YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

March 24, 2013

The State of the blog (2)

Kidman as GellhornThis is a report to the readers of the Yankee Doodle Society/Clare Spark blog about our progress and how the readership has ebbed and flowed. But also what themes have garnered the most interest, and which have not.

I did not get serious about the blog until I had finished other academic work, sometime in mid-2009. All told, we have had 256,313 views, about half of which appear to have been visitors, as some came because of one title, then stayed to read more (WordPress is now distinguishing between visitors and views). Those reading “About Clare Spark” numbered 9,163, which I am told is a respectable number. The best year was 2012, probably because of the presidential election, and because Nicole Kidman’s performance as Martha Gellhorn drove several thousand viewers to my blog on Hemingway and Gellhorn’s supposed “spy mission” to China in 1941, partly dramatized in a HBO movie. The readership of several conservative websites were also coming to the blog in considerable numbers. I suspect that the latter were pleased to see my criticisms of Obama, but less pleased to see my constant critiques of populism across the political spectrum. (Even at KPFK, I was called an “elitist” by some young listeners, and recently one anonymous internet comment diagnosed me as “a non-coercive leftist.” For those into classification, you are on your own.)

My family and some friends are staggered when I report these numbers. I am less satisfied: there should be more comments and presumably helpful feedback. Why, I wonder? Though the internet is crowded with blogs, perhaps mine are less predictable, less easily classified or labeled as “conservative”, “liberal”, “moderate,” or “radical”, and are consequently more demanding upon the reader. Perhaps they discomfit some who want echoes, not reconfigurations of old problems and new questions. Since I started writing about Freud’s continued relevance and/or about the culture wars, where I come out as a student of the psyche and am also strongly supportive of the separation of church and state, I have seen the number of visitors diminish. (For my blogs on what is useful about Freud or about the abuse of “Freud” see https://clarespark.com/2013/03/16/blogs-on-freud-and-anti-freudians/.)

When I was first hired as Program Director of Pacifica Radio in Los Angeles, the News Director Marc Cooper stated flat out that my radicalism consisted in believing that the audience wasn’t stupid. Indeed, one of my core beliefs is that “public intellectuals” are less interested in teaching their readers or viewers to be independent analysts, than in getting paid in money and celebrity with “niche” followers. I was vindicated as PD of KPFK, for our subscriptions swelled by 20%, and I continue to be impressed by the quality and learnedness of comments I get on some blogs and on Facebook.

What themes have I found most vanguard in planning future essays?

  1. Antisemitism is still not discussed in all its manifold forms, in spite of the liberal enthusiasm for studying “prejudice” and “hate speech.” Assimilated Jews want to believe that they are safe in America by hewing to the Democratic Party, and few Americans of my generation recognized that anyone who lived through all or part of the twentieth century has suffered multiple traumas.  So if many are obsessed with Israel (pro or con), it is probably because they don’t feel safe in America, particularly those who are descended from Holocaust survivors. While we study “hate speech” we don’t study why people hate, and I am determined to get to the bottom of “misogyny” in all its forms, and particular, its intertwining with antisemitism. Is Woman the Jew of the Home?
  2. The very notion of the “individual” is under attack, whether it be in the regressive, infantilizing rhetoric of “family” that pervades the discourse of both left and right, or in the general, often well-founded, suspicion of mental health professionals.
  3. Popular culture needs much more decoding, including primitivism and death cults among youth or the military model throughout (think NCIS and its popularity). Lately, I have been studying the “degeneration” narrative that alleges that the modern world necessarily leads to the death of the planet and civilization as we have known it. This pervasive belief is dangerous to political will, and possibly affects all of us, whatever our political preferences.

I will probably continue my offensive against antidemocratic propaganda, doing my best to decode loaded language and images, while remaining detached from any particular politics. Scholarship demands that distance, though my personal feelings toward readers of my work continue to be warm and protective. I love teaching, and always have, even in a war zone.

Gellhorn ca. WW2

Gellhorn ca. WW2


March 10, 2013

What remains useful about Freud?

One version of individuality, NYC

One version of individuality, NYC

(For a prelude to this blog, see https://clarespark.com/2013/01/08/is-ahab-ahab-the-free-will-debate/.)

It is obvious why many social conservatives would reject anything smacking of Freudianism out of hand: besides his secular version of Judaism throughout life, his later work identified him as an atheist, and in such works as The Future of an Illusion argued that those persons believing in religion were in a state of regression (clinging to an idealized Father figure); he denied that children were “innocent” by pointing to infant or  infantile sexuality and the Oedipus complex; he argued that most of us live with ambivalence about all our love objects: such mixtures of love and hate regarding parents and siblings destabilize portentous emotions that preserve hierarchy, whether these be the deployment by powerful institutions of hero-worship, state-worship, or the expectation that families are (unproblematic) havens in a heartless world.

