The Clare Spark Blog

August 14, 2014

Understanding Obama’s ongoing appeal

Ridha Ridha "Normal Ambivalence"

Ridha Ridha “Normal Ambivalence”

Many dark thoughts cross my mind as I contemplate the list of failures attributable to POTUS, but ranking the reason for his continued popularity in some quarters goes beyond his obvious appeal to recipients of state largesse, proud or despised minorities, and guilty liberals.

Why has no one mentioned his stirring speeches promising national unity that helped elect him in the first place? For his healing messages imply that not only warring sections of our country shall be reunited, but that the disunity that we feel inside ourselves, and inside our supposedly harmonious “families” shall also be resolved.

And yet ambivalence is part of the human condition, as Freud controversially alleged in his formulation of the inescapable Oedipus Complex. One old standard partly and incompletely expresses these mixed feelings that occasionally surface, but are usually quickly repressed. (Here is Nat King Cole singing the Vincent Youmans tune “Sometimes I’m Happy” 1957: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CtPeknt0mBA.)

Psychiatrists Melanie Klein, Heinz Kohut and Otto Kernberg, in their studies of “object relations” and “narcissism” all explored the common practice of “splitting” in which we escape ambiguity and ambivalence by turning those figures (public or private) who arouse deep emotions into all good or all bad figures. I find myself doing this myself, and it is only in retrospect that I correct these black and white divisions. For like most other people, I am capable of either demonizing or hero-worshipping figures who are themselves sometimes benign, sometimes threatening, but always struggling to stay afloat.

Perhaps it is the greatest challenge we face as historians, as journalists, or as citizen-critics of our leaders to understand that each of us lives within a controlling, often menacing, context that we did not choose; moreover that we struggle to rationalize our own self-interest and to conform to the imprecations of our parents and siblings to be like them, to maintain idealized attachments, and indeed to like them without ambivalence.

We would rather escape into desolation or into the illusion of unity than face “things as they are” (Melville, speaking through the dubious (?) narrator of Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852), or try his The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857)—if you can take the challenge to your amour propre.)

Ryoshimizu, "Ambivalence"

Ryoshimizu, “Ambivalence”

Here is a related blog: https://clarespark.com/2013/09/17/the-illusion-of-national-unity/, with a disquieting painting by Max Beckmann expressing alienation and lack of connection with others or “things as they are.”

Beckmann, Paris Gesellschaft 1931

Beckmann, Paris Gesellschaft 1931

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June 8, 2014

“Narcissism”: healthy vs. unhealthy

Filed under: Uncategorized — clarelspark @ 7:30 pm
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Echo and Narcissus: Waterhouse

Echo and Narcissus: Waterhouse

These sources are what I found in a quick search around the internet: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narcissism
http://faculty.washington.edu/cbehler/glossary/narcissi.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Otto_F._Kernberg
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heinz_Kohut
http://psychology.about.com/od/psychiatricdisorders/a/history-Of-narcissistic-personality-disorder.htm (NPD excluded from DSM-5.)
http://wkeithcampbell.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/MillerWidigerCampbell20101.pdf
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22729454 (on narcissism and S-M behavior)

None of them steps outside of personal psychosexual development in the family to explore the institutional or ideological context in which “narcissistic personality disorder” either occurs or never shows itself.

My blog on the subject constitutes my personal experience and is not the result of clinical training, though the word “narcissistic” is thrown around in popular culture, sometimes to characterize women, but lately to characterize the grandiosity attributed by classical liberals and conservatives to Barack Obama. “Progressives” return the favor by describing all classical liberals and conservatives as heartless, uncompassionate individualists, oblivious to cries from their [imagined communities].

First, “healthy narcissism.” All my work has been driven by the search for creativity and how to impart it to students of all ages. In my view, such originality and discovery is linked to a healthy sense of self, that is, a person with healthy narcissism is not afraid to plunge into deep and uncharted waters to gain an accurate picture of ourselves and the institutions in which we function, no matter what pathology powerful professionals attribute to this search for truth.

