Monday September 2, 2019

What happens when, as an experiment, we treat moments of our lives as “encounters”? What were people doing when they joined T-groups, encounter groups, and consciousness-raising groups in the 60s and 70s at places like Esalen? How were these groups organized? Did facilitators exercise claims to authority in these groups? Were they like teachers? Workshop leaders? Pastors? Counselors? Therapists? Gurus? A bit of all of the above, I suppose. Groups fulfill needs of an emotional, psychological, and spiritual sort among people who have come free of traditional affiliations: disaffected subjects seeking re-enchantment, players in search of new games. Such people arrive at these groups and games as they wander markets, festivals, circuits, and arcades. The encounter groups of the 60s and 70s were sites where “role-playing” got its start. Games like Dungeons & Dragons emerged in roughly the same moment and milieu. What’s interesting about encounter groups is that participants trust their feelings to “a bunch of strangers,” rather than to uniformed technocrats, “experts,” priests, and elites. The encounter group is also interesting in that it births group consciousness through use of cybernetic feedback mechanisms. Group members are observed by facilitators. The facilitator reports these observations back to the group. The latter then react to the reports and the cycle begins anew, in much the same way “rounds” occur in D&D. Thomas R. Verney describes two favorite techniques of role-play used by Gestalt therapist Fritz Perls during the latter’s time at Esalen in the 60s and 70s: the “two chair” technique and another called “play the projection.” Could techniques of that sort have a place, I wonder, in one of my courses? Verny’s book Inside Groups: A Practical Guide to Encounter Groups & Group Therapy answers many of my questions. The least authoritarian of the leaders he describes are those he calls “T-group trainers.” The T-group trainer, he writes, “is usually described as a facilitator and a catalyst” (28). Leadership of this sort involves paraphrasing what is said by the group, acting as a mirroring instrument so that members can know themselves and the group can self-actualize. Encounter group leaders are a bit more unpredictable, their methods and techniques less subject to professionalization and external supervision. As for the techniques themselves, Verny writes, these are primarily “verbal and nonverbal confrontation, psychodrama, Gestalt, and sensory awareness,” as well as “fantasy, meditation, and transactional analysis” (34-35).

Sunday August 25, 2019

How might the insights of West Coast humanistic psychologists of the 60s and 70s inform our work today as educators? How do we grow together? How do we help each other self-actualize? By that term, the humanists of the 60s and 70s meant a variety of things: realizing hopes and aspirations, exercising full potential, living joyfully, gratefully, lovingly, practicing therapy, repairing the traumas we carry with us as personal and collective bodies, finding happiness, living well. Those who report having achieved peak-experiences, those who seem to have begun to self-actualize, don’t shrivel up into themselves, claimed theorists like Maslow. Rather, they become better adjusted, less begrudging comrades. They join together with companions, forming co-evolving communities committed to giving and receiving care. Look at the support networks that form among mothers. Friends and acquaintances near and far have come to our aid of late, passing along boxloads of hand-me-downs: maternity wear, baby gear, short-sleeve onesies, long-sleeve onesies, pajamas, burp cloths, the works. We feel like characters from the Equals song, “Michael and the Slipper Tree,” or Olu Dara’s “Okra.”

Let us hold this experience near to us as we return to our classrooms. Carl Rogers suggested one model for applying the principles of humanistic psychology to education in his 1969 essay “Freedom to Learn.” And some of these principles informed experiments with encounter groups and sensitivity training sessions at places like Kresge College at the University of California, Santa Cruz. I sit on the top step of my front stoop after dark, diffusing momentarily into imaginative union with the sounds of the night, a lush chorus of locusts and crickets. Afterwards I feel recharged, replenished, senses open, receptive. I thumb through Ali Smith’s introduction to Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet astounded. Hardt and Negri’s Assembly takes shape soon thereafter, pages propped open, their words released into consciousness with another sturdy thumbs up.

Monday August 12, 2019

Maslow’s ideas influenced the utopian consciousness revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s in a variety of ways beyond the ones I’ve already mentioned. Betty Friedan wrote at length about Maslow in a chapter of her book The Feminine Mystique, embracing his humanistic approach as an alternative to the pessimism of the Freudian paradigm. Yet Maslow’s views regarding women certainly weren’t what we would now recognize as progressive. A woman could only self-actualize and “realize her own potential,” he claimed, “through her husband and children.” His views were shaped by largely unexamined heteronormative, gender-binary assumptions. He remained in all things a centrist, an opponent of the New Left despite an attraction to democratic socialism in his youth. By the time of his greatest influence in the 1960s, he was essentially a New Deal Democrat, fearful of communists, and committed to US victory in the Cold War — a war that was fought in part on college campuses, including those where Maslow worked. Integration, globalization — these were posited and advanced by Maslow and others as solutions to nuclear war. The humanities and the sciences need to synergize, the centrists argued, if we’re to avoid destruction. Let us love each other and teach each other to dance. Yet here we are today, globalized and integrated by digital capitalism, rich waging war on the poor, planet on the verge of catastrophe, fascism waiting in the wings. Might there be other ways for us to put our heads together, both on campus and off, consciousness used to heal rather than curse?

