Diagnosing the diagnosticians

diagnostic III.bmp

How are you feeling today? A little obsessive, compulsive, autistic, narcissistic, schizophrenic, over stimulated, easily distracted? Yeah, me, too. Join the party.

In Monday’s post, I noted the popularity of a new TV show called Monk. The “defective detective” suffers from OCD, obsessive compulsive disorder. The show finds a way to make Monk’s condition funny without disguising the misery it causes him. Still, we like the character, and some of this comes, I was suggesting, from the fact that we identify with this man and his frailty. Something in Monk resembles something in us.

Leora Kornfeld and I have been corresponding about the new book called The curious incident of the dog in the night-time, an imagined first-person account of an autistic child who investigates a crime. Christopher knows every prime number up to 7,057. He cannot read people’s emotions and keeps a “cheat sheet” in his pocket to decode facial expressions. Food can’t touch on his plate. He particularly fears the color yellow.

For all of these peculiarities, Christopher is likeable. More than that, he is, as Leora and I have been noting, plausible. Something in him speaks to something in us. (It may well be that Leora knows all the prime numbers up to 7,057. She remembers a credit card number she saw very briefly 10 years ago. This sticks with me because it was my number.)

Some years ago, Christopher Lasch suggested that our “culture of competitive individualism” has taken ‘the pursuit of happiness to the dead end of a narcissistic preoccupation with the self.” Normally on this one, I would plead the fifth, but in the interests of science and good blogging, I am prepared to say: guilty as charged. Why else would I blog?

A few years later, Frederic Jameson suggested that we are now like schizophrenics who are “condemned to live a perpetual present with which the various moments of [the] past have little connection and for which there is no conceivable future on the horizon.” I do sometimes live in a very narrow present, and as Leora can tell you, I am famous for having only the dimmest memory of even important life events, but I am not now, nor have I ever been, a schizophrenic. (Touch wood. Often and obsessively.)

I have been guilty of this reckless use of symptoms myself, suggesting in Plenitude that we are now so multiple in our interests and responsive to so much stimuli, that it is as if we all suffer from ADD, attention deficit disorder. Those of you who read email the moment it arrives will know what I mean. In a recent post, I had a look at new Harvard research on “latent inhibition” diminishment with a view to showing its larger cultural significance.

But I’m wondering, “Is this profusion of symptoms perhaps a symptom of its own?” Call it SAMS: symptom as metaphor syndrome. SAMS is a new scourge of our time, as intellectuals anxiously search the DSM (as above) for psychiatric symptoms that they can use to make sense of things.

But hold on. We cannot all be suffering all these symptoms. What are the chances that we should be afflicted en masse with OCD, autistic tendencies, narcissism, schizophrenia, ADD, and latent inhibition diminishment? Pretty slim. Taken together these would be enough to kill a man or at least send him out into the street wearing a metal hat, shouting and waving his arms. We may have our problems, but we are “high functioning.”

SAMS has the tell-tale signs of intellectual crisis. We are resorting to the old models to make sense of new phenomena. Isn’t this what intellectuals usually do? Confronted by novelty, they resort to existing explanations. They don’t much care that this ends up as an alphabet salad of implausible imputations. Their work is done. Faced with grappling with novelty and restoring to old paradigms, they take the lazy way out.

Clearly, something is happening here. Clearly, we are responding to the demands of a new world, and reinventing how we behave within it. But perhaps it’s time to start fresh. Watch this space.


Haddon, Mark. 2003. The curious incident of the dog in the night-time. New York: Anchor.

Jameson, Frederic. 1983. Postmoderism and Consumer Society. in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern culture. editor Hall Foster, 111-25. Port Townsend, Washington: Bay Press, p. 119.

Lasch, Christopher. 1978. The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expections. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, p. XV

(sorry about not posting yesterday, my @%&! ISP was down.)

