Blumenthal offers a historical examination of the jurisprudence of insanity, legal capacity, and accountability from post-revolutionary America through the nineteenth century. Americans struggling to set the boundaries of ordered liberty turned to Common Sense philosophy that held to divinely given rational faculties of intellect, volition, and moral sense. Republican citizenship assumed that a reasonable man, as a legal person, would act accordingly. The market economy of self-made men, the new field of medical psychology, will and contract challenges over wealth and property, tort law and increased liability claims exposed the inadequacy of social and political norms in defining human fallibility, and the limits of responsibility. Litigants, lawyers, judges, and medical experts struggled to find a reliable way to settle issues of mental competency and define the bounds of freedom. The incapacity of married women, children, and slaves provided a means of comparison for the male citizen involving metaphysical, political, social, and economic ideas wrapped up in the concept of self-government. Blumenthal has produced a remarkable piece of intellectual and legal history situated in the rapidly changing market environment of a young republic.
Alcoholism is a strange thing. That it exists, no one seriously doubts. But it’s not entirely clear (diagnostically speaking) what it is, who has it, how they get it, or how to treat it. The answers to these questions depend, apparently, on where you are, which is to say what culture you were born and raise in. Alcoholism and treatments for it in Country A might be very different from alcoholism and treatments for it in countries B, C, and D. Alcoholism is, well, relative.
This is one of the many thing I learned from reading Eugene Raikhel‘s fascinating book Governing Habits: Treating Alcoholism in the Post-Soviet Clinic (Cornell University Press, 2016). An anthropologist, Raikhel tells us the tale of how the Soviet discipline of “narcology”–the diagnosis and treatment of addiction– evolved during Soviet times and how it adapted after the USSR fell. I won’t spoil the story for you, but suffice it to say that Russians treated and continue to treat alcoholism quite differently that we do in the U.S., though that’s changing (AA has arrived in Russia, something we also discuss).
In his new book The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and The Power of Seeing (Crown, 2017), Damion Searls presents the first biography of Hermann Rorschach and the history of the Rorschach Test. A story that is largely untold, Searls starts with the childhood of Rorschach and brings readers through his growth as a psychiatrist as he created an experiment to probe the mind using a set of ten inkblots. As a visual artist, Rorschach incorporated his ability to think about visuals and his belief that what is seen is more important than what we say. After his early death, Rorschach’s Test found its way to America being used by the military, to test job applicants, to evaluate defendants and parents in custody battles and people suffering from mental illness. In addition, it has been used throughout advertising and incorporated in Hollywood and popular culture. A tragic figure, and one of the most influential psychiatrists in the twentieth century, The Inkblots allows readers to better understand how Rorschach and his test impacted psychiatry and psychological testing. Searls’ work is eloquently written and detailed, pulling in unpublished letters, diaries and interviews with family, friends and colleagues. Searls’ well researched text presents insight into the ways that art and science have impacted modern psychology and popular culture.
offers readers a fascinating new history of American anxieties along the borderland between the machine and the human mind. Demonstrating the way that a variety of fields influence and coproduce one another, Human Programming follows the metaphor of the automaton through news media, fiction, psychology, cybernetics, film, law and back again. Along the way, Selisker engages academic work on labor automation, posthumanism, affect and emotion, and techno-Orientalism.
Through careful interpretation of books on American soldiers returning from the Korean War, the trial of Patty Hearst, the narrative logic of Snow Crash and Blade Runner, the central conflicts of Homeland and the Manchurian Candidate, and the baffled news reports on John Walker Lindh, Human Programming “offers a new literary and cultural context for understanding the human automaton figure” as it has appeared and reappeared over the half century, and explores how the metaphor of the automaton has “shaped American conversations about the self and other, the free and unfree, and democracy and its enemies, since World War II” (7, 8). Beginning with a prehistory in WWII propaganda, this timely study comes up to a present in which we replace our employees with touchscreens, rely on machine learning to translate our conversations, use proprietary software to plot our routes, and deny the human freedom of our fellow citizens.
Robert Allan Houston, historian of English social history at St. Andrews in Scotland is producing a podcast series with the straightforward title ‘History of Psychiatry.’
