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This thoughtful, provocative volume explores the generalized psychological
effects of living in the modern world. The modern world, according
to Schumaker, is characterized by a collapse of cultural and religious
traditions, a breakdown of personal and social relationships,
and the general undermining of spirituality. In place of these
traditional cultural structures, modernity supplies structure
in terms of vapid consumerism-meaningful existence for the person
living in the modern age is threatened by this overt commodification
of social living. Meaningful existence in the modern world can
be analyzed in terms of consumption; modern relationships and
connectedness can be analyzed in terms of economic exchanges;
and mental health in the modern world can be analyzed as a series
of failures to support the mental health needs of moderns, resulting
in novel clusters of psychopathology.
Schumaker aims to give a comprehensive overview of the various
ways that modern living fails to meet the mental health needs
of modern people. Among the topics treated include psychological
defenses and alienation, religion and culture, materialism and
consumption, depression and anxiety, spiritual and existential
health, as well as the impact of urban living and other ecological
conditions such as noise, water, and air pollution. All of these
topics are connected with the general aim of the volume, which
is to explore the ways in which modern living has failed to meet
the mental health needs of people.
While modernity is a varied notion, Schumaker nicely identifies
the sense in which he means to address the breakdown of mental
health. His principal interest is to identify the cultural changes
associated with modernity in order to trace the development of
how modern living proves toxic to mental health. Among the various
basic "needs" people have are a sense of inter-personal
connectedness; identity and personal recognition; transcendence,
ritual, and drama; intellectual stimulation and personal growth;
and integration with social and cultural traditions. These basic
needs are met by traditional cultural and religious frameworks
and help provide remedies to some common existential anxieties
which can be grouped as follows: inevitability of death, radical
freedom, ultimate aloneness, and absence of meaning (see Irvin
D. Yalom, Existential Psychotherapy,
or his more accessible volume, Love's Executioner).
In other words, traditional social institutions (religion in particular)
provide meaningful answers to these existential questions. Modernity
fails to meet these basic needs, and therefore fails to provide
reliable coping strategies for existential anxiety.
In a chapter focusing on the self, Schumaker identifies the growing
trend of individualism that is part of modern living. Individualism
in the context of modernity is especially disrupting as it forces
moderns to abandon larger, shared frameworks that provide a sense
of meaning. Individualism also alienates the modern person by
reinforcing selfish values and narcissistic personalities. Overall,
the replacement of traditional cultural frameworks with modern
individualism results in a loss of established "coping strategies"
or "identity templates" that people use to manage their
existence. The modern person, in other words, is left to figure
out meaningful existence in complete isolation (which only compounds
the anxiety of being alone). Because this is a daunting task for
the modern, we find that modern personal identities are temporary,
shifting, and fleeting. When the stability provided by traditional
cultural frameworks is removed, modern selves are left to grope
in the vast expanse of existence-suddenly the search for meaning,
belongingness, identity, and ritual prove to be overwhelming.
The result is a shallow self who is "trying on" various
The answer to identity that modernity provides is in terms of
economics: selfhood and identity are characterized by consumerism.
In the modern world, the economic theory of the self is what attempts
to provide a framework of meaning and identity. Such a framework,
however, leaves the modern person with an extremely shallow self.
The self becomes a dynamic bundle of egocentric desires that enables
the modern self to remain dissociated from an enduring core identity.
While this plastic identity allows for greater manipulation and
greater profits, it fails to meet the needs of psychological well-being.
The battle cry of the modern self becomes, "I profit, therefore
As Schumaker traces this detachment from cultural and religious
traditions and the increasing shift toward individualism, he identifies
modernity as a kind of psychological exile wherein individual
selves become metaphorical strangers (both to others and to themselves).
Moderns lack a reference point beyond the (ever-changing) self,
furthering their general alienation from others. Friendships become
symbolic and are carried forth according to economic "management"
strategies-which is yet another commodification of a crucial mental
health component. A resentful sense of entitlement engulfs the
self as moderns employ new lines of defenses to reduce anxiety.
