Control and Consolation in American Culture and Politics: Rhetorics of Therapy
Publication Year: 1998
What are the consequences in American society when social and political activism is replaced by pursuit of personal, psychological change? How does such a shift happen? Where is it visible? In wide-ranging case studies, Control and Consolation in American Culture and Politics points out this change in American culture and attributes it to the “rhetoric of therapy.” This rhetoric is defined as a pervasive cultural discourse that applies psychotherapyæs lexiconùthe constructive language of healing, coping, adaptation, and restoration of a previously existing orderùto social and political conflict. The purpose of this therapeutic discourse is to encourage people to focus on themselves and their private lives rather than to attempt to reform flawed systems of social and political power. Author Dana L. Cloud focuses on the ...
- Front Matter
- Back Matter
- Subject Index
- Chapter 1: Perspectives on the Therapeutic
- Chapter 2: The Therapeutic in History: Inventing and Disciplining the Modern Self
- Chapter 3: Family Therapies: From the White House to the 'Hood
- Chapter 4: The Support Group Nation
- Chapter 5: The Therapeutics of Feminism: From Self-Esteem to Suicide
- Chapter 6: The New Age of Post-Marxism
Rhetoric and Society[Page ii]
edited by Herbert W. Simons
Department of Social Sciences, Loughborough University
Department of American Studies, University of California, Davis
Richard H. Brown
Department of Sociology, University of Maryland
Department of English, University of Texas, Austin
Communication Studies, Northwestern University
Department of Speech Communication, University of Illinois
Joyce Irene Middleton
Department of English, University of Rochester
Communication Department, University of Arkansas
Department of Speech Communication, Drake University
Books in this series:
Control and Consolation in American Culture and Politics: Rhetorics of Therapy
Dana L. Cloud
Communication Criticism: Developing Your Critical Powers
Copyright © 1998 by Sage Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Cloud, Dana L.
Control and consolation in American culture and politics: Rhetorics of therapy / by Dana L. Cloud.
p. cm. — (Rhetoric & society; v. 1)
Includes bibliographical references (p.) and index.
ISBN 0-7619-0506-5 (cloth: acid-free paper) — ISBN 0-7619-0507-3 (pbk.: acid-free paper)
1. Social problems—United States—Psychological aspects. 2. Psychotherapy—Social aspects—United States. 3. Psychotherapy-Political aspects—United States. 4. Psychoanalysis and culture— United States. 5. Social control—United States. 6. Rhetoric and psychology. I. Title. II. Series: Rhetoric & society (Thousand Oaks, Calif.); v.l.
98 99 00 01 02 03 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
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With the publication of Professor Cloud's bold offering, Sage launches its new series on “Rhetoric and Society.” When Sage and I talked of starting a series encompassing rhetoric in the political arena, in the arts and mass media, in the academic disciplines, and in everyday interpersonal relations, little did we imagine that our first book would encompass all of these areas!
Operating from a materialist Marxism, as opposed to the culturalist academic neo-Marxisms that are fashionable these days, Cloud takes aim at “therapeutic rhetorics” of the right, left, and center in the United States, ranging from conservative family values discourse to popular feminine texts like Gloria Steinem's Revolution from Within. Says Cloud,
This work defines what I call “the rhetoric of therapy,” the discursive deployment of themes of consolation, waiting, coping, adaptation, and healing in response to economic, political or social crisis. The rhetoric of therapy dislocates political anger that might be directed toward structural social change onto the individual and family, framing responses to crisis in terms of private life.
Lest readers assume that she is opposed to visits to a psychotherapist for the usual run of problems, Professor Cloud sets the record straight. Go, she says, but preferably to a therapist who will contextualize your [Page viii]suffering in terms of social, political, and economic realities, and who won't discourage public, collective forms of protest against the broader conditions of human alienation, exploitation, and oppression.
More significantly, she argues, recognize that therapeutic orientations are “pervasive across popular and political realms, influential in and constitutive of both dominant culture and ‘oppositional rhetorics.’” Contemporary American therapy has come, for example, in the form of support group news during the Persian Gulf War, the New Age movement, and the film Thelma & Louise.
In focusing on political and popular discourse, Cloud seeks to demonstrate that the decay of American civic life—manifested, for example, in the decline of public engagement and community responsibility—is partially an effect of persuasive therapeutic discourses, which are in turn a consequence of the growing interpretation of the public and private spheres of experience. Together with the introductory and concluding chapters, her case studies provide both a comprehensive and detailed examination of specific texts and a broad critique of political culture in the United States.
Trained in rhetoric and cultural studies, Professor Cloud currently teaches at the University of Texas in Austin. Her book is designed to reach a wide academic audience. Because of its close attention to texts, the book would make an excellent graduate level text providing model essays in rhetorical criticism and the rhetoric of popular culture. The book's intervention into current debates in communication studies about hegemony and popular culture will interest feminist critics and other cultural studies scholars. Potential audiences for this book also include political philosophers and social theorists, communitarians critical of individualism in America, American studies scholars, and postmodern critical scholars.
I have many people to thank for their support and advice during the process of writing this book. First, I owe a debt to Rhetoric and Society series editor Herbert W. Simons for his careful reading and exhortations to rhetorical moderation; what buffers against stridency there are herein are probably his suggestions. (The polemics are still all mine.) I also thank Stacey Connaughton, an extraordinary graduate student, editor, and research assistant, without whose tireless and meticulous work this book would not have seen publication.
I am also grateful to the many readers who have responded to and guided this project since its beginnings in 1992 as my doctoral dissertation, especially my dissertation committee at the University of Iowa: John Peters, Bruce Gronbeck, Michael McGee, Lauren Rabinovitz, and Paul Adams. Their advice on writing and the scholarly life still guides me.
At the University of Texas, my colleagues and students have provided an intellectual community in which the ideas herein have been tested, nourished, challenged, and revised. I am grateful to them for their rigor and support. In particular, Rod Hart provided support during the review and publication process, Naomi Warren provided a very helpful critical reading of the chapter on family values, and Kelly Fudge helped compile a mountain of Lexis-Nexis documents on “family values” during the summer of 1992.
[Page x]In addition, I thank Susan Whalen for her insights about workplace therapies; and Jill Morawski and Ellen Herman, both scholars of psychology, whose correspondence and encouragement from afar meant a great deal to me as I sought a publisher for the manuscript.
This research was supported by the University of Texas Research Institute in the form of a Summer Research Award and a Special Research Grant for the study of the rhetoric of family values and by a College of Communication Jamail Grant for assistance in revisions, research assistance, and editing.
I reserve my deepest gratitude, however, for Keith Hutchinson and our daughter Samantha, who sustained me through this project and shaped this work and my life in immeasurable and uncounted ways.
For Rosa, Proof that friendship is thicker than therapy.
