A Nonfiction Book by O.G. Rose

Belonging Again (Part 19)

Is “belonging” found in “the triumph of the therapeutic?”

Frozen Glory Photography

In the background of activism is a revolutionary spirit, and revolutions can give rise to a country like America or the horrors of the French Revolution. The revolutionary spirit in of itself is neither good nor bad, though given the complexity of societies, governments, and economic systems, revolutions might be more likely to fail than succeed (though it doesn’t follow that a failed revolution is necessarily immoral). The idea of a revolution is generally to end institutional oppressions (often from the State), and necessarily assumed by the revolution is that the society will be better off thanks to the revolution. Though I might be wrong, I think it’s safe to assume that no one revolts hoping to make the world worse off.

Revolutions are against what the revolutionists believe are “repressions,” rather they be governmental, cultural norms about sexuality, laws against drug use, laws forcing segregation, or the like. Freud explored sexual repressions — forces that stopped humans from expressing their sexuality — and believed these repressions, however necessary, could cause neurosis. Furthermore, ‘[c]ulture, Freud thought, may be inherently authoritarian,’ that where there was culture, there would be repressions which lead to neurosis.¹ Considering this, social justice activists can be in a similar business as psychoanalytical thinkers: they are concerned with societal, economic, cultural, and/or political forces that keep individuals from realizing their full selves (though please note Freud understood that the complete removal of repressions was a dire mistake). If it is the case that culture must entail repressions to be culture, and if it is the case that the modern revolutionary spirit is (“practically”) in the business of destroying all repressions (as justice may so compel us), then modern revolutions are in the business of destroying culture (perhaps in the name of advancing it). Furthermore, if activists work precisely to destroy the repressions that they believe are keeping people from feeling “belonging,” they may be destroying the very conditions required for “belonging” (but also “the banality of evil”). This is not to say that revolutionists are, but it is to say that we must be aware of this mistake.

Audio Summary

Can we “belong again” by ending repressions? Is the key to “belonging” to be found in psychoanalysis? As the spread of social justice and activism give us reason to believe people are trying to find “belonging” there, so the spread of psychology, concerns about mental illness, and increase in mental awareness groups gives us reason to think that people are considering psychoanalysis as a key to regaining freedom from alienation. And I agree that it is critical, but like everything, it is a solution with a catch: we cannot go too far, and yet it is human nature to go too far. Our focus on “reducing repressions” must dialectically relate to balancing them with “givens”: simply removing them is “monotheoristic” and will cause trouble. Moving forward, it might sound like I am saying that “critiques of repressions or ‘givens’ ” are entirely bad, but that is only because the thinkers I will be channeling believe the culture has mostly gone too far in a “therapeutic” direction. Ultimately, a dialectic is needed: no emphasis of mine is meant to suggest a simple binary (what’s optimal comes back to Hegel).

Generally, there has been the emergence of what Philip Rieff called “a therapeutic culture,” which for the sake of ending neurosis-causing repressions, is ‘defined by its calculated lack of spiritual ambition in any traditional sense, religious, philosophical, political, or artistic.’² What is the ideal and goal of such a culture? According to Rieff:

‘The peculiar character of the modern revolution is that it aims to emancipate interpersonal relations themselves — and individuals — from the rule of forms and institutions to create a world in which […] individuals can relate to each other simply ‘as such,’ without the interference of ‘distorting’ social forms such as classes or state. In all previous orders, which are hierarchical, relations of individuals ‘as such’ are usually confined to members of the same caste; society is divided into distinct orders. Thus, Marx says that in hierarchical order — ‘class-divided’ societies — the individual is a predicate of his own class, which is the true subject. This, it is assumed, is a violation of his true nature, of his freedom.’³

The Platonic ideal of a therapeutic culture is one where, ‘for the first time since Paradise, [people can] enter into supposedly direct, genuinely free relations with one another.’⁴ It is the culture of ‘[t]he pure individual, the natural man, the direct relation without formalities’ — pure freedom — which Stephen L. Gardner warns is ‘only possible within the imaginary universe of popular culture’ (which feeds the dream, making it seem more possible).⁵ But hold on: maybe such a culture is possible, and maybe it is where “belonging” can be found? Why be so pessimistic?

