Thursday, 9 October 2014

Sisyphus Doesn't Work Here Anymore

It's a pretty stock tactic: present the young undergraduate students of Philosophy with the myth of Sisyphus, and tell them it's an allegory for human existence. There's a way to get their attention. There's a way to get them thinking. Except it's not. Because Sisyphus doesn't work here anymore.

Camus really puts his heart into it, describing in visceral terms Sisyphus's struggle to push the boulder up the hill, only to see it roll back down again, ad infinitum: 'the face screwed up, the cheek tight against the stone, the shoulder bracing the clay-covered mass, the foot wedging it, the fresh start with arms outstretched, the wholly human security of two earth-clotted hands.' All the better to emphasize the pointless exertion that is human existence when it is stripped of the absurd fictions we have employed to make it meaningful. No God, no Human Nature, no Truth, no Right, no Purpose. Just 'hopeless and futile labour.' Students used to feel outraged, disbelieving, bewildered. Now students feel nothing. They are unaffected.

Why this is, is obvious once you think about it. It's not just that the undergraduate student of Philosophy has grown up without appeal to the grand narratives of old - no God for them; no Human Nature; no Truth, no Right, no Purpose, so any effort to disabuse them of these narratives is inevitably ineffective. It's that what remains after the grand narratives - 'hopeless and futile labour,' according to Camus - doesn't ring a bell with them either. 'Hopeless and futile labour, such that the only philosophical question left is why I don't commit suicide? What's wrong with Camus?! Life's good - why would I commit suicide? I'm having fun! I'm happy!' Poor Camus. And poor Sisyphus! Out of a job in a society for which life as uphill struggle simply doesn't resonate at all.

Luckily, there's another myth that might just work. The Myth of Truman - given to us by The Truman Show (1998). For Truman, life is certainly not about rolling rocks up a hill - Life's good! Life's fun! 'Good morning, neighbours! And in case I don't see ya, good afternoon and goodnight!' But Truman is not a true man. He is artificially constructed for profit. His job's not a true job. His wife's not a true wife. His neighbour's aren't true neighbours. They're all just representations, to constitute a thin reality-film. Truman's is not a life of hopeless and futile labour - it's a life of hopeless and futile convenience, hopeless and futile happiness, hopeless and futile ease, given over without knowing it to the values of consumer capitalism such that relations even with his wife make sense only in the context of monetary gain. And as with Truman, so with us, absurd constructs of corporate interests.

This is The Truman Show. And what is worse: the ratings are falling. Truman's life is less and less relevant to the pursuit of capitalism; its funding sources are drying up and the patience of the producers is wearing thin. Truman's just about suffered to keep going for now, in an increasingly dowdy and sparsely-furnished set and among increasingly badly-paid and disaffected actors, If only it were as easy with Truman as it was with Sisyphus: confront Sisyphus with his absurdity and he starts thinking about suicide - hopeless and futile labour isn't that easy to endure; but confront Truman with his absurdity and he just gets on with it anyway - hopeless and futile ease by definition is that easy to endure...No stones to struggle with here, just screens to switch on and sugar to slug down...

Friday, 19 September 2014


Knowing how and why we have the feelings we do is the definition of mental health these days, as we resolve to overcome the terrible denial and repression to which we attribute much of the psychological distress that human beings have had to suffer. And we have become very, very good at it, able not only to name the feeling that we are at any given moment experiencing - 'I feel very anxious right now' - but also to understand where it is that feeling comes from and the end at which it aims - 'I know that many women feel like this in the months after having a baby, as the expectancy and relief stages of pregnancy and childbirth leave a gap in their sense of meaning and purpose.' How understanding of ourselves and others we have become! - no longer at the mercy of our moods but able to talk their language, so to speak, and thereby to defuse their potential effects.

But something is missing from this great achievement, of getting in touch with our feelings. Feelings are missing, having been almost entirely eradicated by knowledge, by awareness, by understanding, which are, in our society, taken much more seriously than the 'merely' emotional aspects of human experience. But feelings are very serious indeed, and it is important not to try to understand them! You see, the whole point about feelings is that they affect us and motivate us at least partially outside of the ways in which what we know affects and motivates us. What feelings do, therefore, is provide us with a rich and complex response to life and those around us that is not reducible to how we understand life and those around us. The necessity of living with those feelings, of adjusting them and ourselves in order to maintain a kind of equilibrium, results in our making changes to our lives and asking changes of others around us in a manner that is often productive of mutual respect, of depth of appreciation of each other and of a richness in living that we would never have been inspired to merely by what we know. The unknowable aspect of feelings, then, is wherein lies the force of their effect on our lives. To know them, by this account, is to diminish, if not entirely to remove, their effect. To understand our feelings is all but to annihilate the role that feeling has played in human existence.