But in the [neoclassical] Greek myth, Narcissus is so captivated by his image in a pond, that he is oblivious to the voice of Echo (society), so that he thoughtlessly falls into the pond and drowns. That is how Melville’s character “Ishmael” (the foil to narcissistic Captain Ahab) describes the tale in the first chapter of Moby-Dick: “Narcissus is the key to it all.” And indeed, Ahab does drown, strangled by the rope with which he would revengefully harpoon the White Whale, oblivious to the crew who will also perish. (The link to progressivism’s emphasis on social relationships as opposed to personal self-absorption should be obvious.) [Wikipedia dates the painting by Waterhouse as painted in 1903, after Ovid, in time for the progressive movement: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Echo_and_Narcissus_(Waterhouse_painting.%5D

The insult of the narcissism label is often felt by women. On the one hand, women are supposed to be protective mothers and wives, attuned to the most subtle emotions and symptoms of their charges, while they are simultaneously driven to defy aging and yet to be well turned outward to the opinions of relatives and then future mates. When the late academic Christopher Lasch wrote his famous The Culture of Narcissism (Norton, 1979) I bristled. It was an obvious slap at the fashionable notion that “culture” had been “feminized” since the emancipation of women. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Culture_of_Narcissism which argues that Lasch was reacting to militant student activists and to the decline of the family.)

Narcissism and attachment theory. It cannot be emphasized enough that pathological narcissists are unable to form non-exploitative attachments to others, whether these be persons or causes. In order to maintain their self-images as high achievers, for instance, they need a steady stream of “narcissistic supplies” from an adoring public. Although they tend to vacillate between idealizing and demonizing other persons, they can’t take criticism, even of the most tactful kind. For as “perfectionists” in the face of deflating errors or rejection, they are incapable of soothing themselves, for they are devoid of internal good objects (i.e., the mother’s unconditional approval).

I don’t know what a psychoanalyst would say about my claim, but every mother knows that the management of separation from young children so that they may attend nursery school or play with other children (out of mother’s sight), is a challenge. This process gets even more complicated when weaning is premature, or when a succession of nannies are the primary caretakers of children, for “object constancy” is vital to building self-confidence in the child who is expected to stand “alone” apart from mother. The resultant “separation anxiety” can be experienced by either the child or the mother or both. (See my essay https://clarespark.com/2009/11/16/panic-attacks-and-separation-anxiety/.) I often wonder how many Sixties radicals embraced collectivist ideologies in hopes of finding a stable, nurturing family that would compensate for feelings of abandonment by parent(s) and society alike. Had socializing institutions not idealized authority, would these often privileged youngsters identified with causes that were seemingly designed to punish them by losing caste?

malignant-narcissism-narcissist-obama

Second, which leads to me the question of narcissism and sadomasochism. I have known several men of high intellectual attainment who were 1. panicked at the thought of criticism but who sought punishment in sexual situations. (They might take the role of sadist or masochist, depending on their personal histories with mom), and 2. lived with simultaneous feelings of grandiosity and worthlessness in their psyches, hence were unable to enjoy their achievements in the eyes of others; moreover they were exceedingly manipulative in personal situations. Whether these symptoms were caused by particular family practices and configurations or are institutionally-induced, are beyond my capacities to identify. But here is one quote from my research in the Sadomasochism Collection at UCLA, that sums up the gratification that follows the beating administered by a mother-substitute:

[excerpt from a fantasy by Steadman Thompson, middle-management at the Armstrong Cork Company, Akron, Pennsylvania, in the Sadomasochism Collection, UCLA:] “As I stood up, she came forward with the silver collar. I was aghast at what I had said and done but I stood still and let her fit the cold metal around my neck. As the lock clicked with an icy finality my misgivings rose to an apex.
“Now look, Vivienne,” I whined.
The wand whistled and struck stingingly before I could flinch. “Speak when spoken to, slave and address me as “Mistress” unless I give you another title to use. Now take a hold of the back of my robe.
As I timidly obeyed, she raised her wand and from the wand and the ball on her crown came a light so intense it washed away all our surroundings.”

Steadman Thompson had been subjected to a magic wand, to a “switch” and after taking his punishment, he was returned to the lap of benignant authority, or what I have called elsewhere “Conservative Enlightenment” (a form of pseudo-enlightenment that fails to liberate us from illegitimate authority). How many of our “professionals” in middle management are sadistic with respect to the students (or others) in their charge, while being masochistic with respect to the orders and curricula dished out by their powerful superiors in administrative capacities?

Or, as Melville’s Ishmael queried? “Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that.” (https://clarespark.com/2011/04/10/who-aint-a-slave/, and/or https://clarespark.com/2012/12/02/index-to-sadomasochism-blogs/.)

Time-spoof-cover

October 25, 2009

Panic Attacks

 

Pierrot and manipulative Mother? Or Mask?

Pierrot and manipulative Mother? Or Mask?

 I have resurrected an old KPFK program Panic Attacks, hosted by Dr. Etta Enzyme, December 12, 1994. It was first in a projected series exploring the ways specific historical explanations (especially the causes of World War I, World War II, the Holocaust, the Cold War, ecocide etc.) affect mental and physical health, hence the possibility of constructive social change.

 1.What is a panic attack?  Panic attacks are not fear responses to immediate threats like earthquakes.  Rather, harmless but symbolically laden internal body signals stimulate terror: of isolation, of loss of support, of loss of balance, of descent into madness; it is the state of mind most desired by practitioners of psychological warfare.  Persistent anxiety weakens the immune system.  Clinicians often see panic attacks as one instance of separation anxiety, itself symptomatic of an underlying narcissistic personality disorder.

 2.Comment on Dr. Joycelyn Elders firing: how have journalists explained opposition to masturbation?  For instance, see Gina Kolata, “America Keeps Onan in the Closet,” The New York Times, 12/18/94, p. E5 for an ooh-la-la description of masturbation phobia since the 18th century “when sex became medicalized.”  Laughable consequences are listed, but none resembles the fear of critical thought (i.e., of separation from abusive authority) in D.H. Lawrence.  In a Letter to the Editor 12/20, Frederic C. Thayer writes, “Traditionally, masturbation is condemned because it wastes energy and sperm necessary for procreation, and is for selfish pleasure rather than social duty.  Masturbation is described as “self-abuse” that causes mental derangement.”

    The hostile conservative response to masturbation is more complex than some timeless resistance to (anarchic) pleasure by ascetic, corporatist thinkers.  In Pornography and Obscenity Handbook for Censors, D.H. Lawrence rants on about the “self-abuse” he attributes to mass culture which, while apparently promoting “sex-secrecy,” “stealthily” inflames the flesh: the “mental energy” sometimes released leads solely to the “futility…nothingness…sentimentalities…self-analysis…impotent criticism…suppressed rage” which characterize (solipsistic) “modern literature” and “work[s] of science.”  “[Masturbation] is the deepest and most dangerous cancer of our civilization.”  Lawrence’s is a class-bound reactionary response to the “the grey ones left over from the nineteenth century,” i.e.,, to radical Victorian culture; his panicky diagnosis of [narcissism] reminds me of more recent, equally pessimistic, radical criticism.  What (other than the family) are the political and institutional sources of this anxiety?  How have mental health professionals accounted for panic attacks and related anxiety disorders, and what are some of the debates in the field?

 3.Object inconstancy and its discontents.  Since the pioneering work of Winnicott and Mahler, new thinking in clinical psychology and social work stresses the lifelong salutary effects of a strong and reliable maternal bond, experienced as object constancy.  Should there be a lack of steady parenting in early childhood, the damage may manifest itself later in panic attacks and related phobias and symptoms, especially during adolescence; appropriate separation is sometimes impeded by parents who ask their growing children to befriend them so as to contain the parents’ anxieties.  At all ages related symptoms may include insomnia (there is no internalized representation of the protective parent: only a surrogate close at hand will allow relaxation); hoarding; fears of being poisoned (e.g., by mass culture); school phobia (clinging to mom or exposure to “secular humanism”?); drug use to deaden the pain of loss; self-mutilation and adolescent suicide (only a violent act directed against the self can restore the maternal bond); agoraphobia; compulsive “taking care” of others to control them; clinging to masochistic relationships; the inability to cope with divorce; and in borderline personalities (close to psychotic), oscillations between depression over lost attachments and fears of being swallowed up and disintegrating.  One psychologist notes a common wish: the longing for the golden fantasy of a symbiotic [i.e., not draining?!!]) relationship with mother where all needs are met, hallowed by perfection.  (None of the dozens of psychology abstracts I consulted specifically alluded to authoritarian ideologies and peasant societies of the Right or Left where individuation would not force young people into agonized choices; cf. D.H. Lawrence, or T.S. Eliot and his hatred of “worm-eaten liberalism” aka “freethinking Jews,” the catalysts or enzymes of social disintegration.)

      Professionals disagree about the efficacy of antidepressants, or whether or not separation anxiety in infancy and early childhood explains panic attacks in adulthood.  To me, the most sensible suggestions for treatment were historical and sociological in approach: psychiatrist Terry Kupers says mental health professionals must be activists to provide public funding for the treatment of anxiety disorders; meanwhile in short-term care the patient should record the circumstances of every parting to detect lifelong patterns of separation anxiety in relationships.  Another stressed the need for family therapy to scrutinize the ways in which their interactions impede autonomy.  Another writer, in a similar vein, reminded me that the problems in separation cannot be described schematically, that particular families shape the difficult problem of growing up in their own unique and awful ways. [I doubt that there is an infinite variety of  histories.] In other words, individuals and their families are being taught to read themselves and the often subtle messages they communicate around issues of maturation and difference, to discover the patterns which contribute to serious mental and physical health problems, and which in turn will affect social action.

4. The larger institutional environment in which anxiety disorders have emerged.  Because the transition from pre-modern to capitalist social relations is incomplete, the humanities lag behind the hard sciences.  There are some sociologists, political scientists, and cultural anthropologists whose work is avowedly anti-science; Harold Lasswell was part of the moderate conservative movement of academics who explicitly separated the methodologies of the social sciences from the physical sciences in the 1920s.  In a related move, the history of science as an academic discipline was contrived by Harvard’s Robert Merton to demonstrate the socially constructed character of scientific knowledge; Merton’s project was candidly counter-Enlightenment and anti-Marxian.

    The legitimacy of the exploring, self-directing individual is advocated by only a minority of liberal and Left intellectuals; scientists are necessary but suspect, like rationalism in general.  We give lip service to “cultural freedom,” but few of us are willing to live with its consequences.  Yet our official ideology in “the West” asserts numerous civil rights and obligations to participate in democratic processes.  What critical tools are required to make popular sovereignty rational and humane?  How have threatened élites discouraged the development of critical skills through psychological warfare in popular culture?  Have upper-class radicals, in the name of socialism, served reaction, not popular education?  What public policy demands should be advanced by liberals to educate citizens for mental and physical health?

 5. On narcissism theory and recent prescriptions for its cure.  The derogatory term “narcissistic” denotes the selfishness of yuppies; for instance, some social democrats claim that “the culture of narcissism” (Christopher Lasch) has produced Generation X: abandoned, empty, confused and self-destructive.  The narcissistic disorder as I see it, is less moralistic in its diagnosis: Perhaps narcissism results from unreliable attachments in early childhood, and the repeated exposure to ambivalent systems of support inside and outside the family, in schools and other socializing institutions, including the media.  Because communication is often dishonest but unchallenged (“Be yourself, be original, but don’t make me too angry”), youthful egos are weakened while the source of domination is obscured.  Hence narcissists lack a sense of inner balance, competence in defending their interests (who dunnit to me?), and self-worth that would make them self-directed and socially responsible: creative, curious, lovable to others and effective reformers.  They may depend on omniscient others who feed their weak egos with flattery/conspiracy theories (we alone are the cognoscenti).  To restore the Golden Age, they will fuse with such heroic agitators, or with a glorified racial past, or with fetishized luxury goods.  As repressed facts of the material world return, idealizations are shattered.  The all-nurturing other (the object) may become a killer who must be destroyed (Otto Kernberg). [My reading:]  The switch occurs at the moment of disillusion, as artificially inflated self-esteem (grandiosity) ebbs or rushes away, leaving in its wake emptiness, uncontainable fear and anger.  The fear and anger (if suppressed) triggers the adrenalin that begins the panic attack; the ghastly irony lies in the misdirection of our anger toward the self; we may remain politely fastened to an object that was never there for us in the first place.  (Or perhaps as children we believed our anger caused the death of domineering or negligent parents and/or sibling rivals or the breakup of a family in divorce: any eruption of anger is unmanageable and world-destroying.)

