The Politics of Normalcy
July 6, 2011 § 45 Comments
“…if you are not like everybody else, then you are abnormal, if you are abnormal , then you are sick. These three categories, not being like everybody else, not being normal and being sick are in fact very different but have been reduced to the same thing.” Michel Foucault
Perhaps you noticed it, too. The word ‘anxiety’ appearing more and more in conversation, ads and media. People talking, not about ‘being anxious,’ (a moment that can pass) but about ‘having anxiety’ (a permanent affliction).
In “The Age of Anxiety,” a poem written in 1947, W.H. Auden links modern angst with man’s quest to find substance and identity in a shifting and increasingly industrialized world: …It is getting late / Shall we ever be asked for? Are we simply / not wanted at all?
Writer-philosopher Albert Camus dubbed the 20th century “The Century of Fear.” One wonders what he would say about the 21st.
Writer Herman Hesse, exploring the age of angst in his novel Steppenwolf, attributes the feelings of isolation and loneliness in his protagonist to the breakdown of repressive bourgeoisie values, which let loose the wild, irrational forces within man without offering a new standard or value system for support, thereby creating an uneasy limbo, lacking guidance and direction.
Though the subject has been explored for centuries by writers and philosophers, social anxiety disorder did not officially exist until it appeared in 1980’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the DSM-III — the psychiatrist’s bible of psychological afflictions — under the name “social phobia,” the same book which once classified homosexuality as a mental disorder.
Not that the problem didn’t exist before — it was the ancient Greeks, after all, who coined the word agoraphobic — but during the latter half of the 20th century, anxiety seems to have shifted culturally from a covert issue to an overt one.
By the 1990’s pharmaceutical companies received F.D.A. approval to treat social anxiety and poured tens of millions of dollars into advertising its existence. In 2002, Anxiety Disorders Association of America reported that 19.1 million (or 13%) of adults ages 18-54 were affected with a form of anxiety disorder. Now the percentage has climbed to 40 million (or 18%) of the population.
The current version of the DSM-IV describes diagnosis as warranted when anxiety “interferes significantly with work performance” (italics mine) or if the sufferer shows marked distress about it.
So in other words, according to the DSM, if you can’t adjust to your life as an employee, you may have a disorder. If it affects your productivity within the system, that’s the true indicator of a problem.
Of course, this makes sense on an individual basis — why wouldn’t job performance be an issue for individual workers? We all have bills to pay.
But on a broader level, from the perspective of analyzing cultural trends and messages, it strikes me as eerily dystopian that humans should be viewed like malfunctioning robots who need repair because their efficiency has faltered, rather then looking into possible problems with the work places themselves (environment, demands, etc).
Not “Maybe we need more breaks to maximize efficiency,” but “Maybe you have a problem. Take a pill and get back to work.”
There is a lack of humanity in the description, an emphasis on product over person.
In Madness and Civilization, Michel Foucalt notices the link between society’s labor needs and their attitude towards the socially maladjusted:
Before having the medical meaning we give it, or that at least we like to suppose it has, confinement [of the insane] was required by something quite different from any concern with curing the sick. What made it necessary was an imperative of labor. Our philanthropy prefers to recognize the signs of a benevolence towards sickness where there is only a condemnation of idleness.
I want to be clear that I am not criticizing individuals for taking anxiety medication. I am not telling anyone to stop taking their medication or saying it’s weak or wrong to do so. It’s a personal choice. We need all the help we can get, and I understand that medication is one form of help for many people.
My interrogation, rather, is aimed at our perception of anxiety as a society — our knee-jerk reaction of repression over investigation, of labeling the feeling a disorder, rather than seeing it as a potential initiation into deeper mastery of one’s will and character, or as a symptom of an imbalanced social system.
Interestingly, angst as put forth by the existential philosophers refers to the spiritual dread one experiences in the face of one’s own freedom. As Kierkegaard said in The Concept of Dread:
“I would say that learning to know anxiety is an adventure which every man has to affront if he would not go to perdition, either by not having known anxiety or by sinking under it. He therefore who has learned rightly to be anxious has learned the most important thing.”
In that context, there begins to appear something ominous about the medication of such a feeling, which may be uncomfortable, but also suggests the presence of our own grand possibility. If anxiety is a natural reaction to the experience of our own overwhelming freedom, what will it mean to repress that sensation?
Some might take issue with the fact that I am not drawing a distinct line between philosophical anxiety and physiological/psychological anxiety. I am aware that our society sees them as different issues — one as garden-variety-human-condition-angst, which everyone experiences to some degree, and the other as the more pathological, in-need-of-medication-chemical-imbalance anxiety. This is because I don’t believe they are different. Rather, I think they are gradations of the same experience.
I see the varying interpretations of anxiety by different fields as exactly that: interpretations. The difference between, say, a poet’s description of an elephant and a zoologist’s. The elephant remains the same.
Just because one field has identified the chemicals related to the feeling does not mean the chemicals are the beginning, or the end, of the story.
Social anxiety is often linked with introverts — incidentally, a much misunderstood personality type within our modern culture.
“The day may come,” says Susan Cain in her recent New York Times article, “Shyness: An Evolutionary Tactic?” “when we have pills that ‘cure’ shyness and turn introverts into social butterflies […] [But] the act of treating shyness as an illness obscures the value of that temperament.”
As a culture we need both the shy, sensitive introverts to ponder the deeper meanings of things and the assertive, bold extraverts to take action and get things done. Diversity in a species is an evolutionary advantage.
Case in point: evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson performed a simple but telling experiment on a school of unknowing pumpkinseed sun fish. About 15-20 % of animals display introvert characteristics of caution (interestingly, the same percentage as in humans,) called “sitters,” compared to the more curious, assertive “rover” types…
The biologist lowered a metal trap into the water and a large number of “rover” sunfish went inside to investigate — only to be caught. While the more tentative “sitter” sunfish, who sat back and watched, remained free.
“Had Professor Wilson’s traps posed a real threat, only the sitters would have survived,” points out Cain. “But had the sitters taken Zoloft and become more like bold rovers, the entire family of pumpkinseed sunfish would have been wiped out. ‘Anxiety’ about the trap saved the fishes’ lives.”
Wilson then caught all the sunfish and took them back to his lab. The rovers acclimated faster, eating a full five days earlier than their sitter brethren. In this case, the rovers had the evolutionary advantage.
“There is no single best … personality,” Professor Wilson concludes in his book, “Evolution for Everyone,” “but rather a diversity of personalities maintained by natural selection.”
Yet we live in a culture which treats the sitter personality as freakish. “Just do it!” our slogans roar. Action is prized over contemplation, assertiveness over timidity. One way we manifest this bias as a society is by encouraging perfectly healthy shy people to see their tendencies as problematic, needing to be cured.
Studies show that introverts, who tend to digest information thoroughly, do better in school than their extroverted peers, despite having the same I.Q. The careful, sensitive temperament from which both shyness and anxiety can spring is not only rich in observational skill, insight and inner vision, it may well be essential to the survival of our species — a point well illustrated by our friends the pumpkinseed sunfish.
As science journalist Winifred Gallagher points out: “The glory of the disposition that stops to consider stimuli rather than rushing to engage with them is its long association with intellectual and artistic achievement. Neither E=mc2 nor ‘Paradise Lost’ was dashed off by a party animal.”
I’m not saying that people who take medication are doing so to “conform to the status quo,” (obviously they are doing it to feel better and to function more effectively in their life) but the increase of medication use in the Western world does suggest the possibility of an increasingly homogenized human experience.
Though some might argue that such “increased homogeny” is just fine if it entails a more well-adjusted life experience, I am suspicious of terms like “well adjusted,” because they require that we hold a yardstick up against the majority to measure the minority; it fails to account for individual temperament or the gifts that come with eccentricity.
