I'm nearly done with my first draft of a book project on "How to Talk about Mental Health as a Political Problem." I'm a monster, I've just been tearing through writing. I'm exhausted and self-possessed, with an emphasis on the possession.
My right lung hurts when I inhale completely. But my mind is lucid.
This last Saturday, 1/28/23, I wrote 18 pages in a three hour session. It is the section on political implications, seeing what I can say with 193 pages of writing behind me.
This is what is so interesting about speaking or writing at length. You can say, "Well, now that I've said all this other stuff about experience, institutions, and science, what can I now say differently?" This sort of thing occurs all the time in therapy: "Now that you've said all that detailed stuff, it sounds like we can maybe name all this as..." I've had moments where clients will give me all this detail, all these stories, and I'll say "Well it sounds like you are describing X, Y, Z." Someone once said to me, "Yeah! We could have just said that at the beginning..." This isn't true and I told them so. I said, "No, you needed to say all of that detailed, complicated stuff in order for me to be able to say it as concisely as I did."
Complexity and nuance has to emerge in detail, in images, in unclear formulations, in gestures and noises. Only once a wealth of material has emerged can it be said concisely. The concise, conceptual statement should not be given priority. The concise abstraction must be understood as containing or carrying forward all the experiential churning that was required to get there.
So, here is a big chunk of writing that was only possible after 193 pages of saying other things (about language and therapy, about institutions and politics, and about psychology and the philosophy of science). I'm sure many of the terms will appear opaque, as they have been explicated and developed in the prior pages. This is especially true of the 1st-personal/3rd-personal problem. But whatever. Here is a drop of a fragment in process.
4.2. Political-Institutional Implications: The Space of Appearance, Institutions and the 3rd-Personal, Direct Reference within Roles: Or How to Imagine a Society of Love and Beauty
Part of the difficulty with something like I’ve described above is that science is deeply wrapped up in our institutions. As Illich observed, we over-identify science with institutional process rather than with the creative activity of individuals. The nesting of the 3rd-personal within the 1st-personal is a way of trying to correct this imbalance. For institutions are precisely holders of 3rd-personal ways of knowing and wield them in organizing groups of people, usually by estranging them from their more intimate 1st-personal experience via imposed conformity with a (3rd-personal) model. As Gendlin observes in his 1st-3rd piece, most kids shut down access to their implicit understanding (1st-personal) somewhere between the ages of 6-10. It is probably not incidental that these are also the ages when children are learning to be in conformity with images and models required for functioning within institutional contexts. Any reform of science will therefore also have to be institutional reform. And any reform of our institutions will also have to involve a change in our sciences. They are simply too intertwined for us. Thus in presenting a different image of science as responsive-participatory as opposed to representational-manipulative I am also implying a different image of politics. If the goal of politics is not manipulation, then what should it be? The answer to this question, I claim, must be based on an understanding of human beings, our political situation, science, and reality that I’ve described above. I have described a general approach to reality above, and I now will offer an image of politics that is consistent with my image of reality.
The purpose of politics, I claim, must involve two interrelated goals. First, politics must seek to minimize the violence done by its necessarily 3rd-personal aspects: we need roles, models, and images, but we must take care to not to value these over persons. We must prevent the imperatives of the logical order of symbols from overriding the needs of the intricate order of persons. Second, and to say the same thing more positively, politics must concern itself with securing the space of appearance in which intricate persons can develop and encounter/see one another in spite of their participation in generic social categories. This is what it would mean for politics to tame its 3rd-personal dimension and privilege the 1st-personal, for it to moderate its capture elements and lean into its trellis or convivial forms. I will address these topics by asking two questions. First, Given what has been said up until this point, what can I now say about a convivial or trellis institution? And second, Given the formal limitations of politics and the impossibility of perfect institutions, what does it mean to be a convivial person, or to engage in direct reference, within an institution? This is a formal question and a question of how an intricate person may relate to the formal. I begin with Arendt’s The Human Condition in answering these questions.
Arendt’s The Human Condition offers a powerful narrative that should make these claims intelligible. Arendt’s book is chiefly a comparison between the ancient Greek experience of politics and the modern dearth of comparable experience. Rather than political experience, Arendt claims, modern European and American individuals are chiefly familiar with the social. Thus one of the first tasks of Arendt’s book is to distinguish the social and the political.
