Review of Mind, Modernity, Madness in Contemporary Sociology

By Richard Lloyd, Vanderbilt University

Early in Mind, Modernity, Madness, Liah Greenfeld describes struggling to convey to undergraduate students at Boston University a sense of the near-constant physical pain endured by the medieval peasantry. In those dark ages, rotting teeth became abscessed, wounds festered, and amputations were routine, absent the salve of modern pain- killers. The students cannot comprehend this; from their privileged perch, it is unfathomably remote. Seizing on a different tack, Greenfeld asks if they or someone close to them had ever been treated for major depression. ‘‘Their bright faces darkened, eyes turned thoughtful and sad, and each one of them raised a hand. After that they found it easy to imagine having a toothache for days’’ (p. 10).

Greenfeld’s biography is unusually cosmopolitan. Her first eighteen years were spent in the USSR, the next ten in Israel, and her impressive academic resume´ includes numerous visiting stints abroad, but nowhere else has she witnessed such widespread psychological malaise, an impression borne out by an exhaustive catalogue of available statistical research. Her students are young and physically healthy, hailing from financially comfortable families, and now in the early stages of lives filled with promise. Freed of once ubiquitous physical pain, what so tortures their minds? Greenfeld easily pokes holes in the geneticist explanations that today dominate this conversation, despite their glaring inadequacies. Taking the contemporary big three of the DSM—schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression—to stand for modern madness, she argues that they appeared only recently, first documented by other names in sixteenth century England. The young United States, that most modern of nations, today has by far the highest rates—‘‘madder than them all’’ she argues in the penultimate chapter. Not only are cross-national rates highly variable, but affliction is also unevenly distributed within stratified national societies. Moreover, despite the insistence by psychiatric professionals that evidence of a genetic foundation for these severe mental illnesses is just around the corner, to date no such evidence has been persuasively presented. Greenfeld counters that culture, not genetics or chemical imbalance, is the source of modern madness.

Her case is made through an exhaustive and erudite historical examination of madness, and through her logical exegesis on the nature of the mind, mining venerable philosophical and sociological traditions from Descartes to Durkheim. The brain— which can be dissected, scanned, imaged, and chemically influenced—is appealing to scientists, who fuse the categories of material and empirical reality and dismiss culture as ineffable. But the brain, Greenfeld argues, is not the mind. It is a necessary condition for the mind, and the primary site where culture registers its effects on the individual body. Still, other animals also have brains, some quite well-developed. It is the mind that makes us human, and this is only an incipient capacity of our organism, wholly unrealized at birth and imprinted through socialization. Indeed, Greenfeld suggests that the larynx is the unique biological foundation of the mind, allowing at some primordial point for the elaboration of language as the primary conduit of abstract, symbolic communication. This capacity then creates the context for elaborate cooperative action. This, one must concede, is what accounts for the remarkable capacity of humans to adapt to environments all over the earth, given our comparatively unimpressive strength, speed, and bodily resilience.

Language and other human symbols, moreover, are not just the way that we talk to one another; they are, for the socialized brain (that is, the mind) the means through which we apprehend the world. Greenfeld notes wryly that in neglecting the mind, science brackets the condition of its own existence. Moreover, the symbol-systems that complete the mind ‘‘have not been created by the particular mind that happens to experience them at a given moment’’ (p. 64). The mind is thus the product of the uneven encounter between individual brains and the vast storehouse of human symbolic knowledge, also known as culture. This is an empirical fact, one which Greenfeld argues any human may readily ascertain via rudimentary self-examination. Echoing Durkheim, she identifies the collective mind as the condition of possibility for the creation of the individual mind. She further takes from Durkheim her central explanatory principle in tackling the modern problem of madness: anomie, or the breakdown of social regulation fixing one’s place in the world and guiding individual conduct.

Consider a Twilight Zone episode in which a petty criminal dies and imagines that against all odds he has been admitted to heaven. In this seemingly happy place he launches familiar pursuits, only now with unfailing success. He cannot lose at cards or strike out with women. Money is abundant, and he takes what he wants without repercussion. But the criminal is not happy after all; his victories, once assured, become empty. Where everything is possible, nothing is meaningful! He grows increasingly hysterical with each straight flush and willing dame, visibly cracking up. At last he rejects ‘‘heaven,’’ pleading to be delivered to ‘‘the other place.’’ At which point he is informed… well, you know.

