Friday, June 04, 2010

Why We Need to Make Things

The following is from the essay "Why We Need Things" by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in History from Things, Essays in Material Culture:
"Our addiction to materialism is in large part due to the paradoxical need to transform the precariousness of consciousness into the solidity of things. The body is not large, beautiful, and permanent enough to satisfy our sense of self. We need objects to magnify our power, enhance our beauty, and extend our memory into the future.

In looking at these functions, it seems clear that power objects are not only the most dangerous but also the most expensive with respect to scarce resources and labor. When things are necessary to prove dominance and superiority, human costs start to escalate very quickly. It is striking to note in comparison how inexpensive things that stand for kinship and relatedness tend to be. Tokens of remembrance, respect, and love typically have trivial intrinsic value and labor invested in them is usually voluntary. Thus, the kind of selves individuals choose to build have great consequences for the material culture and for the natural environment that must be despoiled in order to create it."
Most of us have been horrified at the images coming from the Gulf of Mexico, the BP oil spill disaster and its consequences on the natural environment. We are arriving at an understanding of the costs of our dependence on fossil fuels, and our irresponsibility in the use of environmental resources to sustain a relentless parade of meaningless consumer goods through our personal lives into landfills. Csikszentmihalyi states further that
"The addiction to objects is of course best cured by learning to discipline consciousness. If one develops control over the process of the mind, the need to keep thoughts and feelings in shape by leaning on things decreases... A Brahmin can afford to live in an empty home, because he does not need objects to keep his mind on course."
There are a variety of ways that we can reduce our addiction to objects as definition of self. One is to make music. Another is to grow things. One is to prepare food to serve others. Another is to care for the old or the young. Ironically, so too, is the making of beautiful and useful things. When we invest ourselves in an object, heart and soul, not in the owning of it, but in the making of it, it becomes a reflection of highest human principles. The making of it provides the discipline of consciousness that human beings so desperately require.

Csikszentmihalyi, in his essay, tells about objects of power, and describes how among men in primitive tribes, power, physical, psychic and social was concentrated in the spear. At Clear Spring School in the last two weeks of school, some of the 7th, 8th and 9th grade students turned "bats" on the lathe. One worked on a turned handle for a "light saber". We had to take them away during the school day, as the sense of power the children derived from them became disruptive of other learning activities. There is greatest power in the objects that reflect our own learning and growth. By neglecting our children's power to make things themselves, we prime them for addiction to objects which have far greater environmental and social costs. In the photo above, Killian is making a small ball bat.

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