YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

March 28, 2013

“Power,” Foucault, and other aristocratic radicals

Foucaltcard03For those interested in how others interpret “power” in socio-political terms see  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Power_(social_and_political).

Several Facebook friends have expressed concern about “power,” seemingly equating it with illegitimate desires for malevolent control over other persons. Such notions of total control are usually implied in the notion of “totalitarianism” especially as the latter word equates communism and Nazism (a notion that I have challenged here: https://clarespark.com/2012/10/15/orwell-power-and-the-totalitarian-state/.)

This blog tries to sort out how one fashionable academic ideology abuses the notion of “power.”

Postmodernists/poststructuralists and Foucauldians. For these intellectuals, power is what the bourgeoisie, through total surveillance, wields over hapless Others, and one of the “pomo” villains is the bourgeois Enlightenment figure of “Freud”. For instance, take these sentences from Terry Eagleton’s chapter in “Self-Undoing Subjects” in Rewriting the Self, ed. Roy Porter (Routledge, 1997): p.264. “Isn’t Freud all about the unfathomable subject of the unconscious, about the production of some eternally elusive psyche folded upon its own inscrutable depths?” This is a wild misreading of Freud, the inventor of psychoanalysis, as if he preached helplessness, not insight and potential cure in a collaborative relationship between psychoanalyst and analysand, wherein, through a variety of techniques, the patient would ultimately gain a measure of power over neurotic anxiety and psychogenic illnesses: “Where Id was, let Ego be!”*

Freud, even in his time, was a master in stepping outside the self to observe self-sabotaging subjectivity, but Eagleton has taken this power away from Freud and his followers, for like other contributors to this volume, there is no “self” except that which is constituted through dominant discourses in modern/bourgeois institutions intent on doing us in.

It is not irrelevant that Eagleton is writing from the Left, and that psychiatrists were incarcerated in the Soviet Union.

There is no doubt in my mind that numerous authoritarian forces push us around, diminishing political participation, or that language matters and can affect political and/or personal choices, not to speak of our emotional configurations, our loves and taboos, our sense of the possible and impossible. But to so drastically historicize “the self” to the point where we may not distinguish between sanity (having a relatively accurate grip on reality) and insanity (being ruled by delusions) is a romantic fantasy, and it is no accident that R. D. Laing’s name is mentioned in other articles in this volume, as if he were an accepted authority on mental illness, and not a marginal Romantic who saw schizophrenia as an adventure into the world made invisible by the uptight [bourgeois]. See https://clarespark.com/2012/02/19/the-romantic-repudiation-of-freud-co/.


What is wrong with the Foucault/poststructuralist picture? Their panopticon makes no distinction between sectors of the bourgeoisie, for instance between classical liberals and social democrats, for the latter do favor “the watchbird state,” and their suspicious movements have been traced throughout this website, for instance here: https://clarespark.com/2011/01/02/the-watchbird-state/.

Many a “leftist” intellectual has more in common with displaced aristocrats than with the working class they claim to champion. (See https://clarespark.com/2012/10/11/the-other/.) While researching various social psychologists affiliated with the Roosevelt administration, I noted that some stigmatized the rising [crypto-Jewish] middle class as having a wicked yen for “power,” which they then “projected” upon minorities and women, even “business.” It was these potential quasi-fascist agitator-adoring usurpers who projected their illicit “will to power” upon favored authority figures, and knuckles were rapped accordingly. If you know your Nietzsche, you will recognize an aristocratic anti-plebeian ideology, one that spurned “history” as written by “the plebs.” Is it any accident that the sub-title of the anthology referenced above is “Histories from the Renaissance to the Present.” There is no one magisterial history dominating academia; there are only histories, or as is widely bruited about, only unreliable points of view. Granted that we all struggle with subjectivity, even seeking the power to see through ourselves and others, but to throw out a coherent self, able to make sense of her surroundings, to identify friends and enemies, is not only to kill off the author of literary texts (as some academics nail Foucauldians), but is a new peak (or low) in the annals of nihilism, one worthy of the Marquis de Sade himself.

*Another questionable reading of a classic text is found in Jonathan Sawday’s chapter “Self and Selfhood in the Seventeenth Century” (p.44), where he gets John Milton’s ambivalent reading of Satan all wrong: “Technology, invention, discovery, in Milton’s political poetics, are ideas associated with the absolutist, monarchical world of Hell.” I suppose Blake and Shelley were poor readers of Paradise Lost when they suggested that Milton was secretly of the Devil’s Party. A reminder that the regicide Milton was writing under censorship and could have been hanged for his role in the Interregnum.

Glenda Jackson, Marat/Sade

Glenda Jackson, Marat/Sade


February 19, 2012

The Romantic repudiation of Freud & Co.

R. D. Laing

[Note: in the blog that follows, I am more concerned with neurosis and/or everyday unhappiness than with clinical definitions of insanity or “personality disorders,” though I do mention Laing and Szasz.]