No one, of course, gets it quite as good, which is to say as bad, as this. Nonetheless, at some point, in some places (for as Greenfeld notes, historical comparisons are also geographic comparisons) the feeling of possibility in human life becomes dramatically enhanced. Humans long lived in a world ordered irrevocably by invisible forces, but some now encounter a world of choices perceived to be governed by will. Certainly my students believe themselves inhabitants of such a world. This historically original capacity to imagine the self as self-made is a central feature of modernity. Attendant to it is the novel concept of freedom, a modern principle that the Enlightenment thinkers retroactively posited as universal and primordial, originating in fanciful states of nature. Greenfeld, like Durkheim, has none of this. The modern individual, so distinct from what humans were or could be in the past, is a cultural artifact, and an effect of structural change.

Freedom is the great gift of modernity, cherished by Greenfeld with a special ferocity given her childhood in a totalitarian regime. But it is driving us crazy. This is not a new idea. Kant viewed freedom as the release from the paralyzing grip of dogmatic thought, particularly of the religious variety. Simmel argues that it is nowhere more realized than in the relatively unbounded space of the modern metropolis, the natural habitat of liberal individualism. But as Durkheim shows, the failure of dogma and the advance of reason are accompanied by higher rates of suicide, most robust in the metropolis and in secular societies. Simmel adds that ‘‘it is obviously only the obverse of this freedom that one never feels as lonely and as deserted [emphasis added] as in this metropolitan crush of persons’’ (Simmel 1903).

Now consider our poor, depressed students. An artifact of modernity, the university is, one cannot doubt, secular, with the certainty of religious dogma nowhere more thoroughly undermined than in the religious studies programs. It is a liberal space, governed by the principle of self-(re)invention; common cores are on the run, and self- designed or double and triple majors are on the rise. Choices proliferate and students are loathe to commit. They no longer ‘‘go steady’’ but instead ‘‘hook-up,’’ in a peripatetic sampling of the extravagant mating menu; after graduating they will marry later and have fewer children, changing jobs and even careers many times—an unfathomable condition for those medieval souls who were born peasants and would of a certainty die that way, too.

The students have been assured repeatedly that they are persons of promise, on the doorstep of great, exhilarating possibility. But what outcome can possibly be adequate in the face of the promise they know to be theirs? ‘‘Leader of the free world’’ was not enough to ease Nixon’s neurosis, or sate Clinton’s appetites, and most of us promising sorts have to make due with much less validation. Greenfeld believes that in fact a great many of our political and thought leaders are certifiably mad, a premise not entirely lacking in plausibility. She further notes that John Nash, he of a beautiful mind, was finally cured of his schizophrenia only by admission to a suitably exclusive club, the Nobel Prize in Economics, when in his sixties.

Anomie signals a breakdown of culture’s regulatory capacity. This should not be confused with a diminishment in culture’s social centrality. The mental afflictions that Greenfeld charts result not from too little culture, but from too much, as pluralism replaces once rigid forms of mechanical solidarity. Schizophrenia, or ‘‘pure madness,’’ emerges when the endless possibilities of symbol systems dissolve into incoherence, unanchored by conventional rules and referents. The schizophrenic is highly verbal, the rush of words constructing an arbitrary reality. Bipolar disorder alternates between a fevered mania barely distinguishable from schizophrenia and that most common of modern maladies, major depression, in which the surplus of modern meaning becomes akin to the drab pallet of utter meaninglessness.

Still, Greenfeld does not align with Michel Foucault, who similarly observes that madness appears in discourse only with the onset of modernity. In contrast to Foucault, Greenfeld claims that the discourse of madness follows rather than leads its actual experience. Thus madness is not a mere dis- cursive construct but a real and tortuous malady, and if there was no name for it before the sixteenth century, this is because it did not before exist.

Still, as an affliction of the mind, madness originates in culture, though borne by individual persons. The question is, what change so disrupted the culture? Here she asks the question that drove the canonical triumvirate of classical sociology: What is it that makes modernity so modern, driving

all of its other diverse effects? For Durkheim it is the division of labor; for Marx, capitalism; and for Weber, instrumental rationality. Anyone familiar with Greenfeld’s previous works will not be surprised to hear of her own nominee. She positions Mind, Modernity, Madness as the last book in a trilogy on nationalism, joining Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity (1992) and The Spirit of Capitalism: Nationalism and Economic Growth (2001). The nation is of course widely recognized as belonging in any thorough catalogue of modern phenomena; Greenfeld’s originality is in making it the lead horse. In her usage, nationalism is not centrally defined by belligerent xenophobia or bellicose imperialism, as one might ordinarily expect. Nationalism is rather the comprehensive world-view implied by a thoroughly novel mode of social organization. The nation is comprised of citizens instead of subjects, and orders a new world of role differentiation, social mobility, and imagined community to which older, religiously-based understandings are no longer adequate. It transforms the experience of the world from one ordered by an omnipotent deity to one shaped by ambition and will. With this comes the modern ideal of liberty, premised on the twin constructs of freedom and individuality.

