The Crisis of Identity

“Have we lived too fast?”
~Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, 1871
Wear and Tear, or Hints for the Overworked

I’ve been following Scott Preston over at his blog, Chrysalis. He has been writing on the same set of issues for a long time now, longer than I’ve been reading his blog. He reads widely and so draws on many sources, most of which I’m not familiar with, part of the reason I appreciate the work he does to pull together such informed pieces. A recent post, A Brief History of Our Disintegration, would give you a good sense of his intellectual project, although the word ‘intellectual’ sounds rather paltry for what he is describing:

“Around the end of the 19th century (called the fin de siecle period), something uncanny began to emerge in the functioning of the modern mind, also called the “perspectival” or “the mental-rational structure of consciousness” (Jean Gebser). As usual, it first became evident in the arts — a portent of things to come, but most especially as a disintegration of the personality and character structure of Modern Man and mental-rational consciousness.”

That time period has been an interest of mine as well. There are two books that come to mind that I’ve mentioned before: Tom Lutz’s American Nervousness, 1903 and Jackson Lear’s Rebirth of a Nation (for a discussion of the latter, see: Juvenile Delinquents and Emasculated Males). Both talk about that turn-of-the-century crisis, the psychological projections and physical manifestations, the social movements and political actions. A major concern was neurasthenia which, according to the dominant economic paradigm, meant a deficit of ‘nervous energy’ or ‘nerve force’, the reserves of which if not reinvested wisely and instead wasted would lead to physical and psychological bankruptcy, and so one became spent (the term ‘neurasthenia’ was first used in 1829 and popularized by George Miller Beard in 1869, the same period when the related medical condition of ‘nostalgia’ began being diagnosed).

This was mixed up with sexuality in what Theodore Dreiser called the ‘spermatic economy’ (by the way, the catalogue for Sears, Roebuck and Company offered an electrical device to replenish nerve force that came with a genital attachment). Obsession with sexuality was used to reinforce gender roles in how neurasthenic patients were treated in following the practice of Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, in that men were recommended to become more active (the ‘West cure’) and women more passive (the ‘rest cure’), although some women “used neurasthenia to challenge the status quo, rather than enforce it. They argued that traditional gender roles were causing women’s neurasthenia, and that housework was wasting their nervous energy. If they were allowed to do more useful work, they said, they’d be reinvesting and replenishing their energies, much as men were thought to do out in the wilderness” (Julie Beck, ‘Americanitis’: The Disease of Living Too Fast). That feminist-style argument, as I recall, came up in advertisements for the Bernarr Macfadden’s fitness protocol in the early-1900s, encouraging (presumably middle class) women to give up housework for exercise and so regain their vitality. Macfadden was also an advocate of living a fully sensuous life, going as far as free love.

Besides the gender wars, there was the ever-present bourgeois bigotry. Neurasthenia is the most civilized of the diseases of civilization since, in its original American conception, it was perceived as only afflicting middle-to-upper class whites, especially WASPs — as Lutz says that, “if you were lower class, and you weren’t educated and you weren’t Anglo Saxon, you wouldn’t get neurasthenic because you just didn’t have what it took to be damaged by modernity” (Julie Beck, ‘Americanitis’: The Disease of Living Too Fast) and so, according to Lutz’s book, people would make “claims to sickness as claims to privilege.” It was considered a sign of progress, but over time it came to be seen by some as the greatest threat to civilization, in either case offering much material for fictionalized portrayals that were popular. Being sick in this fashion was proof that one was a modern individual, an exemplar of advanced civilization, if coming at immense cost —Julie Beck explains:

“The nature of this sickness was vague and all-encompassing. In his book Neurasthenic Nation, David Schuster, an associate professor of history at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, outlines some of the possible symptoms of neurasthenia: headaches, muscle pain, weight loss, irritability, anxiety, impotence, depression, “a lack of ambition,” and both insomnia and lethargy. It was a bit of a grab bag of a diagnosis, a catch-all for nearly any kind of discomfort or unhappiness.

“This vagueness meant that the diagnosis was likely given to people suffering from a variety of mental and physical illnesses, as well as some people with no clinical conditions by modern standards, who were just dissatisfied or full of ennui. “It was really largely a quality-of-life issue,” Schuster says. “If you were feeling good and healthy, you were not neurasthenic, but if for some reason you were feeling run down, then you were neurasthenic.””

I’d point out how neurasthenia was seen as primarily caused by intellectual activity, as it became a descriptor of a common experience among the burgeoning middle class of often well-educated professionals and office workers. This relates to Weston A. Price’s work in the 1930s, as modern dietary changes first hit this demographic since they had the means to afford eating a fully industrialized Standard American Diet (SAD), long before others (within decades, though, SAD-caused malnourishment would wreck the health at all levels of society). What this meant, in particular, was a diet high in processed carbs and sugar that coincided, because of Upton Sinclair’s 1904 The Jungle: Muckraking the Meat-Packing Industry,  with the early-1900s decreased consumption of meat and saturated fats. As Price demonstrated, this was a vast change from the traditional diet found all over the world, including in rural Europe (and presumably in rural America, with most Americans not urbanized until the turn of last century), that always included significant amounts of nutritious animal foods loaded up with fat-soluble vitamins, not to mention lots of healthy fats and cholesterol.

