It sometimes seems as if each day brings a new raft of articles proclaiming yet another biological or genetic explanation for human behavior and activity. To Liah Greenfeld, that barrage is just a new bubble, and in Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience, she does her best to burst it. While not entirely dismissing biological factors in mental illness, Greenfeld argues that the phenomenon that was for a long time called simply “madness”—today’s schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression—is actually a symptom of modernity, an effect of our cultural environment.
To Greenfeld, “madness” is a disease not of the brain but of the mind, of consciousness, which itself is a cultural phenomenon, the product of nationalism, a subject on which Greenfeld has now produced a trilogy. As the cultural framework of modernity, nationalism insists on the dignity, creativity, and equality of man, the value of each human life, and the right and capacity for all to construct their own destinies, to love, and to be happy. Psychotic disease, she argues, is fundamentally a malfunction of the “acting self,” experienced as a loss of the familiar self and as a loss of control over one’s physical and mental activity, a response to the cultural demands of selfhood.
From Mind, Modernity, Madness:
The reason for the dysfunction of the acting self lies in the malformation of identity. It is possible that the complexity of the original identity problem (the depth and number of inconsistencies in the relationally constituted self) contributes to the complexity of the disease; for instance, in a case of dissatisfaction with one’s nevertheless clearly experienced identity causing depression, and in a case of no clearly experienced identity, combined with numerous competing possibilities, producing schizophrenia. It is modern culture—specifically the presumed equality of all the members of the society, secularism, and choice in self-definition, implied in the national consciousness—that makes the formation of the individual identity difficult. A member of a nation can no longer learn who or what s/he is from the environment. Instead of prescribing to us our identities, as do religious and in principle nonegalitarian cultures, modern culture leaves us free to decide what to be and to make ourselves. It is this cultural laxity that is anomie—the inability of a culture to provide the individuals within it with consistent guidance (already in the beginning of the twentieth century, recognized by Durkheim as the most dangerous problem of modernity). Paradoxically, in effect placed in control over our destiny, we are far more likely to be dissatisfied with it, than would be a person deprived of any such control: not having a choice, such a person would try to do the best with what one has and enjoy it as far as possible. A truly believing person would also feel s/he has no right to find fault with the order of things created by God, much less to try and change it to one’s own liking—one’s situation in life would be perceived as both unchangeable and just. Conversely, the presence of choice, the very ability to imagine oneself in a position different from one currently occupied or that of one’s parents, and the idea that social orders in general are created by people and may be changed make one suspect that one’s current situation is not the best one can have and to strive for a better one. The more choices one has, the less secure one becomes in the choices already made (by one or for one) and making up one’s mind—literally, in the sense of constructing one’s identity—grows increasingly difficult. It is for this reason that the malformation of the mind—quite independent of any disease of the brain—becomes a mark of nations.