Monday, October 11, 2010

It's Kind of a Funny Story - Defending the Spirit of Play

Craig, the 16 year old protagonist of the film It's Kind of a Funny Story, commits himself to the local psychiatric hospital as the only alternative to jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge, whereupon he meets the usual head-case suspects. In one corner of his floor is the schizophrenic. Over there is the delusional paranoid. There is a depression wing populated mostly by teenagers. Muqtada is a catatonic Egyptian and Solomon is a Hasidic Jew who ingested 100 too many LSD tablets. I'll let you guess where that story line is headed. They are all harmless, lovable nuts - despite the fact that a couple of them have tried to kill themselves. The patients, outside of an occasional outburst, are not crushed by unbearable suffering. Genuine mental pain is not the stuff of comedy. They mostly go about their quirky merry way.

The film is therefore not unlike the 1975 film adaptation of Ken Kesey's book One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The big difference in this current look inside the "nuthouse," is the absence of a Nurse Ratched, the Cuckoo's Nest embodiment of malevolent bureaucratic control who R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) ends up strangling. Dr. Minerva, the psychiatrist who "treats" Craig, oozes wisdom and concern. During therapeutic sessions she sounds like the psychologist Carl Rogers, one of the founders of the so-called humanistic school of psychotherapy, a post-Freudian branch which placed "unconditional positive regard" at the center of the therapeutic "encounter." "It's not surprising that you are disappointed about that Craig. I would be too." Humanist oriented psychologists generally provide herbal tea during their sessions.

It's Kind of a Funny Story is cute and pretty much devoid of political content - unless you see the whole therapeutic apparatus itself as having political implications. Many names come to mind who have taken this position: Philip Rieff (The Triumph of the Therapeutic), Russell Jacoby (Social Amnesia), Barbara Ehrenreich (Bright-Sided), and the most incisive critic of the ethos of therapeutic bureaucracy, Christopher Lasch (The Culture of Narcissism, Revolt of the Elites and The True and Only Heaven).

Early in the film Craig's parents come to visit him only to discover that he has had second thoughts about admitting himself to the hospital and wants to return to school. Craig's mother responds by telling him that "They (the psychiatrists) are professionals who can help in ways that we can't." Perhaps the filmmakers were making an ironic point or merely suggesting that the family is the place where you first learn that you will not get what you want. At any rate, I thought of Lasch when I heard the line.

In his later writings - he died in 1994 - Lasch railed against what he called the "reign of specialized expertise" that he asserted grew out of the particular trajectory of modern capitalism. For Lasch, a centralized therapeutic culture embodied in the growing "helping professions," undermined democratic hopes by making citizens "clients" of state sanctioned "intervention" into our private and family lives. Workers were turned into mere consumers of the products of their labor by uniting sophisticated advertising techniques with modern technology. These insidious trends, Lasch argued, produced unhealthy dependency relationships and civic passivity. Moreover, in a society dominated by the belief that a person's social or class position is exclusively a result of their own abilities, the fight for social change is abandoned in favor of "self-realization." Class politics is internalized.

As Lasch pointed out in The Culture of Narcissism, one of the primary counterweights to an increasingly controlled and rationalized world is play. In play, we engage in arbitrary inventions, risk and chance - all of the dynamics that have been expunged from our routinized work environments. It's not a coincidence that when Craig and Bobby, his older mental hospital mentor, want to escape their confinement they head for the same place that McMurphy and the Chief went for respite in Cuckoo's Nest - the basketball court. Without play, the poet Richard Hugo wrote, people face too often and too immediately their impending doom.

According to Andrew Solomon, whose book The Noonday Demon is about his own struggle with depression, the opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality, the ability to let productive life instincts elaborate themselves. By the end of the film Craig begins to elaborate a different future, his survival becoming its own kind of sanity.

The particular vision he outlines for himself would have made Christopher Lasch smile. He develops a craft - painting (hard work). He embraces the support of his family and friends (loyalty). He volunteers at the hospital he has just been released from (community). He jettisons his grandiose fantasies and immerses himself in the prosaic pleasures of everyday life (personal clarity).

One of the last scenes in the movie has Craig skipping down the sidewalk alive to his own playful desire. There is no overriding architecture to Craig's social life - the kind that might be discovered or invented in a dynamic political movement - but he has made "progress," another idea that Lasch was deeply suspicious of.

