Should 'adjustment' be the goal?
February 21, 2016 10:40 AM   Subscribe

In a 'sick' society, sanity is relative - "Is it good to be 'well-adjusted' to rapacious capitalism and consumerism? What defines 'mental health' (or illness) in such a culture?" Is Humanity Getting Better?[1,2] (via)
posted by kliuless (23 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
"I don't suffer from insanity. I enjoy every minute of it."
posted by I-Write-Essays at 10:47 AM on February 21, 2016 [7 favorites]

Which "humanity"?
posted by infini at 10:52 AM on February 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

Answer unclear. Ask again later.
posted by IndigoJones at 11:35 AM on February 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

The rise of massive partisanism and the rise of Trump has show that while our superego is getting better, our id is getting further and further out of control.
posted by Talez at 11:42 AM on February 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

Is it good to be 'well-adjusted' to rapacious capitalism and consumerism? What defines 'mental health' (or illness) in such a culture?

A recurring topic with my therapist is the feeling that every single aspect in my life is, in one way or another, controlled by money...either getting it, having enough of it, not having it, how we're judged by it, etc. etc.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:44 AM on February 21, 2016 [20 favorites]

Completely mistakes and trivializes mental illness. Clinical depression isn't you being sad that rent is half your take home; schizophrenia isn't the tension between wanting to be a public interest lawyer and needing to do M&A in order to pay off your loans. Mental illness is equal opportunity and gets its claws into plenty of winners in the capitalist system.
posted by MattD at 12:10 PM on February 21, 2016 [23 favorites]

MattD: I suspect there are numerous contributing factors, biological and environmental, with different weights from person to person.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 12:13 PM on February 21, 2016 [12 favorites]

I have ADD, which makes it difficult even with medication for me to work 50+ hours a week with few breaks. My employer's the one with the money. I'm the one taking an illicit break from work at 3pm on a Sunday. The power imbalance makes the official terms of my job very inflexible, and it's not good for me.

But I also have ADD, which makes it difficult without medication (and sometimes even with) to actually sit through an hour-long television show, or to work for a few hours at a time on things I like to do, or to practice adequate self-care like doing my dishes and laundry.

I take medication for both, of course, because nobody prescribes a pill that fixes capitalism.
posted by Sequence at 12:30 PM on February 21, 2016 [19 favorites]

I dunno. I am reminded of research indicating that the responses of animals that live in cages are not like the responses of animals that live in natural environments. I am also reminded of Weber's "iron cage".

I don't want to trivialize mental illness - I am sure our societies would still have definable mental illness if we just, you know, magicked away late-modern Western civ. But I also think of Xanax and Zoloft as essentially identical to waving smelling salts under the noses of ladies who have fainted because they are wearing corsets. Take away the corsets, and your average day-to-day usage of smelling salts in your culture plummets.
posted by BrunoLatourFanclub at 1:30 PM on February 21, 2016 [34 favorites]

Yes, but the message of these posts and others like them is not just "mental nausea is the right response to a profoundly sick society" but "mental health treatment and self-care is the attempt to escape your correct response to a profoundly sick society." I feel ambivalent about both, but far more ambivalent about the latter. Even assuming our illness would go away in a just world, do any of us owe it to the world to be hurt by it as much as we can be? To let it kill us? (Am I missing something about this argument? Probably...)
posted by peppercorn at 1:44 PM on February 21, 2016 [16 favorites]

It's nice being post-human.
posted by nofundy at 1:58 PM on February 21, 2016

I guess one thing I notice is this:

I have a friend who is very, very talented at building and fixing things, and indeed at anything which requires dexterity and planning. She's also good with children. She's also very good at producing oddball craft foods (black/fermented garlic, extracts, etc). She has a couple of significant mental health diagnoses that, in a way, boil down to "I require a peaceful, quiet, stable environment, my own work schedule, and a couple of stable, caring social relationships or else I start to crack up from stress and anxiety". That is, if she had a safe, stable place to live, a flexible work schedule and a social world which provided stable relationships, she would not be "sick" in the way she is now. She's someone who has delicate mental health, but it sometimes strikes me that she's more like a nearsighted person in a world without corrective lenses than like we commonly think of a "mentally ill" person. If I lived before readily available glasses, I would be profoundly disabled - almost blind. As it is, I rarely ever even think about my vision problems.

