mental health metaphors, critical theory, and the baby boomers

Ed Burmila’s recent piece in the Baffler has me thinking about the generational cohort of the baby boomers and the use of mental health metaphors in critical theory. The Baby Boomers are generationally defined as people born between 1946 and 1964, and by defined I mean treated as a cohort by advertisers and pop psychologists. The leading edge of the baby boomers is now turning 72, but they have more in common with tailing end of the so-called “Silent Generation” that preceded them, a generational cohort purportedly encompassing the years 1925-1945.

These are the “racist uncles” empowered by Internet community in Burmila’s piece. As he argues,

Facebook’s core premise is that networking people is inherently good. It turns out that networking shitty, racist people served only to better organize and strengthen their hatreds. Old relatives who once screamed into the void now know they have like-minded peers listening, Liking, and responding in kind. Rather than concocting their own baseless conspiracy theories, the magic of Facebook unites them around the Greatest Hits—the blacks, the immigrants, the Jews, the liberals, the government—and writes the script for them. Facebook was the medium that allowed the right to homogenize reactionary politics into a single, connected mass of outrage, and the consequences we see today are just the tip of an iceberg.

Of course, it’s not only old relatives who who have embraced the Greatest Hits of reactionary conservatism, which is a problem with Burmila’s piece. In many ways, it’s a case of white America having abandoned rationality for conspiracy, immigrant scapegoating, and racial reaction, a catharsis of anxiety and paranoia rooted in a collective freakout over the election of Obama, but also of the ravages of 21st-century capitalism. Which is to say that I think it is generous of Burmila to place the inability of many Americans to adapt to the accelerationism of the internet’s information economy, because it is much more widespread than that.

Burmila puts Facebook’s attention model squarely at the center of his indictment of Boomers:

Like the president they so blindly love, the brains they once had become a puddle of Cracker Barrel sausage gravy strewn with flotsam and jetsam of the Greatest Hits of the reactionary playbook. These are randomly sampled, irrespective of time, logic, or coherence. Immigrant caravans! Soros! New Black Panthers! Vince Foster! Card Check! Seth Rich! Uranium One! MS-13! Crisis Actors! Anchor babies! Whitewater! Her emails! Cap and Trade! Thugs! Birth Certificate! Every obsession is equally relevant. And the right time to be very, very mad about all of it is right now.

Reading that, I thought of the descent into dementia, a scenario that anyone with increasingly elderly parents born in the 1930s and 1940s is fearful of confronting. Burmila describes a process aided and abetted by Fox News and Facebook of what seems like a communal deterioration, a shared isolation and paranoia. It’s as if a large percentage of the US population is subjected to a collective memory loss, mental decline, irritability, lack of restraint, and paranoia. A social dementia. This isn’t an argument for individual mental health diagnoses, but rather in the tradition of Erich Fromm’s The Sane Society (1955), an argument for reframing his question to ask instead of “Are we sane?,” instead, “Are we demented?”

Fromm’s original agenda in The Sane Society was to extend Freud’s paradigm in Civilization and Its Discontents to the identification and analysis of the pathology of society, a situation that required an immanent critique of the promises and dislocations of the condition of modernity. That combination of marxian immanence and psychoanalysis was emblematic of a project that sought to understand the appeal of fascism, but also to offer both individual and social paths out of postwar alienation. Whilhem Reich first explored a freudo-marxist critical theory in the late 1920s and early 1930s with his Dialectical Materialism and Psychoanalysis (1929) and Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933). Reich increasingly posited libidinal liberation as key to social liberation.

I came to freudo-marxism not through Reich, but originally through Marcuse. After finishing college, I de-converted from evangelical Christianity, and Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization (1955), published the same year as Fromm’s The Sane Society, opened my mind to a distinctly new vision of liberation. My deconversion was connected to liberation theology and social justice, and Marcuse helped me connect those things to my own desire to accept desire, and move beyond the guilt-ridden repression evangelical prudery. E&C stood aside Norman Brown’s Life Against Death (1959) as a serious popularizer of a Freudian theory of non-repressive society. To a young man suffering the consequences of a highly repressive evangelicalism, E&C was, if you will, quite seductive. I imagined that the liberative potential of the pleasure principle applied to my own libido as much as its promise to overcome the alienation of the reality principles drive for productivity and work. I wanted “non-alienated libidinal work,” even if it meant some continued kind of sublimation.

Looking back on Fromm, Marcuse, Brown, and Reich today, I’m struck by the fact that they were writing Freud into critical theory coterminous to the Boomers’ childhood and prepubescent adolescence. This is, of course, likely coincidental. Marcuse’s own son, Peter, was born in 1933, too early for a Boomer. Norman Brown, who worked alongside Marcuse in the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, married Elizabeth Potter in 1938, and the couple had four children in the 1940s. Could it be that the popularizers of freudian critical theory were in part reacting to the generational emergence of the Boomers and the psychoanalytical challenge of a world soaked in youth?

It’s probably a silly idea. But, the next great psychoanalytical maneuver in critical theory has another compelling correlation to the generational cohort. In 1972, Deleuze and Guatarri published their provocative Anti-Oedipus, which shifted the metaphor for alienation from Freud’s libidinal neurotic to the schizophrenic. For D&G, and also for a growing group of radical psychoanalytical practitioners like R.D. Laing, the schizophrenic stood as either a model of resistance to, or the outgrowth of the identity obliterating effects of late capitalism’s neoliberal turn in the 1970s. D&G saw in the schizophrenic’s inability to form a coherent identity, a rationality that resisted capitalism’s spectacle. To somewhat different ends, Frederic Jameson also used schizophrenia as an important category to understand the experience of postmodernity/late capitalism. Jameson drew from Lacan in conceptualizing the schizophrenic, and even went as far as to say that the clinical accuracy of the category didn’t matter. It was the force of the schizophrenic’s experience of (the lack) of personal identity that mattered. Again, the prospect here as with Freudo-Marxism is not to deploy individual psychiatric diagnoses, but to construct a metaphor of alienation.

What connect then, to the Boomers? Coincidentally, the onset of psychiatric symptoms of schizophrenia most often manifests between the ages of 16 and 30, the rough cohort age of the Boomers during the schizophrenic turn in critical theory.

Or is this coincidence? And if not, then what is the psychoanalytic metaphor for the Boomers-run-roughshod-over-our-world for today? It might be that the metaphor shouldn’t be psychoanalytic, but rather neurological in the category of Social Dementia. And more to the point, as the Boomers and late Silent Generation start to make their slide into the isolation, paranoia, and confusion of the information wasteland of Fox News and Facebook lies in the theorizing those responses as a dementia, as a subconscious freak out over the avalanche of information revealing their alienation from a world that has changed around them. Our politics has become reflexively paranoid, disoriented, confused, and mean because it has been demented. Thomas Liggoti observes that, “All supernatural horror obtains in what we believe should be and should not be.” The state of cosmic horror is a result of the confusion caused by the uncanny, the paradox, the illusion.

Once you begin to feel you are making a go of it on your own– that you are making moves and thinking thoughts which seem to have originated within you– it is not possible for you to believe that you are anything but your own master. (Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race)

Of course, in the anthropocene and in oligarchy, the material world at its profiteers reveal that you are not your own master. For the privileged of society, this recognition is dissonant. A critical theory of the Boomers’ last stand will need to deal with the cohort’s dissonance, it’s horror or recognition, and it’s choosing dementia.