Introduction: On Therapy and the Therapeutic[Page xi]
Psychotherapy, generically understood, is more than a development of medicine or science; it is a phenomenon of culture, an aspect of the Zeitgeist of twentieth-century America.—Richard Weiss (1969, 195)
In June 1996, the United States Census Bureau reported that this decade's disparities in wealth between the rich and the poor rival those of the pre-World War II era. Since 1979, the average American standard of living has declined by 20%; it declined by 7% between 1992 and 1994. By late 1994, 66.8% of the nation's wealth was held by the most prosperous 10% of the population (Bradsher 1996).1 As Republican political analyst Kevin Phillips (1990) has warned, this kind of systematic, intensifying economic polarization has led, historically, to open class conflict and widespread social unrest.
In recent years, we have also seen an upsurge of other kinds of injustice, including racism. At the grassroots level, right-wing militias and hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan have become more prominent, and the wave of black church arsons that swept the South during the spring of 1996 put the nation on alert: Racism is alive and well. Mainstream [Page xii]politicians, such as California Governor Pete Wilson and presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, have also participated in the scapegoating of immigrants and minorities for the nation's economic problems.
At the same time, women and gays and lesbians have been charged with contributing to the demise of the American family and of social order in general; the rhetoric of traditional “family values” has been concomitant with an accelerating erosion of women's rights, including the right to choose abortion and equal wages for equal work. We are, by many accounts, living during the “twilight of the American dream”—the era of a disaffected “Generation X,” whose members will be the first in American history to be worse off than their parents, doomed to a series of McJobs and free only in virtual reality; material reality for young people today, as the 1994 film title suggests, “bites.”2
What has been the popular and political response to this crisis of the American Dream? In this book, I argue that “therapeutic persuasions” have become the prevailing strategy of crisis management, offered by politicians, managers, and entertainers as ways of coping with the crisis. The following example illustrates the trend. A recent, best-selling handbook by Price Pritchett (1994), titled “New Work Habits for a Radically Changing World,” was distributed in response to worker protests against unfair compensation and benefits practices at Texas state agencies. The text acknowledges worker discontent, anger, and fear in the current climate of downsizing, temporary work, and technological change as follows:
Your organization will keep reshaping itself, shifting and flexing to fit our rapidly changing world. That's the only way it can hope to survive in this fiercely competitive environment. Look for it to restructure, outsource, downsize, subcontract, and form new alliances.
You also can expect flexible ways of working. Duties will be constantly realigned. Short-lived assignments will be common. Maybe you'll work on a contract basis, or spend time on several project teams. You might even end up working for more than one “employer” at a time. You'll probably have a constantly new set of coworkers, more new bosses, even new careers. You're not going to like some of this.3
This passage, like many others in the pamphlet, euphemistically calls attention to some of the difficulties facing workers: “flexible ways of working” (shorter and inconsistent hours and temporary work for multiple [Page xiii]employers); “realigned duties” (demotions for less pay); “outsourcing” (seeking out nonunion or private shops to do the work for less, shafting one's own workers and undercutting their wages); “downsizing” (hit the road, Jack); and “forming new alliances” (mergers, often resulting in downsizing).
Although refusing to blame owners or managers for these problems (even as profits skyrocket, as did AT&T's after layoffs of 40,000 employees in 1996), the pamphlet does acknowledge worker anxiety. What does it advise the worker to do? “Granted change can be painful. When it damages careers, emotions such as grief, anger, and depression come naturally. … Shoot for rapid recovery. Take personal responsibility for adapting to change.” These phrases contain therapeutic buzzwords: “personal responsibility,” “recovery,” and “adapting.” Such linguistic markers indicate that the text is working to personalize and privatize responses to crisis, turning workplace uncertainty and owners’ ruthlessness into personal “grief, anger, and depression” that are, this rhetoric suggests, natural psychological phenomena rather than effects of decisions and actions made by business owners.
The “New Work Habits” pamphlet is emblematic of what I call therapeutic discourse. This pamphlet acknowledges and even accepts the existence of collective discontent and anger at systematic injustice. The text also recognizes that structural social conditions have produced the hardships that workers experience. Rather than offering systematic, collective redress or compensation for those hardships, however, the text's central rhetorical strategy involves utilizing words of consolation and advice for personal coping and survival. Like therapeutic discourse generally, the text substitutes symbolic consolation when material compensation has been demanded. Notably, such rhetoric is often recommended by management consultants to be a strategic intervention into a situation of conflict or crisis between management and workers—a situation that could escalate into a strike or other collective demonstration that would force the agency to compensate workers. Control and Consolation in American Culture and Politics is about how this rhetorical strategy of offering therapeutic consolation as a substitute for political and economic compensation has become a commonplace diversion from political engagement in contemporary American society.
At many points in U.S. history, social movements have risen to confront systematic economic and social injustice. The power of these movements stemmed both from the symbolic power of mass demonstration [Page xlv]of collective cause and from the material threats posed to employers by workers willing to strike for economic justice. Across the decades, labor, civil rights, and women's and gay and lesbian movements all have challenged administrators, politicians, and employers to reform the capitalist system and ameliorate racism and sexism.
Currently, such movements continue to struggle for voice and power. Since 1968, however, therapy has become an increasingly persuasive alternative to political action from below. In response to the racialized urban crisis in Los Angeles in 1992, for instance, politicians blamed the unrest on a lack of family values, scapegoating people in their private lives for a problem with clear economic and political dimensions.
In response to what Susan Faludi has called an antifeminist backlash in popular culture and politics, feminist activist Gloria Steinem came out with a new plan for a “revolution from within” based on self-esteem. Family support groups were more prominent than antiwar activism during the Persian Gulf War, and former Marxists and feminists have, since the collapse of Stalinism, hailed a politics of self-expression, consciousness-raising, and social fragmentation as the new avenue for change.
Meanwhile, psychotherapists have taken to the airwaves, as talk show hosts, with the help of talk show psychologists, attempt to resolve their guests’ conflicts in the space of minutes. Talk show producer Mary Duffy explained to a New York Times reporter that the therapists are there to “help the audience, too” (Berger 1995, 33).4 To help the audience with what? Although popularized therapy claims to help individual people with their personal problems, the discourse of therapy serves a broader, cultural function for mass audiences: to offer psychological ministration for the ills of society. A common argument (Flacks 1988, Lasch 1979, Loeb 1994) suggests that since the Vietnam War, American culture and the American people have lost sight of political and social commitment and public responsibility in the narcissistic pursuit of individual interests. As Christopher Lasch wrote more than 15 years ago, “After the political turmoil of the sixties, Americans have retreated to purely personal preoccupations” (29). Scholars and activists on the Left should take warning: What were once political movements have become translated into personal quests for fulfillment.
My argument about this social transformation stands in contrast to other perspectives on the therapeutic. Unlike communitarians (Left and Right), who see the retreat into narcissism as a moral failure of our [Page xv]culture, I regard the therapeutic as a political strategy of contemporary capitalism, by which potential dissent is contained within a discourse of individual or family responsibility. Against postmodernists who celebrate the atomization of contemporary culture and proclaim the death of mass collective action for social change, I see a real need to repoliticize issues of power as a precondition for renewed oppositional social movement organizing. In contrast to scholars of liberalism who applaud therapy's near-exclusive emphasis on individual initiative and personal responsibility, my argument insists on acknowledging the collective and structural features of an unequal social reality in which individuals are embedded and out of which our personal experience, in large part, derives. Racism, sexism, and capitalism pose significant obstacles to individual mobility and well-being; their roles in structuring social reality, however, are obscured in therapeutic discourses that locate the ill not with the society but with the individual or private family. The goals of this book are to develop and argue for a materialist rhetoric of therapy that locates the emergence of therapeutic discourse at a particular historical moment, to link the rise of the therapeutic with particular political and economic interests, and to describe the specific mechanisms by which the therapeutic is a persuasive part of our culture.
Other therapy historians have located the emergence of psychotherapeutic practices and discourses with modern capitalism and its imperatives to privatize social responsibility, to stifle dissent, and to promote the elaboration of identity through consumption (e.g., Cushman 1995, Foucault 1973, Goffman 1961, Herman 1995, Lears 1983). In addition, the communitarian movement, emphasizing the importance of community belonging and responsibility over individual freedom and autonomy, has generated several key scholarly critiques of the ways in which therapeutic society exhorts citizens to abandon civic hope and responsibility in favor of the cultivation of lifestyle and self (Bellah et al. 1985, Etzioni 1993, Lasch 1984, Rieff 1966, Sandel 1982, Waltzer 1990). Finally, there has been among psychologists and psychiatrists a challenge to the individualist, apolitical limits of traditional psychotherapies (e.g., Agel 1972, Brown 1994, Cushman 1990, Hillman and Ventura 1992, Laing 1967).
I hope to contribute two things to this conversation: First, this book provides critical case studies that describe in detail not only what the therapeutic looks like but also how and why therapeutic discourses are persuasive. Second, although several scholars have noted the links between [Page xvi]the therapeutic and modernity writ large, my argument is more specifically focused on how therapeutic rhetorics are situated at moments of social or political movement or crisis, delegitimating political outrage and collective activity in favor of more private endeavors. Thus, I am interested not only in “therapy” as a historical phenomenon and as a clinical practice but also in “the therapeutic” as a set of politically motivated instrumental discourses that can be described, explained in their political contexts, and evaluated.
In this book, the therapeutic refers to a set of political and cultural discourses that have adopted psychotherapy's lexicon—the conservative language of healing, coping, adaptation, and restoration of a previously existing order—but in contexts of sociopolitical conflict. The rhetorical function of therapeutic discourses in such contexts is to encourage audiences to focus on themselves and the elaboration of their private lives rather than to address and attempt to reform systems of social power in which they are embedded. Thus, we can view the therapeutic as having restorative and conservative effects in the face of conflict and change.
The agents of this discourse are everywhere and nowhere. It may seem somewhat abstract to suggest that capitalism itself deploys a therapeutic rhetorical strategy to respond to, acknowledge, and contain crisis. The very pervasiveness and proliferation of such rhetorics, however, make the therapeutic so influential in channeling individual responses to exploitation, alienation, isolation, oppression, and other socially produced hardships. In Foucaultian terms, the therapeutic is an episteme, a discourse formation elaborated at many sites and spoken in diverse voices. I am calling it a rhetoric because, despite the scope of the therapeutic, in specific situations therapy serves clearly identifiable, strategic, and therefore rhetorical functions in public and private life.
Although this book focuses on the uses of therapeutic jingoism in political contexts—the Gulf War, the feminist movement, the New Age movement, and the rhetoric of family values—we cannot let psychotherapy, itself a body of theories and practices, entirely off the hook as part and parcel of the therapeutic society. Historians of therapy and of the therapeutic document the emergence of pychotherapeutic practices at the turn of the century, alongside the emergence of advertising and other consumerist cultural forms (see Chapter 2 for a full account of this history). Therapy is a historical product of modernity; more specifically, it is a product of industrial capitalist social imperatives and therefore [Page xvii]cannot be separated from a critical assessment of the broader therapeutic society.
My own intellectual stance regarding psychotherapy is ambivalent. Psychotherapy is a politically contradictory phenomenon that sometimes helps suffering people even as it can reinscribe individuals into the very social relations that produced their “illnesses.” This contradiction, however, also makes the therapeutic persuasive: It can admit to the existence of suffering in modern society without having to transform the society publicly or structurally. I think therapy is at times useful in generating insight and transformation among people who suffer from mental illness or who are disabled or maladjusted within their personal and social lives. Therapy is valuable for many individuals attempting to survive against the odds of unemployment, family stress, sexual and domestic violence, childhood abuse, and other traumas. These experiences are often rooted in widespread social structures, such as women's oppression, racism, and capitalism, but are felt at the level of the individual. Rarely have I known a person in a life crisis, suffering from depression or living with ongoing abuse, who is also a productive and engaged political activist. Sometimes, survival and coping, with the help of therapists and medication, are reasonably all that can be accomplished.
Furthermore, even when mental illness is explained in terms of social experience, it is experienced personally by individuals who require professional intervention and treatment. Psychosis, for example, generates a radical disconnection from the world that disables afflicted individuals. I do not want to romanticize schizophrenia as some social theorists do, mistaking severe mental disorientation for political activism (Deleuze and Guattari 1983). Even when psychotic responses to trauma are socially generated (e.g., within the nuclear family's contradictory set of expectations, as R. D. Laing suggests), these responses should not be heralded as emancipatory political expression, as if the sufferer had willful control over his or her interventions into political space.
I also grant that not all psychological problems have sociopolitical roots; recent research suggests that mental illness probably results from a mixture of organic features heavily influenced by the sociopolitical contexts and experiences of the individual. The efficacy of psychoactive drugs such as Prozac indicates that there may be some organic basis to psychological characteristics such as a tendency toward depression and shyness. Likewise, natural disaster or personal trauma, such as the illness [Page xviii]or death of a loved one, can lead to distress requiring psychotherapeutic rather than political redress.
We ought not underestimate, however, the extent to which many psychological problems do, in fact, have social and political origins. The very categories we have available to us for naming and diagnosing mental illnesses have been constructed within social and political contexts. The availability of certain diagnostic categories themselves creates the possibility of labeling a sociopolitical condition as an “illness” to be cured. In a sense, psychiatry and psychology have “invented” mental illnesses through the elaboration of diagnostic schemata. This process of invention and construction always occurs in a historical context, influenced by the prevailing social climate. A cursory look at the evolution of the American Psychological Association's (APA) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) over four massive editions shows that what “counts” as a mental illness changes over time given historical circumstances.
