The following is an earlier version of an essay that first appeared here. For those who are interested, it repeats and expands upon certain recent themes of mine, mainly regarding the political and ideological implications of certain psychology trends.
Accentuate the Positive, Eliminate the Negative: ‘Try not to think’
It would be tempting, perhaps, to describe ‘Positive Psychology’ as the latest fad in a discipline not short of buzzwords and passing fashions. Tempting, but not true, since this particular trend has thoroughly infiltrated almost every form of psychotherapeutic mental health treatment, as well as many other areas besides, and is implemented in the corporate world, the public sector, and educational settings. The function of this doctrine of optimism in times of crisis calls for explanation, remembering that here, as elsewhere, the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.
One can get a sense of what positive psychology is all about in this pamphlet, published by the Black Dog Institute, an Australian mental health research and advocacy centre. The aim of such a psychology, according to the pamphlet, is ‘wellbeing’. (One should note carefully the construction of the subject of positive psychology is ontological – based on wellbeing – and not ethical, and oriented around well-doing or well-saying).This need for wellbeing seems implicitly, at least, to derive from meaningless, since ‘meaning’ is everywhere posited as a key goal of positive psychology. The ‘meaning’ in question is in turn reducible to a set of practices or ‘strategies’, including those aimed at ‘enhancing pleasure’, such as committing to regular acts of self-congratulations, seeking novelty, and being ‘absorbed’ in all this to the extent that you ‘try not to think, just sense’. Beyond this are further recommendations for wellbeing, such as practicing forgiveness, thanking mentors, and engaging in ‘mindfulness’, to which we shall return shortly. Perhaps the most famous exponent of the positive psychology approach is Martin Seligman, whose strategies are promoted in his book, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. Against contemporary meaningless is a terminology involving ‘authenticity’, the immediacy of ‘presence’, a pathologisation of the ‘negative’, and acceptance and commitment (though generally much more of the former than the latter).
Such rhetoric recalls that which was pilloried in Adorno’s brief and incisive work, The Jargon of Authenticity. Adorno’s tome was a critique of German existentialism, particularly that of Jaspers and Heidegger. By examining both the language of the philosophers, as well as the conceptual machinery of their project, Adorno argued for German existentialism to be grasped in terms of ideology. In dismantling the jargon – of ‘authenticity’, ‘wholeness’, ‘immediacy’ and the like – he was able to reveal its underpinnings as a series of religious gestures, but devoid of religious content. This was an ideological mystification of human domination, with affinities to at least two other discourses of note from the twentieth century, namely, the philosophical apologias for German fascism on the one hand, and on the other, mass advertising.
The conceptual heirs of the German ideologues are arguably, today, the positive psychology movement, a predominately Anglophone appropriation of the Continental European tradition of existential-humanistic psychology, with some pop-Buddhism and patronising glibness added for good measure. (‘Critical positivity ratios’, anyone?). What I wish to show here is that Adorno’s critique applies to this movement as it did to the German existentialists, and that both jargons operate ideologically in a similar manner: as a method of pacification and obedience; for the promotion of personal narcissism and consumerism; and crypto-fascist and militaristic functions.
Mindfulness and the Marketing of Immediacy
At the heart of positive psychology is mindfulness. It derives from certain Buddhist tenets aimed at a pacification of the mind. (For summaries, see here and here). Whereas in Buddhism, the calming of the mind is not an end in itself, but rather, part of a broader religious program in which the subject makes better use of her mind (the Noble Eightfold Path), in psychology, the religious elements are suppressed. What remains is an attempt to affirm consciousness of the present as a means of quelling everything from depression to distraction.
Of course, the present does not exist, at least, not the ‘pure’, naive present found in positive psychology, which is in fact an artefact of structure and history. There are many lines of argument against its existence, but I will touch upon two here. Firstly, the relative saliency of perceptual stimuli in the so-called present is historically and structurally determined. I can hear my name even in the din of a crowded room because what constitutes the ‘present’ includes unconscious knowledge derived from the past. No ‘present’ is conceivable without this knowledge any more than one could conceive of the state of consciousness of a newly-born infant. Second, as Hegel showed in the Phenomenology of Spirit in the dialectic of the hic et nunc, the preoccupation with the ‘meaning’ of ‘immediate’ perception inevitably devolves into a proliferation of empty, deictic universals (i.e. singularity and particularity of the ‘present’ is effaced by ‘shifters’ and phenomena end u needing external reference points to anchor their significance). In short, the focus of mindfulness on the present is not to be found in Buddhist traditions, and is refuted by Western thought also, though this refutation does little to challenge its ideological efficacy. As Adorno said of the existentialists – ‘Once capitalism has grown uneasy about theoretical self-assertion, its advocates prefer to use the categories of spontaneous life in order to present what is man-made’.
