Fundamentals of an Environmental Approach to Distress

(Adapted from the appendix to The Origins of Unhappiness)

The following twenty-four 'axioms' sketch out as economically as possible the basis of a theoretical understanding of psychological distress as the product of a damaging environment rather than the expression of a damaged person. That is to say, it is not people who are 'neurotic', 'ill' or 'dysfunctional' in some way, but social worlds - the environments which people inhabit - which are harmful.

Inevitably, the statement of these axioms is somewhat condensed, and so explanatory passages are provided in the hope of making them a little more digestible. An extended discussion of the relevant issues is to be found in the original book.

In the writer's experience these statements come as close to being indubitable as can reasonably be expected. Others' experience may confirm or conflict with this view: either way, it would be interesting to hear from you!

1 A person is the interaction of a body with a world (environment).

This is a materialist theory in the sense that only the operation of material power on physical bodies can give rise to 'psychological' (or any other kind of non-material) being. There are no 'things' involved in the construction of personhood other than material bodies and physical worlds. But this is not to say that a person is purely a material thing. As the result of an interaction between body and world, non-material aspects of persons may indeed come into being, and there is no particular harm in, for example, calling these non-material aspects of the person 'mental', or even 'spiritual'. But very misleading difficulties do arise when such concepts are subtly re-materialized and regarded as 'inside' the person in some semi-physical sense which supposedly enables them to change or influence their circumstances independently of material power (it is no doubt confusions of this kind that lead, for example, to conceptions of 'immortal souls').

2 By 'environment' is meant, most importantly, social space-time.

3 The environment is structured by material power.

4 Power may be coercive, economic or ideological. These may be, but are not necessarily, positively correlated.

5 Ideological power is viable only to the extent that it can be rendered material through solidarity.

Statements 3, 4 and 5 attempt to express the idea that power is exerted physically on the world through human action, and that its operation can be inferred only through the observation of material change having taken place in physical structures. Ideological power can be effective only through its association with material force of this kind. 'Ideas', of themselves, have no power; what makes the difference between impotent magic and wishful thinking on the one hand and very powerful ideologies like Christianity or Nazism on the other is that the latter are empowered through the association of large numbers of people able to act together.

6 The person's relation to the body is mainly one of sensation.

7 The person's relation to the environment is mainly through experience (intransitive reception of power) and action (transitive exercise of power).

A person is thus located in a field of power which s/he both absorbs and transmits, and from which s/he cannot be abstracted as an individual able somehow to choose or decide how to relate to the field of power independently of its influence. Our experience of being permeated by social power necessarily imparts the illusion that we originate action, but, in fact, we would more accurately be characterized as loci in social space through which power flows. (See 20 and 21 below.)

8 Both the experience and the exercise of power may be benign or malign.

That is to say, social influences may operate for or against the interests of the person they impinge upon, and s/he may in turn act for or against the interests of others. What a person believes about these processes (whether s/he perceives influences as malign or benign; whether s/he is 'sincere' about the 'motives' for his/her actions) is not essential to an accurate understanding of them, and may indeed be controlled by ideological powers of which the person has no knowledge. Actions do indeed speak louder than words, and the meaning of an action (its intention) is to be 'read off' from the action itself (what it is aimed at) rather than from what the actor says about it.

9 Power operates at varying distances from the person, proximally and distally. It is always mediated proximally, but may well originate distally.

10   a From an objective perspective, the absolute magnitude of power is negatively related to its proximity to the person.

b From a subjective perspective, the relative magnitude of power is positively related to its proximity to the person.

11 Each person operates within: a) a 'power horizon', and b) a 'memory span' which limits his/her ability to identify the reasons for proximal events and actions, including his/her own.

Between them, 9, 10 and 11 contain perhaps the most difficult and profound paradox of human experience. This is that, in trying to understand the reasons for social conduct, including his/her own, what are in fact the least accurate and satisfactory explanations (i.e. those that s/he can see and feel proximally) are likely to be experienced by the individual as the most accurate and satisfactory ones. The person thus comes to live within a kind of illusory mythology which can be corrected only by a more 'objective' view, i.e., one which inhabits a much broader power horizon (it is just such a correction which the natural sciences attempt to perform for our understanding of the physical world). The 'truth' could, in any absolute sense, only be seen through the eye of God, but any version of it to which human beings can aspire, however extended their power horizon, can only be an approximation. It is essentially this paradox of human experience which makes the operation of ideological mystification - 'false consciousness', or simple 'bamboozlement' - possible. In other words, it is easily possible to appeal misleadingly to people's immediate experience of some harmful influence in order to distract them from what is being done to them behind the scenes - racist ideologies provide a good example. The notion of 'mental illness' is another.

12 Environmental influence becomes embodied (i.e., becomes a collection of biological assets and liabilities).

Whether environmental influence impinges on the person intransitively (e.g. causing suffering) or flows through him/her transitively (e.g. enabling action), it is physically registered, materially changing bodily structures such that learning can take place. Learning is thus inescapably a biological process and may well be irreversible.

13 There are no such things as 'inner worlds', but personal powers acquired (embodied) over time.

14 The extent to which a person can influence present circumstances will depend on the availability to him/her of material powers and resources, including embodied personal assets.

15 Powers and resources may be economic, cultural, educational, ideological, physical.

16 The degree to which the effects of the past can be influenced will depend on the nature and extent of their embodiment as well as on the person's access to resources.