For example, homosexuality was once defined as a diagnostic category and disorder that therapists were to “cure” or treat as an illness. In the DSM-IV, however, homosexuality no longer appears on the list of mental illnesses. Ongoing battles in the APA over the diagnostic categories to be included in future versions of the DSM persist; feminists, for example, have had to fight not to have characteristics associated with femininity itself (menstruation and reproduction, the effects on women of domestic isolation, social training to nurture and empathize, and so on) defined as diseases. Clearly, diagnosis and treatment are influenced by social and political factors, resulting sometimes in treatments that oppress some groups, such as women or gays and lesbians.5
Psychoactive medication, like diagnostic categorization, can itself become a kind of social discipline. This possibility worries psychiatrist Peter Kramer (1993). As Kramer explains in his controversial book, Listening to Prozac, one function of psychiatry, and psychiatric medication, is to adjust people to their society and to enable them to adapt and cope with difficult situations. Those situations—including economic hardship, violence, lack of control over one's daily life, racism, and sexism—are often products of a society that is unequal and unjust rather than originating as intrapsychic illnesses. Kramer questions (but ultimately approves) the use of “thymoleptics,” or drugs that stimulate neurotransmitters to produce a self who is dynamic, cheerful, and assertive:
[Page xix]The argument can be made that, in “curing” women of traditional, passive feminine traits and instilling in good responders the attributes of a more robust feminine ideal, Prozac reinforces the cultural expectations of a particularly exigent form of social organization. … On the one hand, Prozac supports social stasis by allowing people to move toward a cultural ideal—the flexible, contented, energetic, pleasure-driven consumer. (271)
Kramer's concern is that even though Prozac and other antidepressants “help” people afflicted with depression, they exert a kind of social influence too, encouraging people to become “flexible, contented, energetic, and pleasure-driven” rather than active in their local community politics or social movement. Implied in his provocative writing about Prozac is the assumption that allowing people to adapt to their society can rid them of discomfort or anger they may legitimately feel against the social system itself.
The important point is, however, that many traumas associated with modern industrial life can be ascribed in part to the social, economic, and political conditions of life in such a society. For this reason, psychotherapy boomed in response to industrialization in the United States and around the globe. The stresses of assembly line or low-wage service economy work, the experiences of racism and sexism, the lack of control over technology or over the material conditions of one's daily life (wages, health care, housing, etc.), oppressions and isolation felt within the modern nuclear family (e.g., child sexual abuse and women's “double shift”), and the pressures of competition and consumption can generate a need for apparatuses and discourses to adjust people, psychologically, to function under such conditions.
When there are social causes, in whole or in part, of psychological distress (one thinks of the aftermath of sexual assault, posttraumatic stress associated with participating in warfare or working for the post office, or anorexia and bulimia), radical and feminist therapists take care to contextualize the experience of suffering in social and political terms, deflect blame away from the individual patient, and hold responsible structures of power generative of psychological distress.
Although psychotherapies do not always enable such contextualization, I do not mean to imply that they do no good. Mental illness is political in the sense that it can represent an encrypted expression of individual frustration with, anger at, and disclosure of a person's situation, which is of necessity socially embedded. Consequently, therapy [Page xx]may be a central way in which the conditions of life under modern capitalism are made bearable and through which the signs of mental distress can be decoded as a critical comment on how we live. In the best of circumstances—that is, with a radical or feminist therapist or in politicized consciousness-raising—therapy can generate the understanding necessary for political critique and action.
When the motifs of therapy, presuming intrapsychic rather than—and to the exclusion of attention to—social illness, are elaborated and deployed in political contexts, however, the effect is ultimately disabling to our collective political life. Therapeutic motifs at the level of cultural persuasion work against the formulation of a collective political project in the public sphere. This book does not deny that therapy can do good work for individuals. My question is not about what therapy does for us privately. Rather, this book asks, What are the consequences of a therapeutic rhetoric for politics, activism, and social change? Since the turn of the century, therapy has been with us as a hegemonic alternative to reacting to sociopolitical trouble in a sociopolitical way. As psychology historian Philip Cushman (1995) has suggested, American psychotherapy from its inception has allowed for new ways of talking about social and political life that are privatizing, but today are taken for granted (see Weiss 1969, for a condensed version of this history). Cushman writes,
When social artifacts or institutions are taken for granted it usually means that they have developed functions in the society that are so integral to the culture that they are indispensable, unacknowledged, and finally, invisible…. Vast historical changes in the last 500 years in the West have slowly created a world in which the individual is commonly understood to be a container of “mind” and more recently a “self” that needs to be “therapied,” rather than, say, a carrier of a divine soul that needs to be saved, or simply an element of the communal unit that must cooperate for the common good. There were, of course, sociopolitical reasons for these changes, and there must be groups and institutions that currently profit from the changes. (1-2)6
The aim of this book is to develop a set of critical case studies of taken-for-granted therapeutic discourses to reveal their integral rhetorical functions in contemporary capitalist society. My argument is that the therapeutic, as a situated, strategic discourse (or rhetoric), dislocates social and political conflicts onto individuals or families, privatizes both the experience of oppression and possible modes of resistance to it, and [Page xxi]translates political questions into psychological issues to be resolved through personal, psychological change.
The diversion of political outrage into personal misery and consolation via the therapeutic is an old theme in American culture (Lears 1983, see also Cushman 1995), dating back at least 100 years to the rise of mass culture and the welfare state, which culminated in the New Deal. Philip Cushman (1995) begins his story about the emergence of psychotherapy alongside advertising as emblematic of American liberal capitalism at the turn of the century—developments indicating “a trend toward ignoring sociopolitical causes of personal suffering” (67).7 As I argue, the therapeutic is an ideological mechanism of the liberal ideology deployed in response to social crisis at different times in U.S. history. My project, in particular, focuses on the post-Vietnam War period in the United States as one instance of such crisis—a time during which one clearly can perceive the workings of the therapeutic in response to the social upheavals and oppositional agitation of the late 1960s and early 1970s. I suggest that the crises in capitalism generating the political upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s led to a need for the system to recuperate challenges to itself. The themes and motifs of therapy, when articulated in the context of political opposition, have worked historically to blunt radical politics in the United States. In the pseudopolitics of the therapeutic, in the individualism of the self-help explosion, and in the translation of outrage over political or economic roots of crisis (e.g., unemployment, poverty, war, and overwork) into interpersonal rage and of collective structural problems into personal work, this recovery was partially accomplished and is ongoing in society today.