What follows from this de-religised attention to the present? Some obvious consequences are the debasement of memory and historicism; the denial of the unconscious; and the dismissal of unpleasant elements of subjectivity as ephemera to be meditated away. One need not be particularly politically radical to observe that an approach which eschews context and history greatly favours oppressors over the oppressed. This may explain its popularity among executives and HR managers, or why a practice supposedly oriented at ‘meaning’ is now commonly grafted to normative ‘therapies’ of suggestion such as CBT. In fairness to adherents of mindfulness, any attempt at pacification of subjects without altering the conditions of their distress could be considered politically regressive, but alcohol (for instance) at least has in its favour the fact that it is not usually marketed as spiritual or medicinal. To return once more to Adorno, ‘the subject is told that the force from which he flees back into his cave has no power over him’.
Once the religious content has been neutralised, the jargon of mindfulness can play its ideological role. The ideal of ‘self-possession’ may imply one thing in Buddhist traditions, but in the workforces of the industrial West, it smacks of neoliberalism, and presupposes a ‘self’ which is reduced to mere contractual entity, here fetishised as a pillar of ‘wellbeing’. ‘Self-control’ is the circumstance in which the subject has become the instrument of her own pacification, able to obey without excess negativity. The focus on the task at hand in this application is reminiscent of a kind of Taylorism of the soul. It is not for nothing that critical reflection is gently belittled (‘Try not to think, just sense!’) in this paradigm, since even the slightest of deductions would bring the entire edifice crashing down.
It may be argued, of course, that in a world in which much is meaningless, and in which subjectivity suffers from the burden of hyper-stimulation, that perhaps some mindfulness is not altogether a bad thing. Yet in the context of the jargon of positive psychology, this mindfulness bears a marked resemblance to mindless consumption, even if it officially and superficially expresses scepticism for this. This is evident in the aforementioned Black Dog pamphlet, which enjoins its readers to seek novelty for its own sake, and to ‘surprise yourself with small presents of pleasure’. The sort of ‘pleasure’ at issue here resembles that of the shopper, rather than the Zen monk, one suspects. In sum, though mindfulness is marketed as a self-evident good (in terms of therapeutic effects, productivity, etc), it is based on unquestioned humility, short-term manipulation of affect through avoidance of all but the narrowest ‘present’, and the narcissistic satisfaction of small, ‘novel’ rewards, rather like the dog biscuits of classical Behaviourism. Once, this sort of thing was satirised by Huxley; today, it constitutes both a ‘scientific’ and ‘spiritual’ advance in applied psychology. It features in Workfare programs, for instance, where the manufacture of positive affect is equated with wellbeing, on the basis that it enhances compliance and employability.
One might argue that, although mindfulness reduces ‘spirituality’ to mere techniques for dissociating from one’s pain, perhaps it is nonetheless valid as a method for alleviating suffering. One should always, however, draw attention to the politically regressive implications of such interventions. No doubt, there are features of contemporary life that induce suffering and discombobulation on a mass scale. In response, the professions of discipline and surveillance offer mass prescriptions of SSRIs, CBT (this CBT, rather than this one, though the parallels are striking) and mindfulness, as a short-term project of individual adaptation to a status quo that causes hardship. Naturally, the status quo in question is left entirely untouched by these adaptations; its position may even be strengthened, since opposition is a priori defined as individual psychopathology and ‘maladaptiveness’. As Adorno said of the existentialists of his day: ‘The jargon’s “blessings” conceal this objective context of unfreedom, and in the name of critical reflection the jargon joins hands with modern advertising in celebrating the meaningfulness of immediate experience.’
Within the jargon of positive psychology, ‘authenticity’ is called upon to do some ideological heavy-lifting. A summation of this concept can be found here. In short, authenticity is defined through self-reflection as being ‘true to one’s self’. It is not for nothing that the authentics of today, like those of 1930s Germany,’ shun Freud’, as Adorno put, and practice a resolute denial of the unconscious and ignorance of psychoanalysis. The ‘self’ to which is ‘true’ is devoid of lack or subjective division. In psychoanalytic terms, the ‘authenticity’ at stake in the contemplation of one’s own image, or whether one is ‘true’ to an imagined self, is purely narcissistic in the strictest sense, and perhaps even auto-erotic. The jargon first fetishises and reifies the imagined self-image, and then seeks psychological mechanisms for identification with it.
This is further compounded by positive psychology’s radical individualism, which resembles that of Ayn Rand’s heroes. Being ‘true to one’s self’’ is an exercise in self-identity. As Mark Furlong put it, situating context-specific problems at a personal level tends to be prized by those who champion market thinking. Or, as Adorno said, ‘authenticity is a manner of behaviour that is ascribed to the being-a-subject, not to the subject as a relational factor’, which is to say, it has nothing to do with authenticity with respect to others. To be authentic in these terms is to be ‘selfish’, in both the ethical and etymological senses of the word. It is a prêt-à-porter ideological imperative for those who wish to attack forms of social cohesion, and who conceive of human relations as mere contractual arrangements between self-possessed, atomistic entities. The problem with authenticity, here as with Adorno’s Heidegger, ‘is not the fact that it is permeated, like any philosophical language, with figures from an empirical reality which it would like to transcend, but that it transforms a bad empirical reality into transcendence.’