Many of us have long relinquished anything like the voice of the divine in the guidance of our affairs. But feelings served many of us as well, in shaping us in a way we could not quite account for - like a divine voice within, if you please. But secular society silences all such voices. And produces what is now referred to as 'generation-sensible,' the just-turning-adult cohort that is remarkable, we are told, for its avoidance of sex, drink and drugs, and its pursuit of academic and other worldly goals. Generation-without-feeling, in other words. Generation-understanding

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Mental Illness in the Society of Control

Figures announced in August of last year revealed that, in many (Northern) towns in England in any given month, one adult in every six is prescribed antidepressants. If it does nothing else, this statistic once again raises questions about the significance of the word 'mental' in the designation 'mental illness.' The word 'illness,' we can understand; it places conditions like depression on a par with conditions like heart disease and cancer. But 'mental'? What can that mean? Of the mind, presumably, but what is the significance of that? Isn't the mind physical too? This is a big question, of course, but, since the default reaction these days is to treat the mind as if it is purely physical - antidepressants alter the chemical balance of the brain - we can at least conclude that medical orthodoxy, ordinary behaviour and government policy all agree that 'mind' illnesses are no different from 'heart' illnesses or 'stomach' illnesses. The question remains, then, as to what is implied by the catch-all qualifier 'mental' that isolates a certain range of conditions as somehow distinguishable from physical/purely physical conditions?

What is implied is this: that conditions like depression, while being a matter of physical imbalance, are also - in ways that are poorly defined and rarely explicit - a matter of personal responsibility in some way. We are made to own these conditions in a manner that we are never made to own conditions like heart disease (despite the fact that heart disease is often the result of lifestyle choices, a fact of which almost nobody can now be unaware). The various psycho-therapies, relatively rarely sponsored by the NHS, are premised upon this, with their reliance on a long-drawn out testimony on the part of the patient and a tendency to locate the origins of the 'mental' illness in an event/events construed as utterly determining. Your 'mental' illness is yours, and was always destined to  be yours, in a manner that 'physical' illnesses rarely are. A vaguely articulated atmosphere of personal responsibility, and therefore of guilt, pervades the very concept of 'mental' illness, an atmosphere that belies the rhetoric of 'understanding' that surrounds our society's ever-increasing doling out of pills to help alter certain psychological experiences.

The fact that Cognitive Behaviour Therapy has become the NHS therapy of choice is, in this context, telling - a therapy whose commitment to altering ways of thinking and therefore of behaving emphasizes the importance of norms and function. CBT is premised upon there being standards of behaviour which it is undesirable to fall short of, and upon the absolute value of fitting in and putting the next foot forward. A therapy, then, that combines the controlling effects of guilt-dissemination and normalization - a realization of Foucault's claim that 'mental' illness occurs half-way between medicine and morality as a significantly ambiguous and sinister mix of innocent determinism and culpable freedom. You can't do anything about your depression - hence the horrifying numbers that agree to the pills - yet you are also guilty, of its causes and its effects. That this guilt is now as pervasive as it is poorly defined no doubt explains the relative increase in pill-prescription and decrease in therapy provision - the term 'mental' nowadays more or less does the trick on its own. No more costly apparatus is needed to continue to make us feel as if we are the ones who are 'down.'  

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Common Sense Lite

For the Victorians, taste was a moral achievement; conformity to standards – of dress, of décor, of demeanour – part and parcel of an upstanding life and character. To us, this seems highly conservative and judgmental – we are committed to a degree of individualized aesthetic experience that makes the conformity of previous times feel oppressive, and, insofar as we form explicit moral impressions of anyone or anything, we do not form them on the basis of, say, choice of colour for the sitting-room walls.

Yet it is perfectly rational to argue that taste is a moral, and not just an aesthetic achievement: as Kant explained, a person’s willingness to submit to a consensus view when there is, as in matters aesthetic, no rule of reason to follow but only a shared sense, a common experience, is a very good sign of that person’s being more than likely to submit to a consensus view when there is, as in matters moral, a rule of reason to follow. If you subjugate your will in the matter of colour for the sitting room walls, on the basis of a common sense for what is beautiful, then you are unlikely not to subjugate your will in the matter of right and wrong, on the strength of a universal reason for what is good. 