Before moving on, it should be noted that this “therapeutic ideal” is also the ideal which the doctrine of tolerance is heading toward (whether it means to or not): in undermining communal authority, “the therapeutic” contributes to the effacements of all authorities other than the State, which if individuals do not infringe upon, will leave people to associate with one another as they so wish, ‘without the interference of ‘distorting’ social forms.’⁶ One could argue that this ideal isn’t met if the State is “over it” (suggesting that “the therapeutic” ultimately requires something anarchistic), and that would be a fair counter, but if “the therapeutic” is to be realized in a nation versus outside of it, then it will not be anarchistic, and the best it can hope for and work toward is a society where the State doesn’t interfere because the “therapeutic citizens” stay within the “fences of tolerance” setup by the State.⁷ Thus, the State will have an “overhanging role,” just as “tolerance” would have it for all the right reasons.

The individual who is to survive in the modern world must become the ‘genius’ of himself, the artist of his desires as the vital source of his being.’⁸ It was claimed before that Modernity requires philosophical expertise, but unfortunately for a therapeutic culture, what is more so asked of people is that they develop a knowledge of what they want more so than what they think (“expression” is confused with “introspection”):

‘[T]he inwardness into which [the modern person] withdraws is not that of tradition contemplation. Psychological man is man conscious of himself as a creature of ‘psychology,’ in which forces of nature and society vie for supremacy over a tortured ‘self’ in a battle that can never be finally resolved.’

Again, as Conyers has said, there has been a shift from understanding to will: ‘[t]he fundamental law of psychological man is the law of temporization, to keep things going, in the absence of any definitive, authoritative ends.’¹⁰ Self-knowledge is will-knowledge, but how can we know what we want if we don’t know who we are (which even if we are philosophical masters, is arguably something we can never fully know)? Identity, if it is to be more than self-creation, must be rooted in a community and culture, which is precisely that which an anti-repression movement seeks to delegitimize in the name of self-realization. If community is weakening, then the possibility of identity that is “rooted” versus “self-willed” is also weakened, causing a vicious circle that results from a lack of external sources for identity: if I need to know myself to know what I will, but identity is created by the will, then I need what I must will in order to will it.¹¹ On this paradox:

The therapeutic image of the modern individual as both victim of and rebel against his own conscience provided the basis for Rieff’s sociological type of modernity. The psychological man Rieff discerned in Freudian anthropology is essentially a contradiction. A creature of not finally satisfiable instincts, impulses, and desires, in endless tension with himself and society, he is tragically doomed.’¹²

The modern world […] creates an individual for whom the highest ideal is the ‘self’ itself, the pervasive theme of which is nothing higher than freedom.’¹³ Unfortunately, this freedom seems to include “freedom from” that which is needed to make possible “freedom for” — a significant and perhaps pathology-causing problem.

If Rieff is right, modern culture, in the name of freedom, erases everything that gives freedom meaning and defines it apart from pure anarchy and chaos. And yet as we desire this freedom, we also want it to be meaningful, which means we want our cake and to eat it too. We march against all repressions, but then cry out when we lack ways to define ourselves meaningfully, as emerging from and participating in something more than our own wills (which can otherwise feel arbitrary, subjective, and devoid of robustness).