In the History of Antisemitism discussion group, a professor of European history has objected to a recent posting of mine that posed this question: “Is psychiatry a ‘Jewish’ profession?”  I was most interested in his claim that “Freud provides one major challenge to bourgeois culture in the late 19th century,” for Freud was considered to be the ultimate bourgeois, the creature of Enlightenment, by both fans and critics. I did agree with him about the weight he gives to “anti-intellectualism” for popular culture in America is dominated by populism, but if you ask even an ordinary educated American about the meaning and significance of populism (and its offspring, progressivism) in American political history, s/he may be clueless. But I am not sure that such a one would make a connection to the revulsion against psychoanalysis and mental health services in general, a revulsion that animates a large anti-psychiatry movement among libertarians (say those who follow Foucault, Thomas Szasz or R. D. Laing), and many social democrats, not to speak of those religious thinkers who object to Freud’s atheism, or who might go on to believe that all Jews are atheists, lacking the Christian “heart” that enables community and selflessness. Hence Jews are “crazy Jews.”

(Illustrated: “Mad Pride”] I first found about psychiatry as a “Jewish” profession in graduate school, when I was asked to read and summarize a standard work in sociology: The Social Construction of Reality by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann. The authors said straight out that psychoanalysis was a Jewish thing that only worked with New York Jews. I.e., Freud was presumably obsessed with sex, and Jews, excessively carnal (by which they mean worldly/puffed-up with pride) would flock to these Jewish quacks. (When I complained about this, I was sternly reproved.)

Recently, I read almost all of Benjamin Disraeli’s novels, and paid special attention to his depiction of the genius magnate “Sidonia,” perhaps a projection of the author himself, and most notably, a character who was excessively cerebral, hence incapable of emotional attachments. Sidonia was the epitome of the rootless cosmopolitan, a type that was anathema to both Hitler and Stalin.  (Here is the link to my blog on Disraeli’s novels and his role in the development of British social democracy: https://clarespark.com/2011/07/16/disraelis-contribution-to-social-democracy/. How Disraeli adapted to the dominant Anglicanism is also taken up: he moved the center of Christianity to Jerusalem, not Rome, and  identified the theological debt Christianity owed to the parent religion, a move that did not always endear him to his readers, who still adhered to the antagonism between Judaism and Christianity.)

Now why would Freud (along with a gigantic field of therapists)  be tossed out by those I have mentioned above? It is difficult to engage in any self-scrutiny, i.e., therapy, at all without taking a family history involving the minute examination of every family relationship, including traumas and semi-traumas. Many modern novelists and other seekers after truth about one’s feelings about the family of origin or later love objects, will find ambivalence, and a good “shrink” will focus on both idealization and demonization of lovers,  parents and siblings, along with the mixed feelings that we label as “ambivalence.” The client may also find a pattern of determinism that contradicts the doctrine of “free will” espoused by many Christian sects. That is, we are only partly responsible for our actions, but often follow patterned responses laid down in family life.

Thomas Szasz, Frenchified

Because of the predominant populism, not just “Jewish” bankers but “Jewish” mental health workers are viewed as autocratic and mystifying “experts” or technocrats with designs on the majority. We need more talk about this, not just a quick dismissal. Or a pill.

August 20, 2009

“Shakin’ The Blues Away”: primitivism, rock ‘n roll and mental health

   Everyone is excited now about the proposed initiatives to reform mental health care, and though there are numerous references to “mental health services” in H.R. 3200, I have seen little or no discussion about the debates within the fields, for instance, who exactly is qualified to mess with our brains and endocrine systems by treating everything from marital spats to incipient schizophrenia, OCD, or the numerous “personality disorders” covered in DSM IV (soon to be DSM V: I can’t wait). According to the House bill under consideration, mental health services are to be reimbursed as long as the provider has either a doctorate or a master’s degree (i.e., is a clinical psychologist or a social worker), has had two years of supervision in treating clients, and is licensed by the state. I have already asked one psychiatrist friend to comment on how M.D.s are viewing these proposals, and know from personal experience and study in both older practices and more recent cultural history treatments of “madness” (heavily influenced by Michel Foucault) that there is zero agreement among “counselors” (as H.R. 32oo calls these providers) as to what causes mental illness, let alone how to treat, manage, or cure it/them. Meanwhile the Foucauldians instruct the hip young at the better universities that madness is a social construction invented by the bourgeoisie who want to control everyone else. And the writing of history itself is under suspicion: it is a narrative “written by the plebs” to punish geniuses like himself.

