Tantalizing Times - An Examination of Discontents and Disconnects in Contemporary American Society

Tantalizing Times.  An Examination of Discontents and Disconnects in Contemporary American Society.

by Barry Dauphin, Ph.D.


 This paper originated from a study of the myth of Tantalus and the parallels from the myth to the unconscious dynamics of tantalization (Dauphin, 1991). Further exploration of the myth suggested the possibility that this myth may serve as a metaphor for our times, not the metaphor but one (of many).

We have been flooded with media reports about a discontent, disquiet or malaise of modern society from pundits of varying political leanings (e.g., Kuttner, 1995; Herbert, 1996; Lewis, 1995; Nisbett, 1998; Samuelson, 1997). The frequency and intensity with which this is talked about-via TV, op-ed pieces, books, magazine articles, etc. has been striking. There has sounded a chorus of descriptions of discontent, dissatisfaction and disconnects--explaining it, trying to understand it.

Polls have recently noted a shift in people reporting (for the first time in the majority) that they fear their children will be worse off than they. There has been a large decline in confidence in many institutions over the last 30 years (see Samuelson, 1995). Concerns about crime have been high regardless of the statistics which show many crimes are declining in prevalence. Prison construction stands at an all time high. We have witnessed an increase in domestic terrorism (e.g., Oklahoma City bombing) as well as headline grabbing instances of juvenile shooting sprees (e.g., in Arkansas, Colorado and Oregon). Consistently low voter turnout seems to signal apathy. We are witnessing “...sales figures running off the charts for medicines designed to combat ulcers, high blood pressure, anxiety and depression” (Nesbitt, 1998). Family breakdown is spoken or written of frequently, as in high rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock births (Samuelson, 1995; Bureau of the Census, 1994). Op-ed pieces note time after time how jaded and cynical the public is about government and other things. This has been the age of the hostile takeover and downsizing. Even the high consumer confidence of the late 1990s may be standing on a shaky foundation of overly high debt levels (Cunniff, 1997). Harried lifestyles trigger “downshifting” by millions of Americans (Schor, 1998). There are numerous articles about meanness and a lack of civility in modern life. Many indices signal better living conditions although the public’s view of the general state of affairs has been gloomy. The has been called the “Optimism Gap” or the “ I’m OK, you’re not syndrome” (Whitman, 1998).

Yet all this is happening in the midst of the greatest material progress the world has ever witnessed (Samuelson, 1995).  The caliber of medical treatments has never been higher. There exist a plethora of labor saving devices, conveniences, gadgets, forms of entertainment and luxury. This is a time of choice. Still polls reflect that many people feel the good life is out ofreach, despite being exposed to the trappings of affluence on a daily basis. There seemed to be an interesting set of discontinuities. And while there has been some analysis, little, if any, has addressed the psychical or psychological level. In fact our own profession has been faced with trenchant criticism at the intellectual level (e. g., consider the polemics raged against psychoanalysis in Crews, 1998) and threats to practice at the economic level.

Psychoanalysis has had to take quick lessons in economics when faced with Managed Mental Health care and the power of third party payers. Our attention has been diverted onto how to survive during these times. So that when the media want to understand people’s unhappiness and worry, they tend to ask -- economists. We’ve always heard that “money talks,” but now it listens? It has seemed as though a role reversal were gradually developing. Economists were now concerned with the study of anxiety, and psychoanalysts became busy studying the economy.  Although even economics writers realize that there’s more to contentment or discontentment than money (Samuelson, 1995), economics appears to have been granted star status in explaining the national moods.

 For psychoanalysis to weigh in on this subject, it seems useful to proceed, in part, by means of myth analysis. As Arlow (1961) has indicated and demonstrated, psychoanalysis holds promise for social scientific endeavors through the study of myth. Myth can be a fruitful point of departure for understanding current psychological disconnects in society. “The myth is a particular kind of communal experience. It is a special form of shared fantasy...” (Arlow, 1961, p. 375). We tend to think of the times we live in as fundamentally different from the past.  Technologies make it easy for us to regard the present era as representing a break from the previous. Likewise newer perspectives from the academic world reinforce and elaborate this perception. For example, we encounter the prefix post with great frequnecy (e.g., postmodern, poststructuralism, postindustrial, etc.). 

These terms and others suggest a crucial discontinuity from those ‘post’-less times.  Still many of the visissitudes of longstanding conflicts peer into the electronic and information age. What has come before or ‘pre’ lives on in many new forms. Perhaps there is no better way to illustrate this than by beginning an examination of contemporary life through allusion to and anlaysis of an ancient myth which is both part of the inheritance of classical Western civilization and even surfaces in language used today. Psychoanalysis has long employed myths (e.g., Oedipus and Narcissus; also cf. Arlow, 1961; Mitchell, 1984) in order to reveal important conflicts for humanity. Indeed it can be argued that the language inspired by this myth serves well as a catch phrase for the culture. To use myth as part of the analysis of contemporary discontent, it must be a myth which can reveal something of how dissatisfaction or disconnects can be present, even when the environment seems to offer much for the individual. Tantalus is such a myth.

Myth and Meanings

Since the title of the paper is Tantalizing Times, let us examine more closely the word tantalize which derives from the myth. As the Oxford English Dictionary defines it: “to submit to torment like that inflicted on Tantalus or to torment by sight, show or promise of a desired thing which is kept out of reach or withheld upon the point of being apprehended” or tantalizing as “exciting desire which cannot be satisfied”. The definition itself highlights a form of conflict, thus making it of great interest to psychoanalysts. Curiously enough, it is frequently (mis)used as a synonym for excite, which hides or suppresses the concept of dissatisfaction altogether (i.e., thus masking the conflict which the definition points to). For a diagram of the Greek etymology of Tantalus, refer to end of paper.1

Tantalus was a mythical earthly king. His father was Zeus, the king of the gods, who had great powers to appear anywhere, to smite his enemies, to possess whatever he desired.  Tantalus had much, if not all, that any mortal at that time could want. Despite this he commits various crimes and is punished. Many are familiar with his punishment (from the Odyssey, cf. Lattimore, 1965). He stands in water up to his chin and branches of trees filled with delicious looking fruit hang over his head. He is hungry and thirsty but each time he reaches for the fruit, a wind blows the branches up, leaving the fruit out of reach. Each time he bends to drink, the water recedes. It is the punishment that gives the word its poignancy. But the definition of the word contains only part of the myth.

It is important to note that the Tantalus myth, like many others, is not contained in one place or in one form. Most major Greek and Latin authors make some reference to Tantalus, although none have a lengthy, extended story as, for example, Oedipus. There are many versions of the myth even though the versions have much in common. For example, it is also said that Tantalus was punished by seeing that which he desired but fearing to reach because a stone, hovering above his head, threatened to smash him on the head should he come close to the forbidden objects (Davenport, 1964; Farnell, 1932). In another version he is suspended between heaven and earth, never partaking of his desires.

