do the objects in a home echo and reinforce the
identity of the self and condition of the family? How do objects
acquire their meanings differently in light of differing personal
and familial philosophies for living? Csikzentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton
unravels the triumvariate of self, objects, and home, motivated
by a case study of 80 or so American middle and lower class families
in the Chicago suburbs in the 1970s. What's most striking about
this book is how closely the analysis of the case study aligns itself
with my personally held stereotypes of families - warm versus cold,
macho handy-man emotionally inarticulate husband versus domesticated
emotional homemaker wife, material and pleasure oriented youth versus
nostalgia-oriented elderly. Maybe these stereotypes truly are the
hallmark of American families, but surely narrative psychologists
like Kevin Murray would question how much life and truth imitate
the fictional stories and characatures of "typical families"
and "typical roles." There is almost something unseemly
and unsettling about the "warm and fuzzy" and "summer
camp"-esque conclusions drawn in this book, yet I will keep
an open mind and continue nonetheless. This book is important relative
to its peers because like it or not, it is backed by real case study.
do objects acquire meaning? How is the Self constructed? The authors'
answer to both questions is the same: through cultivation. Cultivation
is the investment of attention in an object or activity, and that
in turn invests an object with meaning through a transfer of psychic
energy (taking the metaphor of valuable goods into the domain of
emotional energy). What Csikzentmihalyi is most known for is the
idea of "flow" -- the age-old idea (given
a queezy new agey spin) of maximizing enjoyment and productivity
in life by cultivating enjoyment in things that also help you achieve
your goals, and by negotiating a balance between the familiar/boring
and the unfamiliar/anxious. Cultivating meaning into objects is
a cultivation of Self because our sphere of objects is an external
reification and representation of Self. Things that we
possess and cherish help us to create order in consciousness,
leading us to self-awareness about our values (e.g. photos, Bible,
heirloom, kitchen, Porsche), and our history (e.g. trophies, yearbook,
old chair). The reifying power of things is to encapsulate who we
are (echo) or who we want to be (reinforce).
Things have the power to change us, amplify our achievements, reify
vague possibilities. Why? Because things have presence
the heart of this book, the authors articulate the contrast between
subjective experience and social experience,
though these are not their words. Today's pop culture
has an m.o. of consumption for consumption's sake.
The danger in this is that while the commoditization
of symbolic objects gives ample fodder for self-expression, the
meaning express is shallow (a social construct) and doesn't involve
much real perception. The author's advocacy of cultivation is a
cry against consumptive culture. The authors' point has been said
before many times by many people in many discourses. Csikzentmihalyi's
cultivation vs. acceptance, is commensurate to Dewey's perception
versus recognition, is commensurate to Simmel's subjective culture
(cf. "The Metropolis and the Mental Life") versus urbanized
consumption culture, is commensurate to Jung's mystical "symbols"
(needs to be rediscovered by each person) versus "signs"
are the most cherished objects in the home? Objects serve two kinds
of roles: differentiation, and integration.
Differentation objects (e.g. a nice car, a trophy) faciliate self-expression
and uniqueness, and serve to signify status, but people who carry
differentation to its extreme, live a destructive, vicous compulsion.
Integration objects promote cultural, group, and familial ties by
reifying shared context (e.g. family portrait).
Objects are not inheritently differentiating or integrating, but
that is left to interpretation. The authors claim that the Self
is, in praxis, either all differentiating (i.e. people who thrive
on uniqueness) or all integrating (i.e. people who thrive on social
ties). The most cherished objects in the home are in descending
rank order, furniture (substantial, signifies comfort and stability,
a rite of passage for families), visual art (valued only by older
upper class), photos (social ties, identity, memories, immortalise
dead, emotion-laden), books (embodies goals, dreams, and religion),
stereos (valued most by teens, cathartic, emotional support), musical
instrument (indulges fantasy of creative lifestyle, chief outlet
for creativity), television (cartharsis, companionship for elderly,
vehicle for fantasy/vicariousness), sculpture (same as visual arts,
more presence), plants (symbolises nurture, support "earth
conscious" identity), plates (exemplifies tenacity of heirlooms,
and is a domestic symbol). To summarise, an ideal home would be
offer a Self: memories (continuity of history), stability, social
ties, catharsis, support for goals and dreams, reify identity and
accomplishment, and give pleasure.
