steve jobs: an ayur-reverie about a lost mother, the pancreas, and the maternalization of technology
First published on www.elephantjournal.com, 10/12/2011
How is it meaningful that Steve Jobs died of pancreatic cancer? The poetry of ayurveda might say:
Steve Jobs lost his maternal source of sweetness and nurturance at a critical age. He then worked with blazing determination to recover this intuitive support, not only for himself, but for others. Between his loss and his relentless overcompensation for this loss, he burned up in sacrifice the physiology of sweetness: plasma, fat tissue, and the pancreas. He both created and possessed as a mother does.
I need to stress that this is neither a diagnosis nor a causal narrative. It is, in the style of ancient naturopathy, a meditation on the poetry of the organs and the meanings of flesh. I intend for it to add an embodied dimension to the growing chorus of realization that through Jobs’ life we feel so much more than the coldness of innovation, competition, speed, marketing, mass production, and stock prices. We also feel his body: his sacrificial gauntness, his eyes piercing the receding horizon of possibility. And that black turtleneck, much more than a nerd’s uniform, was a sign of the austerity that comes from bereavement.
It is undeniable that there was something about Steve Jobs’ creativity that spoke to an entire era. Crucially, this gift was borne by his body. It must be that that body also speaks to us – if only we could bridge the somatic gap to hear it. I’ll try to amplify its voice here: the voice beneath the ideas, the ambivalently beautiful code beneath what we see. I hope the examination removes another brick in the wall of mind-body dualism.
A few facts about his life are enough. His Wisconsonian mother was exiled to deliver him in shame. He was adopted by Armenian immigrants on the West coast. He fathered a daughter at the age of 23, but denied his paternity and rejected her for many years. Then: he became a singular world leader in the aesthetics and humanization of technology.
In Ayurveda, the pancreas is the mother of the body: controller of liquids and sugars, accepting and digesting the sweetnesses of food and life. When presented with a diabetic patient, it is instinctual for the practitioner to inquire into the status of the client’s relationship with his mother. Usually some kind of over-attachment is apparent, perhaps with poor individuation and boundary formation, leading to a distorted or amplified sweet craving that expresses this self-and-other merging. Meeting the craving exhausts insulin, the hormone that allows sugars to be converted into purposive drives. When insulin-production crashes, it drags the will down with it – the will to turn resources into fire.
Applying this reasoning, we might say that Jobs suffered from an inverse diabetic state. When maternal nurturance is afflicted, or absent to the vestigial child within, the pancreas, starved of sweet, may wither with aggrieved heat and become enflamed to the point of tumorous ulceration. Pancreatic cancer, in this light, is seen as a radical expression of rupture between mother and child, causing a debilitation in the capacity for nurturance and receptivity. The mother has died, and the child, ever hungry, is now driven forward in a self-creative rage.
The Armenian connection: the cultural (if not personal) memory of genocide may have pervaded the emotional landscape of Jobs’ Armenian foster home. More than just yearning for a lost motherland, the memory of the Ottoman Turks loading boats with women and children and sinking them in the Black Sea would be an abject assault on sanity for generations. There is no way of any of us knowing how this context may have impacted Jobs directly. But I imagine its opaque energy coursing through the shadows of his adoptive home, knitting his stepmother’s brow. Now, Jobs’ portrait gazes out at me as though he were the lead in some movie that Atom Egoyan has yet to make, a saturnine hero of cultural trauma, working blindly towards some nameless resolution of cellos and light.
Cellos, light – and stupendous aesthetic design that has maternalized technology to the entire world. The sweetest logic of Jobs’ life-force is that it reached sublimely for what it lacked, and in so doing, found it for everyone.
It seems clear to me that every design and technological innovation that Jobs brought to market answered core maternal questions:
1. How can I make complexity digestible to my child?
2. How can I hide the complexity of life from my child, and make the movements of the world seamless?
3. How can I soften every hardened edge so that my child’s learning is continuous with our fleshly bond?
4. How can I anticipate my child’s needs so seamlessly that she doesn’t even recognize them as needs, but as facts of existence that are always already fulfilled?
The first question speaks to the simple fact that through Jobs’ elaboration of the Xerox and Atari Graphical User Interfaces of Windows, Icons, Menus, and Pointers (WIMPs), digital technology moved from code to metaphor, from data to language. Jobs stands at the center of our digital language acquisition. He helped to heal the gap between the dialects of industry, art, and hearth. Like the mother who arranges colours and textures in the crib and dangles baubles over it, the GUI-maker lets us point and pinch preverbally, to organize and arrange. Goo goo GUI.
