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The Age of InsanityReview - The Age of Insanity
Modernity and Mental Health
by John F. Schumaker
Praeger, 2001
Review by James Sage
Jan 19th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 3)

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 identities.

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 I am!"

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 for self-destruction.

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 want.

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.


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