And to what, after all, does our contemporary so-called freedom of choice amount? A great eclecticism? A dynamic experimentalism? If anything defines the aesthetic in our time, it is rather a stultifying genericism: in dress, in décor, in demeanour too. Conformity, then, still obtains – a mass and mind-blowing conformity of which the Victorians could not have dreamed. So the difference between us and the Victorians lies not, after all, in the advent of freedom of thought and expression, but in the explicit attribution of moral import to conformity in matters aesthetic.

This makes all the difference in the world. What is striking about contemporary genericism is its terrible thinness, its awful convenience, its flattened-out ease. ‘Boys and their toys,’ said with a smile between women of their men; ‘He’s at that stage,’ pronounced with no real idea of what stage that might be and whether he’s really at it, among mothers over cappuccinos; ‘The well-being of our students is our first priority,’ stated with no commitment to well-being, on every university brochure in the land. The generic mode is both impossible to object to – it is almost always positive – and utterly alienating, at least of any concern with content, any real engagement. It is the steel-magnolia mode of our times – saccharine sweet and absolutely forbidding of any dissent, the aesthetic equivalent of the ‘there is no alternative’ of contemporary capitalism.

There is, then, also an attribution of moral import to our time’s mode of conformity, but it is not an explicit attribution, and it is assigned on the thinnest of grounds, with no sense at all for the moral relevance of the content to be conformed to; there is nowadays only an implied insistence on the moral relevance of conformity itself. We have no notion of why it is that IKEA-style furnishings should have about them anything of a moral nature, and yet we have an absolute and very defensive sense that they do. The Victorians, on the other hand, had strong notions of why, say, a bustle to the rear of a woman’s skirts was of moral import, and this gave a depth to their insistence on conformity that our age is utterly without.

In the end, it is hard to really value what comes too easily. For the Victorians, standards of dress, of décor, and of demeanour were difficult to achieve: try producing crisp white linens in a dark and smoky home without electricity; try achieving a calm and spacious parlour in a two-up-two-down, housing a family of six. Hard won, to say the least. And therefore just the kind of indicator of a moral person that Kant understood the sense of taste to be. And think now of the shameful convenience of our choosing from H&M’s exhaustive range of cheaply sold ‘jeggings,’ while sitting on the couch watching X-Factor, or the terrible thoughtlessness of our conversations, as we sign up to a ‘global’ conformism, a ‘global’ common sense, that is as binding as it is lite, as steely as it is magnolia.

Contemporary moral life is degraded and degrading. It is born of no resistance, except that offered by the great wall of genericism. It is not formative, because it has nothing to do with substance. It is premised on outlines of people, not on people. And it makes outlines of people, not people.     

Friday, 10 May 2013

Non-Stop Inanity

The society of control never leaves anything alone for very long. Whereas, in the disciplinary mode, trust was placed in the institutions of discipline (the university, for instance), now those institutions are crumbling around a let's-keep-each-other-in-the-loop lack of trust, masquerading as transparency, openness, accountability, and downright sincerity.

A voracious culture of auditing has been with us for some time now, in which a worker in one of the institutions of discipline (the university, for instance) has been required to submit, at least three times already in this academic year, details of her qualifications, teaching, and research...each time in a format sufficiently different to prevent the possibility of cut-and-paste.

But this kind of auditing, which can seem sufficiently authoritarian to appear as a natural extension of the disciplinary mode rather than its demise, is now gradually softening its expression, relaxing its muscles, exchanging work clothes for a 'one-sie', and sending around an email asking you to name your favourite ice-cream and to submit a fun photo of yourself (a baby-photo, for instance). Non-stop inertia just came out as non-stop inanity.

But, for all its 'uggs' and foolish smiles, for all its text-speak and first-name calling, the control-machine is no less complex than the disciplinary. In former times, the mode whereby our subjection to power was bearable was as an expression of our inner, true self: I was made for being a teacher. The structure of this bearableness was taken from the societies of sovereignty that preceded the disciplinary style, in which, so long as one was out from under the yolk of the law - so long as one was thinking and acting for oneself - one was free. In the discplinary mode, it was precisely when one was acting thinking and acting for oneself that one was subjected - but the disciplinary mode flourished because thinking and acting for oneself felt like freedom!

Now, think of this: The request for the name of your favourite ice-cream and for a picture of you as a baby is made, and is supposed to be felt, as if it is a great and unusual concession on your part to provide such a thing - there is an amusing frisson of transgression - How funny and intriguing, the teacher likes cookie-dough flavour! But this frisson is only the way in which control is bearable, for the idea of 'the teacher' is a disciplinary one, already thoroughly anachronistic. No-one, now, is above naming their favourite ice-cream and showing their baby-photo - control is a great leveller in this regard. But this situation is acceptable to us to the extent that it feels that, in naming our favourite ice-cream and showing our baby-photo, we are making a grand exception, just this once, and coming down to the level of the 'common man'. Inanity is beneath noone now. It is, rather, our basic and ongoing condition, which is made endurable because it feels like a fun exception to the rule.