I have met other people with similar mental health stuff, including someone who was basically "cured" when she went from being street homeless to housed. Her mental issues were suddenly manageable to the point of being almost unnoticeable when she could sleep deeply and securely every night, not worry about losing her stuff all the time, etc.

I'm not trying to speak for every person ever, but in my own life, I have definitely known people who would be perfectly functional if a little quirky in a better social environment - and that's where I think mental illness definitely has a large social component.
posted by Frowner at 2:02 PM on February 21, 2016 [77 favorites]

Back when it felt like we were always on perma orange alert, I discovered a significant change to my mental wellbeing when I finally extricated myself from being immersed in an environment blaring anxious fear via every medium.

Controlling exposure to MSM and other mass communications has also been good. There's nothing to "adjust" to.
posted by infini at 2:25 PM on February 21, 2016 [4 favorites]

What infini says. I'm currently going through Internet addiction (I think). Tense as hell. Need to disengage to re-balance my mental health. :P
posted by ZenMasterThis at 2:38 PM on February 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

If I lived before readily available glasses, I would be profoundly disabled - almost blind. As it is, I rarely ever even think about my vision problems.

I keep hearing that analogy. I'm not sure it means what you think it means.

First of all, there's pretty strong evidence that rates of myopia (which, unlike mental illness, is neither subjective nor particularly difficult to quantify) is increasing in the modern world. That doesn't seem to be just due to increased rates of diagnosis -- AFAICT, it seems likely that both artificial light and eyestrain may contribute to the development of myopia. In another culture, in other words, it's possible that you'd still be nearly blind, but it's more likely that other you -- having grown up in an environment with more natural light and less close work -- would have far better eyesight, specifically because of the differences between our two cultures.

Second of all, glasses aren't a form of cultural change. They're as artificial and as individualized as cochlear implants. They enable you to be a functional adult in modern society, but they do so by alienating you from and allowing you to ignore the difficulties faced by other people who are far more visually impaired than yourself. They may have been grandfathered out of the radical disability rights movement cited in the Tumblr post, but they are every bit as much an example of a medicalized cure for a disorder induced by late-stage capitalism as the drugs that we're all supposed to deride.

Personally, you can drag my pills and my glasses from my cold dead hands. It's possible there's cultures I'd be more stable in, and it's likely there's cultures where my neuro-atypicality wouldn't be seen as atypical. But there are also plenty of cultures where I'd be far less mentally stable and far less able to fit in. This one isn't that bad a deal.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 3:59 PM on February 21, 2016 [6 favorites]

I've been reading about these issues here and there. Here's a funny perspective reflecting on the concept of "sanity":

Second, and more damning, because the Mindfulness Industry is engaged in the creation of the type of people who have no interest in actively changing the social conditions that drive them to mindfulness practice in the first place. The Mindfulness Industry creates a person who, as Žižek argues:

should rather renounce the very endeavor to retain control over what goes on, rejecting it as the expression of the modern logic of domination. One should, instead, “let oneself go,” drift along, while retaining an inner distance and indifference toward the mad dance of accelerated process, a distance based on the insight that all this social and technological upheaval is ultimately just a non-substantial proliferation of semblances that do not really concern the innermost kernel of our being.

Žižek concludes that, “The ‘Western Buddhist’ meditative stance is arguably the most efficient way for us to fully participate in capitalist dynamics while retaining the appearance of mental sanity.”

source, by a group of professors, therapists, writers interested in the idea of "critical Buddhism".
posted by polymodus at 4:48 PM on February 21, 2016 [15 favorites]

Pretty sure that particular critique of Buddhism is not unique to Western Buddhism or the Mindfulness set, or that it is especially new.