As I mentioned, Craig is only 16. I say give him time. Our society just might catch up with him. How's that for hope?

Further Reading:

Christopher Bollas - Being A Character - Psychoanalysis and Self Experience
Adam Phillips - Going Sane - Maps of Happiness
Jefferson Cowie - Stayin' Alive - The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Social Network and the Escape From Solidarity

Despair is at the center of The Social Network; despair about the inability to connect, about the feeling that you don't matter, about being so inarticulate that you can't seem to get your message across, or that the message you think you are sending is not consistent with the message that people receive. All this is cast against the popular operating assumption that Facebook, the communications platform that Mark Zukerberg created, allows us to "connect" with millions of people we don't even know.

A media conceit about Zukerberg is that he epitomizes the social stance of the rebel - a visionary out to destroy paradigms, a rule breaker of the historically necessary sort. According to Ben Mezrich, the author of the book from which the film draws its somewhat fictionalized account, Zukerberg is the "ultimate rebel revolutionary just fighting the good fight." David Denby, the New Yorker magazine film reviewer describes the film's director David Fincher as someone who has always been "obsessed with outsiders and rebels."

Although I have not read Mezrich's book The Accidental Billionaires, after watching the film it was not clear to me what exactly Zukerberg was rebelling against. There was certainly a Harvard power structure (At the time of Zukerberg's attendance the President of Harvard was Lawrence Summers) that attempted to keep the students from doing stupid things to themselves or others, but the film doesn't portray it as any more "oppressive" than any well-heeled parent would want. And while Zukerberg obsesses about getting into one of the exclusive Harvard social clubs, the stakes don't seem particularly high.

I was left with the sense that those who describe Zukerberg as a rebel use the term in a rather limited way, as someone who has a stubborn and rebellious entrepreneurial drive and a contentious personal style. If the film can be believed, he once attended a business meeting in his pajamas. But if you are worth hundreds of millions of dollars, it's not a particularly brave stunt. It usually takes more than adolescent acting out to make the ruling class nervous.

There are other writers of course, who have offered a more profound definition of the rebel spirit. One of the most ambitious attempts was made by Albert Camus. His book, The Rebel, was published in 1951. For Camus, rebellion was a way of constituting your being - I rebel therefore I am. He distinguished between negative rebellions that derive from resentment (He draws extensively from German philosopher Max Scheler's book Resentment) and a positive rebellion that "breaks the seal" of prolonged impotence and "allows the whole being to come into play." Camus was making a case for exploited workers and those who lived under various forms of slavery and social oppression. For Camus, the true rebel refuses to be humiliated while avoiding the conclusion that others should be.

Camus' rebels don't revolt by themselves. A key component of positive rebellion is solidarity, which justifies the faith and passion of revolt. The pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty describes solidarity as a capability for "imaginative identification" with the details of other people's lives, and suggests that we work to expand the range of "us" by keeping a lookout for the marginalized, those who are too often imagined as "they."

It is not easy to do this as we are often more comfortable in our "little platoons," like the clubs that Zukerburg was bitter about not being invited into, or with anemic abstractions like "humanity."

Unlike Zukerberg, Camus was a sensualist, an intellectual who felt more comfortable on a soccer field than with what he called the "professional humanists" who sat in Paris cafes. He knew the joy of "living among bodies and through one's body..." on the beaches of Algiers and in the combat of athletics. When he was young he was a goal keeper on his local soccer team, a place where he said he learned everything he needed to know about loyalty and fraternity. Camus lived with a constant feeling of exile and displacement, and it is here and only here where there could be a connection with Zukerberg.

Zukerberg is not a "geek" as so many have described him, but someone who lacks character and feeling and what Camus called "a strange kind of love," that connects you to those who live in a state of social humiliation. Facebook is a mirror not a window into the lives of others. Despite the hundreds or even thousands of "Friends," the image we see when we look at it is mostly the purged mini-narratives of ourselves.

When I was re-reading The Rebel for this review, an image kept coming to my mind. I tried to imagine Camus sitting in front of a computer waiting for a response from Sartre to his Friend request. Every time I thought of the image I laughed.

For all the billions that Zukerberg has made, I just can't take him or his invention seriously.

Further reading:

Albert Camus - The Rebel
Tony Judt - The Burden of Responsibility, Blum, Camus, Aron and the French 20th Century
Richard Rorty - Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity