Fifty Years Down And Maybe A Clockwork Brown Could Use A Little Touch Up

I have for awhile now been doing almost daily internet searches for the appearence of the term anti-psychiatry in the news. In most instances this word is used as an expression of disparagement, or as an example of a trend from which a journalist or a blogger wishes to disassociate him or herself. If trend it is, it isn’t a very popular trend. These are the primary instances in which the term makes an appearance. There is another instance, too, when the term puts in an appearance, and that is when psychiatrists use the term themselves. Here the term is being used to scapegoat critics of conventional psychiatry. Anti-psychiatry is the great bug-a-boo of mainstream psychiatry today. It doesn’t have much of a substantial existence, and yet psychiatry feels a need to defend itself from this amorphous and mysterious malevolent force it feels is being directed against itself. Anti-psychiatry Disorder is the great white whale of a ‘sickness’ the contemporary megalomaniacal mad Dr. Ahab feels most challenged by.

When it comes down to it, I think there is very little difference between anti-psychiatry and non-psychiatry. Non-psychiatry is basically indifferent to, and not in need of, psychiatry. I think non-psychiatry has a great future. Anti-psychiatry, on the other hand, is more dependent on psychiatry. Anti-psychiatry is antipathetic to psychiatry, and this creates no end of problems for psychiatrists. Its future is tied up with the future of psychiatry. I don’t think it very ironic at all that a psychiatrist came up with the term anti-psychiatry. Disciples of Christianity came up with the beast 666, the Anti-Christ, to describe the nemesis and antithesis of their own faith. Atheism is altogether another creature entirely. Faith is the key-word here, and faith is not a matter for scientific inquiry. Science itself demands a certain amount of healthy skepticism.

Recently Dr. Edward Shorter, a psychiatrist, a historian, and a critic of critics of contemporary psychiatric practice co-authored with Susan Belanger, another partisan of coercive treatment, an article for the Oxford University Press blog, Anti-psychiatry in A Clockwork Orange. A Clockwork Orange is turning 50. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, another classic, achieved 50 not so long ago as well, but these two experts were not so enthused about celebrating that momentous occasion.

Political interest in behavioural programming is represented by the Minister of the Interior (whom Alex nicknames Minister of the Inferior, or — in a nod to the truncations of George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984 — Int Inf Min). The “Min” visits the prison to implement the treatment in order to fight crime “on a purely curative basis. Kill the criminal reflex.” He reappears as Alex’s “cure” is demonstrated and boasts to the media about government efforts to suppress “young hooligans and perverts and burglars.” In fact the police are now recruiting former hooligans to rough up whomever they choose and round up enemies of the Government, an agenda suggested by the Minister’s earlier comment about clearing the prisons for “political offenders.” This combination of political tyranny and abusive (Pavlovian!) conditioning in a future Britain where adolescent thugs speak a mixture of Cockney rhyming slang, archaisms, and anglicized Russian (“Propaganda. Subliminal penetration,” a doctor suggests) creates an additional sinister note that would have been especially potent in the Cold War era when A Clockwork Orange was published.

Now if we interpret this work in the way that Dr. Shorter and Ms. Belanger interpret this work it has something to do with the cold war era in which it came out. What neither of them are looking at is the way this work relates to the increasing medicalization of life taking place in our own time. After calling insulin shock, metrasol therapy, and ECT used extensively durring the 1930’s “highly effective”, a claim I find highly dubious. The authors point out ECT gained popularity in the 1950s. Then we get this paragraph.

Beginning in the 1950s, a series of revolutionary drug treatments arose: antipsychotics, antidepressants and anxiolytics. So widespread was their use that, by the time Burgess penned Clockwork, they had become the subjects of cocktail party chitchat. Medical psychotherapy, which had ruled the roost in previous decades, was wobbling (the Brits never had much interest in Freud’s psychoanalysis) and was about to be pushed out the door. All these innovations lent themselves marvelously to being parodied, sent up, and pulled down by scornful novelists.

This is hardly the end of the story. Those revolutionary treatments didn’t turn out to be so revolutionary after all. This psychiatric drug treatment revolution has lead, rather than to an end of “psychosis” in our lifetime as was hoped, to the favoring of drug maintenance over any approach emphasizing the possibility and hope of achieving complete recovery from, say, the youth, immaturity and thuggish nature exhibited by the chief protagonist of A Clockwork Orange, Alex. People in mental health treatment are also dying off at an earlier age than the rest of the population because of these drugs. Rather than eluding the “laws and conditions appropriate to a mechanical creation”, those “laws and conditions” are incorporated into a lifetime prescription drug taking regimen.