Mindfulness in a Buddhist context is supposed to facilitate Right Action, like the difference between moving towards the fire exit calmly instead of doing so while screaming and knocking people over. But a person consumed by panic may understandably feel that you do not understand the gravity of the fire.

Also, you don't have to spend too much time with Buddhism to understand that there are different expectations for lay Buddhists and monks. Practicing Buddhism (or especially just secular mindfulness!) does not mean trying to live life as a passionless robot, which would not only be boring, but also unhealthy!
posted by GameDesignerBen at 7:19 PM on February 21, 2016 [7 favorites]

I'm really not getting the connection between all these links. I was hoping the articles filled out the tumblr post a bit because it seems inflammatory on its own (no, I'm not going to stop talking about mental illness because you think it would make me a better radical) but the connections seem pretty vague. Am I missing something?
posted by thetortoise at 7:59 PM on February 21, 2016 [4 favorites]

What can one even say about the tumblr post? I could not tell if the point was that otherwise privileged people shouldn't co-opt mental illness diagnoses in order to give them that little degree of special they feel they need to speak; or, was it that we shouldn't even be talking about mental illness at all, but rather our degree of alienation due to capitalism? Doesn't really matter, since both points have the power to make actual human beings with actual mental illnesses invisible yet again.

I mean, I don't know if the further links show anything else, I can't bear to read them after the tumblr bit. Who goes around throwing around the term "identity politics" in this situation? Don't they know that by suggesting some people might be self-diagnosing for attention's sake, what they're really doing is making it hard for mentally ill people to be heard...because suddenly we feel like we've got to prove the diagnosis, before we're allowed to speak? Bah. I reject this.

Also, I'm not up for the post's demonization of mental health. It is not the case that mentally healthy people under capitalism are insane. It is the case that mental health makes a person resilient across a number of stressors, including those caused by capitalism. We shouldn't spit on that. We should try to understand it. What makes a person resilient? What makes a person able to handle stress? Are there lessons, technologies, chemicals there, that could translate into reducing the suffering of those who are not resilient?

Of course we should criticize the medical view of mental illness. Every generation must tear it apart, driven as it is by the same old combination of science and industry that is destroying the planet. But that doesn't mean it's wrong, that it has nothing to offer, that it must be firmly rejected in favor of...what? Leaving the painful experience unnamed? Forcing the pain of the mind into the playdoh factory of marxist language so that it extrudes in the correct shape, lest it lose its legitimacy?
posted by mittens at 9:24 PM on February 21, 2016 [8 favorites]

Practicing Buddhism (or especially just secular mindfulness!) does not mean trying to live life as a passionless robot, which would not only be boring, but also unhealthy!

Well, from the quotation, Zizek was making a much more damning accusation against mindfulness therapy. He says it is a harmful ideology that enables capitalism: he rejects its stance, despite its ostensible efficiencies.

Second, the defense that "mindfulness therapies aren't about removing emotions or autonomy from people" is a fairly standard rejoinder. One obvious flaw in that reasoning is such a statement doesn't address the concerns of people who do have reservations about the methods and the values behind them. The other flaw being, how does a practicioner even begin to validate such a property?

However, for what it's worth, I've found cognitive methods to be very efficacious; so I'm not saying all this just to dismiss the approach. Rather, I'll hold those conflicting perspectives in my head, at a remove and without judgment, just as the therapies encourage us to do with our feelings!
posted by polymodus at 11:59 PM on February 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

One obvious flaw in that reasoning is such a statement doesn't address the concerns of people who do have reservations about the methods and the values behind them.

