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!
A person is the interaction of a body with a world (environment).
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.
Ideological power is viable only to the extent that it can be rendered
material through solidarity.
6 The person's relation to the body is mainly one of sensation.
The person's relation to the environment is mainly through experience
(intransitive reception of power) and action (transitive exercise
Both the experience and the exercise of power may be benign or malign.
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.
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.
Environmental influence becomes embodied (i.e., becomes a collection
of biological assets and liabilities).
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.
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.
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.
Such meaning systems may be, for example, idiosyncratic or cultural,
implicit or explicit.
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).
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: