Monday, December 8, 2014

Late reflections on the Armstrong Affair: Faith – still not a virtue

I recently watched Alex Holmes’ fast-paced documentary Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story.

Surprising in light of my previous lack of interest in Armstrong (or, frankly, cycling for that matter), the film caught my attention and led me to read David Walsh’s (2012) Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong.* Not surprisingly, the story is most interesting to me in terms of what it suggests about problems of belief and faith in relation to politics.

I won’t say much about Armstrong personally, for a few reasons: first, I think Karen Horney’s chapter on the arrogant-vindictive type in Neurosis and Human Growth probably covers it; second, and relatedly, the cyclist Christophe Bassons, one of those harmed by Armstrong, has already provided a compassionate and reasonable response;** third, I think the focus on Armstrong as an individual, while necessary to understanding events, tends to divert attention from the social aspects of the phenomenon and to let others off the hook.

Many claim now that one of the most unsettling and upsetting facets of Armstrong’s masquerade was that he supposedly played upon people’s “best” inclinations. Another common belief is that pretty much everyone was innocently duped. I want to challenge these notions somewhat.

The most aggravating aspect of Armstrong’s project was his promotion of faith in faith and celebration of the faithful identity. He and the cycling big wigs consistently worked to create a community of the faithful that would exclude and shun doubters. He flattered his more credulous fans with the notion that they were better people for promoting Hope and Belief. While the believers were in reality the overwhelming majority, they were sold an image of themselves as members of a small elite whose gift of spirit set them apart from the cynical, faithless masses.

There was the constant refrain that the world was hostile to the possibility of recovery and great accomplishment and that “no one had believed.” “When I came back,” Armstrong claimed, “there was no interest. None.” After the 1999 Tour, he proclaimed:
Nobody believed in us. Nobody believed that if Lance Armstrong took the yellow jersey, with the help of his team, on Stage 8, how could they keep it to Stage 22? They thought the team would crack. But that team with seven out of nine guys being American – American team, American sponsor – they were the strongest team in the race. And everybody in Paris knew that. And I can assure you that at next year’s Tour de France, there will be no, there will be no doubters.
For the journalists who suspected or knew of the cheating but worked to feed the myth, the machine offered the self-image of champion of hope and protector of cycling.

As is always the case, the celebration of faith entailed a certain attitude toward, and treatment of, those who challenged the myth. Riders who stood against doping in cycling were pushed out. Journalists who published skeptical stories saw their careers threatened and friendships tested. More generally, skeptics were castigated in the traditional way: contrasted with the virtuous faithful, they were portrayed as mean, callous, lesser people who lacked the life-affirming spark of faith.*** In a speech at the end of the 2005 Tour which is especially sickening in retrospect (and maybe gag-inducing to some at the time, judging from the facial expressions on the cyclist standing behind Armstrong’s then-fiancée Sheryl Crow), Armstrong chastised all those who questioned him:
The last thing I’ll say for the people that don’t believe in cycling – the cynics and the skeptics. I’m sorry for you. I’m sorry you can’t dream big. And I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles. But this is one hell of a race. This is a great sporting event, and you should believe.
A vivid illustration of this phenomenon was an accusation in a letter from a reader of the Sunday Times about David Walsh:
I believe Armstrong’s victory was amazing, a triumph in sport and life. I believe he sets a good example for all of us. I believe in sport, in life, and in humanity…Sometimes we refuse to believe for whatever reason. Sometimes people get a cancer of the spirit. And maybe that says a lot about them (Seven Deadly Sins, 185).
Armstrong identified himself with the cause of fighting cancer, with the Tour de France, with cycling, with America, and with hope itself, and then publicly chastised anyone who doubted this representative of all that is good. People calling out lies and challenging myths weren’t just seen as spiritually deficient, but as hostile to the communities Armstrong was allegedly raising up. Journalists like Walsh and even cyclists themselves (and cyclists like Paul Kimmage who’d become journalists) who were exposing the culture of doping and Armstrong’s involvement were viewed as enemies of the sport, of the community of cancer sufferers and survivors and their families, and of all those idealists who retained faith in human possibilities.

Neither the film nor the book discusses the political context of this propaganda for faith, but that context is essential. Armstrong’s Tour “victories” spanned 1999 to 2005. These were the years that bracketed 9-11 and the invasion of Iraq. If ever there was a time in which it was dangerous to encourage faith in faith and uncritical belief in the claims of powerful people, this was it. As with Armstrong, the media lined up behind the Bush administration and its mythology of WMDs and a months-long war. Questioners and dissenters, as the Dixie Chicks learned,

were excluded from the self-celebratory community of belief, threatened, and treated with hostility and condescension.

If there’s one bright spot in this story it’s that Armstrong won’t be able – at least in the immediate future – to advance his political ambitions. (Unfortunately, the psychologically similar Chris Christie remains in a position of political power.) But the political lessons of the Armstrong affair transcend him personally.

It’s true that the public was kept in the dark about his doping, although very suggestive evidence was provided by Walsh and others a full decade before Armstrong’s final “exposure.” But it’s unhelpful, I think, to focus on people’s ignorance or, worse, on how people’s supposedly best and purest motives were exploited by Armstrong’s machine. Wanting to believe in something or someone is certainly understandable. But it’s not a virtue. Ignoring evidence in favor of defending people who claim to embody our hopes and ideals, allowing questioners to be attacked, doesn’t make us better people, and can lead down some very harmful paths.

* The book is OK. The seven deadly sins of the title refer to Armstrong’s seven Tour de France “wins.” I expected the chapters to be organized around this theme, but the title doesn’t really have anything to do with the book. As several of the Amazon reviewers noted, it seems sort of rushed and needed better editing, especially in the early chapters. But it’s not bad. I did learn from it that the race started as a means to get attention and circulation for a rightwing paper with an anti-Dreyfus message. Like almost everything in modern France, then, the Tour emerged from the Dreyfus Affair. Unfortunately, the book’s brief discussion of this history almost suggests a parallel between that case and Armstrong’s, which is so wrong.

** “The world of sport,” Bassons concludes, “should forget him but should not destroy him psychologically. Armstrong is still a human being with an individual personality that was built during his childhood. I know he had a difficult childhood, which might explain his need to win at all costs, even if that meant not respecting other people.

Today I feel more pity than contempt for him. I always preferred to be in my position than in his. I am honest, straight and happy. I don’t think he can say the same” (Seven Deadly Sins, 398).

*** Contemptibly, this came to involve pressuring Greg LeMond, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, to apologize for his public statements about Armstrong.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Dear Committee Members

Are you, were you ever, or might you become an academic? Do you enjoy laughing? You'll probably like this novel:

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Defiant Nurse

So I'm watching Rachel Maddow and her piece on Kaci Hickox rebelliously riding a bike, and I'm thinking about Halloween tomorrow and the surfeit of "slutty" this and that costumes for women.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if "slutty" were replaced by "defiant"? The librarians who bravely defied the Patriot Act, the teachers who've stood against Republican attacks on education and their unions, the nurses who've demanded that the health care system serve human needs, protect and fairly remunerate workers, and respect basic human rights? Wouldn't it be amazing if little girls and boys dressed up, aspirationally, as Kaci Hickox?

Friday, July 18, 2014



You can't bark in a poem.
Can't even howl, really.
You can only “howl,” a purified cry
rendered into tallow.

So a poem is like a lab
with its value-added by-products,
sacred and silent.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Interlude - Daughter

They have that underwater sound I love so.

Pairings: 24/7, The Forgotten Language, Solaris

It’s been a while since I recommended a pairing.* This one is actually a trebling (?), since it involves two books and a film.

“24/7 is a time of indifference,” Jonathan Crary suggests in 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (2013),
against which the fragility of human life is increasingly inadequate and within which sleep has no necessity or inevitability. In relation to labor, it renders plausible, even normal, the idea of working without pause, without limits. It is aligned with what is inanimate, inert, or unageing. As an advertising exhortation it decrees the absoluteness of availability, and hence the ceaselessness of needs and their incitement, but also their perpetual nonfulfillment.

…In its profound uselessness and intrinsic passivity, with the incalculable losses it causes in production time, circulation, and consumption, sleep will always collide with the demands of a 24/7 universe. The huge portion of our lives that we spend asleep, freed from a morass of simulated needs, subsists as one of the great human affronts to the voraciousness of contemporary capitalism.