After I lay the theoretical foundations for a critique of the therapeutic in Chapter 1 and the historical trajectory of the therapeutic in Chapter 2, the greater part of the book traces the characteristics of therapy as a rhetoric and an ideology through several popular and political discourse formations. Chapter 3 unpacks the rhetoric of family values in popular culture, exposing the therapeutic strategy of blaming the family for social ills. Although communitarians sometimes hold up the family as the antidote to therapeutic individualism, I argue that familism is a form of the therapeutic. Chapter 4, a study of “support group” news during the Persian Gulf War, documents the news media's narrative process of acknowledging social problems; assigning blame; instilling guilt, shame, or anxiety; and offering redemption or consolation in personal terms. Support group news during the Persian Gulf War depended on a particular [Page xxii]gendered mapping of the “home front” that created consolatory rather than political space for discussing the war.
Chapter 5 analyzes Gloria Steinem's Revolution From Within and the 1991 film Tbelma & Louise as popular feminist texts that, unfortunately, participate in the therapeutic dislocation of political (feminist) anger. Each chapter describes and analyzes discourse employing the language of therapy to talk about political issues to determine if and how those discourses function to label oppositional ideas and encourage identification with the therapeutic ethos. Similarly, Chapter 6 lays out the therapeutic assumptions of the still-popular New Age “movement” and posits an analogy between New Age thinking and postmodernist social theory. I argue that in the post-Marxist rejection of economistic, class-based analyses of social reality, the Left enacts its own therapeutic retreat from political agency. The conclusion uniting these case studies, laid out in the last section of the book, is that the rhetoric of therapy is an ideological frame that bounds conceptions of political action and that works as a discourse of social control. The final chapter, then, constitutes a warning against political therapies and a challenge to envision and enact a public antitherapeutic politics in the postmodern age.
As a conservative ideological strategy of contemporary capitalism in the United States, therapy is clearly a political discourse, with political motives and political effects. Ironically, however, the political effect of the therapeutic is to shut down the possibility of public deliberation and collective engagement in politics. For this reason, throughout this book I clearly distinguish between the therapeutic and the engaged project of oppositional political activity. Even though therapy and politics, private and public, are ends of a spectrum rather than stark opposites, I believe it is important to emphasize the debilitating consequences of therapeutic discourse for those working for social change. Furthermore, I pose collective, public challenges to systems of exploitation and oppression as a clear alternative to therapeutic responses. Since the Vietnam era, the therapeutic imperative has ascended in the popular representations and framings of political issues, even within discourses posed as oppositional to established economic interests.
Certainly, therapy has its place: as an enabler of individual healing after personal trauma and as a prepolitical precursor to public engagement. It is inadequate, however, as a stand-in for public politics. In mass culture, therapeutic narratives neutralize anger and obscure the structures of power in which we must come to see our location and our work. [Page xxiii]Let us move, then, to Chapter 1, which explores the various critiques of therapy and the therapeutic from communitarian to poststructuralist arguments. In Chapter 1, I hope to lay the foundation for a materialist rhetoric of therapy or an understanding of the therapeutic as a modern ideological, strategic discourse that has as its ultimate effects the privatization of social experience and the disciplining of private subjects into a regime of self-blame and personal responsibility.Notes
1. © 1996 New York Times. Reproduced with permission.
2. Reality Bites features Winona Ryder as a college graduate who cannot find a job. Shortly after the film's release, Money magazine (Fenner 1994, 90ff) noted that fiction reflects fact: “From 1989 to 1993, anticipated hiring of first-year college grads by medium-size and large U.S. companies was off a full 35%.” Similarly, the Economist (“Generation X-Onomics,” 1994 27: © 1994 The Economist Newspaper Group, Inc. Reprinted with permission) reported that college graduates in the United States start off in debt, often take part-time or temporary work in a market in which 22% of Americans are employed part-time or temporarily, and work for low (and declining) wages.
3. © 1994 Price Pritchett and Associates. Reprinted with permission.
4. © 1995 New York Times. Reprinted with permission.
5. For a feminist critique of the DSM, see Brown and Ballou (1992). They note that although the DSM does call attention to the prevalence of certain diagnoses among women, it does not explain gender differentials in a way that “asks such questions about gender and about how the privileging of male experience leads inexorably to the pathologizing of female experiences in any sexist society” (115). Nor does it include categories of race, sexual orientation, or class status in its statistical analysis. Thus, the major diagnostic resource of practicing therapists fails to note that “disorders” may be products of structural, collective rather than merely individual experience.
6. © 1995 Addison-Wesley. Reproduced with permission.
7. © 1995 Addison-Wesley. Reproduced with permission.[Page xxiv]
Conclusion: Antidotes to Therapeutic Hegemony[Page 157]
A catalogue of some of the essentially most important or interesting problems, even if at first sight they do not appear to be in the forefront, [includes] psychoanalysis and its enormous diffusion since the war, as the expression of the increased moral coercion exercised by the apparatus of the State and society on single individuals, and of the pathological crisis determined by this action.—Antonio Gramsci (1936/1971, 279-80)
This is not about women being stupid or crazy or masochistic or co-dependent. It's about women not having options.—University of Texas Law Professor Sarah Buel (as quoted in Brice, 1996, A1)
In her comments about how best to teach law students about domestic violence, Professor Buel (as quoted above) self-consciously resists common therapeutic framings of domestic abuse and insists that abused women are not crazy, masochistic, or codependent—the latest therapeutic explanation for oppression. In addition, her remarks suggest public, material solutions—giving women options regarding jobs, housing, and child care, presumably—to aid women's escape from batterers. Professor Buel's comments struck me as an important and hopeful reminder: Despite the hegemonic force of the rhetoric of therapy in [Page 158]contemporary American political life, every day one can find scholars and activists pushing against the personalistic and privatizing explanations of social reality offered in therapeutic discourse.
Antonio Gramsci (1936/1971) noticed in his prison writings the increasingly persuasive and pervasive power of psychotherapy. He also encouraged intellectuals to attend to the necessity of and potential for creating a counterdominant hegemony, the point at which workers and other activists articulate a common counterhegemonic perspective in revolutionary struggle.1 In this chapter, I argue for the continuing relevance of these two sides of the hegemony coin. On the one hand, contrary to liberal and postmodern redefinitions of cultural hegemony as either happy compromise or a discursive process by which a historic bloc takes symbolic but not material power,2 I suggest that a notion of hegemony as the persuasive means by which a ruling class maintains its power is still necessary to explain discursive phenomena such as the rhetoric of therapy. On the other hand, this conclusion points to activism and critique as counterhegemonic correctives—or antidotes—to the rhetoric of therapy.
This book has argued that in U.S. political culture, the themes and strategies of a therapeutic rhetoric have framed in terms of personal life and individual responsibility issues and problems (such as war, women's oppression, racism, exploitation, and poverty) that might better be understood in terms of structured, systemic injustice. This therapeutic rhetoric is a hegemonic discourse that shapes and contains responses to structural injustice, encouraging even feminists and Left activists and scholars to reject structural critique and public struggle.