Who bears the burden of proof? The accuser, or the accused? Mindfulness therapy makes quite clear what its goals and purposes are, and goes into some detail on its methods and their history. That Zizek has not read, or has misread, the theory, does not place a particular burden on the movement to explain itself further; its practitioners, after all, have been dealing with this argument forever. (And who are the "Neo-Buddhists" he talks about sympathetically in "Lacan between Cultural Studies and Cognitivism," if not these mindfulness-oriented people? Of course he does not bother to define the term or give examples.)

The counterargument is quite clear: It is the consumer who is unmindful, who is enabling capitalism. It is the consumer who has not taken the time to listen to and understand want or need, who is buffeted along on waves of commercials and artificial desire. The consumer is always staving off unpleasant emotion with new phones and television shows and building projects; the practitioner of mindfulness is required by the practice to directly embrace the discomfort, to hold it, to feel its edges and heft.

But that argument is also false, because it presumes the individual has control over what is going on in the first place. We have moved from defining the people's enemy as the capitalist, to the people themselves. And not because they are not doing enough, not fighting enough, but rather because they are ...what, not horrified enough? The idea apparently is that they are to face the terrors of modern total capitalism and maintain equilibrium without the means to stabilize themselves and yet have a sense of agency? What a strange argument.
posted by mittens at 4:50 AM on February 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm really not getting the connection between all these links.

fwiw for me, i don't think there's anything really to 'get' per se (buddhist mindfulness?); i found the question(s) interesting on its/their face, not to get into an overly reductive nature/nurture debate, but to bring to attention, think about and explore the connections between individual mental health and culture/society at large.

if it helps for some context i've been thinking about the 'normalization of deviance' and pierre bourdieu which i think brings a nice anthropological perspective to the issue(s):
  • First, Bourdieu believed that human society creates certain patterns of thought and classification systems, which people absorb and use to arrange space, people, and ideas. Bourdieu liked to call the physical and social environment that people live in the "habitus," and he believed that the patterns in this habitus both reflect the mental maps or classification systems inside our heads and reinforce them.
  • Second, Bourdieu also believed that these patterns help to reproduce the status of the elite. Since this elite has an interest in preserving the status quo, it also has every incentive to reinforce cultural maps, rules, and taxonomies. Or, to put it another way, an elite stays in power over time not just by controlling resources, or what Bourdieu described as "economic capital" (money), but also by amassing "cultural capital" (symbols associated with power). When they amass this cultural capital, this helps to make the status of the elite seem natural and inevitable. The wealthy French pupils at Bourdieu's boarding school, for example, exuded a "natural" sense of authority and power by wrapping themselves in dozens of tiny, subtle cultural signals, which nonelite people such as Bourdieu lacked.
  • Third, Bourdieu did not believe that the elite—or anyone else—created these cultural and mental maps deliberately. Instead, they arose as much from semiconscious instinct as conscious design, operating at the "borders of conscious and unconscious thought." The habitus does not just reflect our social patterns, but it ingrains them too, making these seem natural and inevitable. The elite and nonelite are both creatures of their cultural environment.
  • Fourth, Bourdieu believed that what really matters in a society's mental map is not simply what is publicly and overtly stated, but what is not discussed. Social silences matter. The system ends up being propped up because it seems natural to leave certain topics ignored, since these issues have become labeled as dull, taboo, obvious, or impolite. It any society, Bourdieu argued, there are ideas that are freely debated, and there can be differences of views about this (or a clash between the orthodoxy and heterodoxy). But outside that space of acceptable debate (or the "doxa") there are many issues that are never discussed at all, not because of any clearly articulated plot, but because ignoring those issues seems normal. Or as Bourdieu said: "The most powerful forms of ideological effect are those which needs no words, but merely a complicitous silence." The non-dancers in a village hall matter.
  • But a fifth key point that is implicit in Bourdieu's work is that people do not always have to be trapped in the mental maps that they inherit. We are not robots, blindly programmed to behave in certain ways. We can also have some choice about the patterns we use. How much choice humans have to reshape their cultural norms was—and is—an issue of hot dispute. When Bourdieu was first embarking on his academic career, Sartre, the French philosopher, declared that humans did have free will, and could develop their thoughts as they chose. Lévi-Strauss took another view: he thought that humans were doomed to be creatures of their environment, since they could not think out of their inherited cultural patterns.