I’d say the times haven’t changed so much as these mental health professionals would envision them to have changed, and maybe the Anthony Burgess classic novel, and the movie based on that novel, could use a serious update to illustrate how similar the treatments parodied in his book are to treatments still being practiced on a widescale and regular basis today.

7 Responses

  1. No doubt! The lack of insight exhibited psychiatrists is astounding to say the very least–great post.

    • Mental health treatment today is still achieved primarily through “brain washing” techniques. All you have to do is read the literature (propaganda) put out by the mental health industry. Disagree with the dominate bio-medical model approach to treatment, and you’re classed a renegade of the antipsychiatry school.

      If mental hospitals don’t represent a type of “reeducation camp”, what do they represent? The patient is “sick”, and if the patient disagrees with this presumption, this is indicative of another “sickness”, ‘lack of insight’ or agnosognosia. If you’re going to win in this type of abusive environment, it’s only by feigning “sickness”. Choice is another thing people in the system don’t yet have. We don’t have a “wellness project” to compare with the “innocence project” in the criminal justice system, and so the fact that psychiatrists make mistakes is not commonly acknowledged.

      There was a certain amount of, if not ‘lack of insight’, maybe insincerity in what Edward Shorter and Susan Belanger were endeavoring to do here. I’ve read about problem children in Britain having the “anti-social personality disorder” label attached to them. I think any contemporary Alex might have this label to contend with prior to reaching his maturity. This sort of labeling doesn’t present our friend Alex with any sort of a ready out should he think the age of reason has finally arrived for him. Doom here is a prophesy that is all too often fulfilled.

      • I agree that the piece really falls down. Dogmatic statements about what Burgess was thinking, the “social backdrop”, and the medical “innovations” show heavy bias. Also, the interest Burgess had in social control equates to an interest in the manipulation of the psyche.

        The labels Alex would be contending with are “murderer” and “rapist”. Spotting a “contemporary Alex” before he gets that far is a good thing.

  2. As the general public believes Psychiatry is a science, a medical science, to say you are against Psychiatry makes you look “crazy” from the start.
    As there is no physical disease in the brain of the mentally ill, psychiatrists are just legal drug dealers in my book.

    • There’s definitely not a lot of hard science in the Church of Biological Psychiatry. Churches don’t operate on science, they operate on faith. Inside of this church you have believers, outside of this church you have heretics. This church with the state has managed what other more scrupulous religions haven’t managed, a merger. Mental Health Law has become a major loophole used for getting around the separation of church and state. Insanity is not so much a medical designation as it is a legal one.

  3. Why is it that whenever I read a blog post by psychiatrists I feel so much dumber?

    First off, that’s the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, not Fifth.

    However, they are right about one thing. A Clockwork Orange is a great send-up and mockery of Freud, much like Huxley’s Brave, New World. With A Clockwork Orange the drugged milk at the milk bar obviously points out that these poor boys are struggling with an arrested oral development. The three and a half foot plexiglass phallus would only be owned by a woman who wishes she actually had one. And please, as you watch that snake crawl to its perch in front of the naked woman poster, tell me the real feelings of the screenplay writer for his Mother.

    But they willfullly ignore the whole point of the movie. That it’s all about the victory of the individual over the tyranny of the group, who, through group deliberations, have decided what is good and what is evil. Also through their group deliberations, they have absconded from all individual responsibility and allowed groupthink to run riot. They have also forgotten that, as individuals, we are all ruled by that same primal id and that it is pure hubris to for one person (or group, for that matter) to call himself better, or to know better, than another. We all need to tend to our own gardens, as it were.

    At at least, that’s what I got out of the movie, which is one of my all time favorites. For those of you that have never watched it, it is the most violent, most disturbing movie you will ever watch. Prepare to be shocked to the core. And there just aren’t many 50 year old movies that can make that claim.

    • I don’t want to give a false impression, betasheep. It’s the 1962 Anthony Burgess novel, and not the 1971 Stanley Kubrick directed movie that is turning 50. I think the movie might have a little while to go yet.

      The following is from the wikipedia A Clockwork Orange page.

      In 1985, Burgess published Flame into Being: The Life and Work of D. H. Lawrence, and while discussing Lady Chatterley’s Lover in his biography, Burgess compared that novel’s notoriety with A Clockwork Orange: “We all suffer from the popular desire to make the known notorious. The book I am best known for, or only known for, is a novel I am prepared to repudiate: written a quarter of a century ago, a jeu d’esprit knocked off for money in three weeks, it became known as the raw material for a film which seemed to glorify sex and violence. The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about, and the misunderstanding will pursue me till I die. I should not have written the book because of this danger of misinterpretation, and the same may be said of Lawrence and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

      I imagine the author would find, if he were still around, that he has readers who think him wrong on both counts.

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