Therapeutic discourse works within the hegemonic framework of liberal individualism, idealism, and privatism to channel social unrest and discontent into individualistic, private-sphere accommodations and adaptations. Chapter 1 developed a theory of the therapeutic as an ideological mechanism and rhetorical strategy of liberal capitalism. I argued that we must tie a theory of the therapeutic to the material interests that it serves. In Chapter 2, I argued for locating a rhetoric of therapy in the context of the rise of modern, capitalist society and its need for subjects who conceive of themselves as individual, self-responsible human agents. Later, during the consolidation of industrial capitalism, psychotherapeutic rhetorics in the workplace and in the broader society enabled managers to orient workers to the terms of wage labor on the assembly line. With regard to inegalitarian relations of class, race, and gender, the [Page 159]therapeutic has served to acknowledge outrage and resistance while reframing discontent as “dis-ease” in terms of individual psychological distress. In this way, the therapeutic has served the hegemony of liberal capitalism.
The case studies featured in this book also support a Gramscian interpretation of how a ruling class maintains power during times of crisis or unrest by offering persuasive messages that acknowledge “dis-ease” and thereby provide sites for audience identification and resonance with those messages. At the same time, rhetorics of therapy encourage those audiences to see those problems as purely personal rather than political in scope. As a result, public political engagement and social movement struggle have had to compete with the consolations of therapy for people's time, energy, money, and overall commitment.
The implications of this rhetoric are perhaps most serious when it is deployed in times of a national crisis such as war. One might argue that during such a crisis, in which many lives are at stake, open democratic debate should flourish. Chapter 4, however, demonstrated that during the Persian Gulf War, the rhetoric of therapy was one strategy whereby that debate was silenced in a domesticating discourse of familial support and coping. Similarly, Chapter 3 argued that in the contemporary debate over welfare and other social programs, politicians and popular culture deploy a “rhetoric of family values” to privatize social responsibility and discourage protest against racial injustice and cuts in support for struggling families. In the contexts of nationalist war propaganda and federal welfare policy, the therapeutic is a conservative rhetorical strategy of a system attempting to inoculate itself against dissent.
This book has also been concerned with the extent to which even potentially counterhegemonic political theories and movements are undermined when articulated as therapeutic. Chapter 5 argued that the therapeutic hinders achievement of feminist political goals when feminisms are defined by their shared core tenet that the personal is political. Similarly, post-Marxism, in its idealism, implicit therapeutic individualism, and political relativism, resembles the hypertherapeutic and procapitalist rhetoric of the New Age movement.
When advocates of once-radical political programs jettison their commitment to revolutionary social transformation, their retreat is often couched in therapeutic terms. Thus, the therapeutic is a rhetoric that encourages a reformist rather than revolutionary political stance. For example, the emphasis on psychological ministration and moral uplift in [Page 160]the Progressive Era corresponded with a series of moderate, but beneficial reforms in industrial capitalism. Recently, feminism's emphasis on the personal as site of transformation can lead to either a political strategy of gradual reforms in culture and consciousness in sexist society or, worse, to a strategy of political disengagement. Post-Marxist politics, despite its claim to Left politics and vocabulary, closely resemble liberal reformism, especially in the call to work within the bounds of the prevailing “democratic imaginary.” Without attention to structural relations of class exploitation or a public strategy building on collective class agency, any political program will advocate settling for what the current system will allow.
I do not mean to suggest, however, that reforms obtainable within existing sociopolitical relations and rhetorical constraints are worthless. Voting rights, immigrant rights, desegregation, improvements in work conditions, higher wages, womens’ rights to reproductive choice, and progressive reforms in health care, child care, welfare, and other social services are worth fighting for and defending. It is dangerous, however, to allow the therapeutic to set the bounds of our political imagination to the extent that it becomes difficult even to conceive of revolutionary change. Furthermore, the therapeutic asks activists to retreat from the public struggle for even modest reforms in favor of private wound-licking.
Therefore, although the therapy-politics continuum is just that—a range of possible responses to social crisis and dissatisfaction and not a simple binary opposition—it is justifiable to emphasize the debilitating consequences of the therapeutic for social change and to pose collective, public challenges to the capitalist system starkly against the therapeutic recuperation of political energy in contemporary culture. The therapeutic discourse of healing, emotional support, identity constitution and maintenance, spiritual growth, and personal identification has been a natural ally of liberalism and capitalism. The therapeutic is rooted in liberalism's assumptions about how change happens and how problems are solved. This book has argued that people must be and are convinced by the liberal ideology not only to give up their social and political being and to perceive themselves first and foremost as individuals but also to think of crisis, resolution, change, and stability as personal issues rather than as structural ones. Liberalism assumes that change happens at the level of ideas and values (idealism)3; that individuals are agents of their destiny and are responsible for their own failures and successes (individualism); [Page 161]that matters of justice and morality are individual and private and that the collective cannot decide on them (relativism); and that conflicts and differences of interest are related to the private sphere for interpersonal negotiation, and the economy and the household are separated from the site of public decision making (privatism).
An emphasis on private consumption of remedies for late capitalist distress also characterizes the therapeutic. The therapeutic is part and parcel of the constitution of the individual as private consumer, generating a discourse in whose terms people are free insofar as they can make choices of lifestyle, consumption, and identity. The personalizing of the political or the dislocation of issues of power into terms of emotional well-being and individual responsibility in the private sphere are characteristic of the public's decline. The intensification of this process—the blurring of boundaries between public life and private (Hutcheon 1989, 161-68), the pervasiveness of a shallow consumer culture that substitutes for political engagement, the rejection of “totalizing” or explanatory theories of society, and the obsession with identity and consciousness as political projects—has led some theorists to argue that we have entered a new epoch: postmodernity. I suggest that far from being a break with modern capitalism and its constitution of the subject as a private, sovereign agent, contemporary culture and its therapeutic variants represent the logical progress of liberal capitalism.
According to some theorists of postmodernity, the increasing shallowness and breadth of global cultural forms is an emancipatory expression of a new phase of late capitalism. For example, psychologist Kenneth Gergen (1991) argues that an obsession with the self as a reflexive project—the creation of a “saturated self” out of shards of globally transmitted multivocal culture—is an emancipatory characteristic of postmodernity. The case studies in this dissertation reveal that the consequences of a politics of self-constitution are not so benign. Indeed, postmodernism's focus on the self or private family as the site of political understanding and agency represents a logical development of a therapeutic imperative to translate political liberation into personal work.