Prior to talk of neurasthenia, the exhaustion model of health portrayed as waste and depletion took hold in Europe centuries earlier (e.g., anti-masturbation panics) and had its roots in humor theory of bodily fluids. It has long been understood that food, specifically macronutrients (carbohydrate, protein, & fat), affect mood and behavior — see the early literature on melancholy. During feudalism food laws were used as a means of social control, such that in one case meat was prohibited prior to Carnival because of its energizing effect that it was thought could lead to rowdiness or even revolt (Ken Albala & Trudy Eden, Food and Faith in Christian Culture).

There does seem to be a connection between an increase of intellectual activity with an increase of carbohydrates and sugar, this connection first appearing during the early colonial era that set the stage for the Enlightenment. It was the agricultural mind taken to a whole new level. Indeed, a steady flow of glucose is one way to fuel extended periods of brain work, such as reading and writing for hours on end and late into the night — the reason college students to this day will down sugary drinks while studying. Because of trade networks, Enlightenment thinkers were buzzing on the suddenly much more available simple carbs and sugar, with an added boost from caffeine and nicotine. The modern intellectual mind was drugged-up right from the beginning, and over time it took its toll. Such dietary highs inevitably lead to ever greater crashes of mood and health. Interestingly, Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell who advocated the ‘rest cure’ and ‘West cure’ in treating neurasthenia and other ailments additionally used a “meat-rich diet” for his patients (Ann Stiles, Go rest, young man). Other doctors of that era were even more direct in using specifically low-carb diets for various health conditions, often for obesity which was also a focus of Dr. Mitchell.

Still, it goes far beyond diet. There has been a diversity of stressors that have continued to amass over the centuries of tumultuous change. The exhaustion of modern man (and typically the focus has been on men) has been building up for generations upon generations before it came to feel like a world-shaking crisis with the new industrialized world. The lens of neurasthenia was an attempt to grapple with what had changed, but the focus was too narrow. With the plague of neurasthenia, the atomization of commericialized man and woman couldn’t hold together. And so there was a temptation toward nationalistic projects, including wars, to revitalize the ailing soul and to suture the gash of social division and disarray. But this further wrenched out of alignment the traditional order that had once held society together, and what was lost mostly went without recognition. The individual was brought into the foreground of public thought, a lone protagonist in a social Darwinian world. In this melodramatic narrative of struggle and self-assertion, many individuals didn’t fare so well and everything else suffered in the wake.

Tom Lutz writes that, “By 1903, neurasthenic language and representations of neurasthenia were everywhere: in magazine articles, fiction, poetry, medical journals and books, in scholarly journals and newspaper articles, in political rhetoric and religious discourse, and in advertisements for spas, cures, nostrums, and myriad other products in newspapers, magazines and mail-order catalogs” (American Nervousness, 1903, p. 2).

There was a sense of moral decline that was hard to grasp, although some people like Weston A. Price tried to dig down into concrete explanations of what had so gone wrong, the social and psychological changes observable during mass urbanization and industrialization. He was far from alone in his inquiries, having built on the prior observations of doctors, anthropologists, and missionaries. Other doctors and scientists were looking into the influences of diet in the mid-1800s and, by the 1880s, scientists were exploring a variety of biological theories. Their inability to pinpoint the cause maybe had more to do with their lack of a needed framework, as they touched upon numerous facets of biological functioning:

“Not surprisingly, laboratory experiments designed to uncover physiological changes in the nerve cell were inconclusive. European research on neurasthenics reported such findings as loss of elasticity of blood vessels,’ thickening of the cell wall, changes in the shape of nerve cells,’6 or nerve cells that never advanced beyond an embryonic state.’ Another theory held that an overtaxed organism cannot keep up with metabolic requirements, leading to inadequate cell nutrition and waste excretion. The weakened cells cannot develop properly, while the resulting build-up of waste products effectively poisons the cells (so-called “autointoxication”).’ This theory was especially attractive because it seemed to explain the extreme diversity of neurasthenic symptoms: weakened or poisoned cells might affect the functioning of any organ in the body. Furthermore, “autointoxicants” could have a stimulatory effect, helping to account for the increased sensitivity and overexcitability characteristic of neurasthenics.'” (Laura Goering, “Russian Nervousness”: Neurasthenia and National Identity in Nineteenth-Century Russia)

This early scientific research could not lessen the mercurial sense of unease, as neurasthenia was from its inception a broad category that captured some greater shift in public mood, even as it so powerfully shaped the individual’s health. For all the effort, there were as many theories about neurasthenia as there were symptoms. Deeper insight was required. “[I]f a human being is a multiformity of mind, body, soul, and spirit,” writes Preston, “you don’t achieve wholeness or fulfillment by amputating or suppressing one or more of these aspects, but only by an effective integration of the four aspects.” But integration is easier said than done.

