The Anxious Age – Is Post-Postmodernity Defined by Mental Distress?

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Introduction: Countermodernism

 

In 1979 Jean-François Lyotard (1924-1998) over-simplistically defined Postmodernism as “incredulity toward metanarratives, which was undoubtedly a product of progress in the sciences”.[1]  More simplistically still, this means that the theoretical machines of Modernism and before were rapidly ceasing to function as science progressed.  In Lyotard’s words, “postmodern scientific knowledge cannot be based on performativity, because efficiency must be calculated based on a stable system”. Nature and society are not stable (or closed) systems, and as such it is counter-intuitive to evaluate and accept universal truths derived from the variables of those systems. The truth-value in a stable system is inherently homogeneous and tyrannical – it will always favour the knowledge-bearer and work towards hegemonic disparity (knowledge is power).  Metanarratives, then, are told from a position of privilege or State, and any events of knowledge-based ontogenesis have their relative successes and progressions judged against a minor system of inconsistencies and innovations.  “New moves,” as Lyotard called them. As is demonstrated by dictatorships, control does not promote innovation, but rather homogenises the system.  This echoes in many ways Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) and Felix Guattaris’ (1930-1992) analogy of Chess and Go whereby the game of chess represents the state, while Go epitomises the War Machine (the difference between a closed or stable system and an open and unstable system).[2]  Knowledge in the postmodern world is about change, adapting to it, and generating new ideas (nomadology), not on an established rigid scientific method. In 2019 we are indeed sceptical of grand narratives, yet our faith in science is perhaps greater than ever.  Mental illnesses, which are too often ascribed to biological causes, are medicated with confidence by general practitioners, and ingested blindly by the patient.

In Lyotard’s own terms, this precarious era following Postmodernism may then be defined as a blind credulousness toward the metanarrative of the sciences.  This will neither be proven nor disproven as, like Lyotard, I invite and anticipate paralogy (Lyotard again, referring to a discourse without consensus – an open system), though I do hope to add my voice to the already rich – somewhat cacophonous – well-pool of perspectives to be found in contemporary theory.

No discourse is ever initiated truly objectively: the writer always has a vested interest in the points made and the results found, contrary to any claim against this.  For is it not the initial spark of enthusiasm for any topic which drives that writer onwards, and is this not in and of itself self-interest?  My own vested interests are first-person perceptions of parenting a child whose behaviour is erratic, violent, recalcitrant and without context.  I propose to show how this behaviour, which is increasingly commonplace, carries not just biological hallmarks but is also linguistic in nature.  This perspective is parallel to Mark Fisher’s (1968-2017) belief that mental illness (in particular Bipolar Disorder) are the consequence of life in a neoliberal world rather than a biological imbalance, and as such it is vital to the sprit of this study to compare Postmodern theorists such as Deleuze and Guattari (who maintained that culture is biological) with the latter-day writings of Fisher.

This study takes the singular hybrid form of a third-person autobiography which will jump in and out of first-person perspective and critical analysis.  It does this because in order to evaluate the minor narrative it behoves us, in the manner of Postmodernism, to also evaluate the metanarrative.  In short, while I will be questioning the sources of my information, it will be equally important to evaluate my own narrative – to question the contingencies which have occasioned my experiences and shaped my perspectives thereon.

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This is by no means the first attempt I have made to link our present social, political and cultural epoch to mental health.  In 2016 I wrote:

 

“(t)he schizophrenic is subject to fragmented thinking and delusions, synthesises words which make only subjective sense to the patient; repeats words and phrases over and over, each time as if for the first.  The schizophrenic displays a lack of emotional expressions, shows little to no enthusiasm and exhibits repetitive, jarring speech abnormalities.  Studies have shown that a key environmental factor in the onset of schizophrenia is childhood separation or loss – dislocation from a previous generation.  The post-millennial condition is schizophrenic in all of these factors and more.  Perhaps the most critical similarity, though, is in the delusional impersonation of established personalities of import without prejudice to the historical or mythological frameworks in which they belong.”[3]

 

If the term “schizophrenic” is appropriate to our times – if indeed the metanarrative is, in itself, schizophrenic – then it is the state which promotes a fractured society.  Not only, then is this a cultural matter – it is universal in its scope and implications.  Let us begin with the following statement, and allow this study to take us where it may:

 