Tantalus, in all versions, starts off in good relations with the gods, especially Zeus. He dined with them and was taken into their confidence. Yet he longed for more. He was not satisfied with his relationship to the gods, not satisfied with his powers, not satisfied with his mortality. (Griffith, 1986; Gulick, 1928; Kirk, 1974; Caldwell, 1989; Burgess, 1854; Schefeld, 1966; Harrison, 1961; Cox, 1877; Keremyi, 1961; Grant, 1960; Frazier, 1898; Phillmore, 1912).

His offenses are no less interesting nor important than his punishment. Among his crimes are to ask to live as the gods live, to enjoy life as a god, to have the powers and immortality which accompany god-status, to enjoy life in the way he sees them live. In another version, he steals nectar and Ambrosia, nourishment which is reserved for the gods (nourishment which bestows immortality) and shared this with mortals. In another version he had tried to stealthily obtain access to the private counsel of the gods and become aware of their secrets, their plans, information that they exclusively knew, information about what makes the world go round and share this privileged information with others.

Another crime involved Tantalus inviting the gods to his palace. He decided to test their omniscience and bring them down to his level. He killed and chopped up his own son, Pelops, whom he put into a stew to see if any of the gods would notice or do what they should not do, namely eat a mortal. The crimes have in common both an Oedipal flavor (to have access to parental means of gratification or to have forbidden objects/knowledge) as well as a general sense of entitlement or hubris. Tantalus desires omnipotence, omniscience, immortality and the ability to gratify himself instantly. He is bold in the expression of wishes which remain hidden or disguised for much of the rest of humanity.

Although the enduring suffering, frustration and discontent of Tantalus is common among the versions, the degree to which his actions are seen as sinful or crimes varies. Clearly excess or overreaching is common to all versions but not every version treats him as thoroughly reprehensible. He is sometimes portrayed as a sinner other times as an unfortunate mortal who may deserve pity.

For purposes of the analysis contained in this paper it is important to take into account not only the tantalizing consequences but also the actions and characteristics which lead to the suffering. In describing the present as tantalizing times, I propose it is partly our human wishes (sometimes hidden, sometimes not) for omnipotence, omniscience, immortality and forbidden “fruit” which is at the heart of discontent today. Tantalus dared Zeus who was the architect of his suffering, committing the great Greek crime of hubris.

At the level of unconscious fantasies, analysts take for granted that people wish for more than they have. Fantasies of omnipotence/omniscience are commonplace for psychoanalysts (e.g., Tyson & Tyson, 1990; Freud, 1914; Brenner, 1982). As infants we were frequently fascinated with exciting things we saw. Many pleasures seemed almost magical. As we develop motility, we gradually learn to associate movements to objects of desire (Furman, 1987). We come to grab and move that which we want. At a young age children are reaching for things they’re not supposed to have or aren’t ready for. Parents are constantly placing valuable or favored objects out of the reach of the toddler lest he or she break mommy and daddy’s vase or bottle. Little children often want sole possession of each parent.

Children often want a sip of their parents’ drinks. Little children believe their parents to be omniscient and omnipotent and at certain times want to challenge this. And if not omnipotent to find out how powerful. They may imagine their parents living forever (and possibly having lived forever). Some of this we “outgrow” and some we do not.

Although, at a conscious level, tantalization involves the excitement of desires with gratification seeming just beyond reach, the unconscious dynamics involve hidden wishes for which one is barred by superego prohibitions (Dauphin, 1991). For to go beyond the obvious parent-child parallels of Tantalus-Zeus, we can consider tantalization to involve internal processes, i.e., the wish to take the position and territory of a rival. One’s parent isn’t really omnipotent nor omniscient like Zeus but it is possible that the individual is omniscient in some sense of the word. Namely one’s conscience is aware of one’s motives. The real hubris is for one to believe that one part of the mind can hide something from another part at no cost.  

Thus, we can observe that envies of all kinds surface in this context. As Furman (1987) indicates, differences between sexes and between adult and child pose threats to a child’s bodily and mental self esteem and cause envy and anger. “It is very difficult for young children to content themselves with having to wait or with having to do without altogether and still be able to enjoy what they are and have now” (Furman (1987, pg. 66). These childhood feelings are relevant to adult tantlizations because childhood dilemmas and calmities and how they are worked through greatly influence adult living (e.g., Brenner, 1982). What is envied in tantalization is, to some degree, perceived as forbidden, and this contributes to its unavialability. Moreover, the subject (i.e., the Tantalus-like person) experiences some passivity toward the object of desire. In the modern tale of tantalization, grabbing the object is a temporary, evaporating illusion that one has come to possess the symbolized, envied attribute(s) of the object. But that which is trully desired (the attribute or quality behind the object) remains out of reach.

While what we are aware of may be frustration at what we can’t have, the out of reachness of the desired object can be a form of reassurance of safety from punishment (Dauphin, 1991).  While Tantalus’ torment is poignant and severe and certain forms of sexual tantalization are intense and obvious, this experience appears more pervasive than one might think at first blush. In a consumer market place, it is a daily occurrence. Seeing desired products or services on television, getting frustrated when some labor saving device lets you down or doesn’t live up to its life time guarantee, etc.

Tantalizing Times are to be understood as process, as in motion, not as something static.  As the myth and the psychodynamics suggest, tantalization involves a fluidity and a shifting.  There is envy at what you see you don’t have but long for. There is excitement at the imminent or ripening possibility of acquiring the longed for. There is hope of attaining. There is anxiety, unsettledness at potential dangers. There is disappointment, despair and frustration in the elusiveness of the longed for. There is a new possibility to acquire (or a comeback) which turns out to be a disguise of the old. On it goes. Its endurance speaks our longing to endure.

So I believe this is an important conflict to understand. Let us consider that there has been such a profound shift in intellectual development (both scientific as well as in the arts and humanities) as well as changes in technology and in the nature of the marketplace that modern American life is filled with conflicts of Tantalus. Many metaphors which are Tantalus-like can be seen if we look beneath the surface. Furthermore, current discontent appears to be theproduct of a lengthy development and is not a sudden happening.

The central organizing principals in this context are that of speed and choice. The pace of modern life is frequently referred to. But modern speed up stretches far and wide: to business, communication, transportation, knowledge gathering, entertainment, pleasures, etc. (Toffler, 1979; 1980; 1990; McLuhan, 1964). Before discussing how speed up is important and present in so many ways, let us make an hypothesis about the psychology of speed. Consider the proposal that in the unconscious speed = power and especially power over time. To be able to do things in a speeded up manner is to run the risk of unwittingly ascribing power to oneself (a kind of power we wouldn’t ordinarily and often don’t consciously ascribe to ourselves). This is stated in the form of an equation, but it is the use of an equation as a metaphor. This particular metaphor helps address the thesis succinctly.