The second question speaks to Apple’s relentless burial of code beneath surface textures, visual delight, stacks, animations, and the general curvature of graphical welcome. The harsh abstraction of binary code is hidden from the child; the continuous, autonomic and stark choices of necessity are covered over by the flowing smile. The child will have no idea of stress and complexity until he himself enters the realm of willful creation. This seamlessness imbues children (and us digital children) with the feeling of interdependence with technology, while concealing our utter dependence upon its creator.
Third point: aesthetics. Consider the newest mouse from Apple: a small breast of responsiveness under the hand, which now quite suddenly touches data and world more softly. Remember a decade ago – the rounded hull of the iMac, transparent as an ultrasound, and its primary colours that said we are in a new kindergarten of life and we shall play. Feel the roundness of the iPhone’s back casing against your thigh. I imagine that the tenderness of our text-messages has risen exponentially with the curves and smoothnesses. I’m waiting for the Google analytics tool that will assess the rhetorical qualities of tweets produced on Blackberries vs. iPhones. I’m fantasizing that the latter will score far higher in categories of intimacy and receptivity. The entire feeling of the Mac OS makes me want to reach out more softly. Even the way in which data and images seem to swell rather than click into being gives me the impression of creation, rather than retrieval. The mother is not simply retrieving the data of survival: she is journeying to retrieve, hiding her journey to retrieve, and then transforming the data into a present gift.
Finally: how do we come to know our needs? The mother creates them by providing for them before we even know we have them. This is what Donald Winnicott says: that the natural desires of the infant are made into explicit and known needs because the mother is always already meeting them. She fulfills herself by fulfilling the other. Individuation is the process of feeling these mutual needs and their fulfillments begin to separate, so that both mother and child learn to find resolution in others, and in other spaces. In the world of technology, these movements towards individuation are subtle pulses of unfolding desire, driving design towards greater coherence with the user. Jobs seems to have been a master at fulfilling the Winnicottian role of motherhood, but also at reading the pulses of market individuation that showed him opportunities for improvement.
Yet this maternality is not without its ethical ambivalence and even cruelty. The raw maternal is too narrowly focused to be universal. It is tribal, and will finance its microcosmic beneficence through a ruthless stance towards the macrocosm. In the Mahabharata, Vyasa says: “When a mother favours her child over the child of another, war is near.” And from the outermost ring, this is what we see in the disparity between Apple’s majority-world factory workers, and its late-capitalist world consumers. We also see it in Apple’s massive ecological footprint and fair-trade inequities, which, if properly accounted for in its pricing, would raise the consumer cost of the iPad to over $15K. But Jobs’ intense – even parental – love for his customer-child seems to have outshone every other consideration.
And is it any wonder that a man who overcompensates for a lack of maternal support by the meticulous crafting of his own child’s experience will also wreak stronger tyrannies over what he loves and possesses? It is no secret that Jobs lorded over his employees with impossibly fierce demands, and protected the family knowledge with an irrational ferocity that went far beyond corporate privacy and into, according to some, paranoia. Critics have long complained that Jobs, through proprietary strong-arming, prevented the very freedom that he built his “misfits, rebels, and troublemakers, ” marketing upon. He happily destroyed the technological competitors of other families. Reports from the inside tell of regular humiliations and verbal abuse of underlings, and that he spied without guile on his own family through his Orwellian “Worldwide Loyalty Team”. He was not an open-source advocate. Nor was he a child-centered parent. But is this any surprise, when the field of his own childhood is so unstable?
I am typing this on a MacBook Air, to which I am strangely attached. The better part of my relationships is mediated through this (– I can’t call it a machine –) neutral and creative extension of my bodymind. But this wonder beneath my fingers, with which I spend my most intimate internal hours, comes not just through the loving care of Steve Jobs, but through his myopic zeal to serve me (my demographic, my class, my aesthetic sense, my culture) regardless of the social or ecological cost. Like a mother, he has loved me blindly in this strange world where so many soft and warm and sweet things drift by as images on glass that always eventually goes black to reveal our yearning gaze.
One last note. Jobs’ biography isn’t out yet, but I’m waiting with bated breath to read of the trip to India he took at the age of 18. He wanted to visit Neem Karoli Baba in Vrindavan, the forest where Krishna is said to have played as a child. When he arrived, Baba was dead. I imagine that in that mourning ashram he heard Jeffery Kagel, who later changed his name to Krishna Das, weep and sing about Durga, Kali, Lakshmi: the divine mother.
special thanks to Alix Bemrose for helping me with the Winnicott connection, and my father David for copy editing