…Sleep poses the idea of a human need and interval of time that cannot be colonized and harnessed to a massive engine of profitability, and thus remains an incongruous anomaly and site of crisis in the global present.

…Sleep is an irrational and intolerable affirmation that there might be limits to the compatibility of living beings with the allegedly irresistible forces of modernization.
While the book is insightful, and its arguments are all interesting if not all entirely convincing,** it does tend to meander away from its central topic, which is kind of a shame in that the discussion of sleep and dreaming could have been taken further.

In particular, Crary’s discussion of Freud’s and others’ “devaluation of the dream” is true as far as it goes. The “psychoanalytic reduction” of dreams to infantile wish-fulfillment
refuses the possibility of dreaming as a ceaseless and turbulent convergence of the lived present with ghosts from a fugitive and still indiscernable future.*** …Dreams may well be the vehicles of wishes, but the wishes at stake are the insatiable human desires to exceed the isolating and privatizing confines of the self.
But this section completely ignores the work of humanistic neo-Freudians like Erich Fromm and Karen Horney. Their exclusion from the critical-theory “canon” is sad both for their legacy and for the tradition itself. Fromm’s work on dreams in The Forgotten Language, for all the book’s problems, is especially relevant to Crary’s thesis. Under contemporary conditions, Fromm argues,
the human mind, of both rulers and ruled, becomes deflected from its essential human purpose, which is to feel and think humanly, to use and to develop the powers of reason and love that are inherent in man and without the full development of which he is crippled.

In this process of deflection and distortion man’s character becomes distorted. Aims which are in contrast to the interests of his real human self become paramount. His powers of love are impoverished, and he is driven to want power over others. His inner security is lessened, and he is driven to seek compensation by passionate cravings for fame and prestige. He loses the sense of dignity and integrity and is forced to turn himself into a commodity, deriving his self-respect from his salability, from his success. All this makes for the fact that we learn not only what is true, but also what is false. That we hear not only what is good, but are constantly under the influence of ideas detrimental to life.

…We are exposed to rationalizing lies which masquerade as truths, to plain nonsense which masquerades as common sense or as the higher wisdom of the specialist, of double talk, intellectual laziness, or dishonesty which speaks in the name of ‘honor’ or ‘realism’, as the case may be. We feel superior to the superstitions of former generations and so-called primitive cultures, and we are constantly hammered at by the very same kind of superstitious beliefs that set themselves up as the latest discoveries of science. Is it surprising, then, that to be awake is not exclusively a blessing but also a curse? Is it surprising that in a state of sleep, when we are alone with ourselves, when we can look into ourselves without being bothered by the noise and nonsense that surround us in the daytime, we are better able to feel and to think our truest and most valuable feelings and thoughts?
Solaris is discussed in 24/7, but Crary refers to the 1972 film by Andrei Tarkovsky, while I suggest the 2002 Steven Soderbergh version (both are adaptations of the 1961 novel by Stanislaw Lem). An essential element of the film is Cliff Martinez’ music:

* The video has since been removed, but the film I’d paired with Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided back then was The Assassination of Richard Nixon.

** For one, I don’t agree with his views on blogging!

*** I very much dislike this idea of sources of resistance found only in remembrances and imaginings, as I’ll discuss in more detail in an upcoming post. Crary’s basic point here is valid, though.

Gardens by the Sea

This weekend I did the “Gardens by the Sea” walking tour in Stonington, Connecticut. It’s hosted by the Stonington Garden Club for only two days every three years, so we were lucky to have such a beautiful day. Colorful pictures seem a little incongruous on my blog, but pretty flowers are never a bad thing.

The last stop on the tour was the Stonington Community Center Children’s Garden. It was about as charming as a children’s garden could be:

I also noticed that this summer is a bicentennial:

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Dear Petco: Bring back the old sponge ball cat toys!

One of the cats used to love playing with the old two-color soft balls. He would drop them down the stairs and chase them, carrying them back up in his mouth. If you threw one against a wall, he would jump up and catch it in the air on the rebound. When he was happily exhausted, he would drop the ball he'd been playing with in a shoe or bag. He played with them until they were falling apart, and it was always fun to get him a new set of four.

The new ones that you've been selling for the past several months are terrible. They're far too big and too hard for him to carry, and he's not interested in playing with them. They're also, incidentally, quite ugly. I don't know why you'd discontinue a great product and replace it with such a ridiculous one. I read the reviews on the Petco site, and every one I read says basically the same thing: "My cat loved the old ones and doesn't play with the new ones." I can't imagine any research was done before introducing the new version.

Please bring back the old ones!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

“It's over. You are all free of debt.”

My favorite artwork of 2014.

Democracy Now!

and others reported a couple of weeks ago on the work of Chilean artist, Papas Fritas (Francisco Tapia). In the context of the occupation of the (now closed) for-profit University of the Sea, Tapia retrieved the papers on which student debts were recorded. He then burned them and displayed the pile of ashes in his van.
Tapia said his plan was hatched after reading press accounts that Universidad del Mar students were being forced to pay debt even after the university was shut down.

In a statement delivered to a Chilean court, Tapia defended his action. He claimed to have smuggled the documents to Santiago, where he began to investigate the credit files, case-by-case, student-by-student. By day Tapia would investigate the financial situation and life struggle of a single student. Then in the evening, he would destroy the documents related to that particular debt. “Every night, like a ritual, I burned the documents that detailed the debt.”

...The ashes have since been converted into a mobile art exhibit built into the sides of a Volkswagen camper van. The back window of the van holds a video screen so that Tapia's message can be played to crowds of curious onlookers.

The van, laden with ash, has toured the streets of Santiago and Valparaiso, and even went on display at the GAM – a prominent Santiago art gallery and cultural centre. When Chilean detectives, wearing white body suits, attempted to confiscate the fine grey dust as evidence, they too were incorporated into the exhibit's PR blitz and listed as “media partners.”
It’s a wonderful political act, but a beautiful work of art as well. The best art challenges what Theodor Adorno called the “hegemony of the existent,” making people aware of new possibilities of freedom. This work accomplished that both symbolically and materially. Symbolically, the ashes represent not destruction but liberation from a necrophilous system that denies living human possibilities in the name of profit and power (Chile’s current educational system has its origins in Pinochet’s authoritarian, neoliberal regime). Materially, his actions offer students the possibility of freedom from the grip of unjust debt.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Karen Horney and Jean-Paul Sartre on the psychology of vindictiveness and violence

Elliot Rodger’s killing spree and the video and manifesto he made explaining his motivations brought to mind not only Joan Smith’s work on misogyny but also some of the ideas of psychiatrist Karen Horney and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.

Horney’s writings about neurosis, particularly concerning the “arrogant-vindictive” type, whose “main motivating force in life is his need for vindictive triumph” (Neurosis and Human Growth, 197), are especially enlightening. While Horney didn’t like constructing typologies or using them for anything but the most general heuristic purposes, she provides an excellent description of the characteristics of this type, for which Rodger provides a near-perfect case study. For example:
[T]he expressions of vindictiveness may be checked by considerations of prudence or expediency, but they are counteracted very little by feelings of sympathy, fondness, or gratitude. In order to understand why this process of crushing positive feelings persists later on, when people may want his* friendship or love, we have to take a look at his second means of survival: his imagination and his vision of the future. He is and will be infinitely better than ‘they’ are. He will become great and put them to shame. He will show them how they have misjudged and wronged him. He will become the great hero…, the persecutor, the leader, the scientist attaining immortal fame. Driven by an understandable need for vindication, revenge, and triumph, these are not idle fantasies. They determine the course of his life. Driving himself from victory to victory, in large and small matters, he lives for the ‘day of reckoning’. (203)
[W]hat perhaps contributes most to his callousness toward others is his envy of them. It is a bitter envy – not for this or that particular asset, but pervasive – and stems from his feeling excluded from life in general. (211)
Jean-Paul Sartre’s fictional and nonfictional writings about violence are also surprisingly helpful in understanding the psychology of killers driven by misogyny and other forms of group hate. His short story “Erostratus” is actually told from the point of view of a spree shooter named Paul Hilbert. Hilbert is terrified of and at the same time has a grandiose disdain for humans and human society.