“10% of children and young people (aged 5-16 years) have a clinically diagnosable mental problem, yet 70% of children and adolescents who experience mental health problems have not had appropriate interventions at a sufficiently early age.”[4]

 

What does this extract from a 2008 study suggest about our present age?  First, it speaks of a huge disparity between mental illness and our understanding of it.   Secondly, and more perniciously, it can only mean that healthcare professionals can no longer keep up with the vast amount of caseloads which grow exponentially by the year.  Numbers alone cannot provide or subtract weight to a hypothesis – if there are 10,000 children, and 10 percent of those have mental illnesses, out of those 1,000 children 300 have had sufficient intervention, while 700 have not.  And how do we qualify the sufficiency of “sufficient intervention?”  Has it been sufficient to bring the young person back from the brink of crisis and prevent self-harm or suicide, or has it been sufficient to provide them with the intellectual and rational tools to live lives relatively free of such crises?  Furthermore, the word “diagnosable” invites all manner of discourse, for is not science here limited to a pre-established metanarrative?  Psychiatry and paediatrics follow strict diagnostic criteria built on decades-old research, focused all-but-exclusively on biological study.  The linguistic question in such studies is a secondary concern, while any study of psychological abnormalities in our present age must, by necessity, bring linguistic and environmental factors more into focus.

It is for this very reason that I eschew statistical data: it belongs to the fixed sciences, those closed systems which are regulated by serotonin and its parameters of activity.

 

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Episode I: PostNormal Hyper-Reality

 

The trouble begins in 1992 at the age of 14.  Nothing out of the ordinary happens that year – no bereavement, no stress…no perceivable external reason for the boy to make an attempt on his own life.  The only warning sign is a gradual onset of ennui, a sense of hopelessness and despair the like of which the boy’s parents are at a loss to account for.  One evening it occurs to him that the most sensible, rational act would be to overdose on pain killers, go for a walk and allow the drugs to destroy his organs.  When he wakes up in the hospital, the boy is overcome with the certainty that this would be the first of many such occurrences.  Over the years the boy will have no less than six hospital admissions on his medical record with varying degrees of seriousness.

 

In hindsight the boy (quite patently a reactivated prosopopoeia of my younger self) recalls that 1992 was likely one of the first periods of his life when the full pernicious implications of the neoliberal orthodoxy.  That year we marched in London in protest of the implementation of Poll Tax, and that same year (and contrary to previous legislation to abolish it), it was announced that Poll Tax would be replaced by Council Tax in 1993 (Thus the age of rebranding was born which continues to the present day).

 

The 1990s saw the dominance of the SSRI (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor) over the field of mental health and psychiatric treatment.  Commonly referred to in the US by the brand name Zoloft and in the UK as Lustral, Sertraline is the most commonly prescribed SSRI, replacing Prozac in the early Twenty-First Century as the by-word for antidepressants.  I first began taking Sertraline in 2002, but it proved no difficulty in finding someone who had a more recent experience with the drug.  This user, who wished to remain anonymous, likened the first sensation as euphoric: “slightly drunk, without the loss of inhibition.”   The subject also went on to suggest that there may be placebic elements to SSRIs: “after the initial rush of happiness, it felt like I was carrying on the course of medication just to avoid withdrawal – which the doctor warned me would be unpleasant.”

 

Perhaps we are looking at antidepressant medication in the wrong way.  Instead of providing a means for coping with the world around us, could it not be the case that SSRIs actually create docile bodies?  Slavoj Žižek famously claimed about John Carpenter’s They Live,

 

“…definitely one of the forgotten masterpieces of the Hollywood Left. … The sunglasses function like a critique of ideology. They allow you to see the real message beneath all the propaganda, glitz, posters and so on. … When you put the sunglasses on you see the dictatorship in democracy, the invisible order which sustains your apparent freedom.”[5]

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Sertraline, and medication which acts in similar ways, act as the sunglasses in this example, yet the effect is opposite.  To put the sunglasses on is to become blind to the insidious processes of control and power which govern society.  A cursory glance at the listed side-effects of Sertraline seem to confirm this:

 

  • depression, feeling strange, nightmare, anxiety, agitation, nervousness, decreased

sexual interest, teeth grinding,

  • shaking, muscular movement problems (such as moving a lot, tense muscles, difficulty

walking and stiffness, spasms and involuntary movements of muscles), numbness and

tingling, abnormal taste, lack of attention,

  • visual disturbance, ringing in ears,
  • palpitations, hot flush, yawning,

 

