Madness Is Civilization: When the Diagnosis Was Social, 1948-1980

Madness Is Civilization: When the Diagnosis Was Social, 1948-1980

Michael E. Staub

Language: English

Pages: 264

ISBN: 022621463X

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


In the 1960s and 1970s, a popular diagnosis for America’s problems was that society was becoming a madhouse. In this intellectual and cultural history, Michael E. Staub examines a time when many believed insanity was a sane reaction to obscene social conditions, psychiatrists were agents of repression, asylums were gulags for society’s undesirables, and mental illness was a concept with no medical basis.

Madness Is Civilization explores the general consensus that societal ills—from dysfunctional marriage and family dynamics to the Vietnam War, racism, and sexism—were at the root of mental illness. Staub chronicles the surge in influence of socially attuned psychodynamic theories along with the rise of radical therapy and psychiatric survivors' movements. He shows how the theories of antipsychiatry held unprecedented sway over an enormous range of medical, social, and political debates until a bruising backlash against these theories—part of the reaction to the perceived excesses and self-absorptions of the 1960s—effectively distorted them into caricatures. Throughout, Staub reveals that at stake in these debates of psychiatry and politics was nothing less than how to think about the institution of the family, the nature of the self, and the prospects for, and limits of, social change.

 The first study to describe how social diagnostic thinking emerged, Madness Is Civilization casts new light on the politics of the postwar era.

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intended to defend and refine this axiom, seeking more precisely to determine correlations between pathological personality factors and destructive ideological opinions, including the hatred of ethnic and racial minorities. Did persons who harbored resentments and hostilities toward minorities share a specific character structure that might be labeled “authoritarian”? Was it possible to extrapolate from an individual case study to the population as a whole? What was the link between the individual

resolve social conflicts. Lewin argued that racial prejudices “should not be viewed as individual character traits” but rather as “anchored in cultural standards,” and that the “stability” and “change” of such prejudices “depend largely on happenings in groups as groups.” And Lewin believed that small groups might transform “a multitude of unrelated individuals, frequently opposed in their outlook and their interests,” into “co-operative teams not on the basis of sweetness but on the basis of

about mental vulnerability could be put to use for progressive politics. II “Brainwashing” was a new concept in the 1950s. Named “menticide” by New York psychiatrist Joost A. M. Meerloo and “brain warfare” by Allen W. Dulles, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, the methods that typically came to be called “brainwashing” grew specifically out of concerns regarding the psychological tortures inflicted upon American prisoners of war in Korea to extract false confessions.4 The word

illness in the United States? This chapter situates the positions of Thomas Szasz more firmly within their historical context as a means of illuminating first of all the remarkable extent to which his ideas reflected popular cynicism about psychiatry already circulating widely during the mid-1950s. The chapter further emphasizes that Szasz’s most powerfully original and unorthodox contributions, rooted in his deep and abiding enmity toward the power he perceived psychiatry as wielding in

social nature of mental illness. As problematic as it may in many ways have been, what the academic work on social theories of schizophrenia and the growing popularization of the associated ideas through the 1950s and first half of the 1960s had facilitated was the powerful plausibility of social diagnoses as well as a partial destigmatization of and growing fascination with insanity. Madness had also been gradually transformed into a condition that could potentially strike anyone trapped in

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