The modern human hasn’t been suffering from mere psychic wear and tear for the individual body itself has been showing the signs of sickness, as the diseases of civilization have become harder and harder to ignore. On a societal level of human health, I’ve previously shared passages from Lears (see here) — he discusses the vitalist impulse that was the response to the turmoil, and vitalism often was explored in terms of physical health as the most apparent manifestation, although social and spiritual health were just as often spoken of in the same breath. The whole person was under assault by an accumulation of stressors and the increasingly isolated individual didn’t have the resources to fight them off.

By the way, this was far from being limited to America. Europeans picked up the discussion of neurasthenia and took it in other directions, often with less optimism about progress, but also some thinkers emphasizing social interpretations with specific blame on hyper-individualism (Laura Goering, “Russian Nervousness”: Neurasthenia and National Identity in Nineteenth-Century Russia). Thoughts on neurasthenia became mixed up with earlier speculations on nostalgia and romanticized notions of rural life. More important, Russian thinkers in particular understood that the problems of modernity weren’t limited to the upper classes, instead extending across entire populations, as a result of how societies had been turned on their heads during that fractious century of revolutions.

In looking around, I came across some other interesting stuff. From 1901 Nervous and Mental Diseases by Archibald Church and Frederick Peterson, the authors in the chapter on “Mental Disease” are keen to further the description, categorization, and labeling of ‘insanity’. And I noted their concern with physiological asymmetry, something shared later with Price, among many others going back to the prior century.

Maybe asymmetry was not only indicative of developmental issues but also symbolic of a deeper imbalance. The attempts of phrenological analysis about psychiatric, criminal, and anti-social behavior were off-base; and, despite the bigotry and proto-genetic determinism among racists using these kinds of ideas, there is a simple truth about health in relationship to physiological development, most easily observed in bone structure, but it would take many generations to understand the deeper scientific causes, along with nutrition (e.g., Price’s discovery of vitamin K2, what he called Acivator X) including parasites, toxins, and epigenetics. Churchland and Peterson did acknowledge that this went beyond mere individual or even familial issues: “It is probable that the intemperate use of alcohol and drugs, the spreading of syphilis, and the overstimulation in many directions of modern civilization have determined an increase difficult to estimate, but nevertheless palpable, of insanity in the present century as compared with past centuries.”

Also, there is the 1902 The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease: Volume 29 edited by William G. Spiller. There is much discussion in there about how anxiety was observed, diagnosed, and treated at the time. Some of the case studies make for a fascinating read —– check out: “Report of a Case of Epilepsy Presenting as Symptoms Night Terrors, Inipellant Ideas, Complicated Automatisms, with Subsequent Development of Convulsive Motor Seizures and Psychical Aberration” by W. K. Walker. This reminds me of the case that influenced Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, Daniel Paul Schreber’s 1903 Memoirs of My Nervous Illness.

Talk about “a disintegration of the personality and character structure of Modern Man and mental-rational consciousness,” as Scott Preston put it. He goes on to say that, “The individual is not a natural thing. There is an incoherency in “Margaret Thatcher’s view of things when she infamously declared “there is no such thing as society” — that she saw only individuals and families, that is to say, atoms and molecules.” Her saying that really did capture the mood of the society she denied existing. Even the family was shrunk down to the ‘nuclear’. To state there is no society is to declare that there is also no extended family, no kinship, no community, that there is no larger human reality of any kind. Ironically in this pseudo-libertarian sentiment, there is nothing holding the family together other than government laws imposing strict control of marriage and parenting where common finances lock two individuals together under the rule of capitalist realism (the only larger realities involved are inhuman systems) — compared to high trust societies such as Nordic countries where the definition and practice of family life is less legalistic (Nordic Theory of Love and Individualism).

The individual consumer-citizen as a legal member of a family unit has to be created and then controlled, as it is a rather unstable atomized identity. “The idea of the “individual”,” Preston says, “has become an unsustainable metaphor and moral ideal when the actual reality is “21st century schizoid man” — a being who, far from being individual, is falling to pieces and riven with self-contradiction, duplicity, and cognitive dissonance, as reflects life in “the New Normal” of double-talk, double-think, double-standard, and double-bind.” That is partly the reason for the heavy focus on the body, an attempt to make concrete the individual in order to hold together the splintered self — great analysis of this can be found in Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World: “an unalterable fact about the body is linked to a place in the social order, and in both cases, to accept the link is to be caught in a kind of trap. Before anyone can be snared in this trap, an equation must be made between the body and the world (my skin color is my place as a Hispanic; menstruation is my place as a woman)” (see one of my posts about it: Lock Without a Key). Along with increasing authoritarianism, there was increasing medicalization and rationalization — to try to make sense of what was senseless.

A specific example of a change can be found in Dr. Frederick Hollick (1818-1900) who was a popular writer and speaker on medicine and health — his “links were to the free-thinking tradition, not to Christianity” (Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, Rewriting Sex). With the influence of Mesmerism and animal magnetism, he studied and wrote about what more scientifically-sounding was variously called electrotherapeutics, galvanism, and electro-galvanism. Hollick was an English follower of the Scottish industrialist and socialist Robert Dale Owen who he literally followed to the United States where Owen started the utopian community New Harmony, a Southern Indiana village bought from the utopian German Harmonists and then filled with brilliant and innovative minds but lacking in practical know-how about running a self-sustaining community (Abraham Lincoln, later becoming a friend to the Owen family, recalled as a boy seeing the boat full of books heading to New Harmony).

“As had Owen before him, Hollick argued for the positive value of sexual feeling. Not only was it neither immoral nor injurious, it was the basis for morality and society. […] In many ways, Hollick was a sexual enthusiast” (Horowitz). These were the social circles of Abraham Lincoln, as he personally knew free-love advocates; that is why early Republicans were often referred to as “Red Republicans”, the ‘Red’ indicating radicalism as it still does to this day. Hollick wasn’t the first to be a sexual advocate nor, of course would he be the last — preceding him was Sarah Grimke (1837, Equality of the Sexes) and Charles Knowlton (1839, The Private Companion of Young Married People), Hollick having been “a student of Knowlton’s work” (Debran Rowland, The Boundaries of Her Body); and following him were two more well known figures, the previously mentioned Bernarr Macfadden (1868-1955) who was the first major health and fitness guru, and Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957) who was the less respectable member of the trinity formed with Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Sexuality became a symbolic issue of politics and health, partly because of increasing scientific knowledge but also because increasing marketization of products such as birth control (with public discussion of contraceptives happening in the late 1700s and advances in contraceptive production in the early 1800s), the latter being quite significant as it meant individuals could control pregnancy and this is particularly relevant to women. It should be noted that Hollick promoted the ideal of female sexual autonomy, that sex should be assented to and enjoyed by both partners.

This growing concern with sexuality began with the growing middle class in the decades following the American Revolution. Among much else, it was related to the post-revolutionary focus on parenting and the perceived need for raising republican citizens — this formed an audience far beyond radical libertinism and free-love. Expert advice was needed for the new bourgeouis family life, as part of the “civilizing process” that increasingly took hold at that time with not only sexual manuals but also parenting guides, health pamphlets, books of manners, cookbooks, diet books, etc — cut off from the roots of traditional community and kinship, the modern individual no longer trusted inherited wisdom and so needed to be taught how to live, how to behave and relate. Along with the rise of the science, this situation promoted the role of the public intellectual that Hollick effectively took advantage of and, after the failure of Owen’s utopian experiment, he went on the lecture circuit which brought on legal cases in the unsuccessful attempt to silence him, the kind of persecution that Reich also later endured.

To put it in perspective, this Antebellum era of public debate and public education on sexuality coincided with other changes. Following the revolutionary era feminism (e.g., Mary Wollstonecraft), the “First Wave” of organized feminists emerged generations later with the Seneca meeting in 1848 and, in that movement, there was a strong abolitionist impulse. This was part of the rise of ideological -isms in the North that so concerned the Southern aristocrats who wanted to maintain their hierarchical control of the entire country, the control they were quickly losing with the shift of power in the Federal government. A few years before that in 1844, a more effective condom was developed using vulcanized rubber, although condoms had been on the market since the previous decade; also in the 1840s, the vaginal sponge became available. Interestingly, many feminists were as against the contraceptives as they were against abortions. These were far from being mere practical issues as politics imbued every aspect and some feminists worried about how this might lessen the role of women and motherhood in society, if sexuality was divorced from pregnancy.

This was at a time when the abortion rate was sky-rocketing, indicating most women held other views. “Yet we also know that thousands of women were attending lectures in these years, lectures dealing, in part, with fertility control. And rates of abortion were escalating rapidly, especially, according to historian James Mohr, the rate for married women. Mohr estimates that in the period 1800-1830, perhaps one out of every twenty-five to thirty pregnancies was aborted. Between 1850 and 1860, he estimates, the ratio may have been one out of every five or six pregnancies. At mid-century, more than two hundred full-time abortionists reported worked in New York City” (Rickie Solinger, Pregnancy and Power, p. 61). In the unGodly and unChurched period of early America (“We forgot.”), organized religion was weak and “premarital sex was typical, many marriages following after pregnancy, but some people simply lived in sin. Single parents and ‘bastards’ were common” (A Vast Experiment). Early Americans, by today’s standards, were not good Christians — visiting Europeans often saw them as uncouth heathens and quite dangerous at that, such as the common American practice of toting around guns and knives, ever ready for a fight, whereas carrying weapons had been made illegal in England. In The Churching of America, Roger Finke and Rodney Stark write (pp. 25-26):

“Americans are burdened with more nostalgic illusions about the colonial era than about any other period in their history. Our conceptions of the time are dominated by a few powerful illustrations of Pilgrim scenes that most people over forty stared at year after year on classroom walls: the baptism of Pocahontas, the Pilgrims walking through the woods to church, and the first Thanksgiving. Had these classroom walls also been graced with colonial scenes of drunken revelry and barroom brawling, of women in risque ball-gowns, of gamblers and rakes, a better balance might have been struck. For the fact is that there never were all that many Puritans, even in New England, and non-Puritan behavior abounded. From 1761 through 1800 a third (33.7%) of all first births in New England occurred after less than nine months of marriage (D. S. Smith, 1985), despite harsh laws against fornication. Granted, some of these early births were simply premature and do not necessarily show that premarital intercourse had occurred, but offsetting this is the likelihood that not all women who engaged in premarital intercourse would have become pregnant. In any case, single women in New England during the colonial period were more likely to be sexually active than to belong to a church-in 1776 only about one out of five New Englanders had a religious affiliation. The lack of affiliation does not necessarily mean that most were irreligious (although some clearly were), but it does mean that their faith lacked public expression and organized influence.”

Though marriage remained important as an ideal in American culture, what changed was that procreative control became increasingly available — with fewer accidental pregnancies and more abortions, a powerful motivation for marriage disappeared. Unsurprisingly, at the same time, there was increasing worries about the breakdown of community and family, concerns that would turn into moral panic at various points. Antebellum America was in turmoil. This was concretely exemplified by the dropping birth rate that was already noticeable by mid-century (Timothy Crumrin, “Her Daily Concern:” Women’s Health Issues in Early 19th-Century Indiana) and was nearly halved from 1800 to 1900 (Debran Rowland, The Boundaries of Her Body). “The late 19th century and early 20th saw a huge increase in the country’s population (nearly 200 percent between 1860 and 1910) mostly due to immigration, and that population was becoming ever more urban as people moved to cities to seek their fortunes—including women, more of whom were getting college educations and jobs outside the home” (Julie Beck, ‘Americanitis’: The Disease of Living Too Fast). It was a period of crisis, not all that different from our present crisis, including the fear about low birth rate of native-born white Americans, especially the endangered species of WASPs, being overtaken by the supposed dirty hordes of blacks, ethnics, and immigrants.

The promotion of birth control was considered a genuine threat to American society, maybe to all of Western Civilization. It was most directly a threat to traditional gender roles. Women could better control when they got pregnant, a decisive factor in the phenomenon of  larger numbers of women entering college and the workforce. And with an epidemic of neurasthenia, this dilemma was worsened by the crippling effeminacy that neutered masculine potency. Was modern man, specifically the white ruling elite, up for the task of carrying on Western Civilization?

“Indeed, civilization’s demands on men’s nerve force had left their bodies positively effeminate. According to Beard, neurasthenics had the organization of “women more than men.” They possessed ” a muscular system comparatively small and feeble.” Their dainty frames and feeble musculature lacked the masculine vigor and nervous reserves of even their most recent forefathers. “It is much less than a century ago, that a man who could not [drink] many bottles of wine was thought of as effeminate—but a fraction of a man.” No more. With their dwindling reserves of nerve force, civilized men were becoming increasingly susceptible to the weakest stimulants until now, “like babes, we find no safe retreat, save in chocolate and milk and water.” Sex was as debilitating as alcohol for neurasthenics. For most men, sex in moderation was a tonic. Yet civilized neurasthenics could become ill if they attempted intercourse even once every three months. As Beard put it, “there is not force enough left in them to reproduce the species or go through the process of reproducing the species.” Lacking even the force “to reproduce the species,” their manhood was clearly in jeopardy.” (Gail Bederman, Manliness and Civilization, pp. 87-88)

This led to a backlash that began before the Civil War with the early obscenity laws and abortion laws, but went into high gear with the 1873 Comstock laws that effectively shut down the free market of both ideas and products related to sexuality, including sex toys. This made it near impossible for most women to learn about birth control or obtain contraceptives and abortifacients. There was a felt need to restore order and that meant white male order of the WASP middle-to-upper classes, especially with the end of slavery, mass immigration of ethnics, urbanization and industrialization. The crisis wasn’t only ideological or political. The entire world had been falling apart for centuries with the ending of feudalism and the ancien regime, the last remnants of it in America being maintained through slavery. Motherhood being the backbone of civilization, it was believed that women’s sexuality had to be controlled and, unlike so much else that was out of control, it actually could be controlled through enforcement of laws.

Outlawing abortions is a particularly interesting example of social control. Even with laws in place, abortions remained commonly practiced by local doctors, even in many rural areas (American Christianity: History, Politics, & Social Issues). Corey Robin argues that the strategy hasn’t been to deny women’s agency but to assert their subordination (Denying the Agency of the Subordinate Class). This is why abortion laws were designed to target male doctors, although they rarely did, and not their female patients. Everything comes down to agency or its lack or loss, but our entire sense of agency is out of accord with our own human nature. We seek to control what is outside of us for own sense of self is out of control. The legalistic worldview is inherently authoritarian, at the heart of what Julian Jaynes proposes as the post-bicameral project of consciousness, the contained self. But the container is weak and keeps leaking all over the place.

To bring it back to the original inspiration, Scott Preston wrote: “Quite obviously, our picture of the human being as an indivisible unit or monad of existence was quite wrong-headed, and is not adequate for the generation and re-generation of whole human beings. Our self-portrait or sel- understanding of “human nature” was deficient and serves now only to produce and reproduce human caricatures. Many of us now understand that the authentic process of individuation hasn’t much in common at all with individualism and the supremacy of the self-interest.” The failure we face is that of identify, of our way of being in the world. As with neurasthenia in the past, we are now in a crisis of anxiety and depression, along with yet another moral panic about the declining white race. So, we get the likes of Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and Jordan Peterson. We failed to resolve past conflicts and so they keep re-emerging.