We live during a time referred to as both the communication age and the information age.  People can talk with, write to, observe, etc. others that we could not before or only do with great effort. To send a message from coast to coast or round the globe (a message of words, pictures, movement, etc.) takes an instant. Information traverses wires or is transmitted to satellites and back to relay stations in a similar manner that electrical stimulation travels from your neurons in your brain to muscles in your hand (which types the message, etc.; McLuhan,1964). According to McLuhan (1964) there is a parallel between the inside and the outside.

To go from “thought” to completed communication takes a fraction of the time it used to. Once you have that power, it is very tempting to use it. (how many times have you witnessed the frivolous use of a fax machine, for example, when sending the information by mail or waiting till you see the person would suffice). To say that you just want to “think about something” is often met with “what’s to think about?” Just do it goes the slogan. Power is associated with action.

But not only is it tempting to use the power of speed, in the unconscious it is tempting to say, “I am powerful!” To be able to do one thing more quickly (e.g., travel or work) gives you more time for other things. What appears to have been encouraged is to manage more and more.  As one beer commercial put it, “Who says you can’t have it all?!” I propose that there can be a form of propositional thinking in the unconscious which runs something like “If I can do X so quickly and easily, then I can do Y. Why not?” We could see how such a deceptively simple proposition could infiltrate one’s thinking like a computer virus, seeming to enable us to obtain all sorts of power and secret knowledge, a form of self deception.

Yet consciously speed up is overwhelming, at times even paralyzing (what Toffler called Future Shock; Toffler, 1970). Paralysis can prevent or hinder decision making which keeps gratification out of reach. This is important because, in an information age, deciding is where the action is. At another level, however, paralysis is a subtle way of having it all. Today we have choice which is a seductive power. Although seeming to enable everything, making a choice entails giving up something (thus quietly acknowledging that you cannot have it all).

A good portion of the dissatisfaction may be based upon a view of reality not matching one’s subtly ascribed self powers or we can’t do that which we feel we ought to be able to do. We may even arrange our lives on the basis of these presumed powers, so that when unforeseen problems emerge, we go out of kilter. Contemporary uses of language reflect this, e.g., the expression time management.

To have power over time is to massage fantasies of immortality. If we can manage time, why can’t we manage it to the ultimate degree. We have created life extending and life saving devices and procedures, can’t we go just a little farther and ask, “why do we have to die?” I propose that this is a very powerful undercurrent running through society. Of course it always has been, but it appears that we are closer than ever to tricking ourselves into a belief that wecan live forever. Not just that humans will discover great life extending secrets through science in the distant future, but now, in the here and now.

Speed up influences competition in all forms from athletics to business. As one prominent business executive has described it, “our overriding goal is speed, speed at all cost, hyperspeed” (See Toffler, 1990). Supersonic transport, same day delivery, superhighways all make various forms of commuting (information, goods, peoples) happen faster than ever at a rate so different than at an earlier time that the shock and hecticness of modern life is studied, parodied and is something everyone talks about. While it is often discussed in a mode of complaint, perhaps the complaints are so frequent, pervasive and intense because we may subtly believe that we should have the power to speed up and can’t figure out why we don’t. Going at a slower pace is to feel left behind, left here in purgatory to rot and die. Movement and speed can feel associated with life and vitality.

The contemporary Tantalus in each of us sees many powers and means of gratification available. These have developed sometimes through unseen means via the economy but also through advancements and shifts in technology, the popular culture as well as through fundamental changes in intellectual discourse and scientific discovery. In understanding Tantalizing Times, these must be taken into consideration in the context of long-standing historical trends and character traits of America and Americans.


The economy has numerous examples and metaphors for this analysis. In our society the economy is often touted as the means to achieve happiness (or why would so many journalists be asking economists about contemporary angst?). There are many analyses of what’s wrong (or right) with the economy, but the emphasis of this paper is less economic per se and more metaphorical. There are metaphors from both the macro and micro economic levels.

Robert Samuelson (Samuelson, 1995) noted that since the Great Depression and World War II, there appears to have been much optimism among economists that the economy could be managed is a free market society without really giving up anything. The power of economic analysis (bolstered by an understanding of the roots of the Great Depression) led many noted economists to believe that the business cycle could be controlled or perhaps even ended. Many economists and just plain folks seem to subscribe to the following.

...only big organizations could organize progress through the‘application of Science’ as Whyte put it. But their size was alsoacceptable because their power had become democratized.  Ultimately the new benefits provided would become ’entitlements,’ signifying that they were due individuals as much as a matter of right as a matter of organizations’ benevolence.  

People altered their thinking. It was OK to be dependent on government, because we really weren’t dependent. These institutions were our servants; we weren’t their serfs. --------------from Samuelson (1995, p.13.)

Although government money is often viewed in a pejorative way as something that others get, everyone is granted economic entitlements and receives direct or indirect remuneration from the government. With the optimism of control and the analysis that we could basically have steady progress, we become primed for a continual growth of benefits and goods that a strong economy should provide. And in many ways the economy and market place booms. Walk into any supermarket and you’ll see things available that kings in the 19th century couldn’t even have imagined and other things that only kings could’ve had on their tables. However, all of this can lead to re-defining what is the good life, possibly inching it farther from one’s grasp.  

The exciting promise of ending suffering and unburdening man from anxiety and insecurity has fallen short (Samuelson, 1995). Economic growth has slowed over the last 25 years, while the growth of the variety of products and services has mushroomed. For about the first 200 years of America, the average annual growth rate (adjusted for inflation) was 3.4%. From 1973 to the present the average annual growth rate has been 2.5% (Madrick, 1995). Although these figures are not something the average person consciously keeps track of, it remains an interesting statistic of modern times. If expectations have been conditioned along a growth rate of one level and experience comes in at a somewhat lower level (Madrick, 1995), material goods and services could seem just out of reach, especially those goods and services which are assigned special status in the mind of the purchaser. This is especially true if one holds fast to the notion that happiness comes primarily through economic satisfaction (a large part of the American Dream). Even the classic image of climbing up the ladder of success begs comparison with Tantalus’ reaching. Try as we might to manage the economy, the change in rate of growth may be due to many factors beyond our control (Madrick, 1995). The market has a mind of its own.