How did this come about? Greenfeld asserts that England emerged from the ashes of the War of the Roses as the first nation in the world. In this epic exercise in brutality, the hereditary aristocracy self-immolated before the Lancasters at last won their pyrrhic victory. The obscure Henry Tudor ascended to the throne, but absent an effective court to enforce his jurisdiction had no choice but to ‘‘turn to the commoners for support’’ (p. 48). Thus an unprecedented degree of upward mobility took shape on the Isles, one that profoundly contradicted ‘‘prevailing beliefs and the image of reality associated with them’’ (ibid.). The self-esteem of the commoners enhanced, the seeds of democracy were planted. Moreover, the divine provenance that had previously underpinned system legitimacy was irrevocably diminished by this social reordering, setting the stage for secularism and the first organized scientific establishment. Increasingly, the nation and not God became the means of grasping one’s place in the world.

From the national arrangement came Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, ambition, progress, romantic love, natural (as opposed to divine) selection—and madness. Shakespeare, the best mind of the world’s first nation, brought madness into literature, and Greenfeld affords his insights as much or more status than those of any clinician. Lear was a paranoid schizophrenic; Hamlet a depressive one, guided by an apparition. From England the nationalist world-view diffused, ferrying its signature mental pathologies. Greenfeld duly chronicles new outbreaks in France, Germany and Russia, timed and shaped distinctly by these countries’ unique paths to nationalism. The United States, uniquely unburdened by the remnants of aristocratic hierarchies, was nationalist even before becoming a nation, madness infecting the colonies and multiplying through the national host. It exemplifies the ideology of the modern individual most thoroughly to this day, and America’s individual minds pay the steepest price as a result.

C. Wright Mills famously defined sociology as the intersection of history and biography, and one would be hard-pressed to find a sociologist working today who exemplifies this principle as rigorously as Greenfeld. Indeed, much of Mind, Modernity, Madness (something of a doorstop at 628 pages) is filled out by biographical sketches of the afflicted, both famous and obscure, creatively read against the backdrop of the structural and cultural currents within which those lives unfolded. Greenfeld’s own biography clearly informs her original and imaginative reading of the monumental archive she samples, a fact that she does not attempt to submerge as she builds her case. She inhabits the book, a lively companion to the reader during the long but only occasionally tedious journey through reams of documentary evidence. Greenfeld has a dog who she loves and who loves her; she worries for her students; she writes poetry and adores literature; she feels acutely the still viral strains of anti-Semitism; and she bears a personal grudge against Karl Marx. She counts among her ancestors original Bolsheviks, but her family suffered greatly in the Soviet regime before finally escaping to Israel. Greenfeld duly sees utopian revolutionary impulses, like cult religions, as variants of schizophrenia, motivated not by one’s real position in the world but by delusions of grandeur. Indeed, she suggestively posits that The Communist Manifesto was penned by a madman.

Greenfeld’s work demands attention, issuing a pointed challenge to the psychiatric profession and to our own discipline. She argues that both psychiatry and sociology are today restricted by an impoverished view of science, unjustifiably neglecting the empirical reality of the mind. Exemplifying Weber’s verstehen, Greenfeld traffics in bold interpretations, and addresses without apology literary and philosophical texts now ordinarily ceded to the humanities. She brings to the task considerable rhetorical gifts, her immersion in modern literary traditions undoubtedly contributing to the rare vigor and grace of her writing.

Mind, Modernity, Madness is not without problems. For all her eloquence, she leaves the reader feeling bludgeoned rather than edified in the late going, piling on with yet another excessively detailed case history or literary exegesis. Abruptly she announces that her case is airtight and, perhaps by now also exhausted, barely bothers with a summary conclusion. But I am not so sure. Give a boy a hammer and everything looks like a nail; nationalism is Greenfeld’s hammer. In this she is no less a determinist than the despised Marx; nationalism explains everything, in the last instance, from capitalist competition to morose college students. Nonetheless, whether one finally concedes the central premise, this is a provocative and important work of humanist sociology, infused with a passion for ideas and grand argument.

Contemporary Sociology: A Journal of Reviews, 2014, 43: 633

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