Before his crime, Hilbert sends over a hundred copies of a letter-manifesto to humanist writers. It reads in part:
I suppose you might be curious to know what a man can be like who does not love men. Very well, I am such a man, and I love them so little that soon I am going out and kill a half dozen of them: perhaps you might wonder why only half a dozen? Because my revolver has only six cartridges.

…Soon I am going to take my revolver, I am going down into the street and see if anybody can do anything to them. Goodbye, perhaps it will be you I shall meet. You will never know then with what pleasure I shall blow your brains out. If not – and this is more likely – read tomorrow’s papers. There you will see that an individual named Paul Hilbert has killed, in a moment of fury, six passers-by on the Boulevard Edgar-Quinet.
“Erostratus” appears in The Wall, a collection of short stories published in 1939 which also includes “The Birth of a Leader,” the story of the path by which one young man comes to join a fascist youth group. We see Lucien Fleurier’s struggles to define his identity. He fails until he encounters a violent rightwing group, where he at last finds an identity: he is an anti-Semite and part of the French patriarchal, landowning tradition. He finds a solid core of identity to cling to in his hatred (“…he thought, ‘I am Lucien! Somebody who can’t stand Jews’”), belief in the alleged rights deriving from his social position (“[Lucien] drew into himself for an instant, thoughtful and holy, and the words came of themselves. ‘I HAVE RIGHTS!’ Rights! Something like triangles and circles: it was so perfect that it didn’t exist…”), and sense of patriarchal entitlement and superiority:
[H]e would go and live in Férolles. Somewhere in France there was a bright young girl like Pierrette, a country girl with eyes like flowers who would stay chaste for him: sometimes she tried to imagine her future master, this gentle and terrible man; but she could not. She was a virgin; in the most secret part of her body she recognized the right of Lucien alone to possess her. He would marry her, she would be his wife, the tenderest of his rights. When, in the evening, she would undress with slender, sacred gestures, it would be like a holocaust. He would take her in his arms with the approval of everyone, and tell her, ‘You belong to me!’ What she would show him she would have the right to show to him alone and for him the act of love would be a voluptuous counting of his goods. His most tender right, his most intimate right: the right to be respected to the very flesh, obeyed to the very bed. ‘I’ll marry young’, he thought. He thought too that he would like to have many children; then he thought of his father’s work; he was impatient to continue it and wondered if M. Fleurier was not going to die soon.
This is all connected to acts of brutality, and the reader is left to assume more violence will follow as the movement Fleurier has joined gains power.

“Erostratus” and “The Birth of a Leader,” like the other stories in The Wall, are portraits of lives in bad faith. Sartre understood the roots of prejudice and violence in terms of attempts to flee from the freedom and responsibility inherent in the human condition.

The human condition is characterized by a freedom to define ourselves. We aren’t created by any God or other transcendent process that gives us an immutable identity, position, or rights over others. We have no destiny that externally gives our actions meaning or justification. This freedom carries great responsibility for the choices we make (and choosing not to act is just as much of a choice with just as much responsibility). Sartre believed that we’re under powerful psychological pressure to evade this freedom and responsibility, and that we do this through various forms of personal and political bad faith.

While bad faith can take any number of forms, Hilbert and Fleurier represent a similar form: the attempt to flee the human condition by creating or adopting a hostile identity and through violence.** In his 1945 “Portrait of the Antisemite,” he provides a nonfictional account of the process he fictionalizes in “The Birth of a Leader.” The anti-Semite runs from freedom and responsibility. The intense fear and anxiety created by the human condition give rise to a desperate longing for a given and immutable identity and position, for a global or cosmic order or teleology which justifies one’s actions. People create and claim such identities and orders, but deep down, Sartre suggests, it’s a belief in bad faith – ultimately, they know they have chosen it, but won’t let themselves be fully conscious of this fact.

Anti-Semitism, Sartre contends, is one means of constructing a bad-faith identity: “By adhering to antisemitism, [the anti-Semite] is not only adopting an opinion, he is choosing himself as a person. He is choosing the permanence and impenetrability of rock, the total irresponsibility of the warrior who obeys his leaders – and he has no leader” (345). “[T]he Jew’s existence,” he writes,
simply allows the antisemite to nip his anxieties in the bud by persuading himself that his place has always been cut out in the world, that it was waiting for him and that by virtue of tradition he has the right to occupy it. Antisemitism, in a word, is fear of man’s fate. The antisemite is the man who wants to be pitiless stone, furious torrent, devastating lightning: in short, everything but a man. (345)
To return to the fictional Lucien Fleurier, Hazel Barnes argues in Humanistic Existentialism (1959) that
every decisive action is the result of Lucien’s own desire to escape from a freedom which terrifies him. His bad faith – like all bad faith – consists in his refusing to accept a true view of himself as a combination of being and nothingness and in evading the responsibility of free decisions, whether with respect to the past or the future.

…Lucien has chosen himself as a man who will live as though he is an in-itself (albeit a highly privileged one) in a Serious World. The innate rights of the Gentile and of the industrialist and of the male are all manifestations of a single attitude. So were Lucien’s earlier responses to religion (though but lightly touched on in this story) and to psychoanalysis – all of them attempts either to flee from himself or to pin himself down as though he were classifiable once and for all – like a thing. (65)
To retreat into anti-Semitism is to flee from the reality that both identity and morality are humanly constructed and unstable. The anti-Semite displaces morality into a Manichean framework in which Jewish people are inherently evil in order to eliminate the burden of responsibility. He chooses to believe that Jews are behind wars and economic struggle:
The antisemite is afraid of discovering that the world is badly made: for then things would have to be invented, modified and man would find himself once more master of his fate, filled with agonizing and infinite responsibility. He localizes all of the evil of the universe in the Jew. (338)
This bad-faith belief provides some measure of escapist psychological relief:
This external model relieves him of the necessity of seeking his personality within himself; he has chosen to be all outside, never to examine his conscience, never to be anything but the very fear he strikes in others: he is running away from the intimate awareness that he has of himself even more than from Reason. (334)

…[A]bove all, this naïve dualism is eminently reassuring to the antisemite himself: if it is only a matter of getting rid of Evil, it means that Good is already assumed. There is no reason to seek it in anguish, to invent it, to debate it patiently when one has found it, to prove it in action, to verify its consequences and finally to saddle oneself with the responsibilities of the moral choice thus made. (340)
Such a worldview, in which the roots of all evil are located in a category of people, is inherently and necessarily violent and destructive:
[The antisemite’s] emphasis is on destruction. It is not a question of a conflict of interests but of the damage that an evil power causes to society. Behind the bitterness of the antisemitism is concealed the belief that harmony will be reestablished of itself once evil has been ejected. His task therefore is purely negative: there is no question of building a society but only of purifying the one that exists. (339)

…When he has fulfilled his mission as the sacred destroyer, the Lost Paradise will rebuild itself. For the time being the antisemite is absorbed by so many duties that he has no time to think about it: he is forever on the verge, he fights and each of his outbursts of indignation is a pretext which distracts him from the anguished search for the good. (340)
As this suggests, “the end of the struggle can only be an act of sacred destruction” (339). But in their day to day existence, even when not (yet) calling for the deaths of Jewish people, anti-Semites reveal a destructive and murderous intent. The expressions of hate and practices of discrimination, “the measures which they propose and which are all aimed at [the Jew’s] debasement, his humiliation, his banishment, are the prerequisites of this murder which they are contemplating: they are symbolic murders” (343).

Sartre views anti-Semitism not as the result of individual pathology or disturbance but as necessarily a social phenomenon. According to him, anti-Semites are generally too fearful to act independently. “This sentence: ‘I hate the Jews’,” he offers, “is a sentence which is said in chorus…” (335). And he indicts the armchair anti-Semites, who might not be members of fascist organizations or personally engaging in violence but who support the most violent and extreme through their willing conformity. Having completed his portrait, Sartre says:
If many people who willingly admit to hating the Jews do not recognize themselves, it is because they do not detest the Jews. They do not love them either. They would not do them the slightest harm, but they would not raise their little fingers to protect them from violence. They are not antisemites, they are nothing, they are no one; and since in spite of everything, one must appear to be something, they murmur, without thinking of evil, without thinking at all, they go about repeating some formulas which they have learned and which give them the right to enter certain drawing rooms.

