Summer Reads 2023

Our contributors pick books to make sense of a tumultuous summer

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August 28, 2023

A common experience these days is being told that people don’t talk about things that people are constantly talking about. “Let’s Face It” — declared a recent headline on the website of McLean Hospital, the famous psychiatric facility in Boston where David Foster Wallace, Sylvia Plath, and Robert Lowell were patients — “No One Wants to Talk About Mental Health”. This is an odd claim. If Sylvia Plath, for example, were revived after her six decades in the grave and made to listen to the streams of babble that course through our popular culture, one thing she would surely find remarkable is all the talk about mental health. She’d be amazed and maybe depressed at how avidly people diagnose (and how eagerly they invent) their own mental troubles, at how much jargon from psychotherapy circulates in everyday conversation, and with how much numbing regularity educators and other functionaries intone the phrase “mental health”.

It’s fair to say that the morbid fixation on mental health among a certain class of visible and voluble teenage girls has grown to be its own mental health crisis. Yet, the PR teams at psychiatric hospitals can say without laughing that people who would speak of mental health must first overcome a culture of silence, and that the people who do manage to pierce the layer of stigma, who defy the heavy shame to voice the forbidden theme, they are heroes. This includes those who celebrate the brave heroes mentioning mental health, since they also are mentioning mental health.

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I’m generally torn when I hear these solemn, delusional pronouncements. On the one hand, I find them irksome. However sincere or sympathetic the intention, they express the interests and ways of thinking of powerful institutions that are, I think, increasingly destructive. On the other hand, in the sheer scale and clarity of their falseness, and the vaguely religious tenor of their repetition, they’re kind of funny. The devolution of psychotherapeutic expression from the clinic and the couch to the individual’s bedroom and his TikTok account, and the valorising of this common form of status-chasing as rare and brave, are undeniably comic, from a certain angle.

This undeniable comedy is something Michel Foucault captures about the moral melodrama through which our therapeutic age celebrates itself — especially in Volume I of his The History of Sexuality. I’m tempted to say that this book, along with his other main historical work of the early Seventies, Discipline and Punish, belongs to the formal division in classical theatre between comedy and tragedy — the traditional comedy being about sex (and ending with a wedding), and the standard tragedy being about death (and ending with, well, a death). Discipline and Punish begins (rather than ends), with an 18th-century prisoner’s prolonged and gruesome execution by a method I’ll call “enhanced dismemberment”. The History of Sexuality, on the other hand, begins with a quick paragraph that lets us know we’re descending into a lampoon, impish mockery of a familiar “story”: “For a long time, the story goes, we supported a Victorian regime, and we continue to be dominated by it even today. Thus the image of the imperial prude is emblazoned on our restrained, mute, and hypocritical sexuality.” Foucault sets out to show that this “story” is so distorted and self-serving it’s funny.

The “story” that Foucault wants to expose as a sort of kitsch, a corny inverse moralism, is often told by sex professionals (sex doctors and sex bureaucrats, that is, not prostitutes), as well as by the influential historians Foucault is making fun of in this book. It says that, thanks to habits and methods codified in Victorian times and then revived and intensified in the conformist years of the Fifties, we are heirs to a culture of sexual repression. Even today we struggle to cultivate open, authentic relationships with our own sexuality. Queen Victoria came to eponymise the themes and methods of this culture, indeed to embody them as the sovereign frump of a mighty empire. But she didn’t found this culture. Rather, the story goes, it began to take form a century and a half before her reign. And this — the dating of this culture to the 17th century by influential historians — is powerfully convenient. Foucault writes: “By placing the advent of the age of repression in the seventeenth century…, one adjusts it to coincide with the development of capitalism: it becomes an integral part of the bourgeois order.”

With a droll professional insult — “one adjusts it” — Foucault places conventional histories of sexuality and repression within their own inherently comic narrative of desire. Unconsciously but earnestly and systematically, the historian makes certain pleasures available to himself by “adjusting” the history of repression to coincide with the history of capitalism. With this concurrence in place, he can cloak himself in “the honour of a political cause” simply in doing his job. If sexual repression emerged to serve capitalism, then merely talking or writing about sex “has the appearance of a deliberate transgression”. Such transgressions add up to a piquantly rewarding political programme — sex and sexual frankness as resistance to capitalism — that “combines the fervour of knowledge, the determination to change the laws, and the longing for a garden of earthly delights”.

Attached now to a political programme, this erotic longing provides both the inner drive and the highest goal in a total vision of historical progress, which bears certain comic similarities to religious conviction. Conspicuous within the historians’ “discourse of sexual oppression”, Foucault writes, is “something that smacks of revolt, of promised freedom, of the coming age of a different law”. In this discourse, “some of the ancient functions of prophecy are reactivated”. The rousing lesson of this prophecy, its final message or promise about the future, is: “Tomorrow sex will be good again.”

Within this hopeful vision of liberation through sexiness and sexual frankness, however, Foucault locates a darker motive, a hint of puritanical loathing familiar to students of both religious enthusiasm and revolution. He asks: “Why do we say, with so much passion and so much resentment against our past, against our present and against ourselves, that we are repressed?” This resentment is also semi-conscious at best, fraught with irony and cognitive dissonance, and so Foucault can treat it in a comic register as well. Indeed, for almost a page he repeats his question in forms so overt in their jokey wordplay it’s like he’s doing — as comedians call it — “material”. “By what spiral did we come to affirm that sex is negated? What led us to show, ostentatiously, that sex is something we hide?” “[W]hy [do we] burden ourselves with so much guilt for having once made sex a sin?” “How have we come to be a civilisation” that prudishly judges itself for having “sinned against sex?”