Friday, 12 April 2013

No Such Thing as Society; No Such Thing as the Self

Margaret Thatcher famously claimed that 'there is no such thing as society,' and those on the Left, rightly, regret the gradual and continuing unravelling in our times, of the ties that used to bind us together: where we lived, how we lived, what we worked at, who we knew, what we hoped and believed...In the wake of Thatcher's passing, those with sense and courage enough to speak out are giving expression to this regret, describing the greedy individualism, the elbows-and-knees selfishness, that they believe to have resulted from neoliberal capitalism's unrelenting assault on the social fabric; see Polly Toynbee on BBC's Question Time last night, or Glenda Jackson's speech to the House of Commons on Wednesday. But this regret, admirable though it may be, is mistaken. For Margaret Thatcher's politics destroyed, not just the forces that bound us together, but also those that made us stand apart: if there is no such thing as society, then there is no such thing as the self; selfishness and individualism are, in fact, no longer possible.

Like society as we know it, the self was a disciplinary phenomenon: constituted by a range of identifications that worked to individualize as they worked to normalize. In becoming a nurse (really becoming one, in that transformative manner that is no longer possible under the pile of paperwork that dominates the job), one was both subject to the norms of the profession and defined by those norms in a manner that contributed to who one was. And, since one was never only a nurse, but also lower-middle-class, urban, a mother, Catholic, and so on and so on, one was entered into the endless discrete networks that went both to bind one into society and to isolate one as an individual in one's own right. There were millions like you, but you were like nobody else in the world. Dissolving the identifications that constituted society, then, simultaneously dissolves the identifications that constituted the self.

It is crucial that we realize this, for, as things stand, the notion that individualism is still possible is one of the most powerful fictions of our time, the very mode whereby we find our situation tolerable. We may express dismay at the extent to which society has broken up into loose networks of individuals, but we feel comforted too at the liberatory potential of a force of individualism, a core of self, that is our ground zero, the mode of being below which we will not stoop. In his otherwise enlightening The Enigma of Capital, David Harvey describes as one of the necessaries, but also one of the few remaining blockages, to the flow of capital, 'the sovereign individual,' whose 'freedom' generates the entrepreneurial activities upon which capitalism thrives but whose deeper identifications 'are perpetually at odds with the crass commercialisms' of the markets. But 'the sovereign individual' is the blight and the comfort of an era that is no longer ours. If Foucault observed that we required, in disciplinary times, to cut off the head of the king (for the king was, in those times, an anachronism), then we are required, in these times, to cut off the head of the individual (for the individual is, in these times, an anachronism).

There is, now, no such thing as society, only the most precarious of bonds forged in opportunism and cynicism; and there is, now, no such thing as the self, only the most passing and changeful of identifications rooted in low-lying fear and an empty nostalgia for belonging. But one thing does remain: insofar as a single person can be responsible for such an epochal falling off, Margaret Thatcher is that person.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Out In The Open, But Not Ourselves

The scandal surrounding revelations of the sexual activities of Cardinal Keith O' Brien is yet another in the litany of sex scandals that have dogged the Catholic church in recent years; indeed, the sudden retirement of Pope Benedict has been attributed to his having been exhausted and disillusioned by the public disgrace that has been the consequence.

But, before we throw another stone at the Catholic Church, we ought to consider what conditions are now in place that make the revelation of these sex scandals both possible and necessary. Are we simply more enlightened now, freer to break from institutions of authority that had such a hold over us for all those years?

Foucault begins Discipline and Punish with a vivid description of the spectacularly awful hanging, drawing and quartering of Damiens the regicide. He follows this description by detailing the calm and modest workings of the modern prison, with its constant redistribution of criminals in space and time. Did we, between the years 1750 and 1850, become suddenly more enlightened?, Foucault asks. Did we suddenly become so much more humane?

Not at all, is Foucault's reply. For, if we suspend for a moment our stone-throwing horror at the apparent barbarity of the 18th-century treatment of criminals, then we may begin to see how reasonable such spectacular cruelty really was, how much it made sense. In a feudal-style monarchy, with little opportunity of placing before the people, the king and his right to rule, much had to be made of the few occasions on which the people might feel the god-like power of the king and on which the god-like power of the king might be reconstituted: spectacular excess was the only way, when it came to kingly attire, kingly architecture, and kingly punishment. Once we realize this, Foucault says, we begin to be capable of looking again at the modern prison, with its enlightened, its humane, routines, as constitutive of another kind of power than the kingly one, a kind of power in which spectacle and excess are replaced by surveillance and reserve.