Sunday August 11, 2019

Utopianism acquired a “eupsychian” cast up and down the West Coast of 1950s and 1960s California. Pursuit of the good society became bound up with alchemical transformation, design of new anthropotechnics, and experiments with human potential. Abraham Maslow created a mailing list to connect organizations and individuals participating in these experiments, thus forming what he called the “Eupsychian Network.” The members of this network, he said, shared a “humanistic and transhumanistic outlook on life” (Toward a Psychology of Being, p. 237), by which he meant an orientation that sought to help “the individual grow toward fuller humanness, the society grow toward synergy and health, and all societies and all peoples move toward becoming one world and one species” (237). Already in Maslow, there were hints that the humanistic orientation in the social sciences and the “human potential” movement that arose alongside it might contain a dark side — or at the very least, a potential for misuse. Maslow prepared the manuscript for Toward a Psychology of Being while visiting La Jolla, California, in summer 1961, supported by a financially generous fellowship from the newly founded “Western Behavioral Sciences Institute.” The fellowship was funded by engineer-entrepreneur Andy Kay, who invited Maslow to return the following summer to observe operations at Kay’s company, Non-Linear Systems (Hoffman, The Right to Be Human, p. 246). This collaboration with Kay culminated in Eupsychian Management, a book completed in 1962 and published in 1965. Non-Linear Systems was an electronics manufacturing company. Before founding it in 1952, Kay spent two years working at Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. By the early 1980s Non-Linear Systems evolved into Kaypro, manufacturer of an early personal computer. The concept of Eupsychia never fully shed this marriage of convenience with management theory and West Coast tech, though other members of the Eupsychian Network helped to temper these tendencies.

Saturday August 10, 2019

Maslow’s prose is dry and scientific. I keep having to take breaks while reading his book Toward a Psychology of Being. Parts of it seem wrong-headed, presumptuous; I’d rather be reading the poet Robert Duncan. Works of Duncan’s like “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow” evoke Neoplatonic realms, scenes made up by powers of consciousness. A force of gravity pulls us near. Duncan calls this force the “Queen Under the Hill.” Her binding us to her in loving embrace allows us to be both one and other. Being self-divides into temporary autonomous zones so as to become that way, consciousness rising up into matter, probing itself with language before returning from which it came. Each being bears witness, Duncan says, before itself standing in judgment. But why judgment, I wonder. Let us resolve to live well, thanking the world for providing us a loving home by providing one in return. Let these trance-scripts be ways of advancing that cause. Let them be merciful rather than cruel. Let us not condemn in our attempt to improve.

Thursday August 8, 2019

I lived in a world of imaginary friends when I was a kid. Yet when I try to visualize these friends, especially the ones I called Mr. Spaso and Goo Goo, nothing comes to mind. What I recall instead is a frightening encounter I once had with a life-sized stuffed scarecrow that I mistook for my grandfather. The scarecrow sat in a wooden chair in my grandmother’s doll room. The room was dimly lit, tucked away in a part of the house rarely frequented by others. Happening upon it one afternoon, I peppered the scarecrow with questions, addressing it as if it were my grandfather. There was something about the creature’s nose that reminded me of his. When the figure didn’t respond, understanding dawned and I freaked. Why did this realization, the discovery that I’d been speaking with an inanimate object, fill me with shock and horror? Why do I remember that and not Spaso and Goo Goo? (What’s the best way of trance-scribing that name, by the way? Spaso? Spotso?) What was the story there? Why do kids sometimes go through an “imaginary friends” phase? Western societies demand that a distinction be drawn. They teach us to shape attention, fixing it for the most part upon socially shared, spatiotemporal objects, entities, and beings. Boundaries are established, perceptions and preferences trained to what others teach us to recognize as “actuality,” responsive presence, a multiple, additive-and-subtractive, evolving, de-concealing, totality-containing, self-consistent Big Other, from which can be recognized and distinguished other possible and impossible worlds. With my imaginary friends, I remember only conversing about them with others, requesting that my parents allow seats for them at the kitchen table. Was there ever a phantasmatic side to these friends? Did I ever imagine them possessing form beyond language, form that I’ve since forgotten? Or did I think of them exclusively as inventions, made only for the sake of a game? Case shelved for the time being, pending further inquiry.

Wednesday August 7, 2019

I sit beside Sarah at a town pool, the two of us drying in the air after a swim. A small green insect lands on my leg. We consider each other for a few moments, each one absorbing the other’s fear, processing it internally, transmuting it, releasing it back as love. I’m reminded of Maslow’s claim that each of us contains two sets of forces. “One set,” he writes, “clings to safety and defensiveness out of fear, tending to regress backward, hanging on to the past, afraid to grow away from the primitive communication with the mother’s uterus and breast, afraid to take chances, afraid to jeopardize what [one] already has, afraid of independence, freedom and separateness. The other set of forces impels [us] forward toward wholeness of Self and uniqueness of Self, toward full functioning of all [one’s] capacities, toward confidence in the face of the external world at the same time that [one] can accept [one’s] deepest, real, unconscious Self” (Toward a Psychology of Being, p. 46). Pool days are delightful. Look at us, sun-soaked, unfolding outward, discovering new capacities, refining old ones, becoming. The metamorphosis has begun.