hugo :: ideas :: book reviews
"only as an æsthetic phenomenon is
existence and the world justified"

- nietzsche


emotus ponens picture
::: the meaning of things by mihaly csikzentmihalyi & eugene rochberg-halton :::
book digest by hugo liu

How 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.

How 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 and permanence.

At 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" (socially unambiguous).

What 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.

In 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.

The 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.

What 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.

How 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 on differentiation.

The 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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H U G O . . L I U ...

program in comparative media studies, mit

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