Identity Construction and Cultural Madness

From the Harvard University Press Blog:

It sometimes seems as if each day brings a new raft of articles proclaiming yet another biological or genetic explanation for human behavior and activity. To Liah Greenfeld, that barrage is just a new bubble, and in Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience, she does her best to burst it. While not entirely dismissing biological factors in mental illness, Greenfeld argues that the phenomenon that was for a long time called simply “madness”—today’s schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression—is actually a symptom of modernity, an effect of our cultural environment.  

To Greenfeld, “madness” is a disease not of the brain but of the mind, of consciousness, which itself is a cultural phenomenon, the product of nationalism, a subject on which Greenfeld has now produced a trilogy. As the cultural framework of modernity, nationalism insists on the dignity, creativity, and equality of man, the value of each human life, and the right and capacity for all to construct their own destinies, to love, and to be happy. Psychotic disease, she argues, is fundamentally a malfunction of the “acting self,” experienced as a loss of the familiar self and as a loss of control over one’s physical and mental activity, a response to the cultural demands of selfhood.

From Mind, Modernity, Madness:

The reason for the dysfunction of the acting self lies in the malformation of identity. It is possible that the complexity of the original identity problem (the depth and number of inconsistencies in the relationally constituted self) contributes to the complexity of the disease; for instance, in a case of dissatisfaction with one’s nevertheless clearly experienced identity causing depression, and in a case of no clearly experienced identity, combined with numerous competing possibilities, producing schizophrenia. It is modern culture—specifically the presumed equality of all the members of the society, secularism, and choice in self-definition, implied in the national consciousness—that makes the formation of the individual identity difficult. A member of a nation can no longer learn who or what s/he is from the environment. Instead of prescribing to us our identities, as do religious and in principle nonegalitarian cultures, modern culture leaves us free to decide what to be and to make ourselves. It is this cultural laxity that is anomie—the inability of a culture to provide the individuals within it with consistent guidance (already in the beginning of the twentieth century, recognized by Durkheim as the most dangerous problem of modernity). Paradoxically, in effect placed in control over our destiny, we are far more likely to be dissatisfied with it, than would be a person deprived of any such control: not having a choice, such a person would try to do the best with what one has and enjoy it as far as possible. A truly believing person would also feel s/he has no right to find fault with the order of things created by God, much less to try and change it to one’s own liking—one’s situation in life would be perceived as both unchangeable and just. Conversely, the presence of choice, the very ability to imagine oneself in a position different from one currently occupied or that of one’s parents, and the idea that social orders in general are created by people and may be changed make one suspect that one’s current situation is not the best one can have and to strive for a better one. The more choices one has, the less secure one becomes in the choices already made (by one or for one) and making up one’s mind—literally, in the sense of constructing one’s identity—grows increasingly difficult. It is for this reason that the malformation of the mind—quite independent of any disease of the brain—becomes a mark of nations.

“The sooner a society defines itself as a nation,” she continues, “the sooner diseases of the mind appear in it, and the more dedicated it is to the ideals of equality and liberty, the more perfectly the twin principles of nationalism are realized in social, political, and economic institutions, the more widespread they can be expected to be.” (Greenfeld defines the “nation” as a community of equals and as sovereign, and uses the term “nationalism” in this sense, rather than in the popular connotation of xenophobia, which she notes is but an aspect of certain nationalisms.) So, the older and more egalitarian a nation grows, the more severe mental illness we should expect to see, which actually perfectly tracks the history of schizophrenia and manic-depressive illness from its inception in sixteenth-century England, and subsequent spread through Europe and North America, and its application to groups within societies also explains why in all these nations these diseases first and most gravely affect “the strata whose possibilities of self-realization are least limited and whose members face the largest number of choices.” It explains as well why, despite the proliferation of modern pharmaceutical options, the prevalence of mental illness in the United States continues to rise. Madness, Greenfeld writes, is “the other side of the coin, a proof that, as with most things in life, benefits are usually associated with costs.”

Mind, Modernity, Madness—a long, thorough presentation of an argument whose complexity is done little justice here by such brief summary—ends with a surprising note of synergy between Greenfeld’s argument and Gish Jen’s recent Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self. Jen, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, explains her understanding of Western culture as far more focused on individualism, independence, and originality than Asian cultures, which are generally more concerned with context and interdependence. She relates that distinction through her own upbringing, during which she says she “was not encouraged to think of myself as a unique individual, whose uniqueness is really a very important thing. Quite the contrary.”

And here’s Greenfeld:

The inexorable rise of China, which is very much on the American mind today, brings to mind that persistent “anomaly” in the findings of Western epidemiologists, puzzling them since the early days of their profession: the remarkably low rates of the very kind of mental disease that ravages the West in Asia. Fear not: it is not the relative absence of madness that makes China rise (though it will certainly help it not to fall). But this still leaves the question: what makes these, in some cases definitely modern, in all others modernizing with astonishing rapidity, societies, all embracing nationalism and implementing its principles of secularism, egalitarianism, and popular sovereignty at least as successfully as Europe did in the nineteenth century, immune to the modern mental disease? Why don’t the orienting principles of nationalism disorient the Orient? Would monotheism and logic have anything to do with this? Could the root of the problem (not its cause, perhaps, but a necessary condition) lie deeper than nationalism, reaching to the very foundation of our civilization? Even a most tentative answer to this question would be premature at present. But it is clear where I am led by the great forces that form our projects: to a comparative study of civilizations.

Perhaps Jen’s take on Eastern cultures as somehow less demanding of individual identity formation would be a good place to start.



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