Rather, for Freud (especially for some of his followers), the rhetoric of the perfectly happy family preserves tyrannical hierarchies, causes childish regression to dependency and loss of a critical/skeptical outlook in adults, and worst of all, eliminates the notion of the horizontal contract in favor of vertical contracts. I.e., the Good King or Leader will protect us if we don’t question the legitimacy of his policies and institutional practices. This move removes attention from the fairness or unfairness of the horizontal contract, a fiction of rationality that can be  preserved either in the statism of the progressive movement or in the “rational choice” theory of libertarians. But if there is an abundance of labor, the employer holds all the cards; if there are many beautiful women competing for the love and protection of powerful men, woman’s worth is downgraded, except in agricultural, pre-modern societies where female strength and competence as helpmeets and breeders are primary. And we wonder at the popularity of primitivism? (click onto the illustration of a youthful anarchist: if this isn’t neo-Nazi, I don’t know what is).

Which brings us to the question of individuality. As moderns and inheritors of civilization, we want to be introspective, to be self-examining. We abjure impulse in favor of picking and choosing our life partners on the basis of their psychological maturity, as prospective companions; we hope to be appropriately self-critical as parents and adults with respect to the elderly, or how we evaluate everyone and everything from economic policies to great writers, presidents, and other historical actors, or to beloved mates, teachers, and friends. Such strenuous introspection is difficult without the memory of multiple traumas, small and large. Here was Freud’s lasting contribution to humanity. The more we courageously look at our choices, noting which were forced upon us through the accidents of our particularly histories, the more able we are to look at whether or not we had the individual choices we imagine. We recognize, without shame, internal conflicts, and face them with curiosity and the determination to dig further, without hating ourselves for our “errors” or sins.

Freud remains unsurpassed in his diagnosis of early childhood and trauma: traumas that resurface in later life to cause psychosomatic illness and the immobilization of anxiety, depression, and the fear that we have not lived our own lives, but were the playthings of a wicked cosmos, even demonic forces.

To acknowledge how sex and aggression play out in institutions and in always difficult families, how instinctual forces may penetrate all our attachments or “choices”—whether these be our votes for representatives, or whether or not to be parents, or to understand sexual attraction or repulsion, or to practice sadomasochist rituals, is to attain a higher level of freedom than Freud’s predecessors enjoyed. As one great teacher of mine reassured me: “We are not civilized yet.”

Sigmund Freud was the consummate bourgeois, pointing to both the limits to human freedom and to the long process of emancipation from self-annihilating illusion. How many of us possess his courageous, if ambiguous, embrace of the modern world? How many of us dare to give up the perverse satisfactions of the guilty liberal by emulating Minerva’s owl? There are few compensations for old age and painful experience, but here is one: we may see the trajectory of our lives and treat our choices with less disappointment and more generosity.

[Professor Hank Greenspan of the University of Michigan, a trained psychoanalyst, has given me permission to quote his response to the blog: “In an age of tweets and bits and quick fixes, the notion of spending, literally, years trying to understand someone else’s subjectivity in its particularity and complexity–including one’s own!–is radical enough. Also, the related notion (alien to most academic work) that no interpretation can be more than conjecture until it is engaged, refined, and worked over with the person about whom the interpretation intends to apply. Timing counts too–also alien to work that concerns only texts rather than folks. Freud’s “technique” contribution remains, for me, his most important legacy.”]

Minerva's Owl?

Minerva’s Owl?

December 13, 2012

The “Brain Trust” at UCLA

Blue EagleThe discourse on mental health is troubling, for psychosurgery in the form of lobotomies were deployed for many decades before they were stigmatized.  (See https://clarespark.com/2010/11/29/index-to-lobotomy-blogs/.) Moreover, the notion of psychiatrists or other mental health workers proposing medical interventions in the body, particularly the brain, arouses fears that government surveillance (mind-control and/or mind-management, even psychosurgery on imprisoned black people) are the intended outcomes. Meanwhile, amateurs write self-help books that instruct the unschooled masses with remedies that are wild surmises and/or quackery.

As I have shown, there is a basis for such “paranoid” ideation in ordinary people, for the structural-functionalists (misnamed) in sociology and the burgeoning field of social relations at Harvard and other elite universities did draw upon authoritarian social theory and testing to weed out potential radicals and to direct popular opinion along “progressive” lines, i.e. lines that would support FDR’s New Deal and the welfare state generally. (See https://clarespark.com/2012/12/12/white-rage-black-surrogates/, especially the introductory lines identifying the academic pedigree of Dr. Bertram P. Karon.)

Dr. Karon holds that schizophrenia is not a genetic disease requiring sedating medication, but rather (controversially) proposes that psychoanalytically oriented therapy can provide cure. He stresses the widespread need of people generally to have a willing ear to listen to her or his troubles. Given that health insurers (including Medicare) are reluctant to pay for anything but short term counseling and medication, one wonders if willing friends and relatives are not called upon to listen to those of us with emotional difficulties that are manifested in biological symptoms and general misery. For the willing ear, the key would be in not judging the speaker, and in controlling one’s own emotional responses to loaded material, a feat that few of us are up for, especially in our youth (or in the endless youth that the rhetoric of “family” or the fashion industry promotes: see https://clarespark.com/2011/01/26/obama-and-the-rhetoric-of-the-political-family/).