Also certain indicators of a “good” economy lose some of their punch over time. For example, the availability of TVs is often cited as an indicator of how good we have it. In some sense this is true. In another sense the proliferation of TVs makes owning one less special and hence less satisfying per se. Thirty years ago telling someone that you owned a color TV could be met with a “Wow!” or some envy. Telling someone today, “I own a color television” is much less special; in fact, it is ordinary for individuals even if it is a sign of the affluence of America as a country (Samuelson, 1995). The meaning of the good life is often set by comparison to a “reference group” (see Schor, 1998). In the 1950s, it was called keeping up with the Jones’, whereas today there is increasing evidence that people are feeling pressured to keep up with the larger than life characters on TV (Schor, 1998). In essence we’re always moving the goal posts. Tantalus was certainly considered affluent and fortunate before overreaching.

Many business are in the business of “creating needs,” needs you didn’t know you had.  Some products which were luxury items at one time move “down” to become within reach of the nonwealthy, whetting the appetite for more. Walk into any mall and you will see a glut of enticing products. Sale! signs pop up all over. Products appear within reach of the average customer at least when they’re 50% off! But the shopping spree is a very modern phenomenon, aided by the ease with which one can make a purchase with a credit card.

Credit has been something which was traditionally very difficult to obtain. One had to apply, have collateral, even the application process was considered daunting. But this has changed greatly. Instead of writing away for a credit card application or going over to the bank to interview for a loan, they now solicit you. Surely you have received those credit card applications in the mail which tell you you are pre-approved. You have been granted purchasing power. (If you had low self esteem before, this should satisfy your high need for approval.) You can acquire products and services you desire and/or those in the manner of your favorite role models from TV or the movies. Ask yourself how many credit card solicitations you have received in the past few months.

Thus in the realm of enticing products we can see, feel, hear, smell and taste the variety and we have any easy means of acquiring them. Although these solicitations go to millions of people, they are presented as if you are being let into a club; it’s a prestigious honor to be let into the private circle or an enclave of exclusivity. You’ve arrived and you can go anywhere. Visa, it’s everywhere you want to be.

This of course fuels what has come to be known as impulse buying, another one of the endless series of addictions for which modern times are so notorious. To change Caesar a bit -veni, vidi, emi (I came, I saw, I bought). Have now, pay later or what has come to be called the “see-want-borrow-and-buy” cycle (Schor, 1998). Consumer debt has reached unheard of levels. Debt hangs over many consumers like the stone of Tantalus, causing this continual angst.  “Among those who said they would like a simpler life, debt outpaced all other reasons as the main barrier to doing so.” (Schor, 1998, p.74). What was once considered living beyond one’s means is now considered patriotic since it invigorates the economy. For example, between 1989-1995 the total debt level among the lowest 80% of incomes grew more than 20% (Cunniff, 1997). Furthermore, the total debt levels of the average household roughly equal what that household makes in a given year (Schor, 1998). Debt hangs over the heads of many like the proverbial stone of Tantalus.

Of course a hot political debate has been waged over the budget deficit and the National Debt. The society has been buying that which it is not paying for. At a macro level this too hangs over our collective heads. When we now turn a surplus, the National Debt is barely mentioned. The idea that we’ll have surpluses for the foreseeable future quickly became a political given. Another strange but fascinating turn in the economy is one which dovetails with changes in mores. Twenty years ago only two states had legalized gambling. Today only two states do not (Will, 1996). Both lotteries and casinos are touted as a means of raising money and “revitalizing” local economies across the country. More than 70 percent of Americans gamble in a given year. Fifty five million Americans play a lottery at least once a month and a billion dollars are spent every 11 days on lotteries (from ABC News Nightline, 1996). “In 1994 alone Americans spent $482 Billion on gambling; that’s more than spent on movies, sports, music, cruise ships and theme parks combined” (Wolfson, 1998). To paraphrase the late senator Everett Dirkson: a billion here, a billion there and pretty soon you’re talking about some real money!

The gambling industry calls itself the gaming industry (don’t worry, it’s just for fun). Of course, anyone with even the slightest knowledge of probability understands that gambling is a losing proposition. It is the house that wins. But the hope of hitting it big and living like a king (or maybe like a god) can be very powerful. Ads for lotteries and casinos frequently show you how you can stick it to your boss when you win. Many folks can sucker themselves into believing that they have a secret system to beat the odds. The gods of probability can be brought down. Of course, casinos have cameras to detect those few people with the ability to count cards and swiftly boot them out. But it is also important to emphasize that the government, the servant of the people, is saying, “come on, take a chance.” Governments have shifted positions from frowning on this activity to wanting a piece of the action. Many fantasies of being specially selected are tweaked in the process. What heights can one reach in an instant.

Much of the upsurge in this kind of gambling is for the little guy. For example, the weekly expenditures on lotteries was nearly three times as high for people of low income than for people of high income (Wolfson, 1998). But many high rollers have used other means of hitting it big. Modern life has seen the hostile takeover and the leveraged buy out. Scandals have sprung up around insider trading, i.e., illegally acquiring secret knowledge about companies and stocks to swell one’s profits and pride. A company may be bought, and the parent company (let’s call it Tantalus Enterprises) may cut up or cannibalize its assets (let’s say Pelops, Inc.) for profit or even for greed and self aggrandizement. Bon Appetite.

On a different plane we have seen what have been described as “winner-take-all markets”(Frank & Cook, 1995). In certain sectors people can be rewarded handsomely for excellence even if the talent level of near competitors is close to theirs. High achievers can get huge amounts of money and glory, while very competent people, still close in talent to them, receive much less. This happens in sports and entertainment but also in industry. For example, a car company may reward a particularly good design engineer greatly, while his/her cohorts who are slightly less talented, receive much lees. Some economists are studying situations where those near the top get extremely disproportionate “winnings” from the rest (Frank & Cook, 1996). But there is evidence that many want to keep up with the lifestyle of such high fliers (Schor, 1998). 

Furthermore, many facets of society are highly dependent upon rank ordering, e.g., from college admissions to sports teams to mutual funds. There’s not much room at the position of #1, and many push themselves to be number one at all costs to gain an edge on the competition. Perhaps it is cheating or some other leg up on the SATs, taking performance enhancing drugs or highly suspicious and risky loans. Some feel that the promises implied in being #1 are worth acts which in various ways sew the seeds of self destruction. As with Tantalus, some wish that becoming numero uno will imbue the top gun with powers, no matter how the ascent is attained.  There are many forces in the culture which suggest that obtaining this lofty position will itself immunize the holder from whatever lapses, deeds, and compromises were used in the service of reaching up.


We are all familiar with advances in technology, and this receives much time and attention in the mass media as well it should. Technological developments are a big part of tantalizing times. To connect technology to the themes of power and immortality, let’s start with the derivation of the word.

Technology comes from the Greek Teknh which means skill or cunning of hand. It in turn derives from another Greek word tiktw, (past participle tek) which means beget, give birth to (Liddel & Scott, 1897/1990). How interesting that modern technology often requires less “cunning of hand” and nevertheless stimulates our fantasies of extending ourselves into the future. What hath this modern technology begot?