These new lines of defenses are aimed at enhancing the capacity
to achieve all that is "deserved" from modern existence.
In this feeble attempt to adequately pacify one's manufactured
needs with materialistic consumption, the identity of the modern
self is transformed into a consumer-self.
According to Schumaker, one of the most disturbing results of
the modern commodification of the self is the psychic and emotional
"deadness" that follows. Mental health workers now speak
of the "postemotional" age that is characterized by
pathological boredom, self-destructiveness, and the dimming of
emotion. A new wave of psychological disorders has been identified
wherein moderns combat psychic and emotional deadness with physical
pain. The thought here is that while little is actually "felt"
emotionally, the need for feeling (in general) is so great that
some resort to self-inflicted physical pain just to reassure themselves
that they are still alive, that they can still feel. In other
words, sometimes moderns bleed just to know that they are still
alive. Emotion becomes further removed from the modern self even
though, paradoxically, the trend of individualism forces the self
to become still more internal. This turn inward is emotionally
vacant-emotion, it seems, is even more alien and "external"
even for the self-centered modern self.
As the modern self retreats further into itself, it is left groping
for stable points of reference. The tendency is to see the self
in tension with everything else. The external world, and the people
in it, need to be defended against and kept external. This can
be seen by looking to the most celebrated examples of modern people:
the idealization of the self who is completely free from external
obligation (the rugged individualistic mountain man, the self-sufficient
business woman, etc.). It's not clear, however, that this complete
freedom is a gift. Perhaps this radical freedom is an invitation
This crisis of the modern self has the potential to lead to rampant
narcissism, alienation, intimacy problems, affective impairment,
fetishistic attachments, and gaps in self-knowledge. As Schumaker
states, "moderns have become distanced from the communal
operations that historically have immunized members from a range
of psychopathologies" (p. 28). In a world in which economic
frameworks are overtaking cultural and religious traditions, the
consumer-self renders the modern person attempting to find their
place in public life. Consumables become social signifiers and
banal consumption becomes the vehicle by which individuals attempt
to find their identity. "Modern consciousness is an undifferentiated
kaleidoscope of consumer images and choices that must somehow
be employed in order to establish a basis for identity and self-evaluation"
(p. 30). The endless supply of consumable escapism and the resulting
temporary satisfaction results in an unfolding of new frustration,
disappointment, and insecurity. "The free-market consumer
is psychologically manufactured in order to abandon tradition
in favor of a contest with discontent. Other psychological and
spiritual coordinates fade into the background, leaving the [modern]
person vulnerable to distortion and unreality" (p. 31). As
a result of hedonistic self-gratification and the marketing of
artificiality and unreality, these momentary escapes merely evade
any real meaning as the modern self is directed to avoid existential
anxieties, rather than resolving them.
This kind of consumer vertigo manifests itself in a variety of
ways, resulting in a number of consumption disorders wherein materialistic
interests take precedence over more fundamental mental health
needs. The opportunity for repetitive, ritualistic, and trance-like
consumer behavior replaces meaningful connections with other people.
The emphasis on consumerism only reinforces the sense of emptiness
(the "after intercourse the animal is sad" phenomenon).
As desired consumables are steadily acquired, there is a loss
of anticipation, and this results in a further emotional void
that is subsequently experienced as failure. The breach between
heightened anticipation and actual (empty) experience reinforces
the view that the self is empty and requires filling. This is
particularly debilitating for mental health, especially as it
applies to the body. Not only are moderns plagued by "body
image" problems (leading to a variety of eating disorders),
moderns must also face deeper troubles revolving around the body
more generally. "The body is used as a vehicle by which to
rejuvenate a sense of self when identity is threatened" (p.