Furthermore, it is doubtful that the process of self-saturation and the concomitant decline in public identification and commitment noted by Habermas (1989) are products of postmodernity. Rather, as I argued in Chapter 2, modernity is the setting for the constitution of the therapeutic self of the bourgeois subject. As part of this process, the modern family consolidates the subject as private person in the liberal ideology. As [Page 162]challenges to the capitalist system developed, popular and political discourse (e.g., the modern novel) worked to reinforce the ideology of individual identity, agency, and responsibility. Therefore, the therapeutic is neither new to contemporary culture nor a function of postmodern culture in particular; rather, it is a product of the exigencies of modern capitalism over the long term. Richard Sennett (1978, 262) stated, “The end of a belief in public life is not a break with nineteenth century bourgeois culture, but rather an escalation of its terms.” Similarly, what contemporary theorists are hailing as “postmodernity” can be regarded as nothing more than an “escalation of the terms” of modernity. With Anthony Giddens (1991), I suggest that the rhetoric of therapy is an important characteristic of postmodernism (the ideology of late capitalism), in which “real” communities and explanatory political narratives (such as Marxism and feminism) are called into question and obsessive rituals of self-constitution take their place. Like David Harvey (1989) and Fredric Jameson (1991), I see postmodern cultural forms as the discursive support for global capital rather than as subversive celebrations of multiplicity and difference. Postmodernism represents the intensification of the dispersal of community, collective power, and meaningful public life in the late twentieth century. Harvey's (1989) argument is that postmodernism and what he calls “flexible” post-Fordist capitalism exhibit more continuity than rupture with modernism and the Fordist regime of capital accumulation. Both periods are crisis prone and governed by the logic of capitalist accumulation, generating cultural forms that call attention to social fragmentation, alienation, and disorder.
Even so, Harvey (1989) counters the excessive postmodern emphasis on incoherence and ephemerality with a call to theorize the still-stable realities of global capitalism. Harvey's claim that postmodernism is the ideological justification and reinforcement for multinational capitalism is similar to Jameson's (1991) argument that postmodernism is the “cultural logic” of late capitalism. Jameson, like Harvey, argues that far from being a chaotic state of unsystematic, heterogeneous, fragmented cultural practices, postmodernism is actually the systematic and logical manifestation of multinational (“late”) capitalism. Although late capitalism produces differences in groups and representations, disconnects the signifier from the signified, and decenters the subject as agent, the mode of production is not itself disordered or impossible to explain in terms of totality. In Jameson's words, a system that produces differences is still [Page 163]a system. Jameson's arguments remind us that far from being the end of ideology, postmodernism itself is ideological. The point for Jameson is to map the system—ultimately, to restore consciousness of class and exploitation to subjects caught up in the dizzying impulse to retreat into therapy or “commodified micropolitics.”
By commodified micropolitics, Jameson (1991) means that in the absence of public, collective political goals, politics becomes a matter of lifestyle—of consumers choosing who to be for the day. This shallow form of politics is epitomized in the therapeutic: self-help psychology, the New Age movement, and, as I have argued, in postmodernist social theories and feminisms that celebrate social fragmentation and self-definition by difference rather than by commonality.
Together, Jameson (1991) and Harvey (1989) warn us not to celebrate postmodernism's separation of time and space, production of social amnesia, fascination with cultural surface rather than historical depth, and the obsessive quest for elusive identity. Giddens's (1991, 9) thesis is that the alienating conditions of late modernity render us obsessed with the “reflexive project of the self.” On a materialist critique, this project is no substitute for the traditional, collective struggle for human emancipation. In addition to demonstrating the degree to which our political life has been saturated by therapeutic rhetoric, a purpose of this work has been to argue for an alternative to therapy: a Marxist politics of public, working-class struggle for the common good, or praxis. As Richard Bernstein (1971, 63) explains, praxis is a central concept in Marx's thought, denoting the “essential productive dimension of human life” and emphasizing the person as historical agent and not as passive victim of economic forces. For Marx, praxis meant human activity aimed toward the revolutionary transformation of an unjust world. This transformation cannot happen if its agents behave as private, isolated individuals; rather, they must enter into public struggle with others who share their interest in changing society.
In contrast to liberal definitions of the public, which pose an idealized public of disinterested policy debate against a private sphere in which conflict and power reside, I argue for a conception of the public sphere constituted in and by struggle. Such a praxis is collective, rooted in the fight for material equality, and instrumental in the struggle against the forces of stability. This struggle assumes that suffering, exploitation, and oppression are real and not merely discursive products (although consciousness [Page 164]of exploitation must be rhetorically constituted). As a model of public engagement, praxis differs significantly from Habermas's (1989; see also Calhoun 1992) Utopian liberal ideal in Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Seen from a Marxist perspective, Habermas's (1988) project is liberal and Utopian in orientation. I hope, however, for this book to extend his critique of the increasing interpenetration of personal and political life and the displacement of critical debate by consumerist spectacle. Habermas's argument is that after the bourgeois public sphere reached its peak of vitality in the 1800s, the pressures of special-interest politics and privatized consumer capitalism began to take their toll on public life. In a society in which engaged public dialogue has been exchanged for mass culture media hype and commodity marketing, the ability to frame social issues as problems of structure and collectivity is weakened. The result is the “refeudalization” of the public sphere, in which a participatory public is exchanged for the spectacular display of power. As the sphere of the social is ever expanded to survey the most private aspects of life (e.g., in drug testing, regulation of reproduction, family life, and lifestyle), the possibility of a democratic public becomes more remote.
In contrast to a privatized social realm, Habermas (1989) poses the ideal of the public good achieved through rational debate. Habermas narrates the fate of the public sphere in contemporary capitalist society as a story of degeneration from an ideal. As Michael Schudson (as cited in Calhoun 1992, 143-64) points out, capitalism has never engendered a truly democratic realm and to the contrary has required the increasing commodification and atomization of social experience. Furthermore, liberalism's exclusion of economic relations from politics proper is an ideological buttress of capitalism. Where people are most affected by power—in their relation to work, wages, and the material necessities of life—they are granted no decision-making faculty. We do not vote over our wages, work hours, employment status, benefits, or the accessibility of child care and health care—all in realms designated under capitalism as private.
In this light, the nostalgia for the liberal public sphere is explicitly idealist. Habermas (1989) calls for a Utopian sphere of public argument and decision making modeled on the polis and on the bourgeois public sphere at its height. Ultimately, Habermas defends a Utopian liberalism that presumes that one can (and capitalists will voluntarily) set aside [Page 165]economic interests during political deliberation. He laments the emergence during the 1800s of class struggle and the labor movement as symptoms of the public's decline in interest in politics rather than of its democratic expansion. By privileging dialogue—in some imagined space of harmony and common interest—over dialectics—the process of social transformation through class struggle—his argument begs the question of whether one can achieve a democratic public life in a capitalist society divided by class in which the interests of the few control the institutional spaces, media outlets, and terms of discussion. In other words, socialism is a prerequisite of a democratic political life that cannot be “talked” into being.