…For antisemitism is distinguished, like all the manifestations of an irrational collective and tending to create a conservative and esoteric France. It seems to all these feather-brains that by repeating at will that the Jew injures the country, they are performing one of those initiation rites which allows them to feel themselves a part of the centers of warmth and social energy; in this sense antisemitism has retained something of the human sacrifice.

…Simple reflections, reeds bent in the wind, they would certainly never have invented antisemitism if conscious antisemitism had not already existed. But they are the ones who, in all indifference, insure the survival of antisemitism and carry it forward through the generations. (343-344)
As Sartre recognized, the choice of living and acting (including violently) in bad faith could potentially take a variety of individual and social forms depending on a person’s historical and particular circumstances. Hilbert’s and Fleurier’s choices are fundamentally similar. The difference – that Hilbert turned against all of humanity and became a spree killer while Fleurier would rise to a position of leadership in an anti-Semitic fascist organization – differed due to the options available in their specific times and places.

The choice of despised groups on which a bad-faith identity and morality is built is arbitrary. As Sartre notes, “The Jew is only a pretext: elsewhere it will be the Negro, the yellow race…” Indeed, in later years he would analyze colonialism and antiblack and anti-Asian racism in the same terms. The particular characteristics of the movements from which this bad faith draws are also shaped by the social environment. As Hazel Barnes writes:
[W]hile the existentialist cannot consistently represent environment as a determining force, he does not ignore it. Man is in-the-world. If his own free choice gives form to his way of life, still the situation in which he finds himself provides the matter or content. If Lucien had been brought up in the home of poverty-stricken fundamentalists, his bad faith might have manifested itself in Communism or in religion. (Humanistic Existentialism, 65)
The rights and position Lucien claims aren’t invented by him, but are part of his culture. His form of bad faith is encouraged by the movement in which he becomes involved and broadly supported by the social system.

There are some serious problems with Sartre’s work, including the reproduction of some of the ideas he explicitly rejects (or should reject) – essentialism, sexism, and particularly homophobia. He also attributes to a universal human condition several psychological features - anxieties, fears, desires - that are actually products of a particular culture (of which his own philosophy forms a part) and economic and political system. But these don’t erase the value of his understanding of the embrace of toxic and violent worldviews in terms of the evasion of freedom and responsibility.

Both Horney and Sartre, then, offer frameworks that might be useful in understanding violence – individual and collective - but which avoid the simplistic individual/political and mad/bad dichotomies. These frameworks recognize the intersection of the individual-psychological and the political without reducing either one to the other. Neurotic and bad-faith “solutions” grow from individual and culturally bound experiences, and the specific forms they take are also shaped by society, but they involve individual choices and purposes.

An important question arises: What did Horney and Sartre think were the possibilities for positive change, at both the individual and social levels? Can we prevent the emergence of such characters and movements, or turn individual people from this path, and if so how?

It’s tempting to wonder what would be the outcome if someone like Rodger had been treated by a therapist of Horney’s caliber, or just read her books. Horney herself recognized the difficulties involved in treating arrogant-vindictive sorts of neurotics, but counseled sympathy:
In analysis it gradually appears that the grapes of life, though he has declared them sour, are still desirable. We must not forget that his turning against life was not a voluntary move, and that the surrogate for which he exchanged living is a poor one. In other words his zest for living is stifled but not extinguished. In the beginning of analysis this is only a hopeful belief, but it proves justified in many more instances than is usually assumed. Upon its validity hinge the auspices for therapy. How could we help him if there were not something in him that does not want to live more fully?

…[I]f the analyst inwardly rejects him, he cannot be productive in his analytic work. The analyst will, however, have the necessary sympathetic and respectful understanding when he realizes that this patient too, despite his protestations to the contrary, is a suffering and struggling human being. (Neurosis and Human Growth, 211-212)
Horney shared with other humanistic psychiatrists and psychologists the belief that there was, at least in the vast majority of people, including those caught in the arrogant-vindictive spiral, a core that wanted to live and love fully, which could be cultivated and ultimately defeat harmful and self-defeating patterns.

It’s also clear from her socially informed explanations and therapeutic approaches that she didn’t regard neuroses, even in extreme cases, as biological illnesses (as today’s biopsychiatry falsely holds of “mental illnesses”). Neuroses were pathological in the sense that they led away from self-realization and positive relationships with the world and in regressive and destructive directions. They were patterns of thought and behavior that drained energy away from positive engagement toward the world. In Escape from Freedom (1941), Erich Fromm describes
an important difference between neurotic and rational activity. In the latter the result corresponds to the motivation of an activity – one acts in order to attain a certain result. In neurotic strivings one acts from a compulsion which has essentially a negative character: to escape an unbearable situation. The strivings tend in a direction which only fictitiously is a solution. Actually the result is contradictory to what the person wants to attain; the compulsion to get rid of an unbearable feeling was so strong that the person was unable to choose a line of action that could be a solution in any other but a fictitious sense. (153)
In Horney’s view, the unbearable psychological situation and the compulsive reactions were far more than superficial, and could persist, with devastating consequences, throughout a person’s entire life. They certainly involve the brain, beyond the basic fact that everything in our psychology and behavior involves the brain. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch, knowing what we do of neuroplasticity, to assume that Horney would have seen neuroses in terms of gradually emerging and complex changes to the brain that distort perceptions, emotions, and responses, leading away from healthy or positive patterns and forming a whole self-perpetuating system or mental world. These systems are difficult to uproot but ultimately amenable to change, particularly if the cultural and political context is conducive to healthier solutions (and conversely harder to change when they’re supported by the surrounding culture).

Though she recognized the significance of cultural and social factors in individual psychological formation, Horney’s suggested interventions remained largely at the individual level. In contact with and influenced by cultural anthropologists of her day, she recognized that observed psychological tendencies couldn’t be universalized. After reviewing some comparative evidence about varying definitions of what’s psychologically “normal” or healthy, she concludes:
The effect of all this is to confirm what some sociologists have repeatedly asserted: that there is no such thing as a normal psychology, which holds for all mankind.

These limitations, however, are more than compensated by the opening up of new possibilities of understanding. The essential implication of these anthropological considerations is that feelings and attitudes are to an amazingly high degree molded by the conditions under which we live, both cultural and individual, inseparably interwoven. This in turn means that if we know the cultural conditions under which we live we have a good chance of gaining a much deeper understanding of the special character of normal feelings and attitudes. (The Neurotic Personality of Our Time, 19)
The possibilities for a true social-psychological analysis using Horney’s concepts, though, were somewhat narrowed by her working at and focusing on the individual level (as a clinical psychiatrist) even as she recognized the role of societal conditions in the formation and content of neuroses. Also, while she was at the forefront of the neo-Freudian movement away from an exclusive focus on childhood in understanding psychological formation, this didn’t go far enough. Influenced by Freud even as she rejected many of his central concepts, Horney located the roots of “arrogant-vindictive” neurosis and other neuroses primarily in childhood and family experiences, though she did appreciate – more than most at that time (or since) – that these psychic patterns could be shaped by culture and the treatment of different categories of people (men and women, for example).

Nor did Horney realize the possibility of extending her ideas about neurosis beyond individuals. There’s good reason to resist a simplistic equating of individual and societal tendencies. Caution concerning “diagnoses” of cultures or movements or the application of conceptual frameworks developed to understand individual psychological patterns to social groups is well warranted. But, as I said several months ago, “This doesn’t mean…that Horney’s concepts don’t have great applicability for understanding cultural and political dynamics and how individuals are formed in conditions of oppression.” As long as it’s done cautiously and with intellectual rigor, I see no reason Horney’s ideas can’t be fruitfully applied at these other levels.