It is extremely difficult to modify conduct which is the result of embodied experience - a fact which most psychotherapeutic approaches overlook or ignore. Most 'psychological' characteristics are at least as deeply embedded as, say, the abitily to speak one's native tongue, and may in fact not be eradicable at all.

17 A person's 'psychology' consists of the meaning systems through and with which his/her embodied experience of the environment is understood, interpreted and represented.

That we arrive at 'psychology' only at this point suggests some of its limitations. For psychology deals essentially with an abstracted relation of bodies with worlds, with that aspect of people which is neither body nor world, and which reflects their struggles to represent and talk about what it is like to be a body in a world. Perhaps this is why so many psychologists who pursue their speculations with any real tenacity tend to end up either as quasi-biologists or quasi-sociologists. The great temptation for psychology is, of course, to impute to its insights (into the systems of meaning people develop to understand their world) a materiality they simply haven't got, and then to attempt to tie such pseudo-material insights into truly material aspects of bodies and worlds. The most obvious example of this is to assume in one form or another the power of positive (or indeed negative) thinking, to try to make direct and causal connections between the way we see, think about or imagine things and the way they actually are. Of course we cannot separate the way things are from the way we see them, but nor can we create a world just by imagining it. The importance of understanding a person's meaning-system is for the clues it gives us to body-world relations; we change nothing of consequence by trying simply to manipulate those systems from within themselves. A more technical way of saying this is to point out that psychology too easily confuses epistemological observations with ontological statements.

18 Such meaning systems may be, for example, idiosyncratic or cultural, implicit or explicit.

Even such simple distinctions as these, which may be represented on two orthogonal axes as shown, can give a theoretical coherence to psychological phenomena which, if treated as entities in 'internal space,' tend simply to multiply perplexingly without any real explanation. The schema here owes a great deal to the work of Rom Harré (see his Personal Being, Blackwell, 1983).


Axes of meaning

According to this schema, the character of a psychological phenomenon will be determined by its location relative to the two axes of meaning. For example a scientific production, and indeed language itself, would be found in the upper right quadrant, while some artistic productions (making explicit an idiosyncratic view) would be in the lower right quadrant; dreaming, and some forms of psychotic ideation, would be located mainly in the lower left quadrant. 'Symptoms' of distress which are commonly experienced but which people are at a loss to understand might find their place in the upper left quadrant. An example of one of these latter might be 'anorexia' (the meaning of self-starvation is almost certainly culturally determined, but remains mysteriously inarticulate; inasmuch as it becomes articulated as a form of protest - hunger strike - it moves along to the right of the horizontal axis).

By means such as these, the curious mixed metaphors of 'dynamic' psychology - for example, the hydraulics of 'internal' space in which 'mental contents' are pushed into and out of consciousness - may be replaced by conceptual distinctions. Since these give coherence to phenomena which, being purely psychological, are themselves conceptual (i.e., aspects of meaning-systems), they are to be seen as operating at a meta-level.

It is important to note that psychological phenomena are not necessarily unique or private to the individual in whom they occur (i.e., who provides a locus for them), but may be aspects of cultural 'forms' established independently of specific individuals. Another way of putting this is to point out that part of the structure of personhood is beyond the skin of the individual, located not in private but in public space. Part of 'me' are the cultural factors which give shape to me. Accordingly, if cultural forms disintegrate (as with, say, conventional ideas of male and female roles) the individual is likely to experience this as personal disintegration.

19 Psychological operations may effect change only to the extent that they directly mediate, or facilitate access to, powers and resources.

20 The concept of 'will' derives from the experience of transmitting power, provided such transmission is congruent with the individual's wishes.

21 Freedom is proportional to the amount of power possessed by or available to the individual.

Nothing can be changed by the power of thought alone (indeed, thought has no power). Whether or not someone can make a difference to his/her circumstances will depend on what powers and resources are available to him/her (click here for more information). The idea that we have 'free will' derives from the experience most of us have had of being able to exercise a certain amount of power. Because we are especially intimately acquainted with the sensations of our own bodies (and may well be ignorant of the source and nature of the powers we sometimes transmit), we mistakenly identify the feelings which accompany the exercise of power as its origination, and we call this 'will'. Since we cannot choose not to have such feelings, it seems reasonable to suggest that 'will' is a necessary illusion.

22 A person's well-being (freedom from distress) is largely determined by current circumstances and the nature and significance of his/her embodied experience and exercise of power.

The interaction of the characteristics of power - whether it is benign or malign, transitive or intransitive - together with their mediation through the person's systems of meaning will determine whether the person feels pleasure or pain, love or hate, comfort or distress, confidence or fear, etc. For example, power exercised by the person transitively and benignly is likely to be experienced as loving, transitively but malignly as sadistic. Similarly, the intransitive reception of benign power is likely to be experienced as being loved, and so on. The mediation of experience and action by the person's 'psychology' (meaning-systems) is important not because it can be 'therapeutically' manipulated to change distress into comfort (which in most cases would amount merely to ideological distortion or mystification), but because engagement with it offers opportunities for the clarification of previous distortions and mystifications (as well as, of course, for learning from the person what s/he knows about the world). But clarifying a state of affairs is by no means the same thing as being able to change it.

23 Clinical consultation ('therapy') operates only transiently within the person's proximal field and is therefore necessarily limited in its power to effect change.

24 Consultation consists of three main elements:

(i) provision of comfort
(ii) clarification
(iii) encouragement in the use of available powers and resources.

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