I believe that it is useful to consider McLuhan’s (1964) metaphor that technologies are extensions of ourselves, of our physical and central nervous systems to increase power and speed. Although McLuhan articulated this thesis over 30 years ago, it appears more relevant than ever. Devices of all sorts help us do our work, enjoy ourselves, locomote, communicate (or reach out and touch someone as the AT&T commercials have implored). Technology has gradually allowed more action-at-a-distance, the kind of stuff Zeus used to be so good at. To go a step further, we can consider technology to be our servomechanisms (McLuhan, 1964). For a machine, a servomechanism is a device which allows automatic control of the machine, a kind of self regulator. And for us. We often talk in this way, as in, “I’ll zap the coffee.” Of course we feel it would take too long to describe things more precisely. Thus, in many ways these devices become metaphorically part of us. I hold that I is psychologically tempting to appropriate that kind of power for oneself (or to the self).

It is interesting that in a time of so many labor saving devices, we are so stressed out and overworked. Advances in technology are often hailed as if they were godsends. The allure of making life so much better by having access to instant communication anywhere on the globe (AT&T now invites us to imagine a world without limits), to do your chores in a fraction of the time it used to or to use a machine that will give you the body of Hercules in just minutes a day !is very powerful. The fantasy that great personal changes for the better can happen with little or no effort seems to know no bounds.  

And of course the dirty little secret about all of this (which is really not so secret) is that most people haven’t the foggiest idea how much of modern technology works. It just does - poof, like magic. There’s something intuitive in our understanding of how, for example, old fashioned tools work, but what of a computer or a cellular phone? The workings of electronic devices aren’t seen, the forces are not visible. Communication technology has been metaphorized as a neural network. Electric impulses blaze at high speed over wires or in our brains. The average person has a mysterious sense of the connection, if you will. Our brains are like computers, we are told. The combination of speed, power at a distance and a lack of understanding how it works seems to be a playground for all sorts of unconscious fantasies of great, magical powers. Theconflict between these fantasies and other experiences of self could be quite jarring.

Not only do we have neat gadgets to play with, but technology has been vital to the means of production of goods. The Industrial Revolution brought machinery into play to crank out repetitive reproductions of an item, as on an assembly line. This, of course, is useful to the mass market. At an oversimplified level, the assembly line allows everybody to get one of a given item. But advances in technology are changing the means of production in fascinating ways. New forms of production and machines are making the assembly line antiquated. Instead of large runs to produce the same thing (although this will always be with us to some degree), many manufacturing processes are done in small runs and sometimes even single runs. Thus,  instead of having one product mass produced, there is the potential for the proliferation of more individualized products. Products become “de-massified” (Toffler, 1990).   From the consumer’s standpoint there is greater choice. The modern consumer can sort of be like Goldilocks and find the one that’s just right. In more technical language, there is a greater likelihood of finding a product which matches one’s conscious fantasy of what is desired.

Thus, with improvements in technology, there is a greater meshing between production and consumption, to the degree that the lines of division can become fainter. Do-it-yourself products of all sorts become increasingly available. Designer products proliferate. Custom design of products can become as cheap in many areas as mass production (Toffler, 1990). If the customer participates more in the process of begetting the product, gratification of all sorts of desires appears possible. It seems that consumers can more and more fancy themselves as the creators of products or having the power to possess that which is special, with all of its attending symbolic meanings. The unspoken promise is of endless gratification within one’s reach, even by one’s hand.

Not only have the processes of technological development tickled these tantalizing fantasies, but specific kinds of products do as well at both the grand and the minor levels. A few decades ago popular songs stopped ending but instead faded away (as if somewhere the Beatles are still playing “Hey Jude”). Video games let the adolescent temporarily possess extraordinary powers (including an infinite number of lives if you know the right secret code to punch in). Of course, TV provides a kind of window on the world which has some very interesting sights. TV (and VCRs) give us all sorts of time and place control metaphors, such as stop action, instant replay, reverse angle, rerun, fast forward, slow motion, quick cut, sound bite, freeze frame, etc. But mostly it serves up a cornucopia of exciting images where hyperbole rules.

So much is the best, the greatest, the funniest of all. Products are presented in enticing ways, especially when something else besides the product is being sold: youth, beauty, power, immortality. The media of all kinds have created the very phenomenon of fame. Fame is like a modern form of ambrosia, intoxicating for the famous and the admirers. Fame is held to be very connected to immortality. But it used to be that in order to be famous, one had to do something like - invent the electric light bulb. Today a person can become famous for - say - having his penis cut off.

Enticing products are displayed and celebrities take on the cloak of being role models. They are often called idols. The cult of celebrity often seems to take on the trappings of a modern form of idolatry (Paglia, 1991). The accomplishments and lives of numerous idols are there for us to witness. We are invited to purchase products which surreptitiously (or not so surreptitiously) promise to bestow their qualities onto us. You are asked to believe the product will endow you with some longed for power. “ Be like Mike - Drink Gatorade®”. Some have traded standing in line for Communion for standing in line to get the celebrity du jour’s autograph. See their lives, share their triumphs, acquire their powers. See them live a life out of your reach, unless you buy what is sold. Not to mention evidence that those who are heavy TV viewers show more indebtedness and higher annual spending (Schor, 1998). Much is presented in a larger than life way. “Television viewing leads to an upscaling of desire.” (Schor, 1998, p. 82). You could say that Tantalus was the first viewer of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous andwe merely carry on the tradition.

The proliferation of the media has made fleeting fame more widespread and shifted the focus to a considerable degree. The idea of the accessibility of fame was captured well in Andy Warhol’s line that in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. Thus, for a brief moment you can be the envied, on the higher level and possess those sort of unreal qualities.Even though much of modern celebrity involves fame through faults or defects, the process of media exposure almost can’t help but bring a larger than life quality to the scene. While at one time, people had to be extraordinary in some respect to garner that sort of attention, today the modern celebrity is brought down to our level. Weaknesses and foibles exposed, indiscretions ridiculed - my how the mighty have fallen.

Yet even the fallen can show up on your screen hawking one product or another. And those of great accomplishments trade on their notoriety to persuade you to buy what they sell.  Purchase of one product or another is meant to endow you with their qualities. If only you eat this breakfast cereal, buy this car, wear these clothes, you can possess superlatives of your own.  

“Oh,” but modern consumers say, “we are too cool and cynical to really believe any of that. We know what they’re up to so it doesn’t affect us. Today we consumers are so knowledgeable that we’d never fall for such blatant appeals to our narcissism and pride. We’re savvy shoppers, we read Consumer Reports, and we’re in the know. OK I’ll watch your commercial but I dare you to persuade me to buy.” That is but one form of cynicism, but there are many others.