Put simply, the difference between the social and the political is the difference between behavior and activity/speech. Above I noted Arendt’s claim that modern societies are fundamentally behavioral in their orientation. Indeed, this is what defines the modern concept of the social as distinct from the political. The concept of the social is predicated on the “communistic fallacy,” that is, the idea that our communities are essentially homogeneous in their goals and desires, and that there is some invisible force that ensures convergence upon this goal. Thus concepts like the invisible hand (Smith), Absolute Spirit (Hegel), or the withering of the state (Marx) reinforce a false narrative about society: that it is homogenous and singular in its goals and directions. This necessarily involves the imposition of a 3rd-personal abstraction upon the lives of many unique 1st-personal bodies.
In being founded upon the abstraction of the social, modern societies principally orient themselves behaviorally. We don’t care about unique individuals revealing themselves in particularized speech. We care about generic individuals who are capable of carrying out generic procedures. This is the ‘overprogramming’ of populations that Illich diagnoses in Tools for Conviviality. And thus Arendt argues that behaviorism as a form of psychology or science thrives because it is compatible with the imperatives of organizing a ‘society’ of procedural beings as opposed to persons, a “society of job holders,” as she calls it. “Politically, this means that the larger the population in any given body politic, the more likely it will be that the social [i.e. behavioral] rather than the political that constitutes the public realm [i.e. possible space of appearance]” (The Human Condition, 43). There is a dialectical process at work between the shape of modern society and the shape of sciences. It was known to the ancient Greeks, for example, that limiting the number of citizens was necessary for ensuring the integrity of a genuinely political domain; they understood that crowds generate the desire for conformity and behavior. In this sense behaviorism or crowd psychology has genuine insights, and ancient Greek thought anticipated some of these insights (Arendt's account implies). But, to again paraphrase Taleb, behaviorism (and the social sciences broadly) are not just studying something objectively, they are also reinforcing these tendencies, providing models for institutions and individuals to deepen and cement this behavioral quality of mass society: creating the type of being it claims to study. Thus Arendt writes of behaviorism:
“The unfortunate truth about behaviorism and the validity of its ‘laws’ is that the more people there are, the more likely they are to behave and the less likely to tolerate non-behavior. Statistically, this will be shown in the leveling out of fluctuation [i.e. of unique, individuating action]. In reality, deeds will have less and less chance to stem the tide of behavior, and events will more and more lose their significance, that is, their capacity to illuminate historical time. Statistical uniformity is by no means a harmless scientific ideal; it is the no longer secret political ideal of a society which, entirely submerged in the routine of everyday living, is at peace with the scientific outlook inherent in its very existence.” (43)
Arendt’s concept of the social therefore implies a complex understanding of the relationship between modern conformity, the shape of our institutions, and the shape of our sciences. Behaviorism and statistical ideals are 3rd-personal, representational, and control oriented forms of science. This makes behaviorism highly compatible with a political system that values uniformity and conformity, that privileges the preservation and continuation of institutions over the development and disclosure of unique individuals. “The uniform behavior that lends itself to statistical determination, and therefore to scientifically correct prediction, can hardly be explained by the liberal hypothesis of a natural ‘harmony of interests’, the foundation of ‘classical economics’” (43). The harmony of interests is a consequence of a scientific-institutional process whereby people have been artificially homogenized to meet the needs of a ruling class that has access to the heart of our institutions.
This means that modern politics and institutions are essentially violent and oppressive of individuals. This means that a major task of contemporary politics must be the mitigation of institutional violence. My published paper “The Dilemma of Compliance” analyzes modern institutional violence in relation to the experiences of schizophrenia and censorship. The larger point, however, is that we are always subject to the twin pressures of being both generic and particular. Modern society has essentially become numb to or impatient with this dilemma. We think of ourselves chiefly as generic; as holding this job or having that diagnosis. We have lost a sense of the uniqueness of each individual. Indeed, it is this plurality, this uniqueness of individuals, that Arendt regards as the basis of genuine politics and genuine appearance.
