Inventing a Socialist Therapeutic: Recovery Culture and Utopia

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While people in therapy and the impoverished are undeniably experiencing some form of anguish, those in therapy are told that it isn't their fault, while those in poverty are told that it is.
Annalee Newitz

Issue #3, November 1992


One of the most popular characters on recent episodes of Saturday Night Live is Stuart Smalley (Al Franken), described in Entertainment Weekly (Oct. 30, 1992) as "a self-help 12-step-program junkie". Stuart Smalley's "daily affirmations" skits are intended to poke fun at what is often called "recovery culture" and those people who participate in it. That such a character has made it into SNL's repertoire indicates to what extent we see ourselves, exaggerated and humiliated, in the specious but optimistic Stuart Smalley. The therapeutic mode of relations has become so "natural" to us as American consumers that Hallmark recently announced it is producing a new line of over 500 different cards containing messages about recovery from various addictions or traumas and epithets about feelings themselves. "In this dysfunctional world, it's nice to know I have someone I feel functional with. Thanks for understanding," one reads. "Anger is a powerful thing. It can start out so small, yet...it can take on a life of its own," another card says. In the American military, even enlisted soldiers are being effected by an emergent therapeutic hegemony: they must attend mandatory "sensitivity seminars" for the purposes of combating racial and sexual harassment.

Beginning mainly in the 1970s, "12-step" group recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and other therapeutic groups for people suffering everything from alien abductions to spousal abuse have proliferated and diversified. Especially during the 80s and 90s, increasingly stressful economic and social conditions have no doubt contributed in large part to the popularization of therapeutic remedies and "recoveries" for those who can afford them. More and more people are also seeking individual counseling from therapists in order to figure out what is causing them emotional pain or discomfort. Like many people of my generation (the "post-Baby Boomer" generation), I too have been socialized into liberal-therapeutic culture. I have seen two different therapists and have participated in group therapy as well. I am, along with thousands of others, "recovering" from childhood psychological and sexual abuse. Because I am most familiar with those discourses and events associated with the "recovery" from child abuse, I will here be using this particular subset of recovery culture as an example of what constitutes recovery culture as a whole. What I want to propose is a way to engage with and radicalize the therapeutic process as it is understood in the American cultural mainstream. That is, I want to show what leftist or radical politics might do well to learn from popular recovery culture, and what recovery culture might become within the terms of a socialist politics.

It seems to me that one of the most important imperatives of popular therapeutic culture is that it asks us to take our emotions seriously. Moreover, to take our emotions seriously, we must also take seriously our memories, our fantasies and our relationships with other human beings. Many therapists or leaders of group therapy programs report that people come to them seeking help because they are having feelings and memories that they cannot explain or identify. Most of these people are socially functional, productive workers who nevertheless feel that something is not right. Although they are leading the kinds of lives they have been taught should ing them satisfaction, they are still for the most part unhappy, lonely or anxious. Perhaps they are unable to feel anything at all, or at least anything that they can recognize as a genuine emotion. Therapeutic culture attempts to help people like this by encouraging them to enter into situations (like the therapeutic group or individual session) where they feel safe enough to reveal to others the contents of their consciousness. Therapy teaches its participants how to experience transference, or a psychological bond, with someone or a group they can trust. Often, especially for people who have been abused as children, the therapeutic relationship is the first relationship in their lives in which they are able to trust anyone at all with their private thoughts and feelings.

Part of what the process of transference enables is self-recognition and self-consciousness. When the therapist or the therapy group asks a person who believes she may have been an incest victim what she is feeling about her family, or what she fee ls about her childhood in general, suddenly her emotions and memories are no longer private or secret. By articulating to other people what is going on inside her own mind, she learns that feelings and memories which once seemed indescribable or unspeakable are in fact concrete and real. Getting a sympathetic and non-abusive response from other people allows her to realize that she is not alone; many people have experienced feelings or events that are not acknowledged publicly as "normal" or even "possible" (like child abuse or homosexual desire, to name two common socially "unnamable" experiences). Moreover, therapeutic culture also advises its participants to remember what has happened to them and to come to an understanding of how their personal history has shaped who they are in the present. To "recover" from trauma or abuse means first to remember, or at least attempt to contextualize, the source of that trauma or abuse. In remembering the past, one is also learning to redefine that past in terms of one's present knowledge. Therapeutic culture offers definitions and explanations of behaviors, feelings and situations in order to help people remember their past (and present) as it actually happened rather than as a series of fragments or overwhelming, inexplicable sensations. For adults abused as children, one of the most important elements of the therapeutic process is learning to blame the perpetrators of the abuse, rather than blaming themselves. In her book Outgrowing the Pain: A Book for and About Adults Abused as Children, Eliana Gil explains that "It's hard to acknowledge being abused as a child because in doing so, you also admit that your parents were wrong, or not perfect... Most abused children grow up thinking that the abuse occurred because of themselves... For whatever reason, whether you were neglected or abused physically, sexually, or emotionally, it was a problem with your parents, not with you [author's emphasis]." What Gil is urging her readers to do is twofold: they must first come to terms with the fact that their family was not "perfect" or did not conform to dominant ideological notions of what the family ought to be, and they must also accept that this was so because of their parents' (or guardians') actions.