The cynicism which seems so rampant in society today, I propose, is pseudosmarts. Many leaders have been brought down from their pedestals in the last few decades, just think what has been written about some of our recent Presidents. The media, the means by which we acquire information, doggedly pursues the imperfections of our most important leaders. They too have been brought down to our level so to speak. Yet modern cynicism covers up what we don’t know. By acting like the know-it-all (as in the expression, “Been there, done that”) the modern cynic is able to temporarily have the power and be the equal of the idolized.

Even the nonfamous (or prefamous) can serve as models - just look to the fashion industry or any magazine. The model is the ideal. The ideal is associated with the product. Acquiring the product should bestow the attributes of the model. The packaging not only makes it appealing but also enables it to be possessed. Nectar and Ambrosia can take many forms.

And everything is packaged, from cereal to politicians. Modern politics provides an interesting dimension to this analysis of wanting and not getting. Nothing seems to dominate politics as much as polling does. The techniques of polling or opinion gathering have become extremely sophisticated in terms of sampling, focus groups, speed of transmitting information. Polling has advanced light years since the newspaper which proclaimed “Dewey Defeats Truman.”  

In a basic sense, in its purest form, polling is a sophisticated way of asking “what do you want?” So we are asked what we want and we tell the pollster. The pollster translates this information and presents it to the politician. The politician then attempts to craft his/her message in terms of what we want. The message is presented as or is perceived to be a set of promises, which can be stated simply as “I’ll give you what you want.” Much fanfare accompanies this.

A problem arises, however, with this simple formula. The common complaint about politicians is that they don’t keep their promises. What is wished for is out of reach. They talk cleverly around this, but people complain about not getting what is promised. Yet this is not a one way street. It works the other way as well.

These days polls are notoriously unstable. Put another way what is wanted changes. Or new questions (wants) arise which contradict other wants. Of course, we want to have it both ways. The politician (who wants to please his/her constituency to stay “elected”) may change his/her position or his message to conform to the contradictory, new polling information.He/she chases the polls. Many politicians are described as slick, slippery or elusive. Positions change and voters can’t locate where they stand on the issues.  

This is just one example of the importance of information in modern times. Much of what is valuable these days is what is in someone’s head (Toffler, 1990). Special knowledge is more important than ever in our culture. So if one candidate knows better what the people are thinking, so much the better for him or her. And yet this extends to many parts of society, especially as more service oriented jobs open and proportionately fewer manufacturing jobs are available.

Acquiring knowledge in a competitive economy takes on interesting routes. There is a greater press these days to know your rivals’ secrets, because information is king. For example, instead of investing in research and development, some companies engage in what is called reverse engineering, i.e., they buy the rival’s product(s) and have their own engineers break it down, analyze it and for the most part copy it. It’s much cheaper than coming up with something of your own. But information gathering doesn’t stop there. Business espionage booms and companies have been formed for the purpose of helping one company spy on another. 80% of the thousand largest firms have their own full time sleuths and new organizations such as the Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals have been formed (Dumaine, 1988; Toffler, 1990). And these are the legal means.

Listening devices, entry into board rooms or computer systems, scouring trash cans, etc. are not uncommon. Much like Tantalus’ taking the secrets from Olympus, there exists a disposition to use anything to gain an edge on the competition, especially an information or knowledge edge. All to ensure the longevity and survivability of the corporation. And let’s not forget that in 1886 the Supreme Court ruled that a corporation is to be regarded as a person, a person who can surely outlive any CEO, a person who has the potential to live indefinitely.

Technology not only has given us mechanical devices but other products and procedures which promise long life and youth. We have numerous forms of life saving devices and procedures. Lives are routinely “saved”. Life can be extended. Life span has increased greatly in this century, even in our life time. We can freeze sperm and eggs. We even try to freeze whole persons in the hopes of bringing them back later.

And other products which are less dramatic but no less appealing. A booming cosmetics industry helps men and women look younger. Various forms of surgery or drugs to alter the body have gone way beyond the face lift. Steroids offer great strength. All sorts of fads and vitamins appeal to our wish to live forever. Even things as corny as a juice machine (which, of course, extracts the nectar of fruits and vegetables) promises to add vitality to our lives. This is a time not only of technology but also of techniques.

All sorts of infomercials promise the quick & easy steps to your dreams. You’ll learn the secret shortcuts to building wealth, special techniques of love making and relationships, the power to improve your memory. So you can get rich, get laid and remember the whole thing!  


This kind of relationship between the public and politicians or between the public and government isn’t completely new, but it is a more exaggerated form of traditional American politics at work. Bold promises have been part of the democracy since its infancy. After all this is a country founded on the overthrow of a monarchy, a rule which had been sanctioned by God, since the king was supposed to be in God’s favor (God save the king). People traveled to the New World originally for an opportunity, namely the opportunity for religious expression, to worship your God as you see fit. 

So with a revolution we say that all men are created equal. With this came a new promise, but one in a sense which was more self generated. That in America you can do anything, grow up to be whatever you want to be, anybody can be President. All sorts of powers seem to be available. One is not born into a caste or an aristocracy, we are all self made. You move up the ladder of success, reach as high as you like, because this is the land of opportunity. There were new frontiers to conquer, new land to acquire, a seemingly endless expanse of the king’s old territory to possess. Politicians needed to promise things in order to get our vote, so hyperbole has been part of campaigning since the early days.

Toqueville (1848) captured these sentiments well when he said that “Every American is eaten up with longing to rise... A country which overthrew an aristocracy released a stored up energy to achieve envied positions.” He continues, “Early in American history it was noted that craftsmen not only want to bring useful things within reach of every citizen but also try to give the object a look of brilliance, unconnected with its true worth. The people want to rise in class and will go to much trouble to make it look like they are rising.”

“In aristocracies, the poor or lower levels are stuck by birth and are forced to dwell in imagination of the next world. It is closed in by the wretchedness of the actual world but escapes therefrom and seeks joys beyond...Thus when distinctions of rank are blurred and privilege is abolished...the poor can conceive an eager desire to acquire comfort and the rich think of the danger of losing it...In America I have never met a citizen too poor to cast a glance of hope and envy toward the pleasures of the rich or whose imagination did not snatch in anticipation good things that fate obstinately refused him.

“When inequality is the general rule in a society, the greatest inequalities attract no attention. When everything is more or less level, the slightest variation is noticed. Hence the more equal they become the more insatiable will be their longing for equality.  

“Among democratic peoples men easily obtain a certain equality, but they will never get the sort of equality they long for. That is the equality which ever retreats from them without getting quite out of sight and as it retreats beckons them on to pursue. Every instant they think they will catch it and each time it slips through their fingers. They see it close enough to know its charms but they do not get near enough to enjoy it and they will be dead before they fully relish its delights.

