The Meaning of Things (Psychology of Things 1/2)

The Meaning of Things (Psychology of Things 1/2)


This is part of a two chapter series on the
Psychology of Things. Part two, The Art of Seeing focuses on the
communication between the self and art, but this chapter, The Meaning of Things, explores
how the self and things develop together in the first place. Humans have a love / hate relationship with
things. They can provide us with more freedom or less
freedom depending on how we use them or how they use us. Defining the self and the object becomes confusing,
when objects and the self are so intertwined. In Csikszentmihalyi’s and Rochberg-Halton’s
book The Meaning of Things, they tackle this thorny subject and how it applies in modern
society. The self is complicated and wisely the book
avoids exploring all descriptions of what a self can be. From the author’s perspectives the self can
be narrowed down to avoid confusion when dealing with household objects studied in this book. As you will see, making objects and trading
them with others is an epic experience that includes all living people. At the macro level, things define for others
who we are, our status, and our mental states. Things can also help create meaning and purpose
for us if we choose to pay attention to them in the right way. At the micro level, “the self to a large extent,
is a reflection of things with which it interacts, thus objects also make and use their makers.” We have to interact with things in order to
develop the self further, for example work or hobbies. The authors define the self in two ways to
narrow down the scope. “The most basic fact about persons is that
they are not only aware of their existence, but can assume control of that existence,
directing it towards certain purposes. This then will be our starting point for a
model of the self. We shall take self-awareness, and self control
as givens.” For the authors’, “self-awareness is a process
occurring in time, therefore the self can never be known directly.” As we interact with the world, we develop
“feelings, memories, and thoughts.” With language and thought, symbols of the
self can be created based on facts about our experiences. “Self-awareness occurs when the self becomes
the object of reflection. When we say ‘Who am I?’, we attend to certain
bits of information, or signs, that represent the ‘I’, and these signs become an object
of interpretation. Self-awareness, resulting from an act of comparing
the facts, is always open to correction, change and development, therefore it seems more correct
to think of self-awareness as a process of self-control.” After defining the self, the authors part
ways with other attempts at finding an origin of the self, by emphasizing cultivation. They define cultivation as, “a process of
interpretation and self-control motivated by goals rather than by origins.” Cultivation starts by choosing to use Psychic
Energy to control attention to then direct it towards objects of interest, in an otherwise
chaotic sensory and thinking experience. Psychic energy is real in that we can deplete
it with constant control of the attention span. To investigate this depletion of energy further,
I’ll post the review of Attention and Effort below by Daniel Kahneman. To watch how this energy depletion unfolds
you need to see situations where your attention span is automatically moving to objects of
interest, and the effort required to concentrate the attention to something else that has priority. When there is a large desire to move attention
to a different direction, it requires more energy to guide it back. People who have personal intentions towards
goals will see that their social system they live in is a collection of individual intentions
that may or may not be in alignment. As people share similar intentions in a cooperative
manner, a culture develops. When intentions are not shared, especially
when they cancel each other out, there is conflict. As new members join different groups, they
then have the stress of reordering their attention in the same way as the existing social system
to reduce conflict. Just so that conformists don’t start partying
yet, the authors say that “it is possible for each individual to cultivate goals without
producing conflict in the community. This would result in an integrated group of
people pursuing a common goal, while contributing their own unique perspectives to that goal. Plurality, not homogeneity.” Finding harmony is an important topic for
those who decide to wear a mask, and ignore their authentic feelings to join a group. All people have to don a mask a one time or
another, but it is healthier for the self to find authentic connections with others,
to prevent energy depletion from being inauthentic. When the energy is depleted, the mask falls
off, and the feelings of alienation are communicated in conflict and pathology. If the only reward in activities done for
the group is consumer consumption, then addiction will follow. At some point the self has to find a way to
be satisfied by personally chosen goals that connect with others, to avoid the consequences
of modern alienation, such as depression, and suicide. The authors warn that, “the danger of focusing
attention exclusively on a goal of physical consumption, or materialism, is that one does
not attend enough to the cultivation of the self, to the relationship with others, or
to the broader purposes that affect life. The acquisition and maintenance of objects
can easily fill up a person’s life, until there is no time to do anything else, not
even to use the things they are exhausting all one’s psychic energy with. When such a pass is reached, the adaptive
value of objects is reversed. Instead of liberating psychic activity, the
things bind it to useless tasks. The former tool turns its master into a slave.” When organized with others the individual
has to then to look to external rewards to maintain this attention toward group goals. For most people, this is money, which temporarily