As numerous leftist critics have argued, part of the purpose of a dominant ideology (i.e.: what Gramsci calls "hegemony"), or that set of beliefs sanctioned by a given culture's ruling classes, is to convince a mass of people that they must behave in a particular manner. Usually, they are encouraged to behave in a way which will ensure that the ruling classes remain in power. Hence, American popular capitalist culture encourages its participants to buy and sell commodities. As long as one does not question the "naturalness" of this arrangement, the capitalist profits and the worker labors. In the ideology of capitalism, buying and selling commodities should make everyone happy and everyone equally prosperous. However, it is clear that not everyone is satisfied with the way capitalist culture arranges material reality. Some people are very wealthy, but many people are very poor. Although they work, or try to work, they have inadequate housing, food and health care. Those who are poor have been told all their lives that if they cannot become prosperous, it is their fault. One of this century's most popular presidents, Ronald Reagan, believed that poor people chose to be poor because they were inherently lazy. He used this kind of reasoning to justify massive cuts in welfare and health services for the unemployed or those with low income. But as the Marxist tradition teaches us, it is not the poor, but capitalism and capitalists which create poverty and unemployment. Capitalist production is dependent upon the existence of what Marx called the "reserve army of the unemployed" in order to keep wages and prices competitive. Without the threat of unemployment, workers would be unwilling to perform the kinds of menial labor required for mass-production, "temp" work and "service sector" jobs.

I hope that you are beginning to see a pattern of contradictions emerging here. While both the people in therapy and the impoverished are undeniably experiencing some form of anguish, those in therapy are told that it isn't their fault, while those in poverty are told that it is. Both groups have experienced pain as a result of their personal histories or situations, and both groups would no doubt like to cease experiencing this pain as quickly as possible. However, it is only when therapeutic recovery culture is wedded to a Marxist account of economics that our responses and suggestions to both groups of people cease to contradict one another. Therefore I would argue that what therapeutic culture asks of its participants is not entirely unlike what Marxist or socialist theory asks of its adherents. That is, in each case one is asked to take one's feelings and "personal" experiences seriously, and in each case one is asked to distinguish between dominant ideology and actual events in material reality. Most importantly, one is asked to place blame where blame is due.

A worker who does not take her feelings of dissatisfaction, alienation and even boredom on the job seriously will not believe that it is her job which is the problem. She will perhaps imagine that there is something wrong with her because she is not enjoying making money by entering data into a computer all day. But if she joins a union, or speaks to her fellow workers at lunch, she may be asked sympathetically, "How do you feel about your work?" It is at this point that she might begin to realize that her feelings of unhappiness are not random and arbitrary, but connected specifically to the kind of grueling, unrewarding work she is being asked to do. With her co-workers, she may be able to retrieve her buried or forgotten memories of long days spent on the job during which she was exhausted, upset or even abused by her superiors. One can see how such therapeutic communication works within the context of economic, rather than familial or intimate, relationships when one considers how many sexual harassment suits have been filed since Anita Hill articulated her "secret" feelings and experiences to an entire nation on television. Anita Hill's testimony, and her refusal to concede that Clarence Thomas' behavior was "normal", allowed other people to recognize the difference between what dominant ideology might have told them was acceptable and what their feelings or daily experiences told them was not.

Of course, it is important to remember that to a certain extent the bond of "trust" established between therapist and client is frequently made possible only through the exchange of money. At present, and within dominant capitalist ideology, recovery culture remains essentially a liberal pluralist, or even a liberal bureaucratic, enterprise. Liberalism, or the social theory of equality through "difference", does not propose a moral structure or a distinct set of ethical principles by which people might live their lives in justice and in peace. Certainly, liberalism takes for its goal justice and peace, but it has little to say about how these ideals might be attained and maintained save through the individual's right to believe and do almost anything he wants (within the law). In America, we are told that individuals have the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". What life, liberty and happiness might be, however, remain vague and unstable categories. Like the liberal capitalist culture that gave birth to it, therapeutic recovery culture proposes that each individual has a right to do or believe whatever she wants (within the law) in order to make herself feel she is living a liberated and happy life. That is, recovery culture tells us to pay attention to our feelings, and to try to have better feelings, but it does not tell us how we know when we're feeling "good" or what genuine pleasure might be. This is "up to the individual". A person "cannot change the world", but he can "change himself", as 12-step programs frequently advise in one way or another. To "recover" in therapeutic terms is therefore about learning to more or less comfortably reconcile oneself to a painful reality or history. Recovery culture asks its participants to acknowledge their feelings (in therapy or group) but then does not suggest what people might do with those feelings in the world once they are feeling them. Finally, therapeutic recovery culture ends up teaching its participants to contemplate their feelings rather than to change the circumstances which may have aroused "bad" feelings in the first place.

