Thursday, March 4, 2010

Somatosphere: Alain Ehrenberg's The Weariness of the Self

drawings by marguerita

We all know how it happens.
One day, without warning, you feel
oddly removed from things and people,
as if an invisible wall of glass were separating
you from them.
They go about their business
but, for a reason that escapes you, none
of it any longer concerns you.
You could call out,
but what would be the point? You aren't worth
it, and the friendly overtures of others come as a
justified reproach. Day by day,
the wall grows a little thicker.
Soon, you are no longer able to leave the house,
your bedroom, your bed.
The only thing you are left with
is the pain of existing. You no
longer eat or bathe or sleep.
You are agitated and exhausted all at once.

Even supposing that society is more inhuman than

in the past, when socialised medicine

and unemployment benefits

didn't yet exist, why would this give rise

to depression rather than anxiety, fatigue,

'nervous breakdown' or just plain anger?

Alain Ehrenberg, a sociologist, attempts to answer

this question in La Fatigue d'être soi.

Retracing in detail the history of depression

since the 1950s (mainly in France),

he shows very well how it ceased to be

defined in terms of psychic pain, and came

to be perceived more and more as

a pathology of action. The new 'déprimé' lacks energy,

is unable to 'perform', is inhibited in

his work and his relationships with others.

He suffers, the psychiatrists say,

from 'psychomotor retardation'.

And this new pathology emerges, as if by chance

, in a society which values individual

responsibility and initiative above all else.

Just as Freudian neuroses were

the pathology of a subject defined by prohibition

and internal conflict, so contemporary depression is

"the reverse of the sovereign individual,

of the man who believes himself to be

the author of his own life".

In that sense, depression is not

directly provoked or caused by

contemporary society.

Rather, Ehrenberg suggests,

it is the negative 'counterpart' to

the subjectivity created

and so highly valued in this society.

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