18 July 2010

Philip Rieff - “Because we have no real churches, we can have no reformations”

Some interesting quotes from The Triumph of the Therapeutic, by Philip Rieff.

In the natural beginning were the impulses; in the historic beginning were the repressions. Political history began when some of the repressed discovered how to use repressions to their own material gain. (p. 130)

To speak of a moral culture would be redundant. Every culture has two main functions: 1) to organize the moral demands men make upon themselves into a system of symbols that make men intelligible and trust-worthy to each other, thus rendering also the world intelligible and trust-worthy; 2) to organize the expressive remissions by which men release themselves, in some degree, from the strain of conforming to the controlling symbolic, internalized variant readings of culture that constitute individual character. (p. 199)

No culture of which we are aware of has yet escaped the tension between the modalities of control and release by which every culture constitutes itself. Cultures achieve their measure of duration in the degree that they build releasing devices into the major controls. These are the devices that modern psychotherapy seeks to develop; it is this development which gives to psychotherapy its present importance in the history of our culture. ...

A cultural revolution occurs when the releasing or remissive symbolic grows more compelling than the controlling one; then it is that the inherent tensions reach a breaking point. (p. 200)

(Here is a very similar view from Zizek: video)

This view of culture is a generalization of Rieff’s view of religion and of the function of faith:

It is essential to the understanding of the function of religion that it presents jointly and in fusion two analytically discernible alternatives: either a therapeutic control of everyday life or a therapeutic respite from that very control. On the one hand, faith is doctrinal, and that doctrine is internalized thus becoming functionally anti-instinctual. On the other hand, faith is ecstatic, or erotic; there is a relative absence of doctrinal internalization, and the religious mood covertly provides an opportunity for the instincts to express themselves more directly, for example, in orgiastic behavior, or in mystical states of mind which release the subject from traditional authority.

Defined as control of conduct in everyday life, faith tends to be methodical and systematic. Defined as remission of that control, faith tends to be anti-methodical and unsystematic. To the extent that a system of faith spreads, the line between usual and unusual religious experience grows fuzzy. (p. 27-8)

In the past, religion achieved its therapeutic function via “therapies of commitment”. “Religious man was born to be saved, psychological man is born to be pleased” (p. 19)

In time of public philosophies and social religions, the great communities were positive. A positive community is characterized by the fact that it guarantees some kind of salvation to the individual by virtue of his membership and participation in that community. That sort of community seemed corrupt to economic man, with his particular version of ascetic ideal tested mainly by self-reliance and personal achievement. The positive community was displaced, in social theory, by the neutral market. Now, in the middle of 20th century, the market mechanism appears no so much corrupt as a fiction to psychological man, with his awareness of how decisions are made in the social system. (p. 43)

From Plato and Aristotle, through Burke and de Tocqueville, the therapeutic implication of social theory is remarkably consistent: an individual can exercise his gifts and powers fully only by participating in the common life. This is the classical ideal. The healthy man is in fact the good citizen. The therapeutic and the moral were thus connected in the Western tradition of social theory. (p. 56)

Ultimately the community cures. The function of the classical therapist is to commit the patient to the symbol system of the community, as best he can and by whatever techniques are sanctioned (e.g. ritual or dialectical, magical or rational). All such efforts to reintegrate the subject into the communal symbol system may be categorized as “commitment therapies”. Behind shaman and priest, philosopher and physician, stands the great community as the ultimate corrective of personal disorders. (p. 57)

In short, security cured; and security came through membership in an “organic” community. This was the basis of conservative and radical political theory alike: community cures through the achievement by the individual of his collective identity. To cure a man, one need only to return him to his community or construct a new one. (p. 59)

Moreover, the “religious therapeutic elites” acted to protect the “moral demands” and to promote “commitments” to a unique model of the good life. They were even willing to go as far as to engage “in the absurd task of trying to teach contended people how discontented they really are” (p. 207). This is no longer the case:

Therapeutic elites before our own were predominately supportive rather than critical of culture as a moral demand system. Admonitions were expectable predicates of consolations; that is what is meant, nowadays, by “guilt” culture. Whenever therapeutic elites grow predominately critical then a cultural revolution may be said to be in progress. Ours is such a time. (p. 11)

Thus, according to Rieff, we are in the middle of a major cultural revolution, characterized by growing individualism and a loss of communal goals.