Back to the original thought: being anxious vs having anxiety. This is a shift of language I have witnessed in my lifetime. And what a consequence the simple replacement of “having” with “being” implies: one is an emotion that passes through you, another is something you are stuck with, a state, part of your personality, even your identity.
And could it have anything to do with the multi-million dollar pharmaceutical companies filling the airwaves with the language of “having?”
What great symphonies, works of literature and philosophies would not have been created had the sensitive temperaments creating them been medicated? And what will our society look like in 100 years if it continues down its current trajectory?
The Mad Cult of the World
June 16, 2011 § 42 Comments
“Our society is run by insane people for insane objectives.” John Lennon
“Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.” Edgar Allan Poe
“The world we see that seems so insane is the result of a belief system that is not working. To perceive the world differently, we must be willing to change our belief system, let the past slip away, expand our sense of now, and dissolve the fear in our minds.” William James
Imagine how our world would look to an alien observer. The notes taken by an evolved and sensitive species might look something like this:
Humans appear to be creatures of routine — the majority wake up before they have rested sufficiently, needing a loud beeping alarm to prematurely stir them from their slumber, and a liquid stimulant to force them into unnatural alertness. They then get into small metal vehicles, which emit toxic gasses and were assembled by mostly miserable factory workers.
A large number of humans take these small metal vehicles to small, sterile cubicles, where they stare at a small rectangular screen for eight hours, pressing buttons, with one hour off to eat.
For their time in front of the screen, they receive tokens (some people have their own private cubicle and receive more tokens than the rest,) which they exchange for shelter (which is left empty most of the day, while they go off and earn the tokens which obtained it in the first place).
Other items of interest requiring tokens are packaged food of mostly poor quality and various large unnecessary upgrades to their stronghold of posessions, the desire for which is stimulated by large rectangular screens in their shelters, for which they exchange a large amount of tokens willingly.
On these screens (which most humans watch, mesmerized, for hours at a time, when they are not staring at the screen in the cubicle) they see images designed to simulate reality (a form of entertainment which has all but replaced the experience of reality) and stimulate covetousness, which seems to mesmerize them into exchanging their hard-earned tokens for items which appear to have social significance for them.
Another large percentage of the population goes to work in factories which produce (or stores which feature) these coveted and mostly useless items.
This exchange is considered desirable. The rationale is that it creates more jobs and keeps the economy in good health. No one seems to question the point of this self-perpetuating wheel of psychological enslavement, and those who do are deflected and dismissed.
The primary activities expected to be carried out by these adult humans seem to be almost unanimously joyless, but the tokens received appear to be incentive enough.
Individuals who refuse to conform and pay homage to the tokens are almost unanimously ridiculed as lazy, good-for-nothing, mentally unsound, losers, etc. Unless individuals can find some way to earn tokens, they can not afford to buy or rent shelter and as a result become cemented in their roles as social pariahs.
Often these pariahs abused liquid downers to numb their misery in the world described above. Their status as shelter-less social rejects only fuels their need for this numbing agent. It seems reasonable to blame the numbing agent, or the individual’s inability to cope with reality. However, few blame the reality which made them have to cope to begin with.
Such probing strikes close to home: as every socially functional person is aware, there is no escape from the need to conform to the all-consuming demand of the token. And so those who do put forth the effort to work are forced to ennoble their enslavement, calling it a good hard day’s work.
Though hard work is a virtue, there is a stickier truth surrounding this truth, which is more convenient to ignore.
If our ET observer were to have read up on the nature of cult indoctrination, he might notice what writer Bettina Drew observes, “[…] there are similarities between corporate indoctrination and what’s thought of as organizational brainwashing.”
In her interesting article on the mind control techniques of cults, writer Amy Sillup elaborates:
“The victim must first be isolated from society, so that the cult or other coercive entity need not compete with outside influences. Access to outside information must be eliminated or at least rigidly controlled; the information is then reinterpreted according to the precepts of the cult. Questions from the victim are not be tolerated, nor are replies given.