Habermas's (1989) attempt to uphold the public as a realm of freedom, in addition to his rehabilitation of the modernist project of human liberation, is admirable. This vision, however, presupposes a measure of economic equality and the diminishing of the power of the market—conditions that can only be met in the present by way of a politics of struggle, in which the political is not rendered ever more pure and separate from the social (or from market forces of manipulation and domination) but is rather geared toward transforming economic relations. Clearly, the rhetoric of therapy is a mass culture strategy that works against this project.
Today, the rhetoric of therapy, combined with the liberal values of self-reliance and private transformation, has pervaded much of social life and has replaced other modes of understanding self and society. The systems of oppression and exploitation under which we live thrive on our inability to come together in meaningful ways. They thrive on the ability to sell us identities like pairs of shoes. They thrive on our isolation and fragmentation. Identities, like everything else, are for sale, produced by a cultural industry that feeds us lifestyle choices to assuage our hunger for real community life. We are asked to shoulder the responsibility for change as individuals, no matter the extent of our suffering or the structural causes of our despair. We enact rituals of self-definition and -transformation to locate ourselves in an increasingly complex world.
Therapeutic rhetoric foregrounds the tasks of emotional support and unity in the private realm, relegating to the background the public, structural, and material forces influential in our lives. In this period, we should look to Marxist critical theory and socialist organization, as well as to other progressive social movements, for public antidotes to therapy.
[Page 166]Liberalism relies on the therapeutic, but increasingly so do feminism and other progressive movements and ideologies. Post-Marxism is inadequate to the task of formulating an antitherapeutic politics because it rejects normative materialist criteria for struggle and itself is a symptom of therapeutic retreat from politics. Rather, we must counter the rhetoric of therapy with a discourse that insists that the society—not the individuals suffering within it—needs adjusting. Both activism and critique are necessary to the revitalization of collective political activity, organized from below, demanding justice and freedom.
Although therapeutic discourses discourage both systematic understanding of capitalist society and collective struggle against it, we can find moments suggesting that the therapeutic hegemony faces continual challenge. Opportunities small and large exist for critique and activism and could be built on to make a real challenge not only to the therapeutic but also to the unjust society that the rhetoric of therapy supports. Examples include the recent protests in defense of affirmative action on the University of Texas campus, strikes for pay increases and benefits among graduate students and staff at the University of California and Yale, the emergence of progressive and militant movements within the broader labor movement and the beginnings of renewed labor protest challenging the declining American standard of living, the 1996 demonstration for immigrant rights in Washington, and earlier marches on Washington for gay and lesbian rights and for the rights of children in the face of federal cuts in social services.
As activists become more angered and more confident in the face of cuts in services, racist scapegoating, and so on, we can expect this kind of struggle to erupt more often and in a more sustained way. In the meantime, there are continual opportunities to build social movements and to offer publics critical perspectives on contemporary society. In particular, critical scholars have an obligation to find diverse audiences and fora for our work, articulated in accessible language and designed to encourage not only more talk but also collective public action for social change.4 Organized meetings—of socialists and progressives, civil rights advocates, and labor unions—offer one such site of political-critical engagement. In teaching, as well, we might introduce students to critical perspectives on social reality and encourage their public political engagement.5 The envisioning and constitution of a public in struggle is a project from which we, as teachers, scholars, and activists, cannot [Page 167]abstain. Although therapy has its place as an enabler of individual healing after personal trauma, and sometimes as a necessary precursor to public engagement, it is inadequate as a stand-in for political activity. In contemporary culture, therapeutic narratives attempt to neutralize anger and obscure the structures of power as contexts for our work. The task at hand is an emancipatory one. We need to be present where workers and other activists struggle for justice, where people seek political explanations for their personal suffering, and where we can meet to organize against exploitation, injustice, and oppression. Only in those places, engaged in social action, can we find the antidote to therapy.Notes
1. Gramsci (1936/1971,333) writes, “Critical understanding of self takes place therefore through a struggle of political ‘hegemonies’ and of opposing directions…. Consciousness of being part of a particular hegemonic force … is the first stage towards a further progressive self-consciousness in which theory and practice will finally be one.”
2. For revisions of the concept of hegemony defining hegemony as compromise or concordance, see Celeste Condit (1994) and Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (1985). For a critique of Condit's redefinition of hegemony, see Cloud (1996).
3. It is important to distinguish therapy, as a subset of idealist rhetorical strategies, from other idealisms, particularly religion. Spiritualist and moralizing rhetorics presume a suprapersonal set of ideals and guidelines by which the individual is exhorted to live. Therapy, in contrast, is a secular rhetoric particularly appropriate to liberalism's faith in the individual as agent. It places responsibility for change and adaptation to circumstance squarely in the realm of individual personal life, without positing any community standard or collective good to which that life might be dedicated. Furthermore, the therapeutic is marked by its tendency to translate social problems into organic terms of sickness and health, positing an individual, a social, or even a national body in need of nurturance, protection, and restoration. It could be argued that therapy is to the twentieth century what religion was to the nineteenth: the dominant expression of idealist worldviews, having taken on secular rather than supernatural implications.
4. This conception of the intellectual's role is based on Gramsci's (1936/1971) notion of the organic intellectual. Gramsci writes, “The task of the intellectuals is to determine and to organise the reform of moral and intellectual life, in other words to fit culture to the sphere of practice” (453). He notes that capitalism produces its own intellectuals to further the system's ideological agenda; intellectuals should be self-conscious about their tendency to conformity and should resist the isolation, elitism, and individualism encouraged in the universities.
[Page 168]5. In my experience, however, pedagogy is limited as a space of political transformation. First, one's audience is not entirely voluntary and consists only of people who have been admitted to and who can afford to attend college. Second, because student evaluations of teaching (rightly) factor into professors’ performance and tenure evaluations, professors must be somewhat cautious—and respectful of diverse student views—in sharing critical perspectives with students. We can use the classroom to teach engagement skills but performing acts of specific political advocacy in the classroom can be problematic for teacher and students alike. For these reasons, the classroom does not fully constitute a public in practice but rather, as University of Texas professor of rhetoric and composition Rosa Eberly (1996) has noted, a “proto-public” in “practice” (or training) for practice.
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About the Author[Page 192]
Dana L. Cloud, PhD, is a Professor in the department of Speech Communication at the University of Texas at Austin. Her articles critiquing racism and sexism in political and popular culture and defending the materialist tradition of ideology criticism have appeared in the journals Critical Studies in Mass Communication and Western Journal of Communication and as chapters in a number of books. She is continuing her study of the rhetoric of family values and making progress on a new project about the rhetorical crafting of cross-gender and cross-racial solidarity in the 1930s U.S. labor movement.