An endemic individualism, such as that in the United States, whether doctrinally elaborated or not, may prevent a commitment therapy from taking full effect. Because of this preventive, long culturally dominant, another kind of therapeutic effort has become necessary, uniquely modern, and different in kind from the classical therapies of commitment. This new attitude underlying the therapeutic effort may be termed “analytic”. The chief and greatest of these therapies is the Freudian. The analytic therapy developed precisely in response to the need of the Western individual, in the Tocquevillean definition, for a therapy that would not depend for its effect on a symbolic return to a positive community; at best, analytic therapy creates negative communities. The distinction between positive and negative communities, in the usage here intended, is as follows: positive communities are characterized by their guarantee of some kind of salvation for the self; and by salvation is meant an experience which transforms all personal relations by subordinating them to agreed communal purposes; negative communities are those which, enabled to survive almost automatically by a self-sustaining technology, do not offer a type of collective salvation, and in which the therapeutic experience is not transformative but rather informative. Commitment therapies can prove efficacious only in positive communities; this kind of therapy would also be transformative, as in various kinds of religious conversion, when personality is supposed to undergo profound changes, so that even the name of the subject may be changed. This may happen, however, as we are aware, also in various secular revolutionary movements. ...

Advanced industrial communities are no longer culturally positive. Under this general condition, controls must be established in a way other than that of transformative experiences. The ways suitable to modern culture are generally classifiable as “informative”, aiming at strengthening of ego-controls over inner conflicts. (p. 61)

In the age of psychologizing , clarity about oneself supersedes devotion to an ideal as the model of right conduct. (p. 46)

But why did this revolution get started? I.e. what is the origin of “modernity”?

What happens, however, if the community itself is disordered? Plato and his successors faced this question. They tried to construct models for a re-ordering of the community and, therewith, for that of a personal life worth living. They assumed that personal and moral perfection would go parallel with insight into the right social order. Yet, suppose there occurred some disorder so fundamental in nature as to destroy the therapeutic function of the community per se? Suppose, for a variety of examined reasons, the community were no longer able to supply a system of symbolic integration? Here, then, in the destruction of all idealizations upon which traditional and classical communities were based, in theory and practice, is to be sought the origin of modernity. (p. 57)

The main cause of this “fundamental disorder”, and, thus, of the present cultural revolution, is economic and technological. “What happens if an entire society grows rich, technologically loaded with bribes, and is dominated by preoccupations that may be best defined as anti-creedal?” (p.213). What happens is that the commitments to a unique model of the good life are simply no longer perceived as necessary to the preservation of social order (negative communities “survive almost automatically”):

With their secondary needs automatically satisfied, men may no longer need to have something in common, as an end to love. The organization of indifference may well succeed the organization of love, producing a culture at lower cost to individual energies. (p. 204)

The strange new lesson we have begun to learn in our time is how not to pay the high personal costs of social organization. The revolution continues in a remissive direction, beyond that rationalism Max Weber called “disenchantment”, toward the dissolution of old systems of moral demand, with their requirements of almost total social cooperation in order to survive the hard reality in a world characterized by scarcity. The present swing in the direction of release may not be orbital but more extended and historically more permanent, based on the automaticity and ease with which an infinity of created needs can now be satisfied. ...

[T]he modern cultural revolution ... is deliberately not in the name of any new order of communal purpose that it is taking place. On the contrary, this revolution is being fought for a permanent disestablishment of any deeply internalized moral demands, in a world which can guarantee a plenitude produced without reference to the rigid maintenance of any particular interdictory (and counter-interdictory) system. (p. 205)

Our cultural revolution has been made from the top, rather from the bottom. It is anti-political, a revolution of the rich by which they have lowered the pressure of inherited communal purpose upon themselves. ...

