Until the mid 19th Century, the European scientists explained the presence of maggots in flesh, and mice in bags of scraps via the doctrine of spontaneous generation. They didn’t think the scraps attracted the mice. They thought scraps created them. We see this thinking as magical now. But at the the time, with the paucity of knowledge about reproduction, and particularly the reproduction of small animals such as insects, it served a purpose. Well, it served at least two purposes.
Firstly and most obviously, it satiated curiosity — about how a creature that wasn’t there before is there now. “Here is a theory, documented and agreed, purporting to describe the process which gave rise to this puzzle. Ye may exhale now.” Everybody likes their itches scratched and curiosity is quite an itch. More than explanatory, however, a shitty theory also sustains a shitty paradigm. It delays such a paradigm’s funeral. Much of the history of science is the history of this phenomenon — watching scientists whittle the edges of square observations so as to squeeze them into round paradigms.
In this case, the magic of spontaneous generation sustained the fantasy that tiny creatures were less complex and self-sufficient than big ones. Scientists betray themselves here still today when they speak of “higher” and “lower” animals, as if there were an olympics of complexity going on. The only sense in which said animals might be “higher” or “lower” than each other is in how well documented were their lives by the scientists ranking them. Insects, for example, were apt to be “spontaneously generated” simply because their many-staged lives were a mystery to reductionist westfolk, even if other cultures had metamorphoses in hand long ago.
Arguably the richest portrait of metamorphoses in the western canon came from Franz Kafka, yet we throw his account to the outer rim of credibility by the label “absurdist fiction” (a double-pejorative even though the world is indeed absurd and our richest narrative practice is indeed fiction). It’s not, y’know, objective. The scientific framework — the objectivist and materialist framework — though really good at making technology, is an underwhelming meaning maker.
Spontaneous Generation is still a hot move
Psychiatrists still use this doctrine but not for insects. Instead of doing as the biologists did, using the spirit realm to explain away maggots and mice, they use the scientific realm to explain away distress. Specifically, when someone comes to them in distress, instead of asking (as any caring friend might do) “what happened to you?”, and seeking suffient causes there, they say “depression”, “BPD”, “chemical imbalance”, “anxiety”, are the causes of the distress. In other words, they borrow from genetics, neuropharmacology, medicine and psychology to conjure a cause that’s internal to the distressed person.
To grasp the circularity of this method, imagine a storm of baseballs hurtling from the sky. You look up and are struck in the face by one. Upon doubling over and screaming, your friend comes to your aid and says “oh, you have a case of extreme injurious pain. It’s caused by a genetic disorder called baseballouchfaceness and there’s an epidemic right now. We have run clinical trials on these here paracetamol tablets and they’re very effective for this particular genetic condition. Take two and come back next week.
This is the doctrine of spontaneous generation but for distress, not for mice.
Some psychiatrists and therapists will do slightly better than this. Instead of saying you have a “chemical imbalance” or a “genetic predisposition”, they will say “your childhood experiences”, or “your nervous system”: your experience, rather than your biology. These therapists have acknowledged that something happened to you, and in that context your distress makes sense. What many of these therapists fail to note (indeed they cannot both note it and continue to accept your payment in good conscience) is that what happened to you as a child, and what destroyed your nervous system, is likely still happening to you — it’s just being conduited through different channels.
When they incorrectly guess that madness “comes from nowhere”, they’re also going to guess wrong about how to help. If we look at the healing practices of psychiatry through this lens of etiological failure, its persistent failures start to make sense — they even become predicatable.
A grieving person who seeks help from a psychiatrist may be given pills (drugs) to shoosh their feelings, rather than company with which to process them. A person who has experienced gaslighting and coerced dependence inside an abusive relationship and is seeking to recover their autonomy and confidence may, upon meeting their psychiatrist, get the message, “I know what’s wrong with you. Lots of people go through this. I can help you. Come back next week”, which is, um, gaslighting and coerced dependence. And someone hearing voices that are urging them to harm themselves or somebody else may be locked away and strapped in restraints rather than taken outside into the grass and embraced with the company of people who’ve experienced this before and survived it.
The church had unchecked power, demonic spirits, exorcism, and the power to excommunicate. Psychiatry has unchecked power, pathology spirits, pharmaceuticals and the power to incarcerate.
An object will not change its motion unless a force acts on it
Newton’s first law of motion. A psychiatrist is trained in the sciences and may well know this gem. Yet they will also maintain that your melancholy can be unrelated to the world around you: “Your depression is endogenous,” they may say, invoking the doctrine of spontaneous generation. They mean by this, of course, that your feelings are spontaneously generated by you and your genome, or you and your nervous system. You are a magician. A sick magician. A very sick magician. Here, have some pills.
Big pharmaceutical companies love biologically-determined suffering too. “Biologically-determined” opens the story and “pharmacological $ervice” concludes it. Big pharma and psychiatry, together, hoping your experiences are fictitious and chemically adjustable. Nay, needing them to be fictitious and chemically adjustable. That’s the bottom line. If you insist otherwise, you’re menacing their bottom line, you’re mad, and you may well be forcibly incarcerated.
There’s no limit to the suggestive power of doctors (“you have a chemical imbalance”) and the pills they prescribe (“these will take effect in 2–3 weeks”). It’s called the placebo effect and it’s the most reliable gift psychiatrists can offer. Science has accrued more experimental data demonstrating the power of the placebo effect than any other phenomenon. More than gravity, more than the greenhouse effect, more than Darwin’s theory of natural selection. In fact, even the most effective anti-depressant medications get the larger part of their power from the placebo effect, not from their pharmaco-chemical brilliance. Curiously, when the placebo effect is raised by practicing psychiatrists, it is sometimes to demonstrate that a client’s experience was a fantasy; “a sugar pill worked so their suffering wasn’t real.” The confident sophistry in the letters sections of psychiatric journals is pretty jaw-dropping at times.
You’ll note that the pharma-psychiatric approach is a kind of “there there, bury your feelings and if you can’t, we’ll bury them for you” vibe. Anyone who’s fully grieved and incorporated a loss into their being knows that “not feeling it” is some bullshit.
Feeling it is the way.
John Keats knew what was up:
No, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolf's-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kiss'd
By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;
Make not your rosary of yew-berries,
Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be
Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl
A partner in your sorrow's mysteries;
For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.
But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
And hides the green hill in an April shroud;
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,
Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,
Or on the wealth of globed peonies;
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.
She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy's grape against his palate fine;
His soul shalt taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.
Keats says “feel it” (right before he says “don’t take your mistress’s anger seriously tho”) and then points out the bleeding obvious — if you don’t let the melancholy exist, you won’t taste much joy either. Pharmaco-psychiatry, in contrast, says “bury it and also pay me”. Many psychiatric survivors who were over-prescribed anti-depressants have come to understand this as the scam that it is.
It’s a terrible mistake to blame psychiatrists for all this nonsense. The structural obligations of psychiatry and the personal hopes of psychiatrists are not the same. Ask a psychiatrist what psychiatry does and they’ll tell you about their hopes, not their obligations. All but the strangest of psychiatrists go into the discipline to help distressed people feel better. The game is stronger than the people who play it. Intentions submit to incentives eventually. It’s no different for a politician or anyone else who’s power outgrows their structural analysis.
The people who have something useful to tell us about psychiatry’s effects and value are the people who have endured it. That’s me and millions of other survivors. For more about psychiatric abolition, and survivor liberation, help yourself to these brilliant creators:
And for lengthier reads, try https://www.madinamerica.com/