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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:-
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.
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
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.
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.
The structure of social space
The experience of self
The technology of profit
What then must we do?
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