In terms of explaining the existence of these forms of bad faith generally and why certain people fall prey to them, Sartre veers, in “Portrait” and elsewhere, between a suggestion that hateful-violent bad faith emerges, like all forms of bad faith, from basic problems of the human condition on the one hand and simplistic Marxist and, frankly, often sexist and homophobic claims about which people succumb to the worst forms of bad faith on the other. While he offers a rich descriptive psychological analysis of bad faith itself, he doesn’t provide a satisfying explanation of, for example, why some French people became collaborators and others Resistance heroes.***

Because his explanations are lacking, his solutions – in theory, at least – are also weak. In practice, Sartre supported struggles against oppression – particularly Marxist and anticolonial movements – as struggles against collective, violent forms of bad faith. He sometimes had utopian expectations for these movements: existing forms of bad faith would no longer be a problem following national liberation or “after the revolution.” However, his political advocacy showed a real appreciation of the relationship between domination and oppression on the one hand and the most destructive forms of bad faith on the other. Furthermore, he thought, correctly in my view, that raising consciousness through writing could make more people aware of their bad faith and the psychological roots of their participation in oppressive and violent systems. While many of his works seem to demand almost superhuman powers to live consistently in good faith, he did provide models of good faith and encouraged the cultivation of habits to resist the temptations of bad faith.

* All of the works discussed in this post, written in an earlier era, use the patriarchal male pronoun and other sexist language. My reproducing that language shouldn’t be taken as an indication of approval.

** Hilbert uses a gun to commit mass murder, but it’s important to understand how Sartre saw the meaning of guns in this sort of thinking. In Sartre’s view, a gun is significant not just as a weapon capable of mass killing but in terms of what it represents for bad faith. A gun, to Hilbert, was a material metaphor for his desired image of himself as a hard, inhuman substance. In one passage, we see the coincidence between Hilbert’s emotional response to a gun and his sense of self: “I felt a strange power in my body when I went down into the street. I had my revolver on me, the thing that explodes and makes noise. But I no longer drew my assurance from that, it was from myself: I was a being like a revolver, a torpedo or a bomb. I too, one day at the end of my somber life, would explode and light the world with a flash as short and violent as magnesium.”

*** Or indeed any recognition that some Resistance activists might have been acting in bad faith. In contrast, Horney appreciated that “many persons may have a severe neurosis who according to surface observation are adapted to existing patterns of life,” while others may appear deviant or abnormal but not be neurotic at all.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

There’s only one Santa Barbara shooter

Peter Sutcliffe was always different, but not by a wide margin: the world is full of men who beat their wives, destroy their self-respect, treat them like dirt. They do it because they hate and despise women, because they are disgusted by them, because they need to prove to themselves and to their friends that they are real men. Occasionally, for one in a million, it isn’t enough. Peter Sutcliffe was one of those. But when the trees are so dense, who can with certainty pick out the really rotten timber?
This is from the concluding paragraph of the chapter of Joan Smith’s 1989 Misogynies*

titled “There’s Only One Yorkshire Ripper.” In it, she analyzes, in the context of societal misogyny, the police investigation into the string of murders and attempted murders of women carried out by Peter Sutcliffe in northern England in the late 1970s. In the preface to the 2013 edition, Smith describes how these events originally provided the impetus for the book:
The murders seemed to me a pure manifestation of misogyny, the consequence in one disturbed individual of the suspicion and dislike for women which I saw all around me. Peter Sutcliffe’s hatred of women was extreme but it wasn’t unique, which was one of the reasons why the police had such trouble catching him. They thought he would stand out and I thought exactly the opposite: that he could hide quite easily in a culture which often displayed casual contempt for women. It later emerged that Sutcliffe had been interviewed ten times without ever becoming a serious suspect.
It seems relevant in light of the recent killings in Santa Barbara.

* I don’t endorse every argument in this book, but I do recommend it.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Neo-Liberal Genetics and The Trashing of Margaret Mead

“The practice of science, like all human activity, depends upon categories, understandings, and conventions of practice that are, inevitably, culturally and historically specific. …[T]he point is not that ‘good science’ operates outside of culture and without reference to cultural categories, while ‘bad science’ does not. On the contrary, it is precisely because ‘good science’ recognizes its inevitable situatedness within culture that it must always place its most fundamental categories, understandings, and conventions at risk through the examination of contrary evidence. At least ideally, the scientific method requires that a hypothesis be tested against empirical data that have the potential for disproving it – that is, against aspects of the world that are relevant, resistant, and not already internally implicated in its own presuppositions. It is precisely evolutionary psychology’s failure to do this that makes it ‘bad science’.” - Susan McKinnon, Neo-Liberal Genetics, pp. 120-121

“By misrepresenting Mead’s views and by presenting himself as the guardian of evolution and interactionism, Freeman asked his readers to dismiss Mead’s work as mistaken, misguided, anachronistic, and unscientific and accept his position as accurate, responsible, thoroughly scientific and a harbinger of the future. A number of intelligent people found this seemingly clear-cut choice attractive. After all, who could oppose evolution, science, and responsible scholarship? The real choice, however, was not between Mead, on the one hand, and Freeman, on the other. It was between wondering whether Freeman read what Mead had written about culture, biology, and evolution and, for whatever reason, omitted entire passages and works that did not support his argument, or whether he did not carefully read Mead and therefore was not fully aware of what she wrote.” - Paul Shankman, The Trashing of Margaret Mead, p. 224
I wish I’d read Susan McKinnon’s 2005 Neo-Liberal Genetics: The Myths and Moral Tales of Evolutionary Psychology

and Paul Shankman’s 2009 The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy

when they were first published. It would have saved me some of the disappointment and exasperation I’ve experienced in the online science-atheism advocacy community.

Shankman’s book deals with the public controversy sparked a few decades ago when Derek Freeman published books claiming that Margaret Mead, who he claimed was the founding figure of an anti-evolutionary paradigm in anthropology, had actually been a naïve victim of a hoaxing during her fieldwork in Samoa. As the quotation above suggests, Freeman also sought, with a good deal of success among the public, to use his criticisms of Mead to begin the destruction of what he labeled an unscientific perspective and to promote one closer to Evolutionary Psychology. McKinnon’s pamphlet* is a more general scientific critique of Evolutionary Psychology from the perspective of cultural anthropology and related scientific fields.

Both books, which complement one another and other worthwhile works (Sahlins’ The Western Illusion of Human Nature, Fine’s Delusions of Gender, Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man,…), address both the science and the rhetoric of EP and related paradigms. Both describe in detail the scientific failings of EP – the unexamined presuppositions, the use of highly selective and often shoddy and even ridiculous** evidence, the flawed methods, the leaps of logic in analysis, and maybe most important the failure to engage with the full spectrum of evidence including that which potentially contradicts its claims and suggests different conclusions.

They also – McKinnon explicitly and Shankman more indirectly – discuss the rhetoric employed by EP advocates both within their books and in the public promotion of their approach. As both books describe, EP advocates make full use of rhetorical tactics to present themselves as the apolitical defenders of disinterested Science while their detractors are politicized and painted as unscientific wishful thinkers who can’t accept the irrefutable evidence. (This rhetoric is also highly gendered: opponents and their approaches are feminized while EP is portrayed as rational, intellectually courageous, masculine.)

I want to bring these works to more people’s attention because I believe there are many who are interested in considering the evidence and curious about what it shows – who aren’t so easily swayed by EP’s rhetorical bluster. Realistically, though, I’m not as optimistic that many of those already taken with EP will be interested in engaging with it seriously and respectfully and in the spirit of scientific inquiry. In fact, rhetoric consistently substitutes for substantive engagement in the responses to EP’s critics. A couple of years after the publication of McKinnon’s book, Henry Harpending wrote a review which Alex Golub at Savage Minds called “libelous.” Most striking are the rhetorical characterizations of McKinnon’s work quoted by Golub, which are so formulaic that you have to question whether Harpending even read the book he was reviewing. According to Golub, for example, he calls the 152-page well-organized pamphlet a “rambling screed,” and asserts that McKinnon “does not complain that evolutionary psychology is bad science according to standard criteria for evaluating science: Instead she dislikes the ‘rhetorical structures and strategies of the texts.’” As the quotation at the beginning of the post shows, though, it’s precisely on the basis of scientific criteria that McKinnon criticizes EP – the entire pamphlet is a presentation of the scientific failings of EP in the face of contrary evidence and compared to other explanations.

There just doesn’t seem to be any way to break through the rhetorical wall of condescending arrogance and draw EP advocates into a real engagement on these grounds, which in itself suggests that there’s something other than a dedication to science driving this movement. Which is especially depressing since it appears another round is about to begin with the publication of Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance.