“In retrospect, the omens of an impending crisis and disintegration of the individual were rather obvious,” Preston points out. “So, what we face today as “the crisis of identity” and the cognitive dissonance of “the New Normal” is not something really new — it’s an intensification of that disintegrative process that has been underway for over four generations now. It has now become acute. This is the paradox. The idea of the “individual” has become an unsustainable metaphor and moral ideal when the actual reality is “21st century schizoid man” — a being who, far from being individual, is falling to pieces and riven with self-contradiction, duplicity, and cognitive dissonance, as reflects life in “the New Normal” of double-talk, double-think, double-standard, and double-bind.” We never were individuals. It was just a story we told ourselves, but there are others that could be told. Scott Preston offers an alternative narrative, that of individuation.

* * *

I found some potentially interesting books while skimming material on Google Books, in my researching Frederick Hollick and other info. Among the titles below, I’ll share some text from one of them because it offers a good summary about sexuality at the time, specifically women’s sexuality. Obviously, it went far beyond sexuality itself, and going by my own theorizing I’d say it is yet another example of symbolic conflation, considering its direct relationship to abortion.

The Boundaries of Her Body: The Troubling History of Women’s Rights in America
by Debran Rowland
pp. 34

WOMEN AND THE WOMB: The Emerging Birth Control Debate

The twentieth century dawned in America on a falling white birth rate. In 1800, an average of seven children were born to each “American-born white wife,” historians report. 29 By 1900, that number had fallen to roughly half. 30 Though there may have been several factors, some historians suggest that this decline—occurring as it did among young white women—may have been due to the use of contraceptives or abstinence,though few talked openly about it. 31

“In spite of all the rhetoric against birth control,the birthrate plummeted in the late nineteenth century in America and Western Europe (as it had in France the century before); family size was halved by the time of World War I,” notes Shari Thurer in The Myth of Motherhood. 32

As issues go, the “plummeting birthrate” among whites was a powder keg, sparking outcry as the “failure”of the privileged class to have children was contrasted with the “failure” of poor immigrants and minorities to control the number of children they were having. Criticism was loud and rampant. “The upper classes started the trend, and by the 1880s the swarms of ragged children produced by the poor were regarded by the bourgeoisie, so Emile Zola’s novels inform us, as evidence of the lower order’s ignorance and brutality,” Thurer notes. 33

But the seeds of this then-still nearly invisible movement had been planted much earlier. In the late 1700s, British political theorists began disseminating information on contraceptives as concerns of overpopulation grew among some classes. 34 Despite the separation of an ocean, by the 1820s, this information was “seeping” into the United States.

“Before the introduction of the Comstock laws, contraceptive devices were openly advertised in newspapers, tabloids, pamphlets, and health magazines,” Yalom notes.“Condoms had become increasing popular since the 1830s, when vulcanized rubber (the invention of Charles Goodyear) began to replace the earlier sheepskin models.” 35 Vaginal sponges also grew in popularity during the 1840s, as women traded letters and advice on contraceptives. 36 Of course, prosecutions under the Comstock Act went a long way toward chilling public discussion.

Though Margaret Sanger’s is often the first name associated with the dissemination of information on contraceptives in the early United States, in fact, a woman named Sarah Grimke preceded her by several decades. In 1837, Grimke published the Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, a pamphlet containing advice about sex, physiology, and the prevention of pregnancy. 37

Two years later, Charles Knowlton published The Private Companion of Young Married People, becoming the first physician in America to do so. 38 Near this time, Frederick Hollick, a student of Knowlton’s work, “popularized” the rhythm method and douching. And by the 1850s, a variety of material was being published providing men and women with information on the prevention of pregnancy. And the advances weren’t limited to paper.

“In 1846,a diaphragm-like article called The Wife’s Protector was patented in the United States,” according to Marilyn Yalom. 39 “By the 1850s dozens of patents for rubber pessaries ‘inflated to hold them in place’ were listed in the U.S. Patent Office records,” Janet Farrell Brodie reports in Contraception and Abortion in 19 th Century America. 40 And, although many of these early devices were often more medical than prophylactic, by 1864 advertisements had begun to appear for “an India-rubber contrivance”similar in function and concept to the diaphragms of today. 41

“[B]y the 1860s and 1870s, a wide assortment of pessaries (vaginal rubber caps) could be purchased at two to six dollars each,”says Yalom. 42 And by 1860, following publication of James Ashton’s Book of Nature, the five most popular ways of avoiding pregnancy—“withdrawal, and the rhythm methods”—had become part of the public discussion. 43 But this early contraceptives movement in America would prove a victim of its own success. The openness and frank talk that characterized it would run afoul of the burgeoning “purity movement.”

“During the second half of the nineteenth century,American and European purity activists, determined to control other people’s sexuality, railed against male vice, prostitution, the spread of venereal disease, and the risks run by a chaste wife in the arms of a dissolute husband,” says Yalom. “They agitated against the availability of contraception under the assumption that such devices, because of their association with prostitution, would sully the home.” 44

Anthony Comstock, a “fanatical figure,” some historians suggest, was a charismatic “purist,” who, along with others in the movement, “acted like medieval Christiansengaged in a holy war,”Yalom says. 45 It was a successful crusade. “Comstock’s dogged efforts resulted in the 1873 law passed by Congress that barred use of the postal system for the distribution of any ‘article or thing designed or intended for the prevention of contraception or procuring of abortion’,”Yalom notes.