      By contrast, some romantic conservatives account for the pervasive “narcissism” and related social problems (including the rise of fascism, a narcissistic disorder) as the result of weakened paternal authority in the family.  The newly triumphant figures of modernity have sapped the authority of the paternalistic father: vampirish specters appear as Goldfinger the international Jew (designer and profiteer of mass culture and consumerism) in cahoots with mad scientists, femmes fatales, and perfectionist puritan mothers.  Feminized and jewified, modernity has produced, what else?  The Masturbator!  Similarly, the terror-gothic genre (horror movies and gothic fiction) confronts the viewer with appalling images of the inquisitive, wandering, goal-directed imagination exploring the sensuous material world (D. H.Lawrence’s “nosy Hebrew”).  Persistently feeling one’s own unhappiness and the common pain of suffering humanity, asking authority “why” it devises particular damaging social policies, demanding access to state secrets, can lead only to bloody revolution, ripping and shredding of the social fabric, and finally, the Bomb (e.g., the theme of Pandora’s Box in Kiss Me Deadly, a classic of film noir).

      One would hope that progressive intellectuals would be alert to such right-wing tactics, but no.  As one KPFK listener put it, intellectuals today latch onto traditions which make them comfortable; the idea of the detached, disinterested seeker following the truth wherever it leads is held to be a bourgeois illusion, the Big Lie of objectivity and positivistic science that delivered scientific racism.  Some poststructuralists say that (relatively) accurate readings of the world are impossible, that there is only “intertextuality” for ballast, that the goals of “objectivity,” or of universally valid moral standards are (in fact!) a stealthy imposition of a totalitarian ideology.  Such irrationalist  [1] ideas should be vigorously opposed in the culture wars raging in our universities, and not just by the libertarian Right. Liberal Freudians are not irrationalists; rather they believe that rational processes (historical memory and the reconstruction of power relations in socializing institutions) can at least diminish the extent to which we are misdirected by self-destructive behavior. (Irrationalists have said that such fantasies are disseminated by Jews, consummate peddlers of false utopias; see the excellent description of the right-wing agitator in Leo Lowenthal and Norbert Guterman, Prophets of Deceit, 1949).

      Are panic attacks a health risk of middle-management?  Historians revise and reconfigure the past, finding material causes for socially-induced catastrophes; we seek clarity and balance, not chaos, but threaten illegitimate authority.  Because democratic pluralists seem to support critical thought (but in practice are unevenly committed to it), institutions are vague and abstract in their demands.  Be original, but not too destabilizing, we are advised, echoing the family.  But how far to go too far?  We don’t know the rules until we break them.  So, to keep our jobs, we may betray the real and the good, not daring to hold authority accountable; all relations remain shallow and there is, in fact, little reliable support.  In such a deceptive and self-deceptive society, anyone and everyone can turn on us–whenever we demand that our arguments be engaged, calling love and support into question.  People too attached to their creative work must be “monomaniacs,” like Melville’s Captain Ahab.

      If my analysis is valid, what are the implications for the treatment of anxiety disorders?  As long as institutions are unwilling to be tested and challenged, as long as they blunt critical tools, no amount of individual or group therapy or pills will alleviate our distress; perforce we will adjust to a world without many enduring attachments.  The fearful may continue to follow false friends and false prophets: screaming, hysterical demagogues and paranoids who will divide us when only species cooperation can protect the planet.  Idealizing the father-driven family will not solve the problems conservatives are (often rightly) worried about.  Accurate readings of our bodies, our histories, our loves and friendships, the origin and development of all institutions and of the natural world which we are fast destroying, should be the goal of education.  Workers in mental health cannot neglect these aspects of their training, lest the good work they do be nullified by the strange world outside the clinic. [12-27-94]

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