Like liberalism, therapy offers us the promise of community and happiness, but then cannot provide a strong example of how one might put those ideals into practice except through individual "adjustments" to an imperfect world. What I would want to suggest is that the kinds of communication, transference and emotional self-consciousness therapeutic recovery culture endorses might be said to offer a place from which people could begin to act out what the Marxist tradition calls the practice of class-consciousness. Class-consciousness, in Marxist theory, is a combination of (therapeutic) emotional awareness and communal action. Marx describes class-consciousness as an individual's ability to place himself, literally or imaginatively, in the position of the exploited classes. For it is only from the vantage point of what Marx called the proletariat that one can experience in full force the contradictory nature of capitalist production and ideology. That is, when a person looks at society from the position occupied by its least powerful members, he discovers how the ruling classes maintain their position by making the disempowered perform menial or degrading labor for them. Class-consciousness is a feeling of community, or a kind of group transference, but it is also a moral injunction to pick one particular community with which to experience that feeling of trust and intimacy: the community of the oppressed. A socialist therapeutic would answer the questions liberal therapeutic culture cannot. It would offer its members an opportunity for class-conscious transference and therefore might begin to explain what pleasure feels like, or what it means to have a "good" feeling. Happiness could mean forming a community where now there is only a ghetto or a civil war. A "good" feeling would be helping those who are truly in need both emotionally and physically by distributing goods and services equally among all people. One might recover from "bad" feelings by rearranging the division of labor so that everyone might do work that he or she enjoys most of the time. A socialist politics and ideology converts the feelings and communities recovery culture asks us to contemplate into the basis for progressive political action and change. Therapeutic culture has taught us that material reality does not provide us with happiness very often. Socialist culture might teach us where to look for the happiness we went into therapy to find. It also might teach us to take responsibility for society as a whole, and not just our own personal needs; for in a socialist Utopia, it would be "obvious" that people cannot be happy all by themselves. They must work to make their community happy first.

In the end, I think the left should try to understand that one of the best ways to teach people how to bridge the gap between the pursuit of individual happiness and the pursuit of social (i.e.: socialist) happiness is through a therapeutic appeal to their personal and pleasurable emotions or fantasies. When asked if they would like to be happy more often, or if they can imagine ways of becoming happier, almost no one who has been in therapy will answer "no". Because therapy has taught them, in some sense, the difference between trauma and recovery, they are generally able to explain what has hurt them and what kinds of thoughts make them "feel better". Sometimes, of course, the thoughts that make them feel better are related to violence, revenge or reversing the terms of oppression so that they are on top or in control this time around. It is for this reason that people need to learn how to participate in socialist, or morally progressive, fantasies. Class-conscious socialist fantasies might abolish liberal fantasies by addressing their contents dialectically. A socialist fantasy is one in which personal pleasures are recast as communal pleasures. When a person says, "I get pleasure out of fantasizing that I am raping and humiliating my father because he raped and humiliated me as a child," the socialist-therapist responds, "But wouldn't it be more pleasurable to imagine a world in which your father never raped you at all because rape doesn't exist? Or where you could choose your own father?" And if a person says, "I get pleasure out of imagining killing the race of people who have moved into my neighborhood," the socialist-therapist responds, "But don't you get more pleasure out of imagining a world in which your neighbors would love and help you rather than making you feel as if you are unwanted or threatened?"

Do not get me wrong. I do not believe that inventing and disseminating a socialist therapeutic culture will be an easy task. Many people have been so deeply scarred by personal or economic history and capitalist ideology that re-imagining pleasure will be as difficult for them as replanting all the trees in a decimated rain forest or "filling in" the ozone hole. Having a pleasurable class-conscious fantasy in the 90s can be the hardest work of all. And while socialism may still be a fantasy, I submit to you that it is a fantasy worth working at. For in the end, it may be all that will grant the human race and its home planet a future at all. As human beings, we are taught to have faith in our collective future. But we must also remember to have faith in each other, and to have faith in our ability to work communally at rebuilding a world which is not yet lost.

Copyright © Annalee Newitz. All rights reserved.

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