Friday, February 03, 2023

Look who is buried under Maslow's pyramid!


There has been, as far as I can tell, no canonical study of how and why certain ideas – psychoanalysis, Abraham Maslow’s theory of needs, gestalt therapy – infiltrated into the precincts of that most American of sciences, organization science, and all its business school progeny, a long event that is co-eterminus with the eruption of the business school on the university campus.  The ultimate American utopia is the corporation – those of us on the reservation outside of it just think of ourselves as the dreamers of the better future. But inside those corporate walls, that future is manufactured wholesale. And what is a future without a psychology? And what good is psychology if you can’t manipulate it to market goods and services?

In 20th century America, war, organization and information systems formed the sinister matrix to which our best guides are still the great dark codexes: J.R., Gravity’s Rainbow, Flow my tears the policeman said. Randall Jarrett’s tailgunner glosses not simply the belly of the state at war, but the great human product of the 20th century, organizational man.

Maslow’s career, to be read properly, must be read by the flickering light common to incendiary bombings and the vast, flawless labyrinth of neon lights that track the corridors of skyscrapers and of insane asylums.

Early in his career, Maslow’s major research concern was what he called dominance. In a paper from 1937, The Comparative Approach to Human Behavior, he wrote:

“The writer some years ago was confronted with the problem of the relationships between dominance behavior, sex behavior, and social behavior. The attempt to study this problem in humans directly turned out to be a failure. The multiplicity of theories, the variability of concepts and of terminology, the sheer complexity of the problem itself, the impossibility of separating the superficial from the fundamental, all combined to make the project a baffling and even possibly an insoluble one.”

This is a rather odd methodological statement. Why should we posit special relationships between the behaviors he lists – or even take those behaviors (such as dominance behaviors) as given? Especially as, on his own account, there is a ‘variability’ of terminology and theory.

Dominance, here, is certainly the dominant pre-occupation. The paper suggests that the problem is one that we all know from the sciences – the problem of being ‘objective’. Maslow’s suggestion that we can get there by an indirect route – namely, comparison with the less ‘baffling’ behavior of primates – and so disentangle the bloody bonds of human behavior was, of course, in the post-war period amply taken up. Yet the method seems to make headway sideways, for what could make the behavior of primates less baffling when the original baffle is in the cultural construction of the terms of the problem?

“It is just this situation, e.g. complex of similarities and differences, that makes it possible for the psychologist to set up experiments in which the main variable factor is the relative presence or absence of cultural influence. If these cultural influences can be controlled out by experimentation which involves groups of humans and infra-humans, there is then promised an improved possibility of achieving greater understanding of what our primate inheritance may be.”

What could ‘control out’ cultural influences mean, applied to the highly culturally specific notion of experimentation? Maslow here is participating in the social sciences paradigm that seeks the ultimate Other – the Other who functions, paradoxically, as the silent parameter, void of all ‘cultural’ properties – for instance, the property of having a first-person status – and at the same time as the template for the social sciences subject.


The zeroing out of cultural influences to get to the nub of the subject – this was Abraham Maslow’s project in the pre-war years, but he had to deal with people, who seemed puzzlingly culturally bound. His biographer, …, in po-faced prose, puts the problem in terms of those humans who are, well, women.

“As Maslow’s research progressed through late 1935 and early 1936, he noticed a frustrating pattern. While women high or moderate in dominance-feeling were usually cooperative in submitting to the embarrassing interviews 0 some een volunteering after hearing about Maslow – almost none who seemed low in dominance-feeling volunteered or completed the interview. Low-dominance women frequently refused to continue wit the interview despite hours of patient reassurance. Maslow sometimes pleaded with them to cooperate “for the good of science”, usually to no avail.”


I challenge anybody to read those sentences and not laugh.  I am reminded of the paintings Alice Neel was doing while Maslow pleaded with “low-dominance” women to complete his questionaires. In particular, the painting of Joe Gould, who is shown with sitting naked, his penis exposed, while two other endowed figures, their penises drooping majestically, stand on either side of him.

Maslow turned, then, to  animal studies to overcome his own frustration. But he returned to the human, thinking that he could bar entrance to disturbing cultural influences by actually welcoming them, aiming for the dead center of normality in which the cultural and the natural would achieve an equilibrium.

Under Maslow’s pyramid one can find a sacrificial victim – just as major structures were often built, according to legend, over the body of someone sacrificed to the gods. The gods, here, of dominance. Thus, his research was directed towards understand ‘normal’ female sexuality. To get behind this problem, Maslow, curiously (the curiousness is the absolute blindness to his own cultural subjectivity) culled out Lesbians, Catholics, blacks and all women who came from families whose fortunes were not in the upper 5 percent of the American income percentile from his research set. He interviewed the resulting selection of women, all students at Columbia University, and concluded that the dead center for which he had embarked had finally been hit. And thus he was able to pursue a problem he articulated in a journal jotting from 1960:

“the 2-fold motivation of women (1) to dominate the man, but (20 then to have contempt for him, go frigid, manifpulative, castrating, and (3) secretly to keep on yearning for a man stronger than herself to compel her respect, & to be unhappy, & unfulfilled & to feel unfeminine so long as she doesn’t have such a man.”