5 thoughts on “Diagnosing the diagnosticians

  1. Andy B

    As a sufferer, not a professional, it seems to me that conditions like these are the extreme ends of axes on which all personalities exist. Normatively, it seems to me that a condition should be designated pathological when it significantly interferes with the person’s life; but that depends on the person and on the life, not just on the symptoms and their severity. But it’s not surprising that neither professionals nor amateurs have learned to do that yet; it’s complex and we (humans) don’t deal well with complexity. Give us another few decades.

  2. Grant

    Sir, you antipate tomorrow’s post. How very FPS (future prognosticating syndrome) of you. Thanks, Grant

  3. LK

    hi, as the guilty party named in grant’s post i feel i must chime in.

    last night the new season of ‘curb your enthusiasm’ premiered on canadian TV (i believe it’s already started on HBO in the US). the protagonist larry david could easily be tagged with a number of troubling personality disorders. yet he isn’t. and we laugh and cringe uncomfortably as he makes his passive aggressive way through life, ticking off his famous friends, ending almost every episode by resorting to a childlike “me me me” antic that resembles an abu ghraib dogpile. (last night it was larry and ted danson fighting over a shirt that was first given as a gift, then refused, then re-gifted, then ruined, etc etc).

    larry david is the man behind seinfeld. his other creations, such as george costanza and kramer could also easily be diagnosed with a plethora of afflictions. yet we took these people in as our own, projected their foibles onto oursevles and our friends, and secretly wanted to hang at the diner with them.

    i guess my observation/point is that these characters, unlike monk, are not pathologized in any way. although a psychiatrist could have a field day with any of the ones mentioned here. does this mean that we are viewing these conditions in a new light? that they’re somewhat desirable because they entertain?

    and as a sidebar, what of silicon valley syndrome i.e. asperger’s, said to afflict many of the software geniuses who now have investment portfolios thicker than even the DSM-IV. when has society so richly rewarded those who previously may have been considered challenged or disabled.

  4. Grant

    Leora, well said, all. I think David and company are the high functioning crowd, and I like to think there example helps make the argument. They are, without our identification, pretty unlikeable. But we do like them. On the last point, I thought of mentioning this but it seemed to localize the phenomenon when what I wanted to do was generalize. Thanks! Grant

  5. LK

    from http://www.instituteofideas.com/events/therapy.html


    further to this thread on our overly diagnosed culture (and overly panacea-seeking…i.e. the answer to all of our problems: low carb everything!)i wanted to pass along the above link re a conference that took place in london last year attend, i believe, by the author of the book “therapy culture”. it seems to me that in addition to looking to play match my problem with the corresponding label, therapy culture the phenomenon absolves many of our/their actual afflictions. sometimes selfishness, callousness, self-absorption etc are just uncorrected character flaws and not necessarily ADD, OCD, asperger’s etc etc.

    here’s a paragraph from the above noted site:

    In recent decades ‘therapy’ has become a cultural phenomenon rather than just a clinical technique, influencing virtually every sphere of life. New syndromes and traumas regularly afflict people, whether it is soldiers with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, workers being bullied in the office, or filmstars suffering from sex addiction. Governments have adopted a variety of new therapeutic aims. Improving self esteem is now an accepted goal of education; at university, seeing a counsellor is now almost as routine as attending a lecture. A therapeutic ethos now dominates humanitarian interventions in international conflicts, while relations between the state and its citizens at home are being transformed by therapeutic welfare initiatives.

    This privileging of the emotions entails a radical redefinition of personhood. Increasingly, vulnerability is presented as the defining feature of people’s psychology. Terms like ‘at risk’, ‘scarred for life’ and ‘psychologically damaged’ evoke a unique sense of powerlessness.

    Speakers at this conference will question the widely accepted thesis that all this is an enlightened shift towards ’emotional intelligence’ and empowerment. By framing the problems of everyday life in emotional terms, is the therapeutic culture encouraging us all to become victims, to feel ill and powerless? Is the therapeutic culture, as Furedi argues, primarily about imposing a new conformity through the management of people’s emotions?

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