[C]ultural revolutions before our own have asserted some limit on the race for status and satisfaction, and have promoted interdicts to limit and displace the dynamics of acquisitive appetite. Western culture has been dominated by an ascetic modal personality. Even the Calvinist bourgeois was to have his capital as if he had it not. Ours is the first cultural revolution fought to no other purpose than greater amplitude and richness of living itself. Is this not what is meant by the “revolution of rising expectations”? ...

For the culturally conservative image of the ascetic, enemy of his own needs, there has been substituted the image of the needy person, permanently engaged in the task of achieving a gorgeous variety of satisfactions. (p. 206-7)

Confronted with the irrelevance of ascetic standards of conduct, the social reformer has retreated from nebulous doctrines attempting to state the desired quality of life to the more substantial doctrines of quantity. The reformer asks only for more of everything – more goods, more housing, more leisure; in short, more life. This translation of quantity into quality states the algebra of our cultural revolution. Who will be stupid enough to lead a counter revolution? Surely, even the rich are now emancipated enough from ascetic symbol systems to concede more of everything to everyone, without serious loss to themselves. They cannot be threatened by a doctrine that merely asks for more, for this presupposes that quantity determines the quality of life – and this very assumption expresses the religion of the rich. (p. 208)

Not trained in a symbolic of obedience – indeed, entertaining the category merely as a convenience – Western man could be free at last from an authority depending upon his sense of sin. Even now, sin is all but incomprehensible to him inasmuch as the moral demand system no longer generates powerful inclinations toward obedience or faith, nor feelings of guilt when those inclinations are overridden by others for which sin is the ancient name. (209-10)

So, what happens when this concept of “more is the definition of better” is applied to human relationships? Here’s Rieff’s premonition of Facebook and social networking :)

Crowded more and more together, we are learning to live more distantly from one another, in strategically varied and numerous contacts, rather than in the oppressive warmth of family and friends. A culture of contacts is, at last, an historically accomplishable fact. (p. 208)

While close friendship is replaced by “contacts”, intimacy is replaced by superficiality:

All objects of commitment [are rendered] instrumental to the therapeutic process itself. ... To be truly free and yet social means to cultivate detachment, as opposed to alienation. The therapeutic, even in erotic action, can do without attachment – indeed, he can do with and do without it, simultaneously, for relations that are too near and too fixed may lead to symptoms that destroy the capacity of an individual to live out his own life in ways of his own choosing. This is not to say that to live thus, detachedly, implies an absence of erotic company, or even an absence of the erotic manner. On the contrary, the therapeutic treats love instrumentally. He is more likely to be more circumspect and better behaved than his ascetic forebear, who was subject to mood fluctuations between wild passion and accidie, due in part to the rigid system of controls and over burned devices of release. With a shift in the system, giving greater amplitude to the releasing devices, the subject personalities are likely to develop more measured, calculated capacity in the use of their spontaneity. (p. 50)

The faith in the external things, rather than in the externalization of feeling, has had the effect on making man think less and less highly of himself rather than more and more so. (p. 172-3)

The presumed enemy of this cultural revolution is traditional religion. However, it has been co-opted as they failed to mount a worthy opposition or present a credible alternative. Thus the triumph of the therapeutic – religion itself has been reinterpreted in individualistic therapeutic terms.

