I was just reading the introduction to the 2006 (fortieth-anniversary) edition of Philip Rieff’s The Triumph of the Therapeutic. 2006 – as it happens — was the year that Rieff died (at age 83). The introduction was written by social/cultural/intellectual historian Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn and contained some passages I thought worth quoting.
Capitalism and the self
Rieff’s book is about the cultural transformation of the twentieth-century — from widely held religious/communal values to the prominence of psychology as supreme arbiter of interests and values. According to Lasch-Quinn, Rieff sees a connection between this transformation and the “advances and excesses of capitalism, with its radically destructive gospel of greed.”
[H]e makes a clear link between modern wealth accumulation and the “symbolic impoverishment” of the therapeutic age. The wealthy attempt to compensate for the shortfall with money and its accoutrements, making both art and science into forms of self-analysis and self-worship.
Self-interest becomes “the only principle of action or judgment.”
The book’s implicit connection between consumerism and the cult of impulse release, the nihilism of which Rieff captures so persuasively, represents a searing indictment of the status quo, a clear condemnation of a society “technologically loaded with bribes.”
Nice phrase, nice insight that last bit, and so much more characteristic of society 47 years later. And “gospel of greed” turns out to be even more descriptive of the 1980s (“greed is good”) than the 1960s. In a preface to the 20th anniversary edition of his book (1987), Rieff remarks: “This book stands as it first appeared. To change the text of a ‘prophetic’ character would be to write another book.” Read more
I decided to make a list of the books I’ve recently read, browsed, or added to my reading list. This turned out to be a thought-provoking process. Although this may sound naïve, when I first imagined this blog, I didn’t anticipate that psychology would be such a major category in my bibliography. My main interest, after all, was the social and cultural history of the self. But of course the self is a subject of considerable interest to academic psychologists these days. The ‘psy’ disciplines – psychology, psychiatry, psychotherapy, psychoanalysis — have been incredibly influential in how we think of ourselves. That’s something I’m now beginning to appreciate more fully.
Please see the previous post, where I explain that this is something I originally published in 1981. The chapter title, Present Shock, was probably meant to contrast with the idea of Future Shock, a book by Alvin Toffler that was quite popular in the 1970s.
As long as anxiety has an identifiable object we know what to worry about. We can locate our problem in a specific set of circumstances. We seize on all the evidence we can find and attempt to impose an interpretation. Because there is a focus for our thoughts, thinking is still organized and cohesive. But when anxiety becomes excessive, the particulars of the situation become unimportant. Anxiety itself becomes the problem. Under conditions of severe stress, the ability to process information breaks down. Knowledge appears inadequate and threatens to become useless. We cannot give meaning to a world whose contradictions, conflicts, and locked control room exceed the bounds of our limited reason. This lack of confidence in the order of the world is anxiety in its purest form, an awareness of the gap between the self and the world it has come to know and depend on. We sense there is something drastically wrong, but we’re unable to identify what it is. Threatened from all sides, unable to advance in any direction to confront the problem, we search for the name of the danger and for the security an unambiguous label would bring. Unable to make sense of our own reactions, such feelings can become unbearable. Fortunately it is the rare individual who feels this in its full oppressiveness, but in its milder forms this objectless, free-floating, chronic anxiety is the most common “neurosis” of our time. Read more