‘Rieff’s ‘psychological man’ is an individual who is morally detached from communal order and rendered, at least in his own psyche, the free agent of his desires, the demigod of his eros and ambitions. Imagine a character who is neither outside nor above the social (like a mystic or a monk) yet not at home within it, a social yet a-social individual, able neither to transcend society nor to identify with it. Here was an individual who was in the world, but not of it — but not for religious or philosophical reasons, not because he was a saint or a Socrates. Nor is psychological man necessarily a bohemian rebel, a romantic poet, or a social revolutionary. Rather, his relation to society is not negative so much as it is tepid, ambivalent, remote, unstable, potentially volatile, characterized by a possibly subdued but never eliminable sense of dis-ease, an inability to fully accept any strong authority, communal or otherwise.’¹⁴

‘Without the magnetism of communal integration, [the modern] is forced, as it were, to create himself, to become the author of his ‘personality.’ This, however, is as much an index of defensiveness as it is of freedom.’¹⁵ We create ourselves to save ourselves from having no self; we create our freedom to save ourselves from lacking it. Our self/will-creation is an act of power as much as it is an act of defense against lacking power. It is an act of revolution at the same time it is an act of conservation. And this ‘modern revolution reaches ‘all the way down,’ or at least as far down as one can go to reconfigure human character without changing human nature or altering the human condition itself.’¹⁶ The modern is ‘a tribute to the romantic theory of spontaneity, the refusal of the modern individual to see himself as a creature of a society that nevertheless supplies him with the sole horizon of his being.’¹⁷ ‘[I]nstead of having simply to adjust himself to an inherited culture or the vestiges of an old regime, [the modern] becomes creative of culture itself, a new sort of culture predicated on his inner emancipation.’¹⁸ In other words, the modern is his or her culture, even though that is impossible.

‘In the post-Freudian therapeutic culture, psychological man no longer hides himself in the analyst’s cabinet, but steps forth out of the private world and becomes creative of a new ‘culture’ in its own right, a democratic popular culture that revolves around the creative ‘geniuses’ of various democratic selves. The dream as the wish-fulfillment of desire becomes the principle of a whole culture.’¹⁹

For good and for bad, a “therapeutic zeitgeist” can manifest through modern activism, social planning, efforts to “make a country great again,” and social justice. Such can be the nature of “revolutions” in a therapeutic culture, and hence why the (perhaps “captured”) movements might be likely to change people into the kinds on whom Rieff wrote.

A political revolution changes the outward institutions of society and relations of individuals so far as they are identified by estate, function, or social position. It alters individual relations by changing the relations of the groups to which they belong, such as social classes. But it is not the group as such that lives, as if it had a conscious mind of its own; it is individuals. A cultural revolution transforms relations between individuals because it transforms the ways in which human beings see themselves and each other in the core of their being.’²⁰

‘[That said,] not all political revolutions effect cultural revolutions — indeed, they may be reactions to cultural revolution, attempts to forestall it. Modernity has unfolded with such velocity in the last century that it has provoked profound revolts against its unnerving acceleration, often under the rubric of a final revolution — a revolution to end all revolutions, such as that of Marx. ‘All that solid melts in the area,’ Marx famously complained about the bourgeois revolution; it created an intolerable sense of vertigo, like Hegel’s topsy-turvy world.’²¹

In response to this “vertigo,” this extraordinary existential tension, we have seen the rise of Trump and shock of Brexit. There have been cultural revolutions — not only to cause this vertigo, but also against it — but it should be noted that ‘not all cultural revolutions are political revolutions, because human character and the ‘idiom’ of personal relations may be transformed deeply without fundamentally altering larger institutional frameworks.’²² Our age is one in which ‘the symbolism [of community] itself that must be killed, or at least rendered impotent in the mind of the individual, just as Zeus neutered Chronos,’ and though culture revolutions can lead to political ones and vice-versa, they don’t necessarily cause one another, though such might be likely.²³ Yet if Conyers is correct that the doctrine of tolerance arose and brought about the “therapeutic doctrine” of individuality, it would be the case that our modern cultural shift was indeed caused by a political shift. Regardless though, now, in the name of individuality and self-creation, we might stand against the conditionality which makes culture itself, and then lament that we no longer “belong.” “Therapeutic America,” for example, is increasing the civilization where people “get to be who they want to be,” but under this cultural umbrella of self-creation, countless groups and tribes formulate, and hence the identity of America becomes an identity of Pluralism itself. Unfortunately, for good and for bad, Pluralism cannot seemingly be an identity or culture which provides any “givens,” only function as a description of our condition. It is pure expression, which we need to some degree to avoid “the tyranny of givens,” but we also need “givens” (which suggests that our needs are A/B versus A/A, to allude to The True Isn’t the Rational by O.G. Rose).