The political, as opposed to the social, concerns itself not with generic behavior and the maintenance of institutions, but with the freedom and equality that follow from genuine action, speech, and encounter between unique individuals. Arednt’s model for this is ancient Athens. Athens, Arendt claims (perhaps romanticizing), was founded on the condition of plurality. Athens managed to balance the particular and generic features of human beings (of course through the institution of slavery and the exclusion of women):
“Human plurality, the basic condition of both speech and action, has the twofold character of equality and distinction. If men were not equal, they could neither understand each other and those who came before them nor plan for the future and foresee the needs of those who will come after them. If men were not distinct, each human being distinguished from any other who is, was, or will ever be, they would need neither speech nor action to make themselves understood. Signs and sounds to communicate immediate, identical needs and wants would be enough.” (175-176)
Modern society is predicated on the fiction that all we need are generic signs and sounds to communicate generic needs. We often pretend to be generic. Why wouldn’t we also pretend that generic symbols would be adequate? Modern society suppresses the uniqueness of individuals.
My experience in my life, and especially my work as a psychotherapist, has taught me that the uniqueness of individuals is a commanding aspect of my experience, something I defer to deeply. I have been fascinated by the singularity of occurrences—that things only happen once—for many years. I remember telling someone at a party, more than 10 years ago, that “technically the same thing has never happened twice.” He took issue with the statement. We are so used to experiencing “kinds” of things: parties, cafes, appointments, “Mondays,” and so on. And these kinds are plenty real. But they hide from us the distinctness of every moment. The same is true in dealing with “kinds of persons” or various social roles. Every barista does the same things that a barista does, but none of them do it in exactly the same way. There is always some difference. This difference may not be externally visible, but experientially these things will never be the same. I have a young client who talks often about the neologism “sonder” or “sondering,” that is, “The profound feeling of realizing that everyone, including strangers passing in the street, has a life as complex as one's own, which they are constantly living despite one's personal lack of awareness of it” (coined by a guy named John Koenig, says wiktionary).
Sonder is awareness of the ontological primacy of the 1st-personal. There are “kinds of situations” and “kinds of people,” but the recognition of these kinds as such is a complex development of a much more immediate and far richer 1st-personal experiencing. An animal, for example, implies “kinds of situations” in that it has a behavioral repertoire that acquires stability and complexity via experiencing. A chimp or rat will ‘recognize’ the difference between a stone and a banana and their behavior will demonstrate this ‘recognition’. But that animal probably does not name “kinds” in the same way we do. Human experience is so involved in “kinds,” we so naturally adopt 3rd-personal perspectives (especially as moderns), that becoming attuned to the richness of the 1st-personal is a task for us. Bergson, especially in Introduction to Metaphysics, does an excellent job in describing and initiating us into this task of beginning to perceive the singularity of things. He describes it as reversing the normal work of the intellect, which is so inclined towards categorization and the perception of reality through or as kinds. And I am remembering an interview with a veteran who was frustrated by his experience with the VA, specifically with the experience of being diagnosed, categorized, and treated as a kind of person with a kind of problem. He, understandably, felt distorted and disrespected by these procedures. “You’ve got all these ideas about what happened to me but you don’t know me…” Powerful. Real.
A political system must, in some way, concern itself with this reality of the uniqueness of individuals and their need for disclosure through action and speech. A first step would be recognizing that individuality is not disclosed through mere behavior. So long as someone is chiefly concerned with the behavioral, with being in conformity with an external image, they will likely not disclose who they really are. The non-disclosive quality of behavior is evident in the difference between two questions: “What are you doing?” as opposed to “Who are you?” When we ask someone “What are you doing?” we are asking a question that could go in two directions. The “What” question could be answered in social-behavioral-3rd-personal terms. Someone could accurately reply, “I am finishing my shift at McDonalds” or “I am picking up my child from school.” These are generic answers that principally indicate the fulfillment of role obligations. The “What” question could be taken as a 3rd-personal question, one that functions chiefly along the logical implications of symbols. The question “What are you doing?” however, could also be understood as a more intricate, 1st-personal question. For in answering this question in a role-bound way we are abstracting from richer 1st-personal reality.
No one is ever just filling a role; they are always filling that role for a particular reason, in a particular way, within a larger context, from a larger place of experiencing.
Imagine this dialogue:
—“What are you doing?”