“That is the reason for the strong melancholy often haunting inhabitants of democracies in the midst of abundance and of that disgust with life sometimes gripping them in calm and easy circumstances. Men hold onto equality not because it is precious to them but because they think it will last forever.” So to at least one observer, America was a land poised for tantalizing times even in the 1840s.

Equality can take on many meanings for the individual. And while the desire for equality is high, the temptation to be more equal than the other is a strong part of human nature. The psychological appropriation of power is important here. Since many psychological conflicts include the idea that the competition has a higher status, and stratification of status had been rigid and visible in aristocratic societies, democracy achieved quickly what is psychically striven for - to be on equal terms/level with your competition. That is people initially felt they were rising up in level - most people that is. Climbing up and reaching up is inherent in the American Dream.

As stated in the Declaration of Independence, “...We hold these truths to be self evident...” A new from of authority resided in the self. Governance became a form of self rule based upon the consent of the people. The shift is to self power. One natural course for investment of fantasies of omnipotence or omniscience may be away from royalty to the self. Tocqueville considered Americans to believe in the infinite perfectibility of man.

With government being the nontechnological extension of the people, the conscience and the repository for all sorts of ideals, it may have been a natural development that after participating successfully in two World Wars people could feel tempted to believe that we could solve all sorts of problems ad infinitum (Samuelson, 1995). Moreover, if we examine the developments taking place at the beginning of the 20th Century, we can witness the rapidity of many forms of progress. Let’s consider a span of time in America, using a pair of Freud’s writings as bookends.

In America on January 1 (in the year Interpretation of Dreams was published) there were no such words as “radio”, nor “movie”, nor “aviator”. No one had worries about income taxes.  Doctors had not heard of insulin, science didn’t really know of relativity or quantum mechanics.  Farmers had not heard of tractors, nor had bankers heard of the Federal Reserve System.  Merchants had not heard of chain stores or self service. Politicians had not heard of direct primaries. There was no mention of jazz, birth control, Freudian, brainstorm, cafeteria, automat. “Over the top” and “no man’s land” meant nothing to people. Photographs were not found in newspapers. Making horseshoes was an established and thought to be permanent business. The hot topic of the day was whether America should engage in continued expansionism and possess or hold power over more territories, well beyond the contiguous states (Sullivan, 1926/1996). By the time Freud published Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety, this had all changed.

This stepping backwards, as it were, is done in an effort to sketch out in a brief way the antecedents of issues which seem to confront contemporary society. Although we concern ourselves with the pace of change and conditions of speed up (now), the road to this stretches back. Modern speed up wasn’t brought on yesterday, nor is it connected with only a few things, like TV or computers. Even in the early part of this century, the pace was quickening and at least a vague sense of Americans’ push to perfectionism existed well before the start of the century. The perfectibility had many earthly dimensions originally, as the Constitution prohibited the government from establishing a national religion, the so called separation of Church and state. Earthly governing became the province of the Everyman, while you could practice your religion as you pleased. Yet the conditions of democracy (here and elsewhere) fostered certain freedoms (scientific and intellectual) which could come to increase our understanding of the world even to the point of challenging the existence of God.


The open communication of ideas, the tolerance of ideas and the freedom to explore newforms of thinking subtly ornot so subtly challenged the existence of a God or creator in the traditional sense of an omniscient or omnipotent being. The pursuits themselves often challenge the presumed prerogative of God, i.e., to know the secrets of life and the secrets of the universe.  Challenges of two kinds, i.e., knowing the secrets themselves or the secrets pointing to explanations other than God have been abundant in the last century or so. Once upon a time religion, philosophy and the sciences were intertwined, but not so lately.

Nothing exemplifies this as much as the changing version of creation. From the Bible came the story of God as creator of the world and its inhabitants, Adam & Eve. They had eaten of the Tree of Knowledge but did not get to eat from the Tree of Life. The Tree of Life was to grant immortality (Frazier, 1918). Instead of their personal immortality being attained, they have to settle for symbolic immortality via their naughty sexual knowledge and become the “parents” of humanity. The Bible is filled with genealogical references.

We have witnessed a replacement story unfolding. Instead of God as author, we have Darwin and Mendel. Replacing Adam & Eve are Watson & Crick. The icon of the coiled snake ‘round the Tree of Knowledge is displaced by that of the double helix which gave genealogy a whole new twist.

The dangerous idea of Darwin eliminates the need for a creator (as in the old philosophical argument for the existence of God by Design: e.g., how could complex forms of life exist without a designer? (see Dennett, 1995). Instead man discovers the extant design by his own powers.  In the Future of an Illusion, Freud addressed religion and god as associated with “illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind” (Freud, 1927). The wishes of the childishly helpless human being for protection from life’s perils, for the realization of justice amidst injustice, for the prolongation of earthly existence in a future life, for knowledge of the origin of the world, of the relationship between the body and the mind (Freud, 1927; Küng, 1979).

Evolution by natural selection tells us that we can get order such as this out of the seeming chaos of a smallish planet in a minor galaxy (Dennett, 1995). Couple this with Watson and Crick’s discovery of DNA (the stuff of inheritance) and we have the building blocks of life. As any child will tell you, if you have enough Legos™ you can build just about anything. 

For to know the building blocks of life and for there to be no necessity for a God is to shift power to us. If a people shift their probabilities away from a god what other compromises might the individual or groups of individuals make? Instead of investing wishes of omnipotence into a category/fantasy of God, these wishes could become invested in other fantasies, including various fantasies of self, as in unconscious fantasies which say in effect “I am powerful”. And that’s all good and well until you encounter other experiences of self which contradict this, like “How the hell do you program this VCR???” These contradictions are the stuff of the disconnects which comprise our tantalizing times.

Once we know the building blocks of life couldn’t we build anything; what shall we build?  We could count lots of sheep named Dolly but still lose sleep. Dovetailing with medical advances, this knowledge and other discoveries have given us power over life, to bring it into the world (e.g., in vitro fertilization) or to eliminate it on a mass scale (e.g., germ warfare or nuclear bombs). In the field of artificial life, researchers seek rules underlying nature by mimicking it on a computer. Societies are created by the researchers (who thus play God) and evolution is studied (Horgan, 1994). We ready ourselves for the promises of the Biotech Century (see Rifkin, 1998).

Einstein explained principles of relativity with thought experiments (the useful procedure of thought experiments also serves to tickle some fantasies of omniscience because there’s no way to “really” test this out; so we can think it and that’s proof enough). The most famous one involves the twins on earth. One takes off in a rocket ship which travels at the speed of light, the other remains on earth. The one traveling at lightspeed doesn’t age and returns to earth to find his brother long since dead (Maybe that’s where we get the expression move it or lose it). In a way modern society seems to be trying to streak along at the speed of light. The closer you get to that speed, the longer you stay young and the more death can be staved off. In a funny way Einstein’s secret of the universe showed us the means to immortality. In this way speed can come to be embraced as figuratively (or even literally) the elixir of life. Of course the fact that we can’t travel at the speed of light is simply an inconvenient detail. In a state of bluster we can reassure ourselves that with American know-how we’ll figure out a way.

