((released 2008-03-01) (handle mh-89-m) (supplement true))
Guests on Volume 89: Thomas Hibbs, on the theme of the possibility of redemption in film noir and similar film genres; Barrett Fisher, on the films of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman; Fred Turner, on 1960s dreams of countercultural change and the rise of the Whole Earth Catalog; Dan Blazer, on why psychiatric disorders require attention to the story of patients’ lives; Christopher Lane, on the complex characteristics of anxiety and the tendency to treat the absence of ease with drugs; and Jerome C. Wakefield, on how psychiatry began ignoring causes of mental suffering and so defined sadness as a disease.
“If you include context, it makes things more fuzzy . . . after all once you’re looking into the context, you also have to look into the person's meaning system, what they value, because that determines whether the context itself would have an impact on them.”
—Jerome C. Wakefield
Jerome Wakefield examines the trend in clinical psychiatry towards ignoring social causes of behavior in favor of strictly biological frameworks focusing on physical and chemical changes in the brain, and diagnosing disorders based on quantifiable, scientifically reliable measures of symptoms isolated from the patient's social context and value system. Wakefield describes the field’s movement away from the time-consuming and inexact process of taking into consideration the often murky existential and social context of the patient’s life in order to create a common, more scientific, systematic language and methodology for clinical practice. Wakefield and Ken Myers reflect on the implications of this way of considering and dealing with psychiatry patients for the effectiveness of treatment and how it relates to cultural tendencies to view humans in reductive terms.
“Gregariousness in itself is charming it's something that one should welcome, the problem occurs when… it's the only option, when it's represented as the most normative state of being, anything that mildly varies from it is considered suspicious, and strikingly in our culture which places so much emphasis appropriately on diversity, this is one of the areas where we're very, strangely, intolerant.”
Professor Christopher Lane of Northwestern University talks about the scientific development of approaches to understanding anxiety, and recent attempts to reduce complex and large existential experiences to more easily handled biological mechanisms. Lane converses about American gregariousness and cultural responses to shyness which restrict the range of behaviors considered normal in such a way to bring enormous pressures on individuals to behave and be a certain way. According to Lane, with the growing number of drugs becoming available to “treat” these behaviors — once considered appropriate responses to strenuous, strange or difficult situations — more thought must be given to the effects of changing understandings of social behavior and experience on mental and physical health and the role of economic forces in driving these changes.
“Psychiatry in the past was based totally on being able to hear what the patients had to say. Now we see. We see magnetic resonance imaging scans, we see scores on symptom scales … so that we have actually moved in a very strange way to being somewhat of a visible as opposed to an audible speciality.”
—Dan G. Blazer
Dan G. Blazer, J. P. Gibbons Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University, explains how psychiatric practice in the past focused on bringing out the story of the patient, often seeing their patients over longer periods of time to consider the developments in their lives over time. Blazer suggests that the tendency to see health as an static snapshot instead of a temporal reality is reinforced by the ease of medical technologies that often replaces time-consuming engagement with the patient, and methodologies that try to clarify and simplify phenomena by reducing them to easily categorizable and thus easily treatable disorders.
“The notion was that if we could find the right tools, change consciousness, arrive at a shared consciousness, we could build an alternative kind of society, a new communal kind of society that could stand against the Vietnam era military-industrial world that seemed to be mainstream America.”
Fred Turner discusses his recent work From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. In it, Turner describes the development of the cultural perception of technology and computers from the 1960s negativity associated with the military-industrial complex to the utopian optimism of technology — rather than politics — as the means to change social consciousness and create a new kind of communal society. He discusses the implications for common “tool use” as the site of social change on community interactions, self-understanding and politics.
“It’s memory that really becomes key in how people do or don’t change.”
English professor Barrett Fisher discusses the works of Charlie Kaufman, considered by many film critics among the most intellectually challenging writers in Hollywood. One of the film themes considered is the role of psychological interdependence and even love in forming one’s identity; another is the role of memory and self-consciousness in the inevitable development — the adaptation — of the human self. Fisher goes on to comment on the forebears of Kaufman’s artistic style and content as demonstrated in specific examples from his films.
“There’s an attempt by the character as it were looking backward to try and make sense out of what’s happened, and so despite the fact that it seems that there’s nothing there to be found, nothing of ultimate significance, there’s nonetheless this drive in the protaganist to attempt to articulate, to communicate the human condition, and to understand for himself and for others how things went awry.”
Thomas Hibbs, professor of philosophy at Boston College, gives us the rationale behind Arts of Darkness, his newest book about film. He discusses what characterizes or distinguishes the genre of noir, and how recent American films can be seen to draw out themes and stylistic elements of familiar film noir, and yet add some twists as contemporary screenplay writers take new directions with old motifs. He develops his ideas with respect to the films of Christopher Nolan, Alfred Hitchcock, and David Lynch, among others, showing how they bring the audiences into the story of a quest through moral and visual confusion towards an ending of revelation.