—“I’m closing this Starbucks.”
—“Why are you working at this Starbucks?”
—“Well, it was nearby and they had shifts that fit with my school schedule.”
—“Oh so you are in school?”
—“Yeah, I’m trying to…”
—“Oh how did you get into that?”
—“My parents always talked about… and then my brother…”
A conversation like this, handled in the spirit of trellis talk, would eventually lead to the disclosure of complex details about a person's life. The behavioral layer, the strict “What are you doing?” really, always, implies the deeper, more intricate layers of experience that brought someone to that behavioral situation. Asking the “What” question necessarily implies the “Who” question. Whether or not the “Who” question becomes explicit depends on the people and the situation. Indeed, Arendt makes this very point in terms of natality, newness, the appearance of fresh beings in the world that must be freshly disclosed. Let me quote her at length, her writing is so fucking good:
“Action and speech are so closely related because the primordial and specifically human act must at the same time contain the answer to the question asked of every newcomer: ‘Who are you?’ This disclosure of who somebody is, is implicit in both his words and his deeds; yet obviously the affinity between speech and revelation is much closer than that between action and revelation, just as the affinity between action and beginning is closer than that between speech and beginning, although many, and even most acts, are performed in the manner of speech. Without the accompaniment of speech, at any rate, action would not only lose its revelatory character, but, and by the same token, it would lose its subject, as it were; not acting men but performing robots would achieve what, humanly speaking, would remain incomprehensible. Speechless action would no longer be action because there would no longer be an actor, and the actor, the doer of deeds, is possible only if he is at the same time the speaker of words. The action he begins is humanly disclosed by the word, and though his deed can be perceived in its brute physical appearance without verbal accompaniment, it becomes relevant only through the spoken word in which he identifies himself as the actor, announcing what he does, has done, and intends to do.” (178-79, my emphasis)
This is a beautiful paragraph that confirms precisely the reality of my barista example: until someone begins to speak and give an account of their activity in their own words they are denied the fullness of their being, they are recognized only in thin, behavioral, social-role bound ways. Our society is one that systematically obscures people’s more intricate, personal reality. People are valued chiefly for their ability to be functional within industrial-capitalist role-systems.
This is what Gendlin is pointing to in note 20 of Chapter VII of APM when he says that “a body cannot be nourished on behavior alone…” We must attend to the total hierarchy or ladder of human capacities. Modern experience, as being social-behavioral, consistently denies us the opportunity for deeper/higher body process: not just the plant, behavioral, and social-symbolic body, but the unique personal body, the Focusing, therapeutic, artistic, and philosophical body. The deeper reality of a person—their intricate, vernacular, transpolitical, or anarchic dimensions—cannot be extinguished, only obscured. As Gendlin observes in “Process Generates Structure,” “The organismic process in us continues even though it is hidden by the empty system of location ‘points’. The cluster of action possibilities is not really reduced, only covered over. We seem unable to think from the implicit because we try to make it fit the terms we have. We try to think of it as structured objects in the space of ‘there-from-here’” (p. 8). Our behavioral society demands we try to make ourselves conform to fundamentally 3rd-personal representations (the ‘system of location points’). We are valued chiefly on the basis of our conformity with an external image. Our designated role “covers over” a more intricate reality, a more immediate 1st-personal richness.
Arendt, too, grants that the “Who are you?” question cannot truly be suppressed; its answer remains implicit in everything a person does. “The disclosure of ‘who’ in contradistinction to ‘what’ somebody is—his qualities, gifts, talents, and shortcomings, which he may display or hide—is implicit in everything somebody says and does” (179, my emphasis). We cannot truly hide ourselves except “in complete silence and perfect passivity.” Moreover, we may not even be capable of revealing ourselves to ourselves, as “it is more than likely that the ‘who’, which appears so clearly and unmistakably to others, remains hidden from the person himself, like the daimon in Greek religion which accompanies each man throughout his life, always looking over his shoulder from behind and thus visible only to those he encounters” (179-80). This is fascinating evidence for the function of psychotherapy. For the process of therapy revolves precisely around coming to know ourselves better by allowing someone else to know us. A good therapist offers us the opportunity to speak at length and in depth about things that would often be too vulnerable or threatening to speak of openly. In not speaking openly of the most important things we deny ourselves the opportunity for self-revelation; we bypass learning how we really live with these problems. When this speech is witnessed and understood, when there is a recognition of who we are, people begin to change. This is why reflective listening is so powerful. When what is being said now has been understood there is room for something new to be said, another step to emerge. Most of what we say, however, is not genuinely self-revelatory, but behavioral, self-obfuscating. Thus we often repeat ourselves, or worse, stop speaking to begin with. Arendt is providing us with beautiful arguments about the difference between trellis talk and capture talk. Someone is in the midst of capture talk insofar as they are being asked only about the social-behavioral dimensions of their experience, the “what” of their living. Someone is in the midst of trellis talk when their more complex, nuanced, individual, “who” dimensions are being invited.