From experimenting on animals to the ghastly postwar obsession with the frigid bitch – this is, of course, the dark side of what appeared, in the sixties, to be a humanizing program. The social structure should satisfy the needs of the people – isn’t that really what marketing is all about? Contemplating Maslow, we understand why the center did not hold in the sixties – cause it was such a damnable place. Look around at the cultural war against women, among others, and you can see that we have not gotten past the Maslows of this world.


Pity, that.

Wednesday, February 01, 2023

Greed's Bad Sister

When you read conservative and libertarian economists, you will inevitably, at one time or another, run into an interesting paradox: the envy paradox. While greed among this type is the good bad emotion, and has been since Mandeville pointed out the virtue of the vices in a system of markets, envy is the wicked sister, the bad bad emotion which we must shame. The reply, when one criticizes some billionaire, often rings this chime: you are envious!
Myself, I'm envious as hell. And you can't take the truth (I'd shout back, Jack Nicholson style).
Envy is just justice on a bad hair day.
Prima facie, the diabolization of envy and soft focus on greed makes little sense. If you dub envy “aspiration”, hey presto, it becomes a virtue. Sell the sports car, sell the high end restaurant, use the envy - this is 101 Marketing. The Horatio Alger striver, realizing that capitalism is the best of all systems and the thing to do is to swim upstream and rescue the bankers daughter, is mucho applauded – while the woke Horatio Alger union organizer or (heavens) community organizer who aspires to a more equal society by, say, limiting the amount of wealth possessed by the wealthy, using the democratic tools at hand, are falling for the bad bad emotion of envy.
It is a curious twist. Even more curious, though, is the economists blindness, on a massive, ideological scale, to the economics of envy in capitalism.
In part, this is due to a cute little twist among the neoclassicals. For various ideological reasons, and to keep their models of consumer preference from looking like a child's notion of how babies are born, one thing has to beclear: advertising is an epiphenomena that has no effect on the market. When J.K. Galbraith pointed out that this is to laugh, the neocons got together and agreed that Galbraith was a poopyhead.
Their ludicrous position comes out of a deeper, structural ludicrousness about preferences and the sovereign consumer. Advertising does count - as pure information. These people, I should remind you, pretend to tall us about the economy.
In any case, in the real world, unfortunately, it is not envy of the working class expropriators that rules, but envy as a driver of, for instance, creating fan bases for parity products. Wipe out envy and where is the housing market going to be? And how are we gonna sell pepsi, or SUVs?
Whenever you see an economist who is quite comfortable with greed and the most egregious forms of human exploitation suddenly become all Ten Commandments about envy, you have caught a glimpse of the ideology of the beast. The apologists of capitalism can’t help themselves.

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

The Great wrong place


In his famous – and to my mind famously wrongheaded – essay about “mysteries”, W.H. Auden wrote:

“Actually, whatever he may say, I think Mr. Chandler is interested in writing, not detective stories, but serious studies of a criminal milieu, the Great Wrong Place, and his powerful but extremely depressing hooks should be read and judged, not as escape literature, but as works of art.”

We have long accepted not only Chandler but every motherfucker who writes as writing works of art. Art is a category,  not a laudative. The reason that this passage sticks with me is the naming of the Great Wrong Place.

I have often felt like I have spent a considerable portion of my life  in the Great Wrong Place, and that it didn’t have to be like that. This is why, I suppose, I am so fascinated by seedy stories of crimes and misappropriations during the Cold War, and the entire history of that encounter between two bad options, squeezing us, the inhabitants of our various Great Wrong Places, into slots that we did not chose and knew were not optional.

The Cold War is over and now we live through its shredded supplements – oh, how recently the Great Global War on Terror died, to be replaced by the Putin wars! And meantime, Chandler’s mean streets have been gentrified – but the mean is there, as plain as ever, and when it is pointed out, the books in which it is pointed out are banned in the libraries of Florida and Texas. Naturally.

Within the crime statistics, you can find the corpses of so many choked revolutions. But how many revolutions can the cops and their bosses choke?

Surely a puzzle for some crime novel detective.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

A valedition: the party dress


She bleeds all in her dress on the back seat of the taxi

Home from the bone

Another good girl dawn


Even in my Emily Dickinson silence

I can always hear the click click click

Of the bitch about to pounce.


Although I dream of sitting among the big cats

Don't you know

I’m low

in the zoo order

from maneater to shrew.


Later, at the dry cleaners, the man says

the dress would the multitudinous seas

incarnadine. Too bad, I sez


It was one of my favorites

.-Karen Chamisso

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