    Readers of my prior blogs will notice that all of them deal either directly or tangentially with how we feel and act/don’t act in the world, and how we identify the source of evil or account for our own unhappiness or failure, often blaming “the Jews” or modern women (these are conflated in the idea of the femme fatale). Like Freud, I take instruction from the arts, for the major literary figures of the last several centuries were all concerned with what passes for sanity, adjustment, or vigorous, righteous resistance to arbitrary authority, and one recurring theme is the incarceration by conservative families of their dissident young)–a major theme in early nineteenth-century literature.. In this one, short I hope, I want to comment on  what I learned from reading passages from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1922), particularly in one of the debates between “Naphta” a Jew turned authoritarian Jesuit, and Settembrini, an optimistic bourgeois humanist who believes in amelioration, health, and progress. (Mann is obviously arguing with himself, trying to reconcile or at least examine the warring parts of his own personality: read Dr. Faustus as another case study of Mann’s preoccupation with this theme, as was Herman Melville before him.) Here is an excerpt from Magic Mountain:

 [Hans Castorp thinks that “disease was unhuman”:] “On the contrary, Naphta hastened to say. Disease was very human indeed. For to be man was to be ailing. Man was essentially ailing, his state of unhealthiness was what made him man. There were those who wanted to make him “healthy,” to to make him “go back to nature,” when, the truth was, he never had been “natural.” All the propaganda carried on today by the prophets of nature, the experiments in regeneration, the uncooked food, fresh-air cures, sun-bathing, and so on, the whole Rousseauian paraphernalia, had as its goal nothing but the dehumanization, the animalizing of man. They talked of “humanity,” of nobility—but it was the spirit alone that distinguished man, as a creature largely divorced from nature, largely opposed to her in feeling, from all other forms of organic life. In man’s spirit, then, resided his true nobility and his merit—in his state of disease, as it were; in a word, the more ailing he was, by so much was he the more man. The genius of disease was more human than the genius of health. How, then, could one who posed as the friend of man shut his eyes to these fundamental truths concerning man’s humanity? Herr Settembrini had progress ever on his lips: was he aware that all progress, is so far as there was such a thing, was due to illness, and to illness alone? In other words, to genius, which was the same thing? Had not the normal, since time was, lived on the achievements of the abnormal? Men consciously and voluntarily descended into disease and madness, in search of knowledge which, acquired by fanaticism, would lead back to health; after the possession and use of it had ceased to be conditioned by that heroic and abnormal act of sacrifice. That was the true death on the cross, the true Atonement.” [Knopf, 1968 edition, pp. 465-66]

     I was astonished to read this paragraph, for it gave me a new clue as to why Melville had written to Hawthorne shortly after he completed Moby-Dick, “I have written a wicked book, and feel as spotless as the lamb.” And does not “crazy” Ahab carry “a crucifixion in his face”? As writer, Melville’s primitivist descent into madness (into the world controlled by the Devil?) accomplished several things for him: 1. as in Typee, he could safely criticize his conservative family and certain missionaries from a distance; but 2. as romantic artist he took the risk of destroying religion, and religion was the route to social cohesion and conservative notions of “order.” And it must be said here that “Naphta” and his predecessors (Nietzsche) knew very little about real “madness” and its multiple causation in genetic inheritance, belief systems that distort reality (and somewhat described in prior blogs here), overwhelming stress, and other factors that physicians have studied and continue to explore with emphasis on the physiology of the brain.

    And remember R. D. Laing and the 1960s-70s vogue for his romantic views of madness as a source of connection with the real world? I was reminded too of Diderot’s primitivism in his Supplement to the Voyage of Bougainville (centuries before Laing’s ravings), a fantasy of life in Tahiti where there are no sexual prohibitions whatsoever. Which takes me to the 60s counter-culture/New Left appropriation of primitivism in their astonishing and still existing devotion to rock ‘n roll and/or hip-hop culture as a form of rebellion and self-assertion against the hypocritical dowdy and classical-music, old-standard loving prior generations–the generation they blamed for the Viet Nam war and the election of Richard Nixon.

    It is my view that primitivism is no solution to racism, but rather a ratification of the old stereotype conveyed by Diderot: that (perpetual?) adolescents  can escape “surplus repression” (Marcuse), or the Performance Principle (Freud) by going native. But in the elevation of black criminal elements (e.g. the Panthers or the Afrocentric pseudo-historians, one of whom repeatedly produced the viciously anti-Western and antisemitic “Afrikan Mental Liberation Weekend” for KPFK in Los Angeles), they are maintaining the stereotype of the black person as savage yet entertaining minstrel, a minstrel supposedly ragging on the upper classes. So sensible black intellectuals who identify with a supposedly (jewified) puritanical and genteel middle-class and the American Dream are seen as uncool killjoys and can be safely ignored.

   The primitivist strategy, like pornography, is controversial. For its defenders, though appearing crazy,  primitivism is a harmless catharsis for anti-social impulses. I suppose one would have to study individuals and their ideological leanings, including the ability to form and maintain enduring attachments, or conversely, to change their minds as they travel along the road to “objectivity” to make inroads on this judgment. (See Lippmann’s writing on this beneficent transformation, emphasized in my last blog.) More later as I survey existing debates within the field of mental health. Surely the narratives that are constructed for us by our families and teachers relating to our own biographies, to the national biography, and to America’s relations to other groups or societies, are of concern for all workers striving to enhance what is all too loosely described as mental health.

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