Trend watch: from Woody Allen to Monk

I’m old enough to remember cocktail chatter in New York City in the 1960s.

It was usual for people to talk about their neuroses, their hang ups, their therapists, and their tortured pursuit of mental health.  The paradigm was Freudian and the exemplar was Woody Allen, a man who managed to turn his symptoms into a comic style and cultural touchstone.  Cocktail chatter feasted on this cultural motif, because it was more intelligent than comparing Zodiak signs, plus it was funny, human, disarming, and, usually, more revealing than comparing Zodiak signs.

Here’s the thing.  I can’t remember someone talking like this for some decades.  Apparently, people stopped using the Freudian, the Allenian model. The trend is dead. This fundamental pattern of self and social revelation has changed.

When and why did this happen?  And why didn’t someone tell me?  (I could just have gone back to Zodiak signs.)

The immediate causes for this trend are not mysterious: the decline of the Freudian paradigm as an cultural influence, the rise of pharmaceuticals, our inability to spend a day or two a week in analysis, the renewal (and triumph?) of that long standing American impatience with reflection.  (Reflection takes stillness.  We prefer movement.)

But I wonder about another possibility.  Did we abandoned neurosis as an explanation (and a party game) because new explanations rose to capture our attention?  Specifically I’m interested in cocktail chatter that refers to our attention disorders or our location on the Autistic spectrum. These days our explanations are more neurological than psychological.  And our exemplar is (perhaps) Tony Shaloub as Monk.

And why should these new explanations have appealed to us?  There are some easy answers here too. We are more and more aware that the incidence of attention disorder and Asperger’s syndrome.  By this time, everyone knows who Temple Grandin is and we "get" her condition in a way we never did before.

If the Allenian model was confessional and humanizing (e.g., "These are my failings"), the new model prizes involuntary intelligence and an almost mechanical responsiveness.  The new failings make us wittlessly capable automata.  In the new regime, our weaknesses arm us as problem solvers.  But there is nothing much performed or willed about this behavior. Monk’s intelligence is an obligatory intelligence.  He doesn’t chose to do it.  It acts itself out in him.

In the old regime, cocktail chatter claimed human qualities that made the speaker more scrutable, more transparent, more human, I always thought.  The new cocktail chatter has us claiming qualities that are a little machine like.  And it makes perfect sense that we should find this flattering, that this is a comparison we would wish to encourage.  After all, since the fall of the Freudian regime, machines in the digital domain have made astonishing strides.  Who wouldn’t welcome comparisons with a powerful machine based intelligence and the virtually (eventually) sentient machine?

We might say that if the old regime made us more human, the new one makes us less.  But this of course accepts the terms of the old regime.  If cocktail chatter is anything to judge by, we are now in the process of working out new models and metaphors.  Whither and why?


McCracken, Grant.  2004.  Our new porousness and "latent inhibition" diminishment.  This Blog.  May 24.  here.

McCracken, Grant.  2004.  The Monk in nous.  This Blog.  June 25.  here.

Note: This example was lost in the Network Solutions debacle.  It was reposted December 26, 2010.