I am in the middle of a research project right now on the history of psychoanalytic psychological testing. I am taking a broadly historical perspective on the evolution of theories of psychoanalysis and the ways in which our theories of development and psychopathology are mediated by the psychologist’s absorption in the sociocultural milieu. One of my guiding ideas is that individuals who are designated as mentally ill often reveal the dark underside of culture, as they are essentially the casualties of our sociocultural system. After all, built into the very definition of mental disorders in the DSM-5 is the requirement that the ‘mental disorder’ prevents the individuals from adequately functioning according to the standards of the day.
This has led to me try to begin thinking about the current times. A couple of things have jumped out at me in my research. First, I have been trying to come to terms with the emerging trend over the last years for people to be described as “empty”. Now, this idea has always puzzled me. How can a self be empty? What does it mean when individuals seek out psychological treatment citing emptiness as a major symptom? Does emptiness convey a desperate hunger? Does it suggest that the subject hates what s/he sees and thus reports feeling empty, i.e. is emptiness defensive? Does emptiness adequately capture the person’s internal experience? There are many cultural critics who have attempted to address this idea. Philip Cushman has written a cultural history of psychotherapy in the US and has noted the economic underpinnings of emptiness and the ways in which people turn to consumer capitalism to ‘fill up’ this void. Others such as Christopher Lasch decried the terrible narcissism of the 1970’s with its purported obsession with inner discovery. This afternoon I have been reading Lunbeck’s latest text The Americanization of Narcissism, and she casts a critical eye towards to these jeremiad condemnations of the modern American subject. She rightly points out that every younger generation is condemned by the older generation as being spoiled, hedonistic, self-absorbed, etc.
So, I began to think more about what is the current diagnosis of my generation (as someone who is 28). Well, enter the new Atlantic article on the coddling of the American mind (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/399356/). I assume many of you read it. In it we encounter a long-winded somewhat whining criticism of the current university student in the United States. I want to address some of the issues laid out in the article.
On a broader cultural level, the trigger warning issue suggests to me that our generation’s is trying to address issues of validation, shame, and aggression. Part of the notion of trigger warning is that Person A exposes Person B to phenomena C that ‘triggers’ unpleasant reaction D in Person B. One of the problematic aspects underlying the concept is that Person B’s unpleasant reaction D is wholly created by Person A exposing Person B to phenomena C. It is as if you push a button in Person B then it is your fault for whatever reaction it generates. It strips Person B of agency, decision, or reflection, rendering Person B a machine that is simply activated whenever the controls are adjusted in a certain way. What is fascinating to me is that it is based upon a PTSD-based notion of subjectivity. In other words, a person’s sense of self is organized around certain traumatic events that s/he need to be utterly shielded from stimuli that threaten to fragment the integrity of the self.
Implicit in this notion is a prescription for moralistic behavior (i.e. since we all carry around unresolved issues that can easily be set-off if the individual is exposed to unfavorable circumstances then you should tread lightly). It leads to deep anxiety and undue guilt in Person A, as if Person A is wholly responsible (and thus guilty) for whatever reaction Person B experiences. I hear this type of discourse at my work in a psychiatric hospital. Generally, we hear about how some patient has triggered another patient. The person who has been triggered (traumatized?) then attempts to exert a level of control over others by warning people about this vulnerability. It is based on the notion that someone should never be triggered, as if the person’s vulnerability is everyone else’s responsibility. I think what I am trying to say is that the agency and responsibility of the subject is being undermined with the PTSD-model of subjectivity.
At the same time, I think there are reasons to be critical of the Atlantic article. For instance, the notion that our generation is being coddled (intellectually) while we are being destroyed financially through the overpricing of advanced education seems suspect to me. Furthermore, I think many politically active students have pointed out the particular examples highlighted in the article are skewed in a certain direction. The article generally portrays students as excessively irrational and hypersensitive. The recent racial issues on campuses from Missouri to Yale highlighted these issues. In some examples, the media depicts the students as needlessly sensitive or alternatively as being subjected to intense discrimination. Also, the idea of prescribing to students ‘cognitive behavior therapy’ to make them more rational seems woefully naïve and stupid, almost like thought policing college freshmen. College is about being offended and learning from one another. I am not currently in a university, having graduated two years ago with my doctorate in psychology. I am curious what others thought (both students and professors) about this article. I am personally trying to understand what is going on psychologically and sociologically with the ways in which identity is being expressed and shaped in our current cultural moment. I would also appreciate any suggested readings people have.