42). As such, even the "hard body" has been commodified
at many levels (e.g., super models, athletes, the sale of vitamins
and supplements, etc.). There seems to be no end to the grips
of modernity on mental health.
The failure of modern living to provide meaningful frameworks
for identity formation, emotional development, a genuine sense
of belonging, and long-lasting answers to existential worries
leaves the modern self susceptible to observable mental health
breakdowns. Clinical depression, suicide, and alienation are at
all-time highs; displaced anxiety, callous violence, blind rage,
and hyper-competition are more common than ever; in short, the
era of the modern age, and the dissolution of tradition and constantly
changing yet vacuous social arrangements that comes with it, is
seeing the unraveling of traditional support networks upon which
mental health depends.
Concerning depression specifically, Schumaker outlines four main
theories of depression, which include cognitive theories, learned
helplessness, hopelessness theory, and internalization of negative
emotion (p. 53-55). He claims, however, that all such theoretical
approaches focus on the individual and therefore fail to recognize
the cultural underpinnings of depression. Schumaker recommends
that we look to variation in culture and provides several examples
of cultures with little or no reported depression. While his examples
are limited, they do suggest an important point: most theories
of depression focus on individuals (neurophysiology or biochemistry)
and individual cognitions (negative thoughts, etc.). Analyzing
depression in terms of cultural breakdowns may shed light on support
systems that have failed to meet the mental health needs of members.
For example, postnatal depression is more common in Western societies
(where public hype and a great deal of care are given only to
expecting mothers) whereas a number of non-Western cultures experience
far less postnatal depression (where attention and support are
given to the mother both before and after the birth of her child).
Simple observations such as these cannot tell us everything there
is to be said about depression; they can, however, suggest new
directions for investigation sources of psychopathology.
Schumaker also spends a good deal of time on the deleterious mental
health effects of competition. "Competition has become the
primary way that members [moderns] define their self-worth and
signify their value to the abstract social world" (p. 65).
In a hyper-competitive world where cooperation is largely invisible
and de-valued, one's success is the direct extension of someone
else's failure. We even find various cultural traditions being
shaped to reinforce (and justify) competition: "there's no
progress without competition" and "competition builds
character" are common mantras in the modern world. But just
what are the effects of competition on mental health? Some empirical
studies show that the bulk of competition is toxic to psychological
well-being, depletes empathy, and further reinforces the "rugged
individualism" that already plagues the modern impoverished
notion of personal relationships. In the modern world, all such
relationships are transformed into forms of competition. The empirical
findings tend to support the view that that self-esteem is actually
enhanced by cooperation, not by competition. "Quite interesting
is the paradoxical finding that cooperative [activities] have
the effect of engendering an internal locus of control that makes
people experience greater control over their lives. Research in
educational settings confirms that healthy self-esteem is enhanced
by cooperative systems, whereas competition-based methods have
the reverse effect" (p. 67). As such, the modern competitive
self is lead further into isolation, deprived of socially-approved
practices that build a sense of connectedness, trust, and cooperation.
Empirical findings also found that "a culture was more likely
to produce anxious members if it was competitive; individualistic;
futuristic and anticipatory, with an emphasis on planning, saving,
and working toward; restrictive of emotional freedom, with reliance
on artificiality for success; repressive sexuality; and lacking
in overall integrations" (p. 71). It is no wonder, then,
that the modern age as become the Age of Anxiety.
The modern emphasis on competition, consumerism, and the displacement
of religious and cultural traditions produces more anxiety than
ever before. Now, moderns have actually embraced anxiety in the
form of competition-induced anxiety disorder and competition fatigue
(p. 72), "workaholism" and "work fever" (p.