reduces this psychic conflict. Though the conflict doesn’t end there, each
individual can have conflicting intentions that drain psychic energy further. By aligning personal goals with group goals,
the worker can repeatedly intend, and condition their attention to match the other senior
members of the group. The author’s state that, “the optimal state
of experience for the individual, is one in which intentions are not in conflict with
each other. With inner harmony, people can freely choose
to invest their psychic energy in goals that are congruent with the rest of their intentions. This is felt to be a state of heightened energy. A state of increasing control. The experience is considered challenging and
enjoyable.” When one’s attention is split between different
goals, the need for more attention control drains energy from the subject. The psychic entropy, or psychic disorder,
leads to experiences of “anxiety, frustration, alienation, or boredom, all referring to temporary
impairments of psychic activity.” One of the reasons why people retreat from
community goals is due to the number of people and their conflicting intentions. As those with power repeatedly change direction
in their organization’s goals, the natural stress that occurs for each change, drains
the energy of those whose attention spans are being directed by others. “When a group is in an entropic state, the
intentions of its members cancel out each other, instead of contributing toward each
person’s goals.” The authors also look at what a thing is for
the self. They define it as “any bit of information
that has a recognizable identity in consciousness. A pattern that has enough coherence, or internal
order, to evoke a consistent image or label. Such a unit of information might be called
a Sign,” which is based on qualities of the object or ideas. Things connect with our consciousness via
perception. As we remember more qualities of a thing,
they can organize memory in such a way that the self can make sense of the world. Things can be rated on utility and status. Status symbols, for example, say to the self
that the owner of that thing has command over other people’s attention in that they can
receive enough money from the group’s efforts that they can afford those objects. This can go further in how we objectify our
romantic partners based on utility, beauty and health. Our entire body and possessions send out signs
to others. To the authors who view cultivation as the
key to the self, then the cultivation involves actions of “creating and then interacting
with the material world.” By cultivating to master chaos, the self develops
purpose and direction in life. For example, family heirlooms can be valuable
to families because the care shown by prior generations provides a sign that the family
has enough virtue to prevent the object from breaking, breaking being a common way of defining
entropy or chaos. The heirloom can be a sign that transmits
to younger generations in the family those virtues that help to keep it safe. Objects of lasting value also provide emotional
comfort. With constant change in life, a long lasting
object can be a sign of stability. Things can also bond people to each other. There is psychic energy invested in purchasing
or making a gift. When it is given, it is a form of giving the
self over to another person. When it is reciprocated, then an emotional
bond is formed and harmony is reinforced. Humans have always used religion as a way
to reinforce harmony in society, but now that traditional religions are on the wane, there
is still an emotional need to connect with others and create harmony. For the author’s, they believe “religion will
exist in one form or another. The essential purpose that religions have
served has been indispensable and will be so in the future, regardless of what forms
the religious impulse takes. It is impossible to imagine human life without
a map, or blueprint, as to how the cosmos is organized, what makes it related, and how
humans fit in it. Whether this map will be produced by science
or politics, or a revamped version of an old religion, the attempt to realize integration
will be essentially religious, even if couched in scientific terminology, because it will
have to represent, through signs, a set of relationships that probably will never be
completely exhausted.” This harmony that most seek, starts with the
individual. The individual self enjoys flow coming from
the freedom to guide the attention span in the self’s authentic ways. These authentic ways must be long-term in
scope and based on valued individual goals, and ultimate goals for the social group. Freedom is not just complete freedom. “To be free means to be free for some purpose.” When people actively choose their intentions
based on their authentic feelings, and align them with personal and social goals, then
pleasure becomes less connected with material success. A more robust form of happiness in a chaotic
world. What I got the most out of this book was a
new way of seeing the world. In a restaurant I enjoy, where I was reading
this book, I started looking at all the objects on the patio and boring buildings across the
street. They all seem to breathe life full of the
intentional energy of others. A boring building for the people involved
in making it, may not have been so boring to them. It may have been an important source of income. There could have been flow experiences generated
by the builders. If the building is old, and those who made
it, or used it, are dead now, then it is a remaining legacy of their psychic energy. I also got a sense of loneliness thinking
about how people put effort into these structures, and in most cases people don’t see them with
this perception. A new way to value people and to appreciate
their efforts is to recognize their investment of intentions to pay attention to these goals. Our risky investment is ultimately where we
choose to direct our attention.

Author: Kennedi Daugherty

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