As a long-term user of Sertraline, I can attest to all of these side-effects, and more.  The decreased sexual interest is of particular importance, having a Lacanian frame of reference.  Is this not the virtual definition of castration?  To repress desire in this way is to dissolve the Oedipal Stage, revealing the “real” father – which in this case is the State itself, and we can place more stock in Lacan here than perhaps any other contemporary theorist. If we contrast the figure of authority between that of a century (or even half-a-century) ago to the figure of authority of today, the difference is vast.  What was once domestic and proximal (the literal father) is now global and distal (the state apparatus), and this latter has no need to even interact directly with us: it has proven much more effective for us to actively regulate ourselves.  We surrender our desires to the desires of ideology, allowing the neoliberal clinamen to prevail.  While it is no great revelation to say that governments and ruling elites control society in ever-more pernicious ways (proving this would indeed be akin to proving that water is wet), there is also the neoliberal concept of “post-truth” to contend with which paints our political climate in colours far brighter than those of reality.  Anthropologist Alexei Yurchak coined the term “hypernormalisation” to describe the attitude of paradoxical political blindness which permeated Russia in the latter years of Soviet rule[6], and the progression from this to what Mark Fisher called “Capitalist Realism” is self-evident: while the former pretends that the climate is functional, the latter knows that the opposite is true, yet cannot imagine an alternative.  Fisher in fact takes his cue from the State Realism of the Soviet Union and its propagandist machinery, Realism has nothing to do with the Real.  On the contrary, the Real is what realism has continually to suppress.”  SSRIs are the perfect societal adjunct to this state – what better way of maintaining the illusion of stability than freely giving subjects the perception-managing drugs they crave?

 

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Episode II: Psychomodernism Vs. Schizomodernism

 

The child screams.  Perfunctory sounds no longer suffice to convey the ever-more complex thought processes in his head, nor do the articulated phonics which he has learned to parrot back at his father allow these abstractions to manifest themselves.  In his frustration the child begins to slam his head against the living room wall, once, twice…until the very succession of this action has deadened the images in his mind that he cannot yet begin to grasp.  The skin on his forehead is aflame with pain and the wall retains the crimson memory of the boy’s rage.  The child’s terrified father sobs as he applies the towel-wrapped frozen bag of vegetables grabbed in a panic from the fridge to his son’s head.  As these incidents increase in both frequency and severity, the child’s parents naturally seek medical help, only to find themselves subjected to the most tortuous cross-examinations and intense scrutiny.

 

This is, without question, a linguistic problem.  And, sure enough, as the child’s vocabulary becomes more sophisticated, so the violent head-banging decreases.  This would, ordinarily, serve as the happy ending scenario to a troubling-yet-not-altogether-atypical parental crisis.  However, over the course of the following years more troubling symptoms develop: an explosive aversion to fire alarms, the sound of a hand dryer in a public toilet, an intolerance for clothing…all of these point towards behaviour typical of the autism spectrum.  At 7 years old the child is removed from his school following an attempt to strangle a classmate, and what follows is a nearly two-year diagnostic period during which the child is assessed by numerous professionals in order to gauge speech and language (to satisfy the linguistic question), psychology (to address mental health) and paediatrics (for autism-related issues).

 

There are also the protracted and focused attacks by the child upon his mother, resulting in the latter’s body (in particular her lower torso) being covered in bruises and swelling.  Occasionally these attacks are facial, and black eyes become common.  And then there are the secondary effects.  The child’s mother is forced to forego employment during the week, surrender her studies (ironically in social care) and the relationship between her and the child’s father eventually becomes so jaded and warped that they end up finding one another again at the end of the process – only this time they are entirely different individuals to the couple who fell in love a decade previously: they are beaten, disillusioned…all promise of future prosperity scuppered by bureaucratic torpor.

 

It is now seven years since the child began to display troubling behaviour, and two years since his parents sought help from the Umbrella Pathway, a service provided by Worcestershire County Council to “provide an assessment process for all children and young people presenting with neuro-developmental disorders which may be due to Autism Spectrum conditions (not ADHD).”[7]  Among the non-diagnostic suggestions made by professionals is PDA:

 

“Pathological demand avoidance (PDA) is a behavioural profile associated with apparently obsessive non-compliance, distress, and florid challenging and socially inappropriate behaviour in children, adolescents and adults.”[8]

 

While PDA is a behaviour profile within the autism spectrum, it is by no means unanimously agreed upon by professionals whether or not it belongs on the autism spectrum.  It is therefore referred to as a sub-type.