74), and dissociation disorders which fragments consciousness
(p. 80). Again, Schumaker delivers a pungent analysis of the modern
situation, where "historically, culture served as the first
line of psychological defense" (p. 79) against disruptions
of mental well-being. And the future-mindedness of modern living
yields high levels of anxiety because the present does not provide
any meaningful grounding, and the future is uncertain and carries
with it the risk of failure. Ironically, the present is viewed
as a hindrance to being somewhere else (the present gets in the
way of future success and new opportunities to consume). Thus
"the moment" becomes an irritant, and yet, the future
is becoming an equally vacuous commodity: the illusory promise
of betterment where "consumers survive on brief punctuation
of pseudo gratification" (p. 81). In other words, moderns
are adrift in a timeless, groundless, meaningless cycle of alienation.
Generally speaking, Schumaker claims that modernity involves an
ongoing dissolution and reconstruction of social arrangements,
characterized by uncertainty, change, vulnerability, and where
acculturation and culture shock are everyday challenges. In this
context of constant cultural flux, an seemingly infinite number
possibilities present themselves. The resulting choice is stressful,
and moderns seek any sense of control that they can get, even
the superficial "control" that one gets when ordering
a ("make-me-happy") meal at a fast food restaurant.
Modern living is characterized by disappearing collective structures
which leaves the individual alone in the sanctuary of consumables
and abstract cyberspace, where economic exchanges involve even
less "real" social interaction than ever before. Where
once there was at least minimal human contact at shopping malls,
modern technology has seen the advent of cyber malls which are
simply making things worse (perpetuating emptiness and a complete
lack of personal contact).
The chapter entitled "Spiritual and Existential Health"
is beautifully written and extremely provocative. Some of Schumaker's
work in this chapter stems from his earlier work (Religion and Mental Health,
1992, New York: Oxford University Press). After describing the
ways that religion can promote mental health (such as reducing
anxiety, providing meaningful guidance in life, solving personal
conflicts, answering existential anxieties, and supplying social
cohesion), Schumaker then traces several ways that traditional
religion has been modified. For example, religion is becoming
more private and personal. Once popular culture enters the spiritual
business, religion becomes individualistic rather than collective.
The deep-rooted need for ritual was satisfied with collective
religious practices; but without this collective frame of reference,
individuals who seek ritual find themselves at a loss with no
way of supplying convincing practices on their own.
Another example of the modernization of religion is the decline
of participation in traditional religious practices. This is accompanied
by a revitalization of quasi-religions that are characterized
by idolatry, fundamentalism, and re-enchantment of the world.
Furthermore, people who attempt to fill the need for spiritual
transcendence are drawn to functional equivalents such as civic
religions, the paranormal, UFO-ology, and technology. Each of
these provide a mystical dimension to an otherwise purely physical
(earthly) existence. Belief in the paranormal, for example, comforts
the modern person with the thought that there is something beyond
the façade of the material world. Those who seek technology
as a replacement for religion find a realm of endless possibilities
(What will technology bring next?). The dream of boundless technology
brings the modern face to face with the seeming omnipotence of
future technology, even though technology itself runs the risk
of contributing to the psychic numbness and alienation that continually
stalks the modern self.
Consumption itself has become ritualized. Modern forms of consumer-based
religion are opening themselves to capitalistic frameworks where
salvation and God's grace are measured in terms of earthly (material)
success. It seems that wealth and material possessions are nothing
less than signs from the Divine that you are blessed. At the same
time, the wedding of religion and economics has transformed selfishness
into an acceptable way of life ("God helps those who help
themselves"). Sacrifice has become the cardinal sin of consumerism
("don't wait, buy now," "you owe it to yourself")
where lack of credit reflects impotence and failure. All in all,
the displacement of traditional religions has lead to what some
have called the modern existential crisis.
In the chapter entitled "Mental Health and the Physical World"
Schumaker outlines the ways in which the physical world presents
specific challenges to psychological well-being. The effects of
urban living, for example, have a tremendous impact on mental
health. Urbanization is a forum where a number of factors intersect,
including: human population (size, density, and heterogeneity),
geography (climate, terrain), culture, politics, and economics.