* McKinnon’s pamphlet is published by Prickly Paradigm Press. The works in this series are all relevant to contemporary debates and issues, and I don’t understand why they haven’t been made into Kindle or e-books and sold online for a few dollars.

**To reiterate, because this is easily the worst: In looking for evidence concerning the possible inborn nature of human gendered toy preferences (presumed to be universal), the researchers presented vervet monkeys with a series of gendered objects, including cooking pans. They gave cooking pans. To vervet monkeys.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Augustin Hamon, “On the Definition of Crime,” Part 1

[A while ago, I ran across an interesting essay by the French anarchist-socialist Augustin Hamon, “On the Definition of Crime,” published in the New York Spanish-language anarchist newspaper El Despertar at the turn of the last century. It had caught my notice at the time because Hamon recognized crimes against nonhumans. Although I don’t agree with it in its entirety, I think the essay merits translation and dissemination, and I haven’t been able to find a version in English. “On the Definition of Crime” appeared in five segments from August 10 – November 20 of 1896, and my posts will be divided into the same segments. My translation skills are rusty, I’m afraid, and the essay might have originally been translated from French into Spanish for publication in the paper, adding more potential pitfalls; but I hope the meaning comes through. Following the translation, I’ll probably post my own critical analysis of the essay.]

“On the Definition of Crime,” Part 1 (August 10, 1896)

All criminological scholarship presupposes an exact definition of the word crime. If we didn’t have this, the different people who take up criminological study would come to understand the various aspects of their subject in a highly variable manner, and, consequently, the comparison of their theories and their works would be totally impossible, or at least fruitless, because the theories would begin from different bases and the works wouldn’t be comparable.

All science requires a precise terminology, with the goal of being able to speak about the phenomena observed and known by scholars. Thus in physics, in chemistry, in physiology, the technical terms used are perfectly defined, while in classical philosophy there’s a vague and ill-defined jumble that produces the greatest errors. When a physicist refers to Density, Gravity, Hydrostatics; when a chemist refers to oxygen, carbon, salts, all of the other physicists, all of the other chemists, know exactly what the writer is referring to. The same doesn’t happen in criminology, and when a criminalist speaks about crime, we don’t know what they mean by the term, or if we do know, their definition varies from those of other criminalists.

M. de Lombroso,* for example, writes about the criminal in all of his works, but refrains from defining crime, leaving to each reader the task of doing so according to their own viewpoint. The logical consequence is that each defines some people as criminals that others wouldn’t, and vice versa. This is a procedure that reveals a spirit as unmethodical as it is imprecise.

Other writers, undoubtedly more methodical, have recognized the problems with such an antiscientific mode of proceeding, which can only be described as the study of an indeterminate subject, and have attempted to define crime. Let’s see if they’ve been correct in their proposals.

The jurist calls a crime or an offense any infraction of the law. “Scientifically,” we’ve said elsewhere (1)**, “it’s impossible to have a discussion on this basis, because laws constantly modify and change; because the customs that give rise to these laws evolve rapidly, and because those of the most developed intelligence continually attack certain laws, demonstrating their absurdity and impotence.”

In defining crime, M. Garófalo*** (2) has employed the sentiments of piety and probity. Any offense against these sentiments is a crime. This definition, while preferable to the previous, isn’t acceptable either. In effect, infanticide and parricide offend the pious sentiments of civilized men, but they don’t absolutely offend those of some existing savages, nor did they offend those of Europeans themselves in previous epochs. It’s undeniable that sentiments vary, not only across space and time but among individuals in the same country and the same era. To determine crime on the basis of an offense against such variable sentiments is to give an unstable definition, and to render any serious study of the subject impossible.

M. Tarde**** has proposed another definition (3). “The idea of crime,” he says, “naturally and essentially implies a right or duty that is violated.” To explain this definition, it’s necessary to determine beforehand the meaning of the terms right and duty. To this end, M. Tarde has dedicated a multitude of pages of pure, rather confused metaphysics. “Right and duty,” he says, “are fixed preconceptions, determined in the same or similar way in all times and places,” which is completely false, because rights and duties have varied – as history and sociology demonstrate by various facts – according to epoch or country, and according to the social arrangements accepted by men. Parricide is a duty for certain savage peoples, and, as such, isn’t a crime by M. Tarde’s definition. Infanticide was a duty for the Greeks, therefore it wouldn’t be a crime either. Nevertheless, parricide and infanticide are horrible crimes for the civilized men of today. So it turns out that M. Tarde offers a definition of crime that varies across time and space, which provides too fragile a foundation on which to build the structure of criminological science.

* Cesare Lombroso.

** The notes and references suggested don’t appear in El Despertar.

*** Raffaele Garofalo.

**** Gabriel Tarde.

Friday, May 9, 2014

You want Medicaid or a monument?

Years ago, a friend and I were discussing the phrases our families used to keep egotism in check. In mine, the favored expression was “Pin a rose on you!” (which lost a good part of its meaning when it somehow turned in the popular culture into “Pin a rose on your nose!”). Her family’s was better, I had to admit: the response to perceived bragging was “You want a medal or a monument?”

So…some MSNBC shows are broadcasting live from the Sweet Auburn Springfest in Atlanta, GA. All In With Chris Hayes just featured an interview with Rev. Dr. Raphael G. Warnock, Senior Pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. (I won’t dwell on the fact that he’s religious, since it’s not relevant to the great thing he just said.)

Warnock talked about how Georgia governor Nathan Deal has opposed Medicaid expansion in every way possible,* while, minutes before making this opposition law, signing legislation authorizing a monument for Martin Luther King, Jr., at the state capitol. In Warnock’s words:
Anyone who studied Dr. King is very clear Dr. King would choose Medicaid over a monument.
Absolutely true, and beautifully illustrative of differences between the biophilous and necrophilous tendencies. :)

* For the record, keeping more than half a million people from having health insurance.

Social workers speaking out

"Where are the social workers?” asked social worker Jack Carney back in 2012,
Where are the NASW [National Association of Social Workers] and its local and state-wide chapters? Over 12,000 individuals mental health professionals have publicly declared their concern at the planned 2013 publication of the DSM-5. They’ve signed the petition launched six months ago by the Society for Humanistic Psychology requesting that the DSM-5 Task Force delay publication of the new DSM and subject it to an independent scientific review. Fifty-one professional organizations have also endorsed the petition. It is extremely puzzling that the National Association of Social Workers and its local affiliates are not to be found among them.
Carney was an organizer of the DSM-5 boycott last year, and describes the campaign and its development into the NO-DSM DIAGNOSIS initiative here. While some of the individual voices critical of biopsychiatry have come from academic and clinical social workers, collectively the field has been relatively quiet compared to psychologists or even psychiatrists themselves. Indeed, the NASW seems to treat the publication of the DSM-5 as simply an educational and procedural matter.

So I was pleased to discover, reading a new piece by Philip Hickey at MIA,* that this January’s issue of Research on Social Work Practice was dedicated to a critical examination of the DSM-5. The article Hickey referred to in his post, Eileen Gambrill’s “The DSM as a Major Form of Dehumanization in the Modern World,” is unfortunately behind a paywall. But you can learn more about the issue and read the editorial by Jeffrey Lacasse, “After DSM-5: A Critical Mental Health Research Agenda for the 21st Century,” here.

While I was familiar with the basics, I learned several new things from Lacasse’s article about specific aspects of the spinning of biopsychiatry and psychiatric drugs in the DSM-5: for example, the field trials aren’t published as a collection within or connected to this edition; the section on “Limitations of the Categorical Approach” has been deleted; and, worst, references to the brain changes and akathesia associated with the use of neuroleptic (“antipsychotic”) drugs, even as the evidence continues to mount, have been purged.

Overall, the editorial provides a solid introduction to some of the major issues for an audience of social workers. I hope the issue is opening many social workers’ eyes to critical and social justice perspectives. As people dealing firsthand with problems of racism, poverty, insecurity, childhood trauma, and sexual violence, social workers are well placed both to recognize the harms of biopsychiatry’s depoliticizing approach and to develop humanistic alternatives.

