary ways of life [i.e., myriad diet fads, celebrity chefs, and reality shows focused on food] in effect replace [the moral codes of] religion?” Eberstdat continues, “[T]he more vehement people are about their food choices, the more hands-off they believe the rest of the world should be about sex.” Eberstadt gives us this bottom line:

Unable or unwilling (or both) to impose rules on sex in the wake of the revolution [ushered in by the pill’s ability to separate nature from nurture], yet equally unwilling to dispose altogether with the moral code that has traditionally afforded large protections, modern man has apparently performed his own act of transubstantiation. He has taken long-standing morality about sex, and substituted it [e.g., displaced it] onto food. The all-you-can-eat buffet is now stigmatized; the sexual smorgasbord is not.

I could say the same about the current practice of using behavior control drugs as parent substitutes. To paraphrase Eberstadt,

Unable or unwilling (or both) to impose rules on parenting in the wake of the revolution [ushered in by the behavior control pill’s ability to separate nature from nurture], yet equally unwilling to dispose altogether with the moral code that has traditionally afforded large protections, modern man has apparently performed his own act of transubstantiation. He has taken long-standing morality about parenting, and substituted it [e.g., displaced it] onto public figures like athletes, celebrities, and politicians. The bad behavior of athletes, celebrities, and politicians is now stigmatized; the behavior control drug smorgasbord is not.

Before ending, allow me to mention Eberstadt’s observation that pornography is the new tobacco? Eberstadt observes that back in the 1950s cigarette smoking was widespread in Western society. Tobacco companies went so far as to tell us that tobacco use was good for our health. Well, we know different today. After a 20 year antismoking campaign, smoking is on the wane. Eberstadt suggests that today we “smoke” or consume pornography with the same abandon that characterized the smoking habits of the 1950s. Our Foundation supported a video written and produced by American Studies professor Jane Caputi entitled The Pornography of Everyday Life. Dr. Caputi’s video points out that we can find pornography in such areas as advertising (much of which is targeted at children), in popular TV programs, popular movies, mainstream magazines (especially teen magazines, which are targeted at 8 to 12 year olds), and the list goes on. (Dr. Caputi’s video predated the meteoritic rise of Internet pornography otherwise Internet pornography would certainly be on the list.) Eberstadt hopes that there will be a time in the not-so-distant future when society views and treats pornography the way tobacco is being viewed and treated today. Eberstadt hopes that there will be an all-out anti-pornograhy campaign that rivals the anti-tobacco campaign that surrounds us today.

So, what’s the “take-away” for parents, educators, therapists, and other influential adults? Simply, pay attention to shifting moral systems. If a moral system is growing in one place, chances are that another moral system is slipping away through some form of transvaluation. Taking our cue from Elaine Graham, look for monsters, aliens, or others. How do we find them? Look for monstrous, alien, or otherwise otherworldly behavior: school shootings, bullying, indiscriminate hooking up or sexual behavior, a fascination with zombies, a fascination with superheroes, a fascination with celebrities and becoming famous, and, in general, mindlessness in all of its many forms (i.e., mindless consumption of sex, food, pornography, products, drugs, alcohol, etc.).

As a final note, it’s interesting that not a week goes by that I don’t receive a brochure on some form of mindfulness therapy, but only a rare brochure here and there on mindless sex, mindless eating, mindless consumption of pornography, etc. It would seem that the current mindfulness craze has become a new moral terrain. But what amoral terrain is being left behind? When philanthropists fund in areas that appear to be mindful and moral, are they also unconsciously funding in areas that are mindless and amoral? When adults mindlessly consume food, sex, products, behavior control drugs, and web pages, how mindful can they truly be when it comes to their children, other people, their communities? I guess the bottom line here is to be mindful of those places where you’re not being mindful. In this way you should be better prepared to keep your transvaluation house in order.

OK, one final thought, I promise. As I was putting on the final touches, the following thought occurred to me: If the birth control pill isolates the sexual behavioral system (as Eberstadt suggests), and the behavior control pill isolates the caregiving behavioral system (as I argue), then, by process of elimination, the attachment behavioral system becomes isolated. In earlier posts (i.e., see my posts from January, 2011) I have argued that the Grand Bowlbian Attachment Environment (GBAE) holds the behavioral or motivational systems of caregiving, attachment, and sex. (Eberstadt refers to these systems as “appetites.”) Bowlby’s ethological studies (e.g., the study of animal behavior) revealed to him that one of the greatest challenges facing the animal world was how to go about balancing and harmonizing the motivations arising from different motivational (or behavioral) systems that often have conflicting goals. Bowlby theorized that balancing and harmonizing the motivations arising from different behavioral systems was a pressing challenge that also confronted humans. Sadly, isolating behavioral systems is not an effective way of balancing and harmonizing an overall grand behavioral system. I would suggest that isolating behavioral systems is part and parcel of objectification. The more an organism is objectified, the more it is made to act and behave like a machine. The overall goal of any process designed to isolate behavioral systems is to transfer biological values over to mechanical values. This form of transvalution typically goes by the name posthumanism. For more on posthumanism I would recommend Graham’s book mentioned above, or either of the following books:

  • How We Became Posthuman—Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics by Katherine Hayles
  • Our Posthuman Future—Consequences of the Technological Revolution by Francis Fukuyama