Faith is better than knowledge if it works; but knowledge is better if faith be only an escape from knowledge. (p. 83)

Truth is a matter of achieving therapeutically useful opinions. (p. 82)

Freud taught lessons which Americans, prepared by their own national experience, learned easily: survive, resign yourself to living within your moral means, suffer no gratuitous failures in a futile search for ethical heights that no longer exist – if they ever did. Freud proclaims the superior wisdom of choosing the second best. He is our Crito, become intellectually more subtle than the sick and old Socrates, who was still foolish enough to justify his own death sentence rather than escape from the prison of his own inhibitions about the sanctity of the state, which he mistakes for his father. Freud appeals to us because his wisdom is so cautious. (p. 48)

Emancipated from an ethic of hard work, Americans have also grown morally less self-demanding. They have been released from the old system of self-demands by a convergence of doctrines that do not resort to new restrictions but rather propose jointly the superiority of all that money can buy, technology can make, and science can conceive. (p. 216)

Nowadays, the world is full of tame Christians; in consequence, the churches are empty of life, if not of people. (p. 84)

[P]reaching, which once communicated revelatory messages, is a dead art, wrapping empty packages in elaborate solecisms. (p. 218)

Certain naive ascetic doctrines, which once did contain spiritual perceptions of great depth, such as that of holy poverty, now embarrass the churches, competing as they do for pride of place in a culture of affluence. Such perceptions are practically taboo subjects, specially among Americans, except negatively, when clergymen complain that they do not receive salaries commensurate with their status as professional men. ... Grudgingly, the Roman [Catholic] churchmen must give way to their Western laity and translate their sacramental rituals into comprehensible terms as therapeutic devices, retaining just enough archaism to satisfy at once the romantic interest of women and the sophisticated interest of those historical pietists for whom the antique alone carries that lovely patina they call faith. (p. 216)

On the other hand, the therapeutic has arisen out of a rejection of all therapies of commitment, precisely by persuading halfway the recalcitrant among those who submitted to the old commitment therapies that they have acted out of denials of knowledge and pleasure that no longer contribute to their spiritual health but, rather, to their mental disease. (p. 217)

[Western society] can develop no new (or renewed) system of interdicts from the therapeutic parody of a moral demand system; in consequence, all attempts at connecting the doctrines of psychotherapy with old faiths are patently misconceived. At its most innocuous, these psychotherapeutic religiosities represent a failure of nerve by both psychotherapists and clergymen.  (p. 218)

The aim of psychoanalysis is the aim of science – power; in this case a transformative technology of the inner life. Where science is, technology will be. This ultimate technology aims at increasing the range of choice. Yet, without a parallel range of god-terms from which choices may be derived or ordered, choice itself may become a matter of indifference or man will become a glutton, choosing everything. There is no feeling more desperate than that of being free to choose, and yet without the specific compulsion of being chosen. After all one does not really choose; one is chosen. This is one way of stating the difference between gods and men. Gods choose; men are chosen. What men lose when they become as free as gods is precisely the sense of being chosen, which encourages them, in their gratitude, to take subsequent choices seriously. Put in another way, this means: Freedom does not exist without responsibility. (p. 79)

The scientists are a curious case. By tradition and training they are intractably modest. Claims to spiritual perception rarely occur explicitly in their work. Profoundly as that work has affected modern culture, the scientists have been non-combatants in the culture class war. With rare exceptions, they still accept the Rtschlian distinction between statements of fact and judgments of value. They make fact statements; the task of making value judgments belongs to other specialists, those elites that won exclusive custody over culture even as they gave up pretending they had authoritative knowledge of nature. (p. 218)

The scientific community aspires to be supra-cultural, and is not qualified therefore to supply creedal dynamic to than new laity, the non-scientists. In this sense, the scientific endeavor in its entirety, representing as it does the effort to create a non-moral culture, embodies the moral revolution. With a commitment that is strictly vocational, the scientist personifies the latest phase in the Western psycho-historical process, one that refrains from laying down guidelines of moral intervention for the society as a whole. Whatever his professed intention, the scientist acts, therefore, as a spiritual perceptor to modern man. The therapeutic has everything – and nothing – to learn from the scientist, for, in the established sense of the word, the scientist, as such, has no culture. (p. 219)

That a sense of well-being has become the end, rather than a by-product of striving after some superior communal end, announces a fundamental change of focus in the entire case of our culture – toward a human condition about which there will be nothing further to say in terms of the old style of despair and hope. (p. 223)