* A post well worth reading on its own, especially for its discussion of the APA’s PR strategies. My favorite part:
It’s a fundamental fact of life, that spin and self-promotion can only take one so far. After that, we’re judged on our merits.

Psychiatry is not something good that needs some minor corrections. Psychiatry is something fundamentally flawed and rotten that needs to be marginalized, ostracized, and unambiguously condemned. Its concepts are spurious and its “treatments” are destructive and disempowering. At the present time, psychiatry’s fraudulent and destructive nature is being exposed daily on an increasingly wide spectrum of issues. The profession is literally reeling under a relentless barrage of well-deserved and overdue criticism. And psychiatry has nothing to offer in response but endless self-praise and self-justification orchestrated by professional advertisers. Every day psychiatry digs itself deeper into the mire of its own self-serving rhetoric. Even its own members are beginning to rebel.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The necrophilous Ayn Rand, Part 2

In my previous post, I described Erich Fromm’s notion of the necrophilous character, as both an individual and a cultural pathology. I noted that, reading Adam Lee’s series about Atlas Shrugged, I started to see Ayn Rand as a clear embodiment – a word she would likely cringe to hear applied to herself - of this character. This surprised me because Lee’s posts, for the most part, didn’t primarily concern this aspect of Rand’s psychology. Nor did I have the book available to search for more examples, which undoubtedly exist. I didn’t need it, since even the small sample of quotations presented by Lee in these assorted contexts just scream “Necrophile!”*

Rand’s necrophilous tendencies are apparent from her physical descriptions of her characters, particularly in comparison to her paeans to nonliving substances and technical processes. They can also be seen in her disregard for the natural world and celebration of ecological destruction. At times, Rand’s descriptions of nonliving objects even reveal a fascination with violence toward living beings.

In showing that “in Randworld, moral worth is linked to physical attractiveness, and heroes and villains can be recognized and distinguished from each other by sight,” Lee offers Rand’s physical descriptions of her protagonists, Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggart:
The glare cut a moment’s wedge across his eyes, which had the color and quality of pale blue ice – then across the black web of the metal column and the ash-blond strands of his hair – then across the belt of his trenchcoat and the pockets where he held his hands. His body was tall and gaunt; he had always been too tall for those around him. His face was cut by prominent cheekbones and by a few sharp lines; they were not the lines of age, he had always had them; this had made him look old at twenty, and young now, at forty-five. [p.34]
A sweep of brown hair fell back, almost touching the line of her shoulders. Her face was made of angular planes, the shape of her mouth clear-cut, a sensual mouth held closed with inflexible precision. She kept her hands in the coat pockets, her posture taut, as if she resented immobility, and unfeminine, as if she were unconscious of her own body and that it was a woman’s body. [p.20]
Most significant for my purposes is that what makes these characters attractive in Rand’s view is the extent to which they resemble nonliving things: icy eyes, sharp and angular features that know no age, precise and inflexible movements.** Taggart’s posture is explicitly contrasted with “womanly” or “feminine” embodiedness.

Even more telling, Lee provides, “[i]n the name of being fair to Rand” as a writer since he judges it “pretty good,” her vivid, breathless description of the pouring of molten steel at one of Rearden’s mills:
The narrow streak pouring through space had the pure white color of sunlight. Black coils of steam were boiling upward, streaked with violet red. Fountains of sparks shot in beating spasms, as from broken arteries. The air seemed torn to rags, reflecting a raging flame… But the liquid metal had no aspect of violence. It was a long white curve with the texture of satin and the friendly radiance of a smile. It flowed obediently through a spout of clay, with two brittle borders to restrain it, it fell through twenty feet of space, down into a ladle that held two hundred tons. [p.34]
While the human characters are praised for their resemblance to nonliving things, steel is imbued with the qualities of a living being, even the “friendly radiance of a smile”!

Rand’s disdain for the living world encompasses natural landscapes as well. Lee provides a quotation in which she describes a road trip taken by her heroes:
The earth went flowing under the hood of the car. Uncoiling from among the curves of Wisconsin’s hills, the highway was the only evidence of human labor, a precarious bridge stretched across a sea of brush, weeds and trees. The sea rolled softly, in sprays of yellow and orange, with a few red jets shooting up on the hillsides, with pools of remnant green in the hollows, under a pure blue sky.

…”What I’d like to see,” said Rearden, “is a billboard.” [p.262]
The presence of the natural world in human affairs is portrayed as illegitimate: “It was preposterous, he thought, this growing intrusion of the accidents of nature into the affairs of men…” In fact, the most tenderly described element of a vista turns out to be…a mass of coal smoke:
Mr. Mowen looked at the skyline, at the belts, the wheels, the smoke – the smoke that settled heavily, peacefully across the evening air, stretching in a long haze all the way to the city of New York somewhere beyond the sunset – and he felt reassured by the thought of New York in its ring of sacred fires, the ring of smokestacks, gas tanks, cranes and high tension lines. [p.255]
The passion “to destroy for the sake of destruction” and utter disregard for the natural consequences of destructive acts are evident in Rand’s apparent approval of a character’s setting fire to the oil wells he’s abandoning: “Later, when they told her that Ellis Wyatt had vanished, leaving nothing behind but a board he had nailed to a post at the foot of the hill, when she looked at his handwriting on the board, she felt as if she had almost known that these would be the words: ‘I am leaving it as I found it. Take over. It’s yours’.” Lee points out that it’s doubtful Wyatt had found the wells on fire when he arrived, but the point is that “Rand sees this as a grand gesture of defiance, a metaphorical middle finger extended to the looters.”

One of Lee’s recent posts is maybe the most interesting. The quotations he provides describe scenes in which Rearden has given Taggart various gifts. Lee uses these scenes to illustrate Rand’s attitude toward selfishness and giving, even in romantic relationships. She can’t allow Rearden to give a gift without driving home that no acts should ever be performed for the purpose of making another person happy. But the descriptions of the gifts are themselves interesting:
On the evening of a blizzard, she came home to find an enormous spread of tropical flowers standing in her living room against the dark glass of windows battered by snowflakes. They were stems of Hawaiian Torch Ginger, three feet tall; their large heads were cones of petals that had the sensual texture of soft leather and the color of blood.
She opened it and stared in incredulous bewilderment at a pendant made of a single pear-shaped ruby that spurted a violent fire on the white satin of the jeweler’s box….
She stood naked, the stone between her breasts, like a sparkling drop of blood.
Here, as in the description of molten steel above, a gem – a hard, nonliving substance - is granted life-like qualities. Even more suggestive of the linkage Fromm suggests between the two forms of necrophilism, living flowers call pleasingly to Rand’s mind injury (“the color of blood”) and eroticized death (“the sensual texture of leather”).

Described in Gary Weiss’s 2012 Ayn Rand Nation: The Hidden Struggle for America’s Soul, Rand’s personality was atrocious in many ways. In her life as in her art, she would probably provide an excellent case study for a Frommian (or Horneyan, for that matter) analysis, not just of Rand as an individual but of the culture that creates and sustains these pathological tendencies. As Fromm suggests, understanding the necrophilous character, especially in relation to capitalism, has important implications for psychological and ecological health.

* I believe Fromm was correct in his contention that such tendencies could be revealed in “marginal, unintended ‘insignificant’ actions, the ‘psychopathology of everyday life’” (Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, 374). While he at times took this observation to silly hyper-Freudian extremes – a person’s necrophilousness could be detected in “a particular kind of lifelessness in his conversation” (377), “a predilection for dark, light-absorbing colors” (377), an “incapacity to laugh” (378), and “a special affinity for bad odors” which can give necrophiles “the appearance of being ‘sniffers’” (378) – I do think it’s fair to look for evidence in a person’s literary or artistic works.

** I’m not suggesting that people with similar physical features to Rand’s heroes look less “human” or natural in my view. My argument concerns Rand’s attribution of nonliving/nonhuman qualities to these features and her disgust at what she considered fleshy, human bodies, which reveals an open contempt for the living human form. More generally, as I discussed in the previous post, an interest in the nonliving and mechanical is not in itself indicative of necrophilous tendencies; it has to be analyzed in terms of a person’s (or a culture’s) attitude toward living beings and the connotations living beings and nonliving artifacts have for them.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The necrophilous Ayn Rand, Part 1

I’ve recently started following along with Adam Lee’s insightful and entertaining journey through Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged. Reading several of the older posts in his series as I’ve caught up, I’ve been struck by how well Rand seems to personify Erich Fromm’s conception of the necrophilous character. In this post I’ll describe what Fromm meant by the necrophilous character, and in the next I’ll draw on several quotations from Rand featured in Lee’s series as evidence of her necrophilous tendencies.

