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The Technology of Profit
3. Inside-Out

What makes the 'inner world' so important to us is that that is were we experience our lives. There is, of course, no 'world' there at all, but a wonderful confusion of feeling and imagination, thinking, dreaming and memory that furnishes our personal idea of what it is to be human and to be alive. It constitutes our subjectivity.

It is, I believe, a profoundly ironic paradox that modern psychology has done more than anything else to divert us from an understanding and appreciation of the subjective experience of self. Instead of a delicate, modest, tentative, respectful consideration of the unfathomably chaotic, sometimes extraordinarily beautiful, sometimes horrifically frightening, always wildly idiosyncratic interior which is to be found within each one of us, psychology has tried to unpick us with a kind of fastidious distaste that has nothing to do with love and everything to do with discipline.

At least in part because of the success of the psychological enterprise, we are as individuals largely unable to celebrate and rejoice in the experience of self, but rather, when we have to, turn our gaze inward with deep apprehension for what we may find there. What we find, certainly, is a person like no other - and that is one of the principal causes of our misery.

For psychology has imposed on our subjectivity an entirely inappropriate normativeness, a narrow set of moral and aesthetic prescriptions which turns each one of us into a kind of self-diagnosing psychiatric inquisitor, ready to infer from the recognition of each new feeling pathological deviance from an ideal we think we see embodied in everyone else.

I can think of no approach to psychological therapy which doesn't harbour at its core a humourless authoritarianism, a moralistic urge to control, that has the ultimate effect of causing infinitely more pain than it could ever conceivably hope to cure. Invested with the authority our social institutions accord it, psychology pokes its fingers into our souls and, pronouncing disapprovingly on what it thinks it reveals, spreads dismay and despondency among the populace.

For you don't have to have been near a psychologist or psychiatrist to have been infected with the cultural dread of being different. Far from having supported the individual's sense of subjectivity, psychology has assisted in throwing it into question to the point that the principal concern of many of us is to hide from others what we fear to be inside ourselves.

The privilege of having been able to talk to thousands of people over the years in a setting that minimizes threat (and so the need for self-defence) means that I know one or two secrets about human beings that come in pretty handy. They are just about as close to 'psychological laws' as anything you are likely to encounter. For example:-

Absolutely everybody wants to be liked (law 1).
Everyone feels different inside (less confident, less able, etc.) from how they infer other people to feel (law 2).
Few honest and courageous people who have achieved anything of real value in life do not feel a fraud much of the time (law 3).

Acceptance of these three 'laws' alone would save an awful lot of people an awful lot of grief!

What we think should be inside ourselves seems to be a kind of anodyne pastiche of the model of humanity fed us by the advertising industry, or possibly the kind of cold, confident Übermensch of the TV fantasy hero or heroine - calculated, controlled, super-competent in money, war and sex.

In contrast to this, however, what resides within is the tangle of sensitivity and eccentricity that truly reflects our individuality. It couldn't really be otherwise: we are all different because we have come from different places at different times with different people. No two people have the same experience of the world. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of this diversity; instead of attempting to discipline our subjective individuality, to iron out interior differences in accordance with a regulatory ideal of 'normality', we should appreciate this inner chaos as reflecting the raw material of our significance as human beings.

However, the material of subjectivity is indeed raw, and its significance is lost without a public world that can structure it and give it expression. For our private experience to mean anything, for its value to be realized, it has to be accommodated within a 'commons' - within public space - that recognizes it as a contribution. In order for this to happen, public space has to be sufficiently structured, sufficiently attuned to the enormously wide scale of human experience and the ways of human embodiment, to receive, make sense of and use constructively what each of us has to offer.

A life is given meaning and value not by being 'enjoyed' in private, but by being lived and appreciated in public. Even the most tortured private experience can find dignity as well as worth if there exists to receive it a convivial social world where human beings act with and for each other. This is not what happens when the overriding principle of social life is profit.

In an excellent article in New Internationalist1, Jonathan Rowe uses almost identical words and ideas to reinforce the case:-

In economics there is no concept of enough: just a chronic yearning for more, a hunger that cannot be filled.

This requires that all life must be converted into a commodity for sale. The result is a relentless process of enclosure. It started centuries ago with land. Today it is encroaching upon every aspect of our individual and collective beings.

Think about the growth industries today. We buy looks from plastic surgeons, mental outlooks from pharmaceutical companies, the activity of our bodies from ‘health’ clubs, interaction with friends from telecommunications firms, and on and on. Security comes from police departments, insurance companies and privatized prisons. Transport comes from oil and automobile companies.

Virtually every life function and process is turning into something we have to buy. And lest anyone suspect a tired ideological shtick, let’s say right here that the government is a culprit too. It turns education into schooling and community into bureaucracy – much as the market turns childhood into a petri dish of nagging.

Either way, what the economists call growth becomes a process of cannibalization. The formal economy, private and public sectors alike, takes us apart piece by piece and then sells us back to ourselves.

We must become less so that the economy can become more. Little wonder we feel drained and stressed. We become the biological counterparts of the oil wells and toxic dumps, both the raw material of the economy and the receptacles of its waste. Meanwhile, millions don’t have enough to begin with.

Rather than validating private experience, consumerist society exploits it. In this situation we are not able to use whatever we know of life to contribute to the well-functioning of the whole, but have such knowledge extracted from us and sold back to us in the form of commodities. Just about any kind of human activity, any form of spontaneous or creative action, can be analysed into its constituent parts and synthesized into a saleable object. Any even remotely identifiable human experience or feeling is dragged out of the most intimate recesses of the soul, grafted to consumer goods of one kind or another (if only in the form of an image) and offered back to us as something we could only hope to acquire commercially from outside.

