[Marxism] Critical Review of Frank Füredi's Latest Book

Paul Flewers trusscott.foundation at virgin.net
Mon Apr 5 15:23:40 MDT 2004

Further to Phil F's posting, here's something from the New Statesman taking
Professor Füredi to task.

Paul F


The curse of the talking cure
New Statesman
Book Reviews
Darian Leader
Monday 3rd November 2003

Therapy Culture: cultivating vulnerability in an uncertain age
Frank Furedi
Routledge, 245pp, £16.99
ISBN 041532159X

There's a marvellous scene in the film Anger Management in which Adam
Sandler's character politely asks for headphones during a flight, but his
timid requests are interpreted as symptoms of uncontrolled anger. The more
his behaviour is misconstrued as abusive, the angrier he gets, leading to a
compulsory course of sessions with an anger management therapist. The first
thing his therapist tells him, however, is that he doesn't get angry enough.
He is denying his anger, and this, rather than its expression, is the source
of his woes. The resulting hilarity illustrates many of the problems of what
Frank Furedi calls "therapy culture". Emotions are seen as the authentic
core of the self: we are told which emotions we can and can't have and which
are appropriate. And, naturally, we need an expert to tell us this.

That this expert is a therapist suggests that the role of therapy is to
exert a form of social control. Rather than promoting freedom and the
resolution of problems, therapy aims at social integration and human
management. That many large companies hire stress counsellors and even train
managers in therapeutic skills is testimony to this complicity between
therapy and the market place. And by continually emphasising the sick-victim
role and undermining informal support networks of friends, relatives and
colleagues, therapy promotes the idea of dependency on professional

Rather than working against the ramifications of a "victim" culture,
therapy, according to Furedi, does its best to perpetuate it. Life's many
blows and disappointments are pathologised into illnesses. Therapists teach
us that people lack the resilience to deal with feelings of isolation and
failure, and hence all negative emotional responses are turned into
therapeutic or medical problems.

For Furedi, the modern subject is not someone who does but someone who is
done to. As life's uncertainties transmute into dangers, we increasingly see
ourselves as survivors, forever at risk from injury by external agents. The
media's obsession with threats to our well-being and health consolidate such
fears. Furedi argues that this sense of vulnerability makes individuals feel
ever less a sense of personal responsibility. Nothing is anyone's fault any
longer, and therapy culture refashions the "sins" and "moral failings" of
old as "addictions".

These changes play squarely into the hands of politicians and business
because they shift attention from social to individual problems. Furedi
makes much of the growth of counselling during the Thatcher years, and
laments the way in which trade unions have become more interested in
organising stress management courses than mobilising for collective action.
Bullying in the workplace is deemed more acute a cause of stress than
traditional variables such as poor conditions and bad pay. Social problems
are recast as individual ones, and so the challenge of finding social
solutions is neatly sidestepped.

What allowed this grim state of affairs to emerge? Like many reactionary
social commentators, Furedi blames the progressive erosion of a "web of
meaning" - the shared value systems that told people not only who they were
but also how they related to others. With the loss of such a "web", we no
longer have the transmitted knowledge to understand everyday encounters.
Instead, we are forced to come up with individual systems of meaning, and to
do so, we need experts. Hence the proliferation of all sorts of coaches and
gurus to guide us through life. The new army of predatory health
professionals accentuates the vulnerability of patients, prompting even
greater reliance on therapists. For Furedi, this discourages healthy forms
of dependency and reinforces the alienation and fragmentation that the
experts were supposed to remedy.

Furedi's gloomy portrait of the contemporary psyche is both valuable and
confused. He is interested only in what the shrinks have to say if it
conforms to the stereotype of self-help culture, with its absurd but
dangerous language of "addiction", "self-esteem" and "closure". Much of the
ground he covers has already been charted by other social theorists. But
Furedi's approach, rather like the political landscape he describes, is not
informed by theory. He offers expositions of people's views but no proper
analysis of human subjectivity or social bonds. Instead, there is much
nostalgia, a lot of ranting against New Age imbecility and a curious lack of
historical scrutiny.

Much of the book tells us that therapy culture has infiltrated just about
everything. But if therapy has become "arguably the most important signifier
of meaning for the everyday life of the individual", isn't this the same
thing as a web of meaning, the loss of which he so bewails? Furedi seems to
imply that in the past people just got on with life. But we have always been
duped by belief systems and always will be. Therapy Culture may be
documenting current therapeutic ideology, but this modern trend is a form of
ideology all the same. There is nothing new about people turning to a belief
system as a response to human distress. Furedi regrets that we now find such
personal attributes as warmth and charisma more important in our politicians
than ideas and strategy. But he does not recognise that this has always been
the case. There may have been a golden age when people were inspired by
ideals and values external to themselves, and sacrifices were made for a
cause, but this is not to say that people were any less hypnotised by
beliefs of one sort or another. Our sadness at the decline in social
engagement should not stop us examining how people engage with each other in
the first place.

Rather than analyse, Furedi falls back on a deeply conservative,
"pull-your-socks-up" attitude. He argues that instead of consulting the
experts, we ought to learn from experience: "Intuition and insight gained
from personal experience are continually compromised by professional
knowledge." But what about the knowledge gained from consulting experts and
realising that they have something - or indeed nothing - to offer?

Furedi's naive view blinds him to many of the positive effects of therapy.
"Alcoholism," he writes, "is no longer represented as a moral weakness, but
as a disease and victims of this condition are treated or helped rather than
condemned." Would he prefer society not to offer alcoholics any treatment?
He rails against victims of crime being protected from aggressive
questioning in court, and complains that mental anguish and pain have become
legitimate grounds for compensation. And the section on Holocaust survivors
is particularly questionable. Furedi makes an insensitive contrast between
the "stoic, self-contained response of Holocaust victims" and their
descendants' response to the past.

Furedi seems unaware of the thousands of publications by therapists who
themselves contest the therapy culture he dissects; these might have helped
him to understand why therapy-speak has become such a dominant cultural
force. Part of the reason lies in the way psychoanalysis was jettisoned in
favour of simplistic ideas, thereby making it compatible with the market
place. Furedi treats therapy as a unified field, rather than one split by
disagreement and diversity. For example, his argument that therapy is a form
of social control could be directed at cognitive behavioural therapy but not
at most forms of psychoanalysis.

He sees an anti-reasoning stance as essential to self-help culture, which
takes emotions not only as a guide to what is most authentic, but as the
only real source of authenticity. He is quite right to lambaste this
privileging of the emotions, but fails to see that most therapy is about
questioning the nature of feelings. Emotions, as Hume and Freud argued, lie.
Therapy involves exploring how feelings deceive us and how they are governed
by unconscious thought processes.

If the primary status of the self today is victimhood, as Furedi claims, it
is mainly therapists who battle against this misconception. He not only
ignores most of their studies, but fails to see how therapy aims to shift
people away from a passive perspective and to make them subjects rather than
objects of their destiny. He suggests that there is a therapist under every
stone, but we should remember that therapy is still unavailable to much of
the British population. Therapy Culture contains much that is valid, but
Furedi should realise that the sort of self-help culture he targets is
putting genuine therapists out of business. He wants to blame therapy, yet
as he writes: "Blame-seeking is intolerant of complexity." But what can we
expect from a writer - a professor of sociology - who suggests that good old
"British courage" should replace therapy culture?

Darian Leader is a psychoanalyst and the author of Stealing the Mona Lisa:
what art stops us from seeing (Faber & Faber)

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