Modern Life is Madness

The philosopher Ian Hacking makes this observation

In every generation there are quite firm rules about how to behave when you are crazy

What does he mean? Well, it’s interesting how a society’s disorders often mirror the concerns of the time – its fears, hopes and taboos.  Depression for example,  is a sickness prevalent in times of peace and prosperity, rather than war.  Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) has become a huge concern in a culture that is drowning in information. In the UK at least, our standards of living are the highest they have ever been – and yet we’re more miserable.

Such ‘culture-bound’ disorders aren’t confined to the UK. In Trinidad there’s a disorder known as ‘Studiation Madness’ or ‘Brain fag’. The fag is primarily experienced by stressed-out students in Nigeria and other parts of Africaa reaction to the alien pressures of Western-style book learning. Symptoms include difficulties in concentrating, remembering, and thinking, as well as burning or crawling sensations under the skin and visual disturbances.

Let’s return to an example  closer to home – anorexia. This tends to be an illness of plenty rather than famine. But why are eating disorders so prevalent in the midst of abundance?  Are they in fact a reaction to it? In a culture of excess, can these be seen as hunger strikes – a way of sticking a finger up to a culture that is fixated on our physical needs, but often spiritually and emotionally bankrupt?

Another, related theory is that EDs are a way of retreating before the endless options of modern life.  This covers a whole spectrum of choices, from what we eat to what it means to be a man or a woman. As Lisa Appignanesi argues,

a particular period’s definitions of appropriate femininity or masculinity (are) closely linked to definitions of madness.

In the nineteenth century, this might have looked like keeping your emotions under wraps or being quarantined at home or in an asylum due to ‘women’s nerves’.  Today we’re obsessed with looking younger, where the ideal body type is either a male model who could pass as a woman, or a pre-pubescent posing as an adult.  We’re told that we have more freedom and opportunity than ever before – but the reality looks more like a proliferation of competing claims.  What starts as a promise – from great skin and career success to an enviable personal and family life – can end up as a demand, against which no-one can measure up.

So-called opportunities can in fact become constraints, against which we feel powerless and anxious. In the 19thc, many talented, middle-class women sought to shake off the chains of gender expectations by choosing invalidism as a preferable option. But has this strategy changed? Or are eating disorders in part an unconscious way of doing the same thing?

6 thoughts on “Modern Life is Madness

  1. I was pondering this the other day – asceticism (e.g. eating disorders) as a reaction to too much choice/food/stuff we don’t really need. And for the Christian whether it’s an ungodly way of trying to be distinctive from the world around us, to avoid assimilating. (Ungodly because it’s ‘self-made religion’… Colossians 2:20-23! And the only antidote that works – Col 3:1ff.)

  2. Yes, it can be a ‘Christian’ attempt to be distinctive – but as you say, it’s still self-made. I think this applies not just to anorexia but other eating disorders like bulimia or binge-eating. Another reaction to excess is to try and have it all, to take seriously all the choices we are offered and keep saying yes.

  3. Hi
    For my masters dissertation I read an article by Susan Bordo, ‘Anorexia Nervosa: Psychopathology as Crystallization of Culture’ (1985) in which she says that anorexia (as one manifestation among many) can be seen as the condensed form of that which is twisted or pathological in a given culture. In our culture she links anorexia specifically with mind/body dualism, begun at least by Plato and Christianised by Augustinian gnosticism. In this sense they represent that same philosophical dualism, that same disgust of the body, that same desire for control of the physical. She draws a lot of her methods from the brilliant Michel Foucault. I suspect that you would be interested in his History of Sexuality, and his History of Madness.

  4. Hi David

    Thanks v.much for your comments. Funnily enough, I read the Bordo article for my dissertation too (although to be honest, the catchy title sticks more than her argument) – so I’ll definitely revisit it. I haven’t read any Foucault, so I’m gonna give him a go on your recommendation. What I’d most like to read though, is your dissertation – what was your subject?

  5. Hi Emma
    My dissertation was on 17th century English spiritual autobiographies. I can email it to you if you like. The Bordo piece was really interesting I thought. My supervisor suggested it because she thought it might help to explain some of the frankly bizarre and hysterical manifestations of conversion experiences in the wake of neo-Calvinism.
    Foucault is really easy to read, as well as being obviously very intelligent. He was a prominent French atheist postmodernist, but his thought is really interesting and opens onto a lot of what you talk about.
    What was your dissertation on?

  6. Thanks David

    I’d love to read your disst – please email!
    Mine was on teaching kids + young people and how the gospel relates to identity and pastoral care. I got sick before finishing, but I don’t think it would’ve said anything new anyway.

    I’ve ordered Foucault and am holding you responsible…

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