 

When I informed my older brother of this prospective diagnosis, his immediate response was to exclaim “you’ve just described yourself!”  Could it then be that there is a biological element which I have passed onto my son, which has only become recognised scientifically in his generation?  In hindsight I recall my childhood carrying hallmarks of PDA: an aversion to authority, discomfort at regulation and intense feelings of suppressed rage.182634_1880487455791_3649772_n

However, what if the problem lies elsewhere, in the most pernicious and overlooked social evil: standardisation?  A hallmark of neoliberalism, standardisation regulates the mainstream of the state apparatus, covering all areas of government and the public/private sector.

 

The government’s own website states:

 

 

Standardisation is the process of creating, issuing and implementing standards. A standard is a document, established by consensus and approved by a recognised body. It provides rules, guidelines or characteristics for activities or their results so that they can be repeated. They aim to achieve the greatest degree of order in a given context.[9]

 

The two words which jump out there are “order” and “repeated.”  These hallmarks of meta-power can be traced to Deleuze and Guattaris’ notion of the state apparatus and the war machine and to Michel Foucault, who would say that “order” in this context can be translated into “discipline” in order to produce normalisation and therefore “docile subjects.”

 

Episode III: Dromomodernism and Aggressive Desublimation (There Can Be No Conclusion)

 

In Precarious Rhapsody, Franco Berardi states:

 

“The acceleration of information exchange has produced and is producing an effect of a pathological type on the individual human mind and even more on the collective mind. Individuals are not in a position to process the immense and always growing mass of information that enters their computers, their cell phones, their television screens, their electronic diaries and their heads. However, it seems indispensable to follow, recognise, evaluate, process all this information if you want to be efficient, competitive, victorious. … The necessary time for paying attention to the fluxes of information is lacking.”[10]

 

In a hypernormalised world of post-truth, what better way to control a people than to bombard them with a constant strobe of information parcels?  As Twitter feeds accelerate and Facebook becomes ever-more hyperbolic, so too do our levels of anxiety.  Can PDA be rooted in biological neurosis which is exacerbated by linguistic factors?  Paul Virilio (1932-2018) argued that “there was no ‘industrial revolution’, only ‘dromocratic revolution’; there is no democracy, only dromocracy; there is no strategy, only dromology.”[11]  Dromology is derived from the Greek “dromo,” which refers to the activity of racing, ergo speed and acceleration.  Dromology, then, is surely how we should countenance the flow of information in the modern age. There can be no true conclusion to this study: as linguistic cultural and social factors multiply and accelerate, we can only wait to see how our biological and linguistic bodies cope…if, indeed, they can.

 

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[1] Lyotard, J., Bennington, G., Massumi, B. and Jameson, F. (2005). The postmodern condition. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

[2] Deleuze, G., Guattari, F. and Massumi, B. (2017). A thousand plateaus. London: Bloomsbury Academic. (pages 523-551)

[3] Davis, G. (2016). No Job for a Grown Man (part six) – in Explication of the Schizophrenic Age. [online] Legally, I Own the Thoughts of the Dead. Available at: https://grumpusart.wordpress.com/2016/11/07/no-job-for-a-grown-man-part-six-in-explication-of-the-schizophrenic-age/ [Accessed 30 Apr. 2019].

[4] Children’s Society (2008) The Good Childhood Inquiry: health research evidence. London: Children’s Society.

[5] Slavoj Žižek, THE PERVERT’S GUIDE TO IDEOLOGY. British Board of Film Classification (19 June 2013).

[6] Jurchak, A. (2006). Everything was forever, until it was no more. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[7] Hacw.nhs.uk. (2019). Umbrella Pathway. [online] Available at: https://www.hacw.nhs.uk/our-services/childrens-community-health-services/umbrella-pathway [Accessed 30 Apr. 2019].

[8] (Newson et al. 2003; O’Nions et al. 2014b)

[9] GOV.UK. (2019). Standardisation. [online] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/standardisation/standardisation [Accessed 30 Apr. 2019].

[10] Berardi, F. (2010). Precarious rhapsody. London: Minor Compositions.

[11] Virilio, P. and Polizzotti, M. (2006). Speed and politics. New York: Semiotext(e).

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