During the early isolation period, certain psychological pressure or even physical torture techniques are usually employed. These measures can include […] sleep deprivation […] humiliation […] and constant repetition of indoctrinating ideas.
Repetitive tasks may be assigned to dull the senses and reasoning skills, while also hastening the breakdown of the will. Threats of violence, death, or destruction of the victim’s soul if she rebels against the “groupthink” are frequently utilized. A period of punishment followed by the doling out of small rewards or privileges keeps the victim off-balance.”
Sensory overload, such as drugs, flashing lights and overwhelming visuals, she notes, are also employed.
To our old friend the alien observer, the Westernized world itself could seem like a kind of cult.
Repetitive tasks? Check. Small rewards? Check. Sensory overload? Check. Drugs? Check (Prozac anyone?) Sleep deprivation? Check. Limited access to information? In a sense: while the modern world does have access to international media in most cases, the information itself is limited to the focus of our contemporary culture. Those with ideas not in line with the accepted reality face the threat of social rejection — in the past they have even been put to death, and still are in some parts of the world. Threats of death? Check.
Studies show that “the same regions of the brain that become active in response to painful sensory experiences are activated during intense experiences of social rejection.” So in a very real way, the threat of outcast status can act with the same coercive force as threatened physical violence. Threats of pain/humiliation? Check.
The average American watches more than 4 hours of TV each day, which adds up to two months of non-stop TV-watching per year. By age 65, that person will have spent 9 years watching television. 99 % of American homes own at least one television. Sensory overload and repetition of ideas? Check.
As social media mogul Joe Summerhays points out:
[During the advent of the industrial revolution] gin carts filled the street of London, numbing the dehumanizing pain of mindless factory work into submission. The 1800′s lacquered workforce lubricated the march of industry […] As the efficiency of industrialized society produced more free time, the gin cart became television. This new lubricant oiled things into the late 20th century.
And so our sensitive and saddened extraterrestrial anthropologist would have to report that humans have essentially cornered themselves into having to conform to an insane system, where they are required to spend the majority of their lives gritting their teeth through joyless activities to earn tokens to support their enslaved existence.
We have built a society where, in order to survive, we must, in effect, build our own cages, even paying to consume our own propaganda.
Our interplanetary visitor might feel obliged to make one final note in his evaluation of 21st century human culture:
It appears, none the less, that some individuals are not entirely hypnotized. They still turn inward to the private flickerings of their dreams, which whisper of possibilities greater than the reality before them.
See “The Role Of The Dreamer & The Falseness Of Civilization.”
The Anatomy of Conformity: Totem & Taboo
March 30, 2011 § 8 Comments
The story goes like a joke: five monkeys and a banana. Or a parable: under the banana there was a ladder, and every time a monkey climbed the ladder to reach for the banana, he and the other monkeys in the group received a shock of cold water. Eventually no one reached for the banana at all.
In this famous experiment, monkeys conditioned not to pursue the banana were replaced one by one with unconditioned monkeys. Each time a new member of the group began to climb the ladder to get the forbidden fruit, the rest of the group dissuaded him by force, regardless of whether they themselves had experienced the cold water spray. The banana had become taboo.
Eventually the entire group was replaced with monkeys who had never experienced the water spray firsthand, yet the banana remained untouched. The conditioning had become self-perpetuating, independently functioning on its own momentum.
Studies in group theory indicate that we naturally bend our opinions at least marginally if not majorly to conform to group values and standards. Who among us hasn’t found themselves laughing in a moment of group solidarity without quite getting the joke?
In the Asch Conformity Experiment, test subjects were placed in groups consisting of fake participants and asked a variety of questions. Such as, “Compare the length of A to an everyday object,” “Which line is longer than the other?” and “Which lines are the same length?” etc.
When alone, the answers people gave were almost unanimously correct. In the groups of fake participants, however, when each person had to say their answer out loud, incorrect answers proffered confidently by fake group members caused test subjects to falter and give 30 % incorrect answers to these deceptively simple visual tests.
In Totem and Taboo: Freud speculates that modern institutions such as family, law, and religion still closely resemble the tribal cultures from which they sprang, specifically in totemic projection and conformity achieved through the exercise of taboo.
Derived from the term “ototeman” in the Ojibwe language, meaning “brother-sister kin,” Totemism indicates the veneration of sacred objects as symbols. A totem is any animal, plant, object, natural or supernatural, which provides deeply symbolic meaning for a person or social group. A great example of modern totemism can be found in sports fans.
For Alan Watts, the primary taboo in today’s culture is against knowing the true nature of the self, which he suggests is multi-dimensional and universally connected. “If you go off into a far, far forest and get very quiet, you’ll come to understand that you’re connected with everything.”
Watts elaborates, “Although our bodies are bounded with skin, and we can differentiate between outside and inside, they cannot exist except in a certain kind of natural environment. […]We do not ‘come into’ this world. We come out of it, like leaves from a tree.”
In 1954 Robert Bannister was the first man recorded to run a mile in under four minutes. Though never before achieved, after Bannister proved it possible, the four minute mile barrier was soon broken by others.
What are the grand, socially defining taboos that hold power today in your country? What taboos exist within your social culture? Do they make sense, or are the conditioned monkeys dissuading you from reaching for your banana?
The Love Pill: Future Brave New Drug of the Masses?
May 12, 2012 § 28 Comments
By Tai Carmen
“The warm, the richly colored, the infinitely friendly world of soma-holiday. How kind, how good-looking, how delightfully amusing every one was! […] Swallowing half an hour before closing time, that second dose of soma had raised a quite impenetrable wall between the actual universe and their minds.”
~ Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
You may soon be able to get a prescription for falling in love.
A team of Oxford researchers are working on a pill to recreate the feeling of being in the honeymoon stage. They aim to accomplish this by combining pheromones, testosterone (to up sex drive,) Oxytocin and Vasopressin — naturally occurring “bonding chemicals” produced by the body at the early stages of a relationship — CRH (a hormone that induces the fear of separation) and Entactogens, a “feel good” drug similar to MDMA.
There you have it folks, the recipe for love: one part sex, another part bonding, mix in the fear of separation and some ecstasy. Or so the Oxford research team is hoping.
While the love pill might seem to many like the absurd and even chilling culmination of a cultural trajectory best left to science fiction, others wonder if perhaps it might not have some therapeutic effect.
Take for instance the success researchers have had with treating Post Traumatic Shock with MDMA (known for its street name, ecstasy.) According to Science Daily, “participants treated with a combination of MDMA and psychotherapy saw clinically and statistically significant improvements in their PTSD — over 80% of the trial group no longer met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, stipulated in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (DSM-IV-TR) following the trial, compared to only 25% of the placebo group. In addition, all three subjects who reported being unable to work due to PTSD were able to return to work following treatment with MDMA.”
Likewise, psychologists like Harvard researcher Richard Doblin have long been interested in the empathy enhancing effects of MDMA for possible use in marriage counseling. Though the 1986 criminalization of the drug has hampered such investigation, there has been renewed interest on this front in the past few years.
The theory goes that breakthroughs in communication and emotional vulnerability could be stimulated by this kind of neurochemical enhancement in a therapy situation.
But where do we draw the line when tinkering with brain chemistry? Is happiness more important than authenticity? Judging from the statistics — one in ten Americans is currently taking antidepressants — it would appear the answer for many is yes.
In their paper, Neuroenhancement of Love and Marriage: The Chemicals Between Us, the scientists researching the new love pill suggest:
“Even if love were not authentic, authenticity is not an overriding or exclusive value. People can trade a degree of authenticity for other values in their lives.”
And somewhere Aldous Huxley is rolling over in his grave.
Huxley penned the classic and increasingly prophetic dystopian novel, Brave New World, in 1931, about a future society imprisoned by their own addiction to escapism. A key medium of escape: soma, a drug of the future masses.
Huxley creates the vision of an overmedicated society, wherein, as author Neil Postman puts it: people have “come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”
In comparing Huxley’s Brave New World with the famous dystopian novel 1984 by George Orwell, Postman notes:
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.
“Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.”
The propagandized phrase “A gram is better than a damn” floats around Huxley’s world and people routinely check out for “holidays” via pharmaceutical enhancement:
“I don’t understand anything,” she said with decision, determined to preserve her incomprehension intact. “Nothing. Least of all,” she continued in another tone “why you don’t take soma when you have these dreadful ideas of yours. You’d forget all about them. And instead of feeling miserable, you’d be jolly. So jolly.” (Brave New World.)
Of course, people have been hawking love potions for time immemorial, and it hasn’t worked yet. But with science on their side, today’s researchers might be the first to create a true love drug.
There is something about seeing the same thing — the face of your beloved, for instance — over and over again, which creates a kind of automatic pilot of the mind. It seems that often the more we see something, the less we see it. Consciously grounding oneself in the moment can help. But to create a way to see our partners with fresh eyes could indeed have a revitalizing effect on stalled relationships.
Still, the Huxlian implications have this author wondering what kind of pain could be repressed, what kind of problems ignored, with the help of such a pill. We touch fire, it hurts, we withdraw our hand. What would happen if we anesthetized that hand? We might wind up playing with fire until our hand fell off.
Take this metaphor to the emotional level. Pain is our body’s natural warning mechanism, telling us that something is wrong, indicating a need for change. If we simply synthetically engineer our chemicals to send us messages that everything is wonderful when, in reality, it is not, the danger of losing touch with one’s natural sense of truth — for choosing self-deception over needed change — seems great.
And if a feeling of connection can be artificially induced, what true breakthroughs — which would require, perhaps, facing unpleasant truths — could remain unplumbed in a relationship? To me, it seems like a recipe for arresting growth, both in the individual and the relationship.
But in a society where many people would rather be happy than authentic, and most women would rather look young than real — there could be a true market for the love pill.
My authenticity, and all the feelings which go along with it, is important to me. My feelings, both good and bad, guide me like a compass, and tell me when I’m languishing in some un-constructive headspace or circumstance by increasing emotional pain, like a warning. Like most artists — and I’d wager to guess, most people — I have my ups and downs. But my “downs” mean something to me, as much as my “ups.” Coming through a bad time, I always feel like I have managed to change something awry in myself or my life. Something I wouldn’t have been forced to address if I had synthetically induced the sensation of feeling better.
I know these statements are considered controversial by some. When I suggested in The Politics of Normalcy that the dominance and commonplace usage of anti-anxiety medication in today’s culture was perhaps depriving us of the important philosophical journey of facing our existential angst head-on, I received a deluge of comments — some hostile — suggesting that I simply didn’t understand what it was like for those seriously crippled by anxiety.
It’s a personal choice for each, certainly. But my (admittedly self-assigned) job here at Parallax is to investigate cultural trends and their implication across the wider historical backdrop of mankind’s journey, and the truth is, these pharmaceutical developments are incredibly new. It’s only prudent to discuss all angles.
I don’t mean to imply that taking medication is equivalent to a lobotomy. Obviously, a slight boost in serotonin doesn’t change a person’s essential values. But the whole idea that we are chemically “fixing” a problem when we “normalize” a person’s neurochemistry contains language which, to me, is a red flag. What is normal? Someone who is happy working nine hours a day? Interesting. Who does that equation benefit?
Could it be the machine of society? That Prozac makes for happy worker bees, while discontent citizens brew rebellion?
My concern is that in a future where love and happiness can both be artificially induced, we make ourselves incredibly vulnerable to becoming a society like Huxley’s Brave New World. The subliminal message seems to be: Why change your life when you can just change your chemistry? Why change the world when you can just change how you feel about it?
What do you think?