I am thinking about a client I worked with during my internship at the IDD clinic. His hand twitched often. He had a schizoaffective disorder diagnosis. I once asked him about his hand twitching because it looked like he was pretending to do something. It looked like meaningful movement as opposed to random twitching. So I asked, “What are you doing when you move your hand like that?” He told me about how he was imagining a CD-Rom that he was using. A whole massive imaginative world of dragons and spaceships opened up after that. No other clinician knew about his world of dragons, “Biscuits,” he called them. These other clinicians had known him for 7 years and no one had ever asked him “what are you doing?” No one ever asked him “Who are you?” When I asked him, “What are you doing with your hand?” I gave him the opportunity to answer the question “Who are you?” No one ever gave him the opportunity to disclose himself through speech.
True to our analysis in Chapter I, Arendt also confirms that the disclosure of a who is possible only in presence. “This revelatory quality of speech and action comes to the fore where people are with others and neither for nor against them—that is, in sheer human togetherness” (180). I like this word “togetherness,” it is powerful and makes me feel what is lacking in the word “presence.” Togetherness, being together, is essential. This togetherness, moreover, requires safety. Indeed Arendt acknowledges the risk of disclosing oneself to another: “Although nobody knows whom he reveals when he discloses himself in deed or word, he must be willing to risk the disclosure, and this neither the doer of good works, who must be without self and preserve complete anonymity, nor the criminal, who must hide himself from others, can take upon themselves” (180, my emphasis). There are ways of being, in other words, that make disclosure especially risky: those who seek to do good with an eye to the divine as opposed to the worldly, or those who are deemed criminal or deviant cannot disclose themselves; they are too distant from the socially proper. This implies that it is necessary to be sufficiently in conformity with social-behavioral criteria to have the opportunity to disclose oneself. One cannot speak and be understood if one has been excommunicated or totally without community. I fully grant, on the other hand, that I can imagine a community of people so psychologically distorted that a sane person could simply never be recognized. One would be fortunate to live in a world in which the conditions of social-belonging are also compatible with conditions of intricate-disclosure-through-speech. It seems plausible to me that there are social conditions in which the disclosure of a unique self is nearly impossible. Orwell’s 1984 attempts to envision such a situation (it occurs to me now, and I haven’t read the book in many years. Brave New World also comes to mind, of course).
It is my general contention that psychotherapy has arisen as a practice and institution because our society is so profoundly incapable of balancing the need for both the social and the political: we need both a functioning division of labor (social-behavioral) and the space in which unique individuals can appear, in which people can disclose and distinguish themselves as unique beings through careful, witnessed speech. Psychotherapy, as I argued, is divided along the manipulative-convivial spectrum: part of the field is behavioral and biomedical in its orientation and therefore chiefly reinforces the tyranny of the social. Another part of the field emphasizes the violent quality of our institutions (trauma research) and the need for the development of unique persons through careful speech (humanistic, existential, experiential therapies). Psychotherapy is indeed often a space of appearance (I called it a transpolitical space in my master’s thesis, which is a comparable claim). The foregoing analysis implies that politics must concern itself with the existence of these spaces of appearance; it must create and safeguard them; places where the intricate or vernacular can show itself. Psychotherapy is a model for these spaces of appearance, but it is not sufficient as a solution. There must be a larger process of reorganizing society so that people can appear more often. This feels like a question of money and leisure to me. Do people actually have the time and the resources to appear? Or are they so completely caught up in the process of labor and bodily maintenance?