What, then, of sex and the Catholic Church? Was it all barbarity and aberration, or was it, in fact, a necessary, a reasonable, element in the workings of a society? The societies that grew up in the wake of the old-style monarchies were, as Foucault tells it, disciplinary in their nature, and gave rise to modes of social, economic, political and cultural life with which we continue to be familiar, or for the passing of which we are now often nostalgic: the family, the home, education, health...all these, as we know them, are disciplinary possibilities. And what they all have in common is a defining tension: between individuation and normalization, between formation and exclusion, between suppression and transgression. In the disciplinary society, what we came to understand as a fully-realized and mature existence emerged for the first time as a possibility, where full realization and maturity had simultaneously normalizing and individualizing effects, simultaneously galvanizing and isolating effects, simultaneously expressive and repressive effects: one went forth to be a soldier, which opened before one whole forms of togetherness but also made it difficult to fit in to civilian life; one became a mother, which offered untold comforts but excluded one, to some extent, from the 'adult' world; one trained to be a doctor, which was stimulating and rewarding but also time-consuming and over-determining, etc. etc. Normalization and individuation; formation and exclusion; togetherness and isolation. But, through all of this, as the rationale of all of this, there emerged the idea of the true self - who I really am - that is, the truth about all of the inconsistencies and the tensions that inevitably proceeded from the fact that we embraced not just one form of individuality in our lifetime, but many. The emergence of psycho-therapy through the nineteenth century is no coincidence; the rationale of disciplinary society's constitution of individuals with both internal and external fault lines was that the truth will out, that there is, inside all of this, a real me.

And this was where sex came in. Or rather, sexuality and its analogues. Sexuality operated in disciplinary societies precisely as the mode of truth about ourselves, the nature of the real me, as that which was other than the forms of individuality into which we were entered. It was frowned upon, but also necessary; taboo but essential. It was why and how we were transgressive; but it was also why and how we were submissive, for it was the way in which we understood ourselves as being more than disciplinary, and as having an underlying coherence despite the painful fault-lines of our lives. And it was also, of course, another discipline, the various modes of sexuality offering as many forms of individuation and normalization, of togetherness and isolation, of expression and repression, as the various modes, say, of work. Coming out, then, was the basic trajectory of truth in disciplinary societies, the basic movement of resistance, which simultaneously reentered us into the disciplinary machine and allowed that machine to let off steam. A brilliant mechanism! And not at all irrational, or out of control. And the church - with its simultaneous contempt for sex, and focus on sex as that which, observed and documented, expressed the truth about our souls - was, together with its secular equivalents in the various psycho-therapies, the incubator of the sexuality-effect, the institution of discipline's truth, whose smoke and mirrors kept alive the disciplinary dream of the real me. The misdemeanours of a Cardinal O' Brien were, then, no simple aberration, no more irrational and out of control than were the sexual and analagously-sexual truth practices of the secular population of disciplinary societies. Which, we may presume, was why they were not 'uncovered' for all those years. The hidden truth was the form of self-knowledge in the disciplinary mode; it was the way we kept our sanity; it was the way we were kept 'sane.'

But being, now, post-disciplinary, the real me no longer requires to come out from under its various formations, no longer needs to reconcile that variety in another but very special, because 'true,' formation, because the very notion of the real me no longer applies. One is 'free' now, say, to be gay, not because it's okay to come out but because you don't have to come out, because you can't come out, because there is no longer a strong concept of 'you,' of the truth about 'you,' to do the coming out. Such as we are now, we are collections of wants and behaviours, the more fleeting and exchangeable the better, all the better to consume more and more. The late-capitalist continuing requirement for compound growth has overcome, among many barriers to the flow of capital, the barrier presented by the individuation and normalization effects of discipline: someone who is (at heart, we say) a fisherman will buy some things so long as he comes out as a fisherman; but a passing and exchangeable enthusiasm for fishing - easily compatible with many other passing and exchangeable enthusiasms - will buy many many more things and not care whether those things were produced very cheaply indeed.

So, the individual is gone. And with the individual, the 'truth' about the individual - his necessarily hidden, dark, and endlessly-requiring-to-be-confessed sexuality. We look back at that 'truth' now with a righteous horror. How far we have come, we think to ourselves. How much more enlightened we now are...