Yesterday I received a magazine from the UCLA Health System David Geffen School of Medicine, featuring an article by Dan Gordon, “Brain Trust,” a six-page article soliciting support for the Neuropsychiatric Institute as directed by Dr. Peter Whybrow, a celebrity neuroscientist and psychiatrist. The article caught my attention because it represented, as “interdisciplinary” social theory, exactly the same social theory that I had encountered in the UCLA Department of History as I pursued my doctorate. This social theory was “progressive” in that it stressed the “interactions” between genetic inheritance and vaguely defined “environmental” influences.  (See https://clarespark.com/2010/02/10/a-brooding-meditation-on-intimacy-and-distance/.)

But the focus in the essay was obviously to locate “brain disorders” as subject to medical interventions, combining [cognitive behavioral] “therapy,”  molecular biology, MRI scans, genomics, and  pharmaceuticals, while holding out hope for surgery that would cure such ailments as bipolar disease, perhaps even depression, insomnia, obesity, Alzheimer’s and so on.

Here are some representative fuzzy quotes:

“Thomas Strouse, M.D., medical director of the Resnick Hospital, notes that when the NPI first opened its doors, the prevailing theories were that manic depression, severe depression and even schizophrenia were attributable to parental missteps. ‘Now,’ says Dr. Strouse, ‘we tend to understand most major mental illnesses as brain diseases that are the manifestation of a complex interaction between genetic and environmental factors.’

“This recognition of a genetic-environmental interplay comes after a period some 20 to 30 years ago, during which most of the focus was on the biological. ‘Biology is not destiny. That also is something we have learned in this explosion of knowledge that is behavioral neuroscience,’ says Dr. Whybrow. ‘The brain learns from what it encounters. Thus, while the genes inherited from our parents help to shape our path and the vulnerabilities we carry, it is experience and those who nurture us that eventually determine who we are.’

“The implications of this understanding are profound. Where once it was thought that people were entirely responsible for their own mood and behavior, and then it was believed that any aberrant behavior was simply a product of wayward brain chemistry, it’s now clear that both a person’s developmental path and his or her biology play a role, along with a third significant factor: the social environment. Even with medication interventions, the best results are achieved with medication and supportive therapy that calls for an understanding of the person, the family and the environment.” (U Magazine, Winter, 2013, pp.16-17)

The late Louis Jolyon West

The late Louis Jolyon West

What was glaringly absent in the article was the role of flawed institutions in promoting “brain disorders.” The word “institution” was never mentioned. “Lifestyle choices” and hopeful subjection to the regimen of  the federally funded “Nexus Project” (with its “interdisciplinary” and “community” focus), now in progress, were mentioned. In other words, we are sort of on our own, but can look forward to the “magic” of the Neuropsychiatric Institute, according to “Fawzy I. Fawzy M.D., the  Louis Jolyon West Professor of Psychiatry and and Biobehavioral Sciences and executive associate director of the Semel Institute.”

Beggars can’t be choosers.

May 2, 2011

OBL and the Obama strategy

Filed under: Uncategorized — clarelspark @ 6:00 pm
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Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan

Like everyone else, I was transfixed by the media coverage and the joyful young crowds cheering the killing of OBL as it was revealed late Sunday night, May 1, 2011.  But today I am still wondering if Obama will not use the killing of OBL to rescue his presidency, taking credit for what was a military mission, declaring national unity, and then blaming Republicans for polarizing the country with their resistance to his fiscal policies.

     Read the text of his speech, and count the number of times he said “I” ordered this and that. Note too the typical use of his “family” rhetoric, implying that he is the bold, protective father of his country. He noted that unity had recently been “frayed” so we should assume that it is his decisive leadership in ordering the operation yesterday morning that has bound our wounds, knitting the “frayed” social fabric.
     I have no doubt that the more timid Republicans will back off their allegedly “extremist” and “divisive” demands for fiscal responsibility in  the face of his probable bump in popularity and their reluctance to be seen as agents of social disintegration now that the happy family has been restored.
     I don’t believe that I am overinterpreting the subtext of Obama’s dramatic announcement. And did I mention his nod to the Pakistanis as if they had fully cooperated with the mission to capture OBL?
[Added later 5/2/11: Obama is continuing the same line he laid down after the Tucson massacre; see https://clarespark.com/2011/01/15/healing-trauma-mystery/. Tonight he addressed congressional leaders and their wives at a White House dinner, reiterating the same themes I identified above: unity, frayed unity, 9/11, the Obama kill, but adding Tucson to the mix. I predict that will be the line for the 2012 campaign. He stands for a restored social fabric, while the opposition is ripping it apart with irrational demands. I.e., we’re not “broke.” Listen to this healer.

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