The rapid growth of cities in the modern world has been identified
as the source of psychological problems which can be sorted into
four broad inter-related categories: (1) environmental
(noise pollution, air pollution, toxins, sensory overload, traffic
congestion, contagious disease), (2) sociological (crime,
violence, housing, crowding, marginalization, poverty, unemployment,
industrialization), (3) psychosocial (social structure,
homelessness, family disintegration and divorce, rapid social
change, cultural confusion, cultural conflict), and (4) psychological
(sense of coherence, powerlessness, alienation, fear, anxiety,
isolation). The massive number of salient variables associated
with urban living only emphasizes the importance of further research
in the effects of urbanization on mental health. With respect
to noise pollution in particular, studies conducted in Chicago
suggest that noise pollution is strongly correlated with increased
levels of anxiety and poor academic performance. Researchers found
that those who tried to concentrate on a variety of tasks while
exposed to noise pollution showed performance levels similar to
those who are sleep deprived.
Yet, many people are attracted to urban centers for the opportunities
and sources of stimulation that can be provided. Some individuals,
in fact, cannot imagine living outside the city at all. While
cities offer freedoms, excitement and services that are difficult
to find in rural areas, city dwellers also exhibit greater levels
of anxiety, lower levels of sympathy and compassion, as well as
what some have called ecological pathologies. Ecological pathologies
often take the form of environmental dissociation, a kind of dissociation
whereby people manage to forget the environmental destruction
associated with behavior. Environmental dissociations arise when
people are outspoken against clear-cutting, for example, yet they
continue to consume beef and paper products at high rates. Researchers
have discovered that the increased awareness about environmental
destruction has done nothing to reverse the process (p. 162).
Another example of environmental dissociation is the impact of
modern Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs). Many people who own SUVs
manage to forget the environmental destruction that owning such
a vehicle brings about (SUVs are require a lot of raw resources
to manufacture, emit high amounts of pollution, have low fuel
efficiency, and do a lot of damage when used off-road). This translates
into unnecessary environmental destruction. What is ironic is
that the marketing involved with selling SUVs often takes the
line of "getting you back to nature" or "visiting
a pristine wilderness" and yet by purchasing the SUV consumers
are contributing to the very destruction of what they seem to
The last chapter ("The New Mental Health Worker") is
the weakest chapter in the book. It does very little to support
the overall thesis of the book and it fails to provide concrete
strategies to assist mental health workers. It should be noted,
however, that the strength of this book lies in revealing the
consilience of modern conditions that contribute to the breakdown
of psychological well-being. The argument throughout has been
that modernity has replaced stable cultural institutions with
a fragmented kaleidoscope of pseudo-support that ultimately undermines
mental health. This final chapter, however, provides little in
the way of actual therapeutic techniques to overcome the modern
age of insanity.
That said, this book is an excellent starting place for the mental
health worker-it helps to locate the places of disruption where
psychological well-being is most threatened. Some of these places
are not "in the head" at all. Rather, they are "out
there" in the changing cultural traditions that provide the
"first line of defense" against threats to mental health.
Much of what Schumaker presents describes modern sources of existential
anxiety and this promises to compliment existentialist psychotherapies,
a tradition with greater theoretical depth and a broader range
of concrete counseling techniques.
This is not to say that mental health workers won't find this
volume useful. It's simply not a quick reference guide for concrete
counseling techniques. This book provides the framework, the context,
for further work to be done in this field. I expect volumes to
follow in Schumaker's footsteps-volumes dedicated explicitly to
addressing and resolving the breakdown of mental health associated
with modern living. Before such volumes can be written, someone
must show that modernity is indeed the culprit behind a cluster
of psychopathologies, which is what this superb book from Schumaker
does so convincingly.
© 2002 James Sage
James Sage is
a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at the University of Utah. His
interests include psychology, evolutionary epistemology, and self-deception.