Comstock’s zeal would also lead to his appointment as a special agent of the United States Post Office with the authority to track and destroy “illegal” mailing,i.e.,mail deemed to be “obscene”or in violation of the Comstock Act.Until his death in 1915, Comstock is said to have been energetic in his pursuit of offenders,among them Dr. Edward Bliss Foote, whose articles on contraceptive devices and methods were widely published. 46 Foote was indicted in January of 1876 for dissemination of contraceptive information. He was tried, found guilty, and fined $3,000. Though donations of more than $300 were made to help defray costs,Foote was reportedly more cautious after the trial. 47 That “caution”spread to others, some historians suggest.

Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America
By Carroll Smith-Rosenberg

Riotous Flesh: Women, Physiology, and the Solitary Vice in Nineteenth-Century America
by April R. Haynes

The Boundaries of Her Body: The Troubling History of Women’s Rights in America
by Debran Rowland

Rereading Sex: Battles Over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth-century America
by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz

Rewriting Sex: Sexual Knowledge in Antebellum America, A Brief History with Documents
by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz

Imperiled Innocents: Anthony Comstock and Family Reproduction in Victorian America
by Nicola Kay Beisel

Against Obscenity: Reform and the Politics of Womanhood in America, 1873–1935
by Leigh Ann Wheeler

Purity in Print: Book Censorship in America from the Gilded Age to the Computer Age
by Paul S. Boyer

American Sexual Histories
edited by Elizabeth Reis

Wash and Be Healed: The Water-Cure Movement and Women’s Health
by Susan Cayleff

From Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science, and Women’s Rights in Gilded Age America
by Kimberly A. Hamlin

Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917
by Gail Bederman

One Nation Under Stress: The Trouble with Stress as an Idea
by Dana Becker

5 thoughts on “The Crisis of Identity

  1. Yes, we have become atomized, disconnected. We seek connection, but where is the glue? It used to be family, tribe, clan. It used to be some spiritual discipline. Now it is (are) the social and entertainment media, shallowly rooted. The glue, for me, arises from the realization that “I” am not contained solely within the flesh that bounds my physical body.
    Thanks for the referral to Chrysalis.

    • What interests me is the details. This is another example of my brain spewing out context. I didn’t intend to write this post. It began as a simple comment at Preston’s post, but it quickly turned into something unwieldy for a comments section. As always, curiosity led me to fascinating info. I knew some of this already. It has been part of my focus because of my working on an even more massive post that has led me to look at 19th century thinkers and practitioners, specifically about the low-carb diet that actually goes back slightly earlier in the late-1800s (1797?) as an early treatment for diabetes.

      The 19th century was a pivotal time. Much of what seems unique in the early 20th century isn’t, instead having come into its own in the prior generations. I had no clue about how widespread was public debate on sexual issues way back then and it does seem to go hand in hand with many other public debates at the time, such as diet and other health concerns. The culture wars have a long lineage — one can trace elements of it even further back to the proto-individualism and gender issues of the Italian Renaissance and Axial Age, but they don’t clearly take the form we know until the mid-1800s, right before the Civil War. It makes me realize that earlier national crisis that turned into mass violence went far beyond slavery or secession.

      I give right-wingers and conservatives some credit. Yes, most of them are reactionaries, not in the general sense in the way we are all trapped in a reactionary era but often in the extreme sense of individual psychology (i.e., Corey Robin’s reactionary mind). That is why they get credit. They are reacting to something worthy of being reacted to, even if they end up lost in their own fantasy projections. Reactionaries are the canaries in the coal mine. We should pay attention to their squawking and fluttering about in their cages. They are right about there being something wrong. They realize that lesser evilism won’t get us out of this crisis, not that I agree with their alternative strategy of greater evilism.

      The political right understands what is at stake much better than does the political left. This is why reactionaries practically hyperventilate with their melodramatic sense of urgency; whereas so many centrist/moderate/mainstream ‘liberals’, the liberal class in particular, rarely express much urgency at all or merely offer fake outrage on the campaign trail. At best, what most liberals (and, sadly, too many leftists as well) manage to muster is reaction against the reaction of reactionaries (e.g., voting against, rather than voting for), sometimes even among those on the left who are otherwise brilliant in their insights and analysis. Neither side offers much in the way of the pro-active, just stronger and weaker versions of the reactionary. I’m hoping that changes, once enough people do feel the sense of urgency and the crisis finally comes to a point when it can no longer be dismissed and ignored or merely analyzed.

      This is why I appreciate the likes of Scott Preston. He is trying to put things into a larger perspective, by entirely stepping outside of the reactionary milieu. He is more philosophical than I am and I haven’t read all the authors he has, but I’m generally familiar with his kind of ‘integral’ view. I find it helpful, in challenging my own ways of thinking. For my own part, I wanted to add some layers to his already layered view. As I said, it’s the details that catch my attention. There is a concrete background to how this crisis developed and the past is surprisingly familiar. We really do go on repeating an underlying set of patterns, until I presume those patterns finally break in collision with immovable forces.