addition to differentiating and integrating, objects also have dimensional
properties of action vs. contemplation and self
vs. others. These are titilating dialectics. The young
prefer action, and elderly prefer contemplation. Males prefer action
(men always need external validation for the Self), and females
contemplation (women internalise the Self better). Perhaps this
is because action objects embody active experiences, while contemplation
objects embody passive ties. The dialectic between self and others
is commensurate to differentiation versus integration, and it is
less a dialectic than a dichotomy because there is rarely a middle
ground. The young are ego-centric and elderly are socio-centric,
perhaps because the old are lonely and thus more reflective. The
authors describe the exchange of value philosophies within familieis.
Mothers pass on meaning systems to daughters, fathers
pass on nostalgic tendencies to children, and spouses often attribute
different meanings to the same objects.
home provides a different symbolic environment of Self for each
member of the family. What is shared is the notion that home is
a haven and shelter for the Self. For kids, a home is warm (because
of reliance on security and safety), but not as much for adults.
Men enjoy the accomplishment of building a house, while women own
the emotions of a house, and women make a house a home,
through decoration (lighting, color, mood). If a home is a reflection
of a Self, then the place in the home most cherished by each person
is his/her inner sanctum. For children and elderly,
it is the bedroom, perhaps because this is their domain of autonomy
and houses most of their privacy. Sadly, for many elderly, the inner
sanctum is reduced to a particular chair, or television set. The
fact that one's inner sanctum migrates from bedroom (in youth) to
living room (in adulthood) back to bedroom (in late adulthood) represents
a cycle of social Self: asocial youth, social adulthood,
asocial late adulthood. The authors argue strongly that it is the
meaning of things in a home that actually matters, not so much the
physicality of possession.
are the different types of families? The authors contrast cool
families with warm families. Victor Turner's
limnoid theory provides that when basic human needs are
met, everyone wants to travel. It so happens that
members of a cool family see travel as an escape while a warm family
sees it as a productive integral activity (perhaps because warm
families become warm because they are productive and nurturing...
there is a chicken and egg problem here). Warm families have a firmer
emotional base so they more readily participate in community activities.
Warm persons acquire role models based on Expertise, whereas cool
persons acquire role models based on affect (since they don't derive
affect from the home). Warm children are cooperative and cool children
are defensive. In warm families, spouses have more integral objects
and shared context. Without criticising the authors' analysis too
much, I fear that much of what they see as a prognostic indicator
(warm versus cool), maybe simply be co-occurring. It may so happen
that socially adept people build warmer families.
does a Self interact with an object? The authors state three modes
of interaction: aesthetic, attention, and goal. Aesthetic interaction
refers to Dewey's discourse on recognition versus perception. A
Self can either be shallow and materially oriented, or really own
an object by perceptive use. The authors advocate "flow"
as the attention paradigm, where flow describes an interaction that
is productive, balanced (along the dimension of boring vs. anxious),
and intrinsically rewarding. The goal of interaction is to cultivate
an authentic self, and the ultimate goal of home
objects is to preserve the continuity of life and family.
The authors urge families to invest in familial objects and traditions
by dwelling at good length on the Tragedy of the Commons problem
with respect to families that don't cultivate or focus too much
authors conclude by recapitulating the importance of cultivation
and subjective experience and integration in a home. There is a
dichotomy of enjoyment (+) vs. pleasure (-). Whereas
enjoyment is pleasure experienced on the way to achieving a goal
(e.g. reading a book advances learning), pleasure for pleasure's
sake is an end to itself and thus not a cultivation. The authors'
moral articulates the subtext that has pervaded the whole book:
that modern society's consumption for consumption's sake
is depleting the earth's resources because it would take too much
energy to build a commoditised ecology of happiness;
thus we should all seek meaning, not materiality.
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