Houston’s approach is simultaneously accessible and nuanced; the series is a nice listen of its own accord, but would also make for a quality teaching resource. He has posted three episodes so far, each a nicely digestible length hovering around ten minutes (as he puts it, “bite sized.” Their topics are as follows:
1.1 Psychiatry And Its Subject
1.2 An Historian’s Approach to Psychiatry: The Aims of the Series
2.1 Melancholia and Mania: The Main Classifications
Sabine Arnaud‘s new book explores a history of discursive practices that played a role in the construction of hysteria as pathology. On Hysteria: The Invention of a Medical Category between 1670 and 1820(University of Chicago Press, 2015) considers a wide range of issues that are both specific to the particular history of hysteria, and more broadly applicable to the history medicine. Arnaud pays special attention to the role played by language in the definition of any medical category, basing her analysis on a masterful analysis of a spectrum of written medical genres (including dialogue, autobiography, correspondence, narrative, and polemic) that have largely been forgotten by the history of medicine. Arnaud asks, “What made it possible to view dozens of different diagnoses as variants of a single pathology, hysteria?” The answer can be found in a long process of rewriting and negotiation over the definition of these diagnoses enabled this retrospective assimilation, which was driven by enormously diverse political and epistemological stakes. In a series of fascinating chapters, the book interweaves the history of hysteria with studies of gender, class, literature, metaphor, narrative, and and religion. It’s an expertly-researched and compellingly-written account that will amply reward readers interested in the histories of medicine and gender.
While providing the first in-depth history of the LaFargue Clinic (1946-57), the book focuses on the figures who came together in a seemingly unlikely union to found it: Richard Wright, the prominent author; Frederic Wertham, a German-American psychiatrist now known for his advocacy for censorship of comic books; and The Reverend Shelton Hale Bishop, an important Harlem pastor. Wright’s literary prowess, work for the Communist party, and brush with Chicago School sociology met with Wertham’s socially-conscious and uncompromising brand of psychoanalysis to challenge mainstream psychiatric theory and its discriminatory practices in the Jim Crow North. Those who could afford it were charged 25 cents for sessions in the basement of St. Philip’s Episcopal church in Harlem, and 50 cents for court testimonials. A thoroughgoing grassroots effort, ignored by philanthropists and state funding, the LaFargue Clinic throws mid-20th Century mental health and race relations into relief, and is sure to stir interest in the untold stories of projects like it.
Rebecca Lemov‘s beautifully written Database of Dreams: The Lost Quest to Catalog Humanity (Yale University Press, 2015) is at once an exploration of mid-century social science through paths less traveled and the tale of a forgotten future. The book is anchored around the story of Harvard-trained social scientist Bert Kaplan, who embarked on, in her words, a dizzyingly ambitious 1950s-era project to capture peoples dreams in large amounts and store them in an experimental data bank. While unique in scope, Kaplan’s project can be characterized as the culmination of efforts to apply techniques of personality capture–projective testing, dream analysis, and life history–in cross-cultural research on indigenous peoples, an effort to account for the full spectrum of human life amidst the encroachment of modernity upon cultures based, for example, in oral traditions.
Richly documenting the entanglements of Kaplan and others in their attempts to render subjects as data, Lemov throws the transactional nature of anthropology into relief. A data point for an ethnographer can be many things for a research subject: cash for buying American niceties, a beer, a dream lost in the act of recounting, even a permanent mark of distrust. The book is also a history of a technology which never came to fruition: the futuristic reader for Kaplan’s Microcards was never realized, and the boxes of cards became dispersed and lost their value as a total archive of human personality. Lemov argues that we would do well to regard the fate of Kaplan’s database as a parable for our age by calling attention to the information loss upon which the technologies of documentation that saturate our present rely. What, then, will become of our compressed audio files, forgotten social media accounts, and backup hard drives stashed in the back corners of drawers?
A couple of history of psychology related pieces cropped up from podcast land just in time to shift into gear for the weekend. For your listening pleasure, from CBC Radio’s Ideas and BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time, episodes on transcultural psychiatry and the early history of Bethlem Royal Hospital, respectively.
CBC’s Ideas with Peter Kennedy: Like I Was Talking to Myself in the Mirror
Synopsis: Early in the twentieth century German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin travelled to Indonesia to see how mental illnesses there compared to what he knew back home. Transcultural psychiatry was born. Today McGill University is a world leader in the research and practice of a branch of psychiatry with links to anthropology, cultural studies and family therapy. David Gutnick steps into a world where treatment relies less on medication and more on talk and understanding.