    • “The glue, for me, arises from the realization that “I” am not contained solely within the flesh that bounds my physical body.”

      I sort of have a sense of the world along those lines. It’s why I write about the bundle theory of mind, the extended self, and hyperobjects, along with other collective factors, from cultural dietary practices to epigenetic inheritance.

      We are on the verge of a re-ordering of human reality and nothing will remain untouched and unchanged. This partly explains my impatience with those who act like we can save the system with minor reforms.

  2. In Japan, there is a condition called hikikomori. It “describes people who stay holed up in their homes, or even just their bedrooms, isolated from everyone except their family, for many months or years. […] The condition was first described in Japan, but cases have since been reported in countries as far apart as Oman, Indian, the US and Brazil.”

    I would mention that this might not be as unique as it seems. And it isn’t something entirely new. In the West during late 1800s to early 1900s, a related phenomena was referred to as neurasthenia (discussed in this post of mine above). Neurasthenia did sometimes lead people to isolate themselves.

    “Yong and Nomura found no relationship with country region, number of family members or social class. But one local demographic variable did stand out as being protective: living in an area filled with businesses and shops.”

    That indicates economic factors are involved. Many businesses and shops means more wealth in the immediate area. And that would also mean more taxes and donations for funding of government and private organizations. So, the number of businesses and shops would be a proxy for the number of parks, social programs, public services, public libraries, police, etc.

    Research has shown that being poor in a wealthier community is better than being poor in a poor community, a factor studied in terms of racial segregation since redlining in the US kept minorities trapped in poor communities. Socioeconomic class can’t be taken as an isolated factor. In this context, it would be needed to consider which groups in Japanese society are treated as minorities or as outsiders.

    “But if these anxieties are keeping people inside their homes, what’s prompting them to retreat there in the first place? The survey also revealed that hikikomori are more likely to have dropped out of high school or university. Perhaps finding ways to keep young people in education may, then, reduce the risk.”

    One should be careful about taking effects as causes. It’s highly unlikely that lack of education is causal, although certainly a contributing factor in constraining one’s life and opportunities. The same thing causing anxiety and isolation would be causing these people to avoid social situations, including schools.

    “The data also showed that a very high percentage – 37.9 per cent – of the hikikomori had a previous history of psychiatric treatment.”

    Now that is getting more to the causal level. But we need to think more deeply about mental health. It too typically is a side effect of other things, from inequality to physical health. Mental health and public health is explored in relation to inequality by Keith Payne in The Broken Ladder and Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson in The Spirit Level. About physical health, diet is a powerful factor, especially as the industrialized diet of processed foods has done serious damage to so many. And all of this can be encompassed in what is called “shit-life syndrome”.

  3. I came across something else that might be related. It’s an article (A viral infection of the mind? The curious case of encephalitis lethargica) on another medical condition. The author, Paul Foley, writes that, “It had demonstrated that an infectious disease could elicit not only neurologic consequences, but also severe behavioral and psychiatric changes.” He notes that it “gradually disappeared during the 1930s.”

    A commenter, Ashley Hinds, asked, “How could something like this “disappear”? Was it reclassified or diagnosed as something else perhaps?” And another commenter, George Parker, made an interesting point: “Actually, it was called Neurasthenia in 1881, and EL is exactly the same caused by electro fields from electricity cables. It was first seen when the Society and Super Rich became sick soon after electricity was first installed in their homes, and then it was installed in the manufacturing businesses and the workers began to become sick. Neurasthenia also seem to disappear from the medical diagnosis at the same time (1930s) as far too many people were falling victim to it.”

    I’ve been interested in the connection of general health and neurocognitive health. Inflammation has been something on my mind, as it relates to so much: infections, parasites, autoimmune disorders, high-carb diets, stress, trauma, etc. The thing about inflammation is that it is an immune response that, if it becomes chronic from unresolved underlying issues, can impair the immune system. The changes in society from the 19th to 20th century (community breakdown, malnourishment, toxins, urbanization, industrialization, etc) were immense and were not health-inducing. As conditions shifted so did the exact kinds of ‘diseases’ or rather patterns of symptoms. But most fundamentally the crisis was of a population under stress from multiple directions. And when it gets bad enough, eventually there is a breaking point.

    Future generations will look back on many of our present ailments in the way they looked at the medicalization of ‘nostalgia’ and ‘neurasthenia’ beginning in the 19th century. The causes were real and the symptoms could be crippling, even as the ‘disease’ was in a sense a social construct. Our present views on psychiatric diseases are largely social constructs as well. That isn’t to say they aren’t real, but our understanding of them will be entirely transformed over this coming century, to such a degree that the way we presently carve up human health problems into particular labeled categories will be abandoned. We’ll likely learn that many things we thought of as separate were actually part of the same set of overlapping factors, while other things thought of as the same will be further distinguished into separate conditions.

    The crisis of identity continues because the problems are real and unresolved. They continue because of our lack of understanding, our inability to grasp what has gone wrong. If anything, much of what we have done has made things worse.

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