    Bourdieu, however, rejected both of these ideas; or, more accurately, he steered a middle ground between these two extremes. He did not think that people are robots, programmed to obey cultural rules automatically. Indeed, he did not like the word "rules" at all, preferring to talk about cultural "habits." But he also believed these habits and the habitus shaped how people behave and think. Social maps are powerful. But they are not all-powerful. We are creatures of our physical and social environment. However, we need not be blind creatures. Occasionally, individuals can imagine a different way of organizing our world, particularly if they—like Bourdieu—have become an insider-outsider by jumping across boundaries.
Which "humanity"?

to maybe jump cut or elide across diageses, doyne farmer recently described complex systems where 'the whole is greater than the sum of its parts' like an ant colony where: "An individual ant's a fairly simple organism, but the colony can collectively do very sophisticated behaviors, like farming mushrooms and having a war with another colony. The economy is, of course, an example of that."

people aren't ants (or particles, for that matter ;) but maybe they're more like sandkings?[pdf] (as an aside *whoa* i forgot GRRM wrote that!)
posted by kliuless at 10:50 AM on February 22, 2016 [8 favorites]

Indeed, [Bourdieu] did not like the word "rules" at all, preferring to talk about cultural "habits." But he also believed these habits and the habitus shaped how people behave and think. Social maps are powerful. But they are not all-powerful. We are creatures of our physical and social environment. However, we need not be blind creatures. Occasionally, individuals can imagine a different way of organizing our world, particularly if they—like Bourdieu—have become an insider-outsider by jumping across boundaries.

Egads, my favorite French lit professor is in my mind's eye, lecturing blissfully about Bourdieu. My favorite German lit professor (of French lit, in Oregon – did you say an insider-outsider? Yes. He escaped Nazi Germany as an adolescent) was big on Habermas as well, who has complementary ideas. Both professors accentuated the individual as needing to become conscious of their part in culture: not just as a passive actor subject to impassive rules, but as a creative individual who plays a part in shaping habitus and meaning (see also hermeneutics).

In other words: be the change you want to see in the world. I realize idealism gets shot down with guns here, but this is quite simply the most revolutionary thing anyone can do. Know yourself, know others, know that others have differing levels of self-knowledge, know how effed-up much of society is – and that our current iteration of society is "capitalist" but a decent knowledge of history will inform you quite well as to how fucked-up any iteration of society can be – and you start to have the tools to create. Which doesn't mean you can create the same things as others, what with privilege et cetera (and this is something I quite loved about these philosophies, was the inherent recognition of privilege and its effects), nor that you may ever "achieve" something viewed as an "achievement" by others – instead you turn into someone who uses scare quotes because your own definition of achievement is your own definition of achievement, even if it has come up against the soulless corporatocracy of sociopathic nihilism and found itself hippy, silly, feminine, weak, pointless, goalless, so on and so forth. We all know our supposed personal failings according to capitalism. We need to remind ourselves of our individual beauty. And thus recognizing how beautiful each of us are.

Just speaking as the student of a man who ran away from his country across the Atlantic to teach a bunch of overgrown adolescents that looking out the window at the flowering magnolia tree during his lectures on Molière was fine; he'd have it no other way. And the student of another guy who taught us that literature is anything you read, and we had better not overlook vineyard owners whose only reading was Vigneron magazine. And student of yet another woman who insisted we study oral literature and always remember we create our own as soon as we share stories out loud.

In short, remember that we are the children of other creative individuals. The apparatus, the habitus, surrounding us, is nought but a creation that can be redone, remade, taken apart, created anew. By a single person? Certainly not. By many creative individuals? History is full of such stories. We are their children.

posted by fraula at 11:57 AM on February 22, 2016 [10 favorites]

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