How much do we know in the basic sciences? There are currently serious debates taking place in the scientific community about whether we are approaching our limits, either the limits of science (what there is to know) or human cognitive limits. A few Nobel Prize winning scientists and science writers are considering that we are approaching a point of diminishing returns (Horgan, 1996). While there are many things yet to discover (like a cure for the common cold) some say we will not be discovering new, radically different processes which require revolutionary new theories, the way relativity, quantum mechanics and natural selection are revolutionary. These theories, among others, are considered in some basic sense to be true and won’t be replaced. Scientists are now proposing theories which are not even empirically testable (all of which could be seen as sprung from the head of Zeus). As John Horgan put it, many theories in modern physics are beginning to look like literary criticism (Horgan, 1996). Thus, some in the scientific  ommunity are beginning to think we know it all already. We are coming close to omniscience. We laymen consider ourselves, sometimes, part of that WE.

But consider that in the 19th century the reasonably well educated person could understand the physics of that day.  Today in order to understand contemporary physics you have to be, in the words of Noam Chomsky, “some kind of freak” (Horgan, 1996). I raise this issue because of the contradictions and paradoxes involved. Namely we know so much more in one sense, but we know less in another. To nurture the fantasy of fantastic knowledge is to expect to possess the powers which accompany such knowledge. To expect to have such power is to set one’s sights on unattainable or heretofore forbidden objects. The mega knowledge of the sciences is one more element of the culture which fertilizes fantasies of power.

For the general public to be less knowledgeable than one supposes is to pave the way for fantasies of magic power. For example, according to a recent National Science Foundation survey, fewer than half of the people polled understand that the earth orbits the sun yearly and only 21% could define DNA. We can see satellite pictures of earth and have a god’s eye view of the planet without the knowledge of how it happens, but knowing WE did it and feel secure in the knowledge that we have the power to do this.  

Intellectual developments which tantalize us are not limited to the hard sciences.  Relativities of all sorts have emerged, e.g., cultural relativism. On the one hand is the possibility of being open minded to different cultures and casting a critical eye on one’s own premises, but when taken to extremes is the possibility that one would have to be a god to be that open minded. Relativity theory itself has been misused to apply to many ethical dilemmas, as in it’s all relative - whatever you want to do is OK. There is no other standard besides your own.Some would argue that postmodernism reinforces this.

In philosophy and mathematics along came Gödel’s Theorem. For years mathematicians have been trying to prove all the truths of mathematics (even simple arithmetic) via axioms.  What he showed was that this was impossible. No matter what kind of system you devise, there is at least one formula in the system which is true but can’t be proved by the system (Hofstadter, 1985). If ultimate proof (which you need for ultimate truth) is the Road Runner, then every system we devise is Wile E. Coyote. The problem Gödel discovered involves the use of self reference.

In verbal language one could say something like “This sentence contradicts itself - or rather - well, no, actually it doesn’t.” There are an infinite number of sentences along the lines of “This sentence is lying.” Mathematical systems can reference themselves and also generate elusive situations. Many systems tantalize us with the promise of full explanatory power. Yet, the full power of human mathematical reasoning eludes capture in the cage of rigor which is, of course, constructed by humans. Gödel showed that all kinds of symbol systems can run into problems like this because self reference is always capable of playing teasingly with the level distinction between that which represents and that which is represented. Certainly this is the case in the visual arts, as exemplified in many works by Picasso or Escher.

Thus, in many systems of thought we have struggled with that which seems within reach at least at some level. Even our own field grapples with when analysis is “complete” and what goes into deciding to terminate. The truth of what we can reach may depend upon the level of analysis. As a field which throws itself into understanding systems of self reference ( a.k.a. patients freely associating), hopefully we can continue to pursue truths without pretense that we’ll really reach the end and without too much anxiety that the only way to feel satisfied is to reach that definite end of a complete analysis.

Tantalization is fascinating and important to study because of its pervasiveness at many levels. It is a human process waiting to be tickled. The combination of excitement at the possibility of obtaining (traditional) god-like qualities (various powers, beauties and immortality) juxtaposed with malaise, discontentment, frustration, despair, unhappinesses of many forms, disquiet and anxiety seems inherent to contemporary living. These conflicts appear to be more salient because of speed and choices which were not available even a century ago. Technologies not only provide access to many powers but also reveal images of what we wish to become (and suggest what we could become). This continues as we prepare to become more immersed in various forms of virtual reality. Furthermore, living at the end of the 20th Century stimulates fantasies, projections, predictions and assessments of what the next century and millennium hold. Religious significance has often been associated to the end/start of a millennium. Such speculation, often bold or of apocalyptic tinge, exists although none of us have ever lived through the beginning of a millennium. It exists because it is presumed to spring from God.  Tantalization has heightened as we witness and experience new forms of power and stimulation at speeds previously only dreamt of. The dynamics have always been present, available and experienced but the culture has never had the means to excite these wishes in this way. From a consumer marketplace which offers a glut of what we want (the customer is always right), to a culture preoccupied with entertainment, amusement and celebrity (e.g., Boorstin, 1961; Gabler, 1998), to unlocking the age old secrets of life and of the universe, the possession of Zeus’ potency and prerogatives seems near. How disheartening and disappointing, then, can be the banal details of daily living; how much more nerve racking it is when the speed and pace of contemporary living pushes us around instead of our being the master; how jarring to learn that we are still mortal.


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Barry Dauphin, Ph.D. is an assistant professor in the Psychology Department of the University of Detroit-Mercy.  He has served as president of the Michigan Society for Psychoanalytic Psychology (1997-99; 2003-2009).  He is a past president of the local chapters section of Division 39.  He has written on psychoanalysis & culture, psychoanalysis & philosophy and issues involved in psychoanalytic therapy with children.

This paper began as an exploration between myth and psychological processes, using the myth of Tantalus to discuss the psychodynamics of tantalization.  The myth lends itself well to thinking about many aspects of contemproary American culture.  Our culture creates many forms of excitement that appear on the surface to grant our deepest wishes.  Yet modern America is often home to various forms of dissatisfactions and disappointments that seem to tie in to the very excitements stirred up thorugh our technological advancements, media, entertainment industry and vaarious powers.  Our discontents seem associated to our beliefs that we can fundamentally change human nature and perhaps become like the gods of old.  This paper explores this topic in depth. 

This paper helped serve as the basis for his book Tantalizing Times: Excitements, Disconnects, and Discontents in Contemporary American Society published by Peter Lang in 2006.