The received histories of sex deserve this comic summary because their story of repression is not just errant or wayward, a little off in its critical heading, but diametrically wrong. The real story as Foucault tells it points in the exact opposite direction. The 300 years that the historians circumscribe as a time of repression actually saw an “explosion” of talk about sex. This time is marked by the furious, incessant creation and multiplication of sexual discourses, as an intensifying scientific spirit of observation and classification discovered people’s hidden sexual worlds in their infinite potential as objects of study. Far from being silenced or repressed over this period, people were increasingly prompted and prodded and harassed to name and describe the sexual truths they bore in their souls, by priests, doctors, psychologists, government bureaucrats, and employers, whose power grew with the sexual details they collected and collated. After you read The History of Sexuality, the classic scene in which a repressed person is freed into psychosexual hygiene — “empowering” herself against the forces of shame and repression by divulging her sexual secrets to a professional psychotherapist — appears in a very different light. You’re newly inclined to see empowerment happening not in the speaking — as our melodrama of psychotherapy would have it — but in the listening.

This reversal of the political valence of sexual discourse and sexual silence, and Foucault’s killing mockery of the sexual ideology of the New Left, have recently won him admiring readers outside his original fan club of literary academics and other postmodern Leftists. But a deeper affinity between him and his new readers owes to the fact that Foucault was 50 years ahead of his time in emphasising the deep moral power of administrators and bureaucrats, doctors and psychologists deputised by sovereign and corporate authority to burrow inside people’s minds and bodies, extracting secrets and implanting helpful suggestions. He showed how institutions deploy a sort of relentless inquisitorial energy that remakes their charges into new and more pliant types of institutional subject, more agreeable to administrative power precisely because they’ve been rendered more open about their inner selves.

Diversity training is a telling recent example of this sort of power, a vivid analog of the forms of sexual study and discipline Foucault describes, resting as it does on a pageantry of confession, of redemption into moral fitness through acts of self-narration and self-description. It would be simpler and cheaper, and almost certainly more effective, for employers to minimise racial offence among their white employees by simply telling them what their non-white co-workers are likely to find offensive or racist, and perhaps why. But the idea of piercing the understandable reticence on racial matters of their nervous employees, goading them to “open up” about the racism they hide inside themselves, is simply too attractive to pass up. These records of racial resistance and confession are a source of immediate pleasure and value and power for the department of human resources and its partners in the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) consulting world.

For my part, I came to a curious realisation two decades ago, while researching the politicised, dim-bulb scholarship prominent in teacher-training programmes in the US. The more an educational approach bore the influence of supposedly Foucault-inspired postmodernism, the more “critical” or “constructivist” it was, the more its retail methods resembled the models of institutional power that Foucault describes in History of Sexuality and Discipline and Punish. Educational relativism reverses the flow of language in a classroom. Instead of receiving agreed-upon knowledge from a stable authority (an arrangement that, let’s be clear, is not without its disciplinary potentials), prone students are induced to produce discursive performances for an authority who, instead of lecturing and overtly prescribing, is now observing, listening, notating, patiently waiting through awkward pauses, prodding the student to keep talking when useless silence threatens to dominate.

When content and curriculum are demoted as teachers’ duties, what tends to replace them is a therapist’s probing interest in inner states, attitudes, and dispositions. This is the direction of virtually every faddish innovation in education. Instead of students learning about the outside world from teachers, it is teachers learning about the inner selves of students, from the students’ own confessional output. I always imagine Foucault hearing the popular slogan from teacher-training programmes, “the child-centred classroom”, and shuddering.

The growing centrality of this psychotherapeutic outlook to our moral culture and the perpetual, self-fuelling revolution of sexual expression and identity continue to make Foucault look like a visionary 40 years after his death. As I note above, therapy-minded young people now commonly perform — upon themselves, often for a public audience of social media followers — the main psychological operations, the patient’s confession as well as the clinician’s diagnosis. They (and we) have internalised not only the expressive imperatives of the clinical setting but also the analytical biases, the drive for identifying and classifying and subdividing human types, that marks the human sciences to which psychology belongs. In this analytical process, the ambiguous, changeable matter of human behaviour is translated into legible categories of human person.

Like the institutions that observe and nurture and mould us as we pass our days within them, we are impatient to specify what human type we belong to. We are keen to nestle into a nice category, match ourselves with a diagnosis, map ourselves on the great taxonomy. This is a lot of things besides funny, but it’s also funny. Foucault is taken to be a great inspiration for the sort of “queer theory” that informed, or at least provides a stockpile of quasi-academic jargon for, the ongoing revolution in sexual and gender identity. To its ideologists, I imagine this revolution appears in dialectical terms, suppressed or hidden “subjectivities” pushing against the harm and violence of outdated understandings, emerging into the light of dignity and recognition, properly seen, finally, for example, as asexual.

But Foucault didn’t buy into the dialectic of history. Anyone truly inspired by him would watch as another pastel strip is added to the gender flag, as the quivering “+” at the end of the list of initials invites a new identity into the official fold, and see something very different from history being steered toward ultimate justice by ever-freer self-expression. They would see the techniques of the human sciences — now devolved to us, internalised by our suggestible selves — doing the unending work of analysis and classification and discipline. Remembering their reading of Foucault, they would find this all so absurdly familiar they’d have to laugh.