A cultural revolution does not occur as a discernible event, or as a plurality of events, nor does it occur swiftly within a few years, as does a political revolution; only afterwards, when the revolution itself has been incorporated into the new system of controls, do such mythic condensations of cultural change occur.’²⁴ The process by which cultures change is one of “high order complexity” (as discussed in “Experiencing Thinking” by O.G. Rose), which is to say that it is not a linear or “self-evident” line of causality. ‘What is the logic of choice by which one symbolic begins to displace another? How do god-terms change?’ — these are questions that cannot be easily answered (certainly not without spilling copious amounts of ink).²⁵ What we can perhaps say is that culture has changed — everyone from Conyers to Taylor to Hunter identified as much — and if Rieff was correct, a major way culture has is by becoming “anti-repressive,” which for Rieff was to ironically become “anti-culture.” But again, why be so pessimistic? Perhaps removing all “repressions” will make us feel “belonging” and at home? This is a question needing more consideration, and to help us answer that question, we dive deeper The Triumph of the Therapeutic by Philip Rieff.

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Notes

¹Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 37.

²Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. The Eros and Ambitions of Psychological Man by Stephen L. Gardner. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 240.

³Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. The Eros and Ambitions of Psychological Man by Stephen L. Gardner. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 239.

⁴Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. The Eros and Ambitions of Psychological Man by Stephen L. Gardner. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 239.

⁵Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. The Eros and Ambitions of Psychological Man by Stephen L. Gardner. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 240.

⁶Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. The Eros and Ambitions of Psychological Man by Stephen L. Gardner. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 239.

The famous image from Democracy in America by Tocqueville of loving parents overlooking their children comes to mind. (‘Above this race of man stands…’)

⁸Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. The Eros and Ambitions of Psychological Man by Stephen L. Gardner. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 237.

⁹Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. The Eros and Ambitions of Psychological Man by Stephen L. Gardner. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 236.

¹⁰Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. The Eros and Ambitions of Psychological Man by Stephen L. Gardner. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 237.

¹¹Perhaps the will and self emerge together as “self/will?” Perhaps, but though this might solve the paradox described, without community, there lacks any way to define the freedom of “self/will” from anarchism: we are still faced with the problem of “rootlessness.”

¹²Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. The Eros and Ambitions of Psychological Man by Stephen L. Gardner. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 233.

¹³Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. The Eros and Ambitions of Psychological Man by Stephen L. Gardner. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 233.

¹⁴Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. The Eros and Ambitions of Psychological Man by Stephen L. Gardner. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 232–233.

¹⁵Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. The Eros and Ambitions of Psychological Man by Stephen L. Gardner. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 233.

¹⁶Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. The Eros and Ambitions of Psychological Man by Stephen L. Gardner. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 232.

¹⁷Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. The Eros and Ambitions of Psychological Man by Stephen L. Gardner. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 243.

¹⁸Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. The Eros and Ambitions of Psychological Man by Stephen L. Gardner. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 241.

¹⁹Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. The Eros and Ambitions of Psychological Man by Stephen L. Gardner. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 241.

²⁰Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. The Eros and Ambitions of Psychological Man by Stephen L. Gardner. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 238.

²¹Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. The Eros and Ambitions of Psychological Man by Stephen L. Gardner. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 238.

²²Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. The Eros and Ambitions of Psychological Man by Stephen L. Gardner. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 238.

²³Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. The Eros and Ambitions of Psychological Man by Stephen L. Gardner. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 234.

²⁴Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 205.

²⁵Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 207.

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