This is psychological privatization - a kind of economy of spirit-laundering in which the advertising industry and the media appropriate those interior constituents of ourselves of which (not least because of a disciplinary 'psychology') we have grown deeply mistrustful, stamp upon them their commercial legitimation, and sell them back to us. We are in this way offered for our personal consumption a toxic adulteration of spiritual sustenance which had in its original form been perfectly nutritious, even if we had often been largely unaware of its role and function within us.

Consumerism exploits interiority to the point that people are almost totally drained of it. Instead of our privacy being honoured and our individuality being endorsed, our innermost feelings, hopes and fears are tipped out into the open and picked over for their commercial potential. There is no secret desire, no haunting fear, no tremulous shred of anxiety, no fragment of tenderness that will not be exposed to the jaded inspection of the market, worked over and placed on the junk stall for mass consumption.

When what was inside is relentlessly exposed to public view in this way, it is robbed of all its sustaining power, and there is left within us nothing but an emptied-out husk of impulse. Unable to draw with confidence on the wealth of our private resources - a confidence born of the faith that it is all right to be chaotically human - we are reduced to putting on a lifeless show of passion that has lost all personal meaning. People brought up in this culture have no endorsed experience of inside, but can only imitate the media stereotypes harnessed to consumption. Interiority becomes a simulacrum of commercially created image; a puzzle; a source of anxiety. What we are truly left with inside is those aspects of subjectivity in which the market has no interest: an inarticulate sense of futility, drudgery and loss.

One sees the results of all this particularly clearly in the psychological maladies of the young - maladies not of their personal being, but forms of social sickness arising out of the lack of fit between the subjective experience of embodied self on the one hand and the public vehicles available for giving them expression on the other.

Human bodies do not in fact change in accordance with media ideals (hence perhaps the increasing need for the creation of fantasy worlds in which to accommodate the demands of the latter). If the internal requirements and promptings of the body are to be understood, they need a public culture that recognizes and gives them meanings which are both common and adequate. That is to say, we need not only to be able to refer to and enact our private experiences and impulses in ways that will be recognized and understood by others, but these public recognitions and understandings need to accommodate such experiences and impulses accurately, comfortably and productively.

People brought up in the capitalist revival of the 1980s and 90s, even though - many of them - exceptionally well provided for materially and more than adequately trained in the management of commodified relationships, often received practically no education at all in what it is to be human. Their parents, preoccupied with a scramble for security in a heartless and brutally competitive economic world, were happy enough if they could provide the requisite consumer goods and otherwise leave their children's education to 'experts'.

This generation thus depended for its understanding of itself on an unprecedentedly shallow business culture that dealt almost exclusively in commercial stereotypes and images. Emotional relationships were more likely to be formed with games consoles, computers and fantasy role-play figures than with people who were able to acknowledge, explain and interpret what goes on inside human beings with any degree of honesty.

Quite apart from being officially devoid of compassion and altruism, the 'Thatcherist' culture ignores any kind of human emotion or impulse that falls outside the business register. That is to say, anything inside that cannot be turned outside as a commodity, that cannot be hooked into a disciplinary economic anxiety; anything that is vague, complex, tender, or that binds people in solidarity rather than pitting them against each other in competition - anything like that is simply left in an incoherent, inexpressible, mysterious lump within, like a large indigestible meal that the subject cannot remember having consumed.

Many young people these days seem not to expect to be embodied. Since the markers available to them of what is human derive mainly from advertising and the media, or from their own experience of the binary world of a mechanized virtuality, they are often not prepared for the signals they receive viscerally of what their world is doing to them. Their anxiety stems essentially from their being unable to interpret their own feelings.

One suggestion sometimes found helpful by a few such sufferers is to read nineteenth century literature - this may re-introduce a culture in which 'interiority' was not regarded as a neurotic condition and where a person could, for example, die of a broken heart.

The result of this is to be seen as a new form of 'anxiety' in the young. The typical 'case' is a young man (men are, I suspect, marginally more vulnerable than women) who has perhaps been quite successful at school, is socially quite competent and well integrated (though friendships may be more superficial than profound), doing pretty well in his job or course of study, yet assailed periodically by anxiety that, though experienced as overwhelming, displays little outward sign of distress. What usually underlies this form of anxiety seem often to be almost banal fears, some of which are in fact the lot of all but the most fortunate human beings and some simply unavoidable emotional reactions which at other times might even have been regarded as a blessing.

For example, self-consciousness in publicly conspicuous situations, discomfort at public speaking, etc., may be experienced as something totally alien and incomprehensible, such that the individual cannot make a connexion between the situation and his feelings: over and over again he may put himself into such situations in the expectation that there should be 'no problems', only to find yet again that problems there are indeed. Confusion over emotional attachments can lead to similar uncomprehending panic: falling in love seems to be something for which many young men possess no framework of understanding.

The psychologist's job at this - and, I believe, at any other - time is not to diagnose the 'inner person' but to explicate his or her relationship with the outside world. This is to switch 'professional' attention from discipline and conformity to a libertarian concern with understanding subjective distress as a function of the personal (and ultimately, of course, wider) environment.

While this may, I suppose, be viewed as a valuable form of 'therapy', there is a far more important task, and one which reaches well beyond the mere practice of psychology. This is the task which faces all of us of rebuilding a public world that accommodates the human subjects who go to make it up.

1. Rowe, Jonathan. 2000. Eat, sleep, buy, die. New Internationalist, 329, November 2000.

 

 

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Introduction

The structure of social space

The experience of self

The technology of profit
   1 Make-believe
   2 Outside-in
   3 Inside-out

Responsibility

What then must we do?

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