Paul VerhaegheWhat About Me?: The Struggle for Identity in a Market-Based Society

Scribe Publications, 2014

by Anna Fishzon on August 18, 2015

Paul Verhaeghe

View on Amazon

Feeling exhausted, hopeless, and anxious? You might be suffering from symptoms of neoliberalism, according to Paul Verhaeghe. In What About Me?: The Struggle for Identity in a Market-Based Society (Scribe Publications, 2014), he takes on "Enron society," demonstrating how the core insights and principles of psychoanalysis can be brought to bear on social relations, history, and ideology. The last 50 years have witnessed a staggering proliferation of psychiatric disorders — a bloated Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM) that has both reflected and caused the over-diagnosis, disciplining, and medication of individuals afflicted with social rather than mental problems.

How can you not feel dejected and panic-stricken, asks Verhaeghe, when you live in a "meritocracy" that ensures some an obvious advantage? When you are evaluated incessantly and told you are not trying hard enough? When your work environment and community lack authority figures who take responsibility and set limits, leaving you to compete with coworkers and friends for scarce resources; and your creativity and passionate labor are immediately quantified and assessed for market value? You might even be relieved, argues Verhaeghe, to be diagnosed with an illness — and to incorporate it into your identity in order to excuse your inability to measure up. With so few options and so much pressure to fill the very limited number of slots designated for "winners," having a neurologically determined ailment often feels better than being a failure. Using a psychiatric disorder as a shield from guilt is not malingering since the pervasiveness of neoliberal logic really has made you sick!

What About Me? traces notions of identity historically, providing an instructive overview of the shifts in Western thinking about the self. The story proceeds from Aristotelian immanence to Christian transcendence: the ancient Greek view that ethics are innate and need to be cultivated through self-care to the Christian belief that ethics are external and divine and inherently sinful humans can only aspire to goodness through spiritual communion. Since the latter half of the twentieth century, European and American neoliberal norms again have turned to the individual but without the classical period's interest in citizenship or religious references to authority and God. Neoliberalism instead promotes a hyper-individualism supported by narrow positivism (quantitative measurement) and meritocracy (for the privileged classes) applied across a wide range of disciplines and professions, including academia and healthcare. Neoliberal success is equated with profit and human beings are understood "naturally" to be competitive, selfish, and unethical (hence the avalanche of evaluation and rules). But, following behavioral biologist Frans de Waal, Verhaeghe suggests that altruism as well as aggression inhere to higher primates and the cultural environment determines whether empathy or egotism predominates. The neoliberal obsession with the individual at the expense of the community ignores the fundamental human craving for love and hospitality – affects and behavior that are necessary for our wellbeing. What, then, do we do about all this? How do we alter dominant ideology and social organization? With the help of clinical experience and psychoanalytic ethics, Verhaeghe invites us to think through a solution.

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

Alison BancroftFashion and Psychoanalysis: Styling the Self

August 7, 2015

Alison Bancroft has written a book with a refreshingly straightforward title: Fashion and Psychoanalysis: Styling the Self (I. B. Tauris, 2012).  One immediately suspects that it reflects the author's two most enduring obsessions and this suspicion is confirmed within the first quarter of our interview.  Yet, as it turns out, both "psychoanalysis" and "fashion" demand […]

Read the full article →

Donnel B. SternRelational Freedom: Emergent Properties of the Interpersonal Field

August 1, 2015

We are mostly familiar with the hermeneutics of suspicion. But what about a hermeneutics of curiosity? In his latest book Relational Freedom: Emergent Properties of the Interpersonal Field (Routledge, 2015), Dr. Donnel Stern discusses the ways in which a spirit of mutual curiosity between analyst and analysand can transform the field between them and alter their […]

Read the full article →

Alexander EtkindWarped Mourning: Stories of the Undead in the Land of the Unburied

July 26, 2015

Theoretical and historical accounts of postcatastrophic societies often discuss melancholia and trauma at length but leave processes of mourning underexplored.  In Warped Mourning: Stories of the Undead in the Land of the Unburied (Stanford UP, 2013), Alexander Etkind shows why mourning is more conducive to cultural analysis.  Where trauma is unsymbolized and melancholia is contained […]

Read the full article →

Brenda Berger and Stephanie Newman, eds.Money Talks in Therapy, Society, and Life

July 9, 2015

What meaning does money have in psychic life? And where does clinical psychoanalytic work fall in the realm of commerce? Does money play an inherently alienating role with regards to the psychoanalytic subject? Or might it contain meaning crucial to the patient's progress? In Money Talks in Therapy, Society, and Life (Routledge, 2011), Brenda Berger and Stephanie Newman […]

Read the full article →

Patricia Gherovici and Manya Steinkoler, eds.Lacan on Madness: Madness, Yes You Can’t

June 20, 2015

Patricia Gherovici and Manya Steinkoler reminded me of something very important and unsettling: I have a brush with madness every night.  Most of us do – when we dream. Or fall in love; or write poetry; or free-associate.  Madness resides within all speaking beings and erupts in the most ordinary activities.  In fact, ordinariness, rationality, and […]

Read the full article →

Emily KuriloffContemporary Psychoanalysis and the Third Reich: History, Memory, Tradition

June 2, 2015

In her new book, Contemporary Psychoanalysis and the Third Reich: History, Memory, Tradition (Routledge, 2013), Emily Kuriloff details a dimension of psychoanalytic history that has never been so extensively documented: The impact of the Shoah on the not only the psychoanalysts who were directly involved, but also the aftershocks to later generations of analysts and the […]

Read the full article →

Michelle Ann StephensSkin Acts: Race, Psychoanalysis and the Black Male Performer

May 28, 2015

Why would Bert Williams, famous African-American vaudeville performer of the early twentieth century, feel it necessary to apply burnt cork blackface make-up to his already dark skin, in order to emphasize "blackness"? According to Michelle Ann Stephens, this was one question about the space between realness, race, and performance that led her to write Skin Acts: […]

Read the full article →

Frank SummersThe Psychoanalytic Vision: The Experiencing Subject, Transcendence, and the Therapeutic Process

April 13, 2015

In The Psychoanalytic Vision: The Experiencing Subject, Transcendence, and the Therapeutic Process (Routledge, 2013), Frank Summers has written a wholly original work of theory, technique and cultural critique. Privileging terms not often used in psychoanalytic writing, among them romanticism, transcendence and futurity, Summers documents an as yet undocumented shift in the field. In an effort […]

Read the full article →

Jean PetrucelliBody-States: Interpersonal and Relational Perspectives on the Treatment of Eating Disorders

April 1, 2015

Responding to a significant lacuna in psychoanalytic literature, Jean Petrucelli has put together an impressive book that approaches the eating-disordered patient from interpersonal and relational perspectives. Just as the papers within Body States: Interpersonal and Relational Perspectives on the Treatment of Eating Disorders (Routledge, 2014) animate the twin themes of dissociation and integration, so too do the authors […]

Read the full article →