‘[I]n the name of contemporary authenticity even a torturer could put in all sorts of claims for compensation, to the extent that he was simply a true torturer.’ So said Adorno – as it turns out, the links between authenticity and torture are not merely rhetorical.
The Application of Positivity to Spiritual Fitness: “We’re after creating an indomitable Army”
Not content with the discipline and surveillance of the unemployed and suffering, the positive authentics have also turned their attention to military goals in the US. The movement’s guru, Martin Seligman (about whom I have written here), is responsible for a number of initiatives under the banner of ‘spiritual fitness’ in the armed services. Seligman claims to have reviewed the entire history of ethical philosophy of both the East and Western worlds, and to have condensed its teachings into 24 easily-digestible, quantifiable ’strengths’. On this basis, in what is possibly the largest psychological intervention in human history, US soldiers are taught skills to think positively, and not to ‘catastrophise’. In cryptofascist fashion, and reminiscent of Adorno’s targets, in which religious customs are cut off from their religious content’ belief in a ‘higher good’ is valorised for its own sake and considered a feature of spiritual fitness, entirely independently of the religious content itself. (Perhaps belief in another world aids and abets the destruction of this one). If a soldier receives an order from a superior that is unwanted or unethical, they might positivise this by construing it as a sign of esteem from their commander, rather than as an onerous (or unethical) imperative. After all, as Seligman put it, ‘We’re after creating an indomitable army’. This is an attempt at a totalitarianism undreamed of in the 20th Century, when, as the old Soviet joke has it, we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us. In this political iteration, mere compliance is not enough; one must also love Big Brother (and the orders of his agents).
What are the implications of instrumentalising ‘virtue’ in the pursuit of the indomitable? In addition to the relentless promotion of individual narcissism, compliance and consumerism in the name of a debauched spiritualism and ‘meaning’, there is also the spectre of fascist militarism. As Adorno diagnosed it:
Fascism was not simply a conspiracy – although it was that – but it was something that came to life in the course of a powerful social development. Language provides it with a refuge. Within this refuge a smouldering evil expresses itself as though it were salvation.
Indeed, the jargon and adherents of positive psychology have already been thoroughly implicated in the CIAs torture program at Guantanamo, despite Seligman personally having sufficient layers of plausible deniability to escape relatively unscathed. (Here, the positivist jargon restores to sadistic torture its brand integrity, renaming it ‘enhanced interrogation’) Submission to a higher authority was already part of military structure prior to positive psychology; what this latter adds is a definition of ‘spiritual fitness’ in which this submission is lauded and made positive for its own sake, independent of the ethical and political consequences. The ‘indomitability’ in question here is that of the military subject being able to risk and potentially sacrifice his life, see his comrades dead and mutilated, and enact death and torture upon others whilst ‘positive’ and dissociated from the trauma of such events. It is not, in my view, too strained a comparison to invoke the Holocaust in connection with these psychological interventions. We should recall that the Holocaust began on a mass scale on the Eastern Front with armed men shooting countless thousands of unarmed civilians. Naturally, shooting the elderly, women and infants point blank in the face for days at a time did little for the esprit de corps of the shooters, and thus, it was not merely for reasons of ‘German efficiency’, but on OHS grounds that the Holocaust took on a different procedural form. The process of killing was broken into discreet and sanitised acts which enabled the murderers some physical distance from the ramifications of following their orders. Positive psychology attempts to institute this distance – necessary in the perpetuation of trauma and suffering – at the level of the individual psyche.
Back in the rowdy days of Paris in 1969, the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan gave a speech to students amidst protests and love-ins. He was heckled with the accusation that the psychoanalyst is a ‘kind of cop’. Insofar as psychoanalytic practice has aligned itself with implementation of normative functions, the heckler has a point. Yet today, the agent of the ‘positive’ and ‘authentic’ is not only a cop, but also a military commander combined with marketing guru, whose ‘spiritual’ prattle betrays its hollow opposite at every turn. Such ‘spiritual fitness’ is only required when one presupposes universal spiritual debasement, and its consequences, namely, conditions of immutable individualism, narcissism, submission and militarism. It should be fought by anybody for whom human subjectivity is more than a bundle of functions to be rendered compliant by technique. Adjusting subjects’ suffering to the contingencies of the contemporary world, and presenting this adjustment as a form of universal ‘virtue’ or form of spiritualism is an ideological exercise, par excellence, in which the ‘soft’ power of ideology (media, disciplinary professions) act as handmaidens to ‘hard’ power (capital, the military). Whatever the supposedly pristine intentions of (some of) its users, the jargon conceals the biopolitical practices at the heart of its discourse.