While Fromm saw the necrophilous* character as loosely related to sexual necrophilia, it was primarily drawn from a critical analysis of Freud’s idea of the “death instinct” and his own understanding of the human tendency and potential for biophilia. Here’s how Fromm defined biophilia and the basic biophilic ethic:
Biophilia is the passionate love of life and of all that is alive. It is the wish to further growth, whether in a person, a plant, an idea, or a social group.** The biophilous person prefers to construct rather than to retain. He wants to be more rather than to have more. He is capable of wondering, and he prefers to see something new rather than to find confirmation of the old. He loves the adventure of living more than he does certainty. He sees the whole rather than only the parts, structures rather than summations. He wants to mold and to influence by love, reason, and example; not by force, by cutting things apart, by the bureaucratic manner of administering people as if they were things….

Biophilic ethics have their own principle of good and evil. Good is all that serves life; evil is all that serves death. Good is reverence for life, all that enhances life, growth, unfolding. Evil is all that stifles life, narrows it down, cuts it into pieces. (Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, 406; all further Fromm quotations are from the same volume)
Necrophilous tendencies, as this suggests, were the antithesis of biophilic ones:
Necrophilia in the characterological sense can be described as the passionate attraction to all that is dead, decayed, putrid, sickly; it is the passion to transform that which is alive into something unalive; to destroy for the sake of destruction; the exclusive interest in all that is purely mechanical. It is the passion to tear apart living structures. (369; emphasis in original)
Fromm didn’t believe that we have a death instinct or that the necrophilous character was innate and unavoidable. Instead, he thought people naturally had a more biophilic orientation which served human health and growth, but that its development could be blocked or subverted by childhood experience or culture. “Destructiveness,” he argued,
is not parallel to, but the alternative to biophilia. Love of life or love of the dead is the fundamental alternative that confronts every human being. Necrophilia grows as the development of biophilia is stunted. Man is biologically endowed with the capacity for biophilia, but psychologically he has the potential for necrophilia as an alternative solution. (406-7; emphasis in original)
So necrophilous tendencies are likely to develop in certain cultural atmospheres that interfere with biophilic growth.

While the definition of the necrophilous character above might seem to have a fairly narrow range, Fromm saw necrophilous tendencies as encompassing much of modern Western culture. The love of the “nonliving” could be seen not only in the direct attraction to the “dead, decayed, putrid, sickly” but also in an undue affection for the technological and mechanical, one of “the simplest and most obvious characteristics of contemporary industrial man: the stifling of his focal interest in people, nature, and living structures, together with the increasing attraction of mechanical, nonalive artifacts” (381).

While one recent biographer has suggested that Fromm was anti-technology, and some of his statements superficially suggest a hostility to science, what he in fact seemed to oppose was a particular orientation toward and conception of science and technology: one that wasn’t centered on life and growth or based in love of humanity and the world, that was alienated and alienating. After describing some examples of technological necrophilousness involving cars, cameras, and – a great word – “gadgeteers,” for example, he clarifies:
…I do not imply that using an automobile, or taking pictures, or using gadgets is in itself a manifestation of necrophilous tendencies. But it assumes this quality when it becomes a substitute for interest in life and for exercising the rich functions with which the human being is endowed. I also do not imply that the engineer who is passionately interested in the construction of machines of all kinds shows, for this reason, a necrophilous tendency. He may be a very productive person with great love of life that he expresses in his attitude toward people, toward nature, toward art, and in his constructive technical ideas. I am referring, rather, to those individuals whose interest in artifacts has replaced their interest in what is alive and who deal with technical matters in a pedantic and unalive way. (382; emphasis in original)
Fromm’s go-to example of a techno-necrophilous culture (in contrast to the more traditionalist necrophilousness of the Spanish fascists) was F. T. Marinetti and the other Italian Futurists. Quoting from Marinetti’s 1909 “Futurist Manifesto”, he writes: “Here we see the essential elements of necrophilia: worship of speed and the machine; poetry as a means of attack; glorification of war; destruction of culture; hate against women; locomotives and airplanes as living forces” (383).

So as Fromm saw it necrophilous tendencies could be expressed through both the hatred of living things and the attraction to death, destruction, and decay and the rejection of the living world in favor of the mechanical, nonliving realm of techno-driven society. Importantly, though, in this age of ecological destruction, he recognized the latter as in some sense also an expression of the former:
The world of life has become a world of ‘no-life’; persons have become ‘nonpersons’, a world of death. Death is no longer symbolically expressed by unpleasant-smelling feces or corpses. Its symbols are now clean, shining machines; men are not attracted to smelly toilets, but to structures of aluminum and glass. But the reality behind this antiseptic façade becomes increasingly visible. Man, in the name of progress, is transforming the world into a stinking and poisonous place (and this is not symbolic).*** He pollutes the air, the water, the soil, the animals – and himself. He is doing this to a degree that has made it doubtful whether the earth will still be livable within a hundred years from now. He knows the facts, but in spite of many protesters, those in charge go on in the pursuit of technical ‘progress’ and are willing to sacrifice all life in the worship of their idol. (389; my emphasis)

…It makes little difference whether he does it intentionally or not. If he had no knowledge of the possible danger, he might be acquitted from responsibility. But it is the necrophilous element in his character that prevents him from making use of the knowledge he has.

We must conclude that the lifeless world of total technicalization is only another form of the world of death and decay. This fact is not conscious to most, but to use an expression of Freud’s, the repressed often returns, and the fascination with death and decay becomes as visible as in the malignant anal character. (390; my emphasis)
Though Fromm wrote in individual terms, he saw the necrophilous tendency as a cultural product (driven by capitalism and Cold War politics; he paid less attention to patriarchy). He didn’t claim that people could be neatly sorted into “necrophilous” and “biophilous” boxes, but that most people exhibited both tendencies to some degree and that their relative strength was influenced by experience within a given culture and age. Very few people, he argued, could be described as fully one or the other. But he did mention, notably, several individual scientists (391) whom he considered representative of biophilia, and contended that there existed “a small minority…in whom there is no trace of necrophilia, who are pure biophiles motivated by the most intense and pure love for all that is alive. Albert Schweitzer, Albert Einstein, and Pope John XXIII are among the well-known recent examples of this minority” (408).

I imagine many would question at least one person on this particular list - Fromm had an annoying tendency to idolize certain living or historical men (always men, as far as I can recall) as representatives of biophilia and as borderline messianic figures. In my next post, I’ll suggest some ways in which Ayn Rand fascinatingly illustrates the necrophilous character – in a manner that illuminates particular features of capitalism, patriarchy, and contemporary attitudes toward science, technology, and ecology.

* Fromm took the term from an angry response from Spanish writer-philosopher Miguel de Unamuno to a speech by the Francoist general José Millán Astray in 1936 which he quoted frequently (368).

** Although today the term “biophilia” connotes a relationship with the whole of the living world, Fromm’s formulation was often very human-centered. As his ideas developed, they did become more ecological (as can be seen in Anatomy and also in To Have or To Be?), but they never really came to include nonhuman animals in any meaningful way; in fact, nonhuman animals were often presented as objects or oppositional forces in Fromm’s work. This is somewhat surprising since Fromm repeatedly lists Albert Schweitzer as among those most representative of biophilia – “one of the great representatives of the love of life – both in his writings and in his person” (406). (I suppose this shouldn’t be so surprising: Jean-Paul Sartre was Schweitzer’s second cousin and he still managed to become one of the most speciesist of humanistic thinkers.)

*** The best example of the overlap between these two forms of necrophilousness, in which the attraction to the “antiseptic façade” barely conceals the desire for the “stinking and poisonous place” is in contemporary factory farming. As it grows bigger and more wrapped in mechanical rhetoric and “clean,” scientific practice, the ecological destruction becomes more and more visible – the toxic lagoons that surround CAFOs, the pollution of the surrounding water, the emissions of methane, the stench,…