Self-Destruction, Heidegger, and Nature as a gigantic gas station

Brent Potter, author of Elements of Self Destruction, engages with the works of Wilfred Bion and Martin Heidegger to explore the sometimes horrifying manifestations of ‘mass hallucinosis’ in contemporary culture and our everyday lives.

A demented beehive

Early in my career during the 1990s, I recall occasionally looking up from my discussion with a so-called chronically mentally ill patient to look around the office. Invariably, there was outdated (usually 1970s-era) wall art, a desk lamp lighting the small room, a dead office plant in the corner and some abandoned dusty books next to the plant. The community mental health clinic where I cut my teeth was a massive, labyrinthine structure with an awkward combination of large cubical-laden expanses for clinicians and tiny consultation rooms. The clinic was the eighth largest employer in the county and each clinician had roughly 80-100 patients on his or her caseload. It reminded me of some kind of demented beehive abuzz with overworked, underpaid clinicians frantically running around completing paperwork, making copies and answering a backlog of voicemails. And the ‘patients’—always one or two screaming and/or throwing things in the lobby—wandering around, usually disoriented in the befuddling hall network. Supervisors and administrators wisely locked themselves in their offices or were otherwise quietly absent.

I think, in my eight years working there, I saw the clinical director twice. To add to the confused and confusing environment, the clinic had a 50% annual employee turnover. So, I may have seen a clinical director on more than two occasions but wouldn’t necessarily know. Patient suicides, clinician suicides, government cut-backs in spending, heartless human resources personnel; the patients’ chaos and the agency’s chaos seemed to reflect each other. It was Kafkaesque, as if the atmosphere itself was saturated with unwellness and us, collectively, attempting to give it shape and meaning. During this time, I asked my analyst what the real difference, if any, there was between the patients and clinicians. “Keys,” he answered quickly. “What?” I asked. “The clinicians are the ones with the keys to the building,” he said with a smile.

Where was the disease? I was reminded of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, where Oedipus “is the land’s pollution” and the polis is the body with the “pollution grown ingrained within.” Oedipus and the polis mutually reflect each other’s pathology. I realized early on that pathology is constructed and contextual. It is in this spirit that I wrote Elements of Self-Destruction.
In its pages, I attempted to show that the alleged diseases outlined in the DSM are contextual and meaningful phenomena. This stands in contrast to the (presently failing) hypothesis that such conditions are biological diseases centered in chemically imbalanced brain organs. Focusing in on the destructive capacity of the psyche, I utilized Bionian psychoanalysis and Heideggerian phenomenology as hermeneutic keys. While taking to heart Bion’s seminal contributions to psychoanalytic treatment, these tenets also hold true for aspects of our contemporary society. Psychoanalyst and Bionian scholar, Michael Eigen, points out today’s mass hallucinosis that has:

“become part of the cotton fuzz that makes for a kind of psycho-social soundproofing, dulling, numbing. Part of the hallucinatory nexus involves a mechanism reaching deep into infancy. In psychoanalytic language: “identification with the aggressor” … A strong leader or group identification finds alternate pathways for fears, hates, and criticism, often deflected towards a designated enemy … People in power intuitively know how to throw small bones for constituents to gnaw, keeping minds occupied, while grander destructive scenarios unfold … a hallucinated election. A hallucinated democracy … A hallucinated identity, a hallucinated life, a hallucinated death.”

Taking Bion’s notions of dynamic psychotic processes in psychic reality and applying them to social reality yields much. From this broader perspective, it is easy to see the hallucinatory spell cast in much of the world to be ‘successful’, to be ‘Number One’, to vanquish the ‘evil doers’, to establish a moral super-ego across the lands. A superficial (or no) sense of consequences is near to the essence of much contemporary psychopathic hallucinosis.

Martin Heidegger, following a phenomenological hermeneutic path, reached many of the same conclusions. He spoke of a world caught under the spell, a “delusion”, of unfettered control of the earth and its inhabitants as resources to be calculated, ordered and used.  The collective hallucinosis to which Eigen refers, Heidegger dubbed the Enframing, a mode of revealing the world where nothing appears in its essential character. It veils its truth as a presencing of Being by appearing as though it is a product of human making. We become convinced that the only mode of disclosing the world is through quantitative calculation.

“As soon as what is unconcealed no longer concerns man even as object, but exclusively as standing-reserve, and man in the midst of objectivelessness is nothing but the orderer of the standing-reserve, then he comes to the very brink of a precipitous fall; that is, he comes to the point where he himself will have to be taken as standing-reserve.”

Martin Heidegger
Heidegger asserts that once humankind is set upon this course of disclosure, the world becomes an “unworld” in which humanity engages in a “circularity of consumption for the sake of consumption.” In 1969 Heidegger used the image of Nature as a gigantic gas station with humanity at the pump—a disposable earth. Now, in 2013, we can see the haunting accuracy of this image.
Medard Boss, who was analyzed by Freud and studied under Heidegger, said, “today, people [are] horribly depressed by the meaninglessness and tedium of their lives. Suffering as they do, these people often try to drown out their desperation through addiction to work, pleasure, or drugs.” J.H. van den Berg suggests that the name neurosis is no longer an appropriate label to describe the disturbed human relations of our technological age. Placing neurosis in the realms of the individual and the anatomical ignores the underlying sociological character is illness. “No one is neurotic unless made neurotic by society. In a neurosis is an individual’s reaction to the conflicting and complicating demands made by society.”
Today, we have a plurality of selves. We possess a self for every group we belong to. Though we all suffer from this, the neurotic is unable to maintain a unified identity in various contexts. Van den Berg believes that it is more appropriate to speak of sociosis than neurosis. Our relationships are the pre-conditions of sociosis. This multitude of functional contexts cannot be quantitatively ordered so we lead a divided existence in a complex society. Those who can cope with these factors suffer the least.
So, quite briefly, these are some of the pathways explored in Elements of Self-Destruction, from the theoretical to the horrifyingly real manifestations in contemporary culture and as reported concretely from people’s own experience. Through these explorations, I hope to name some of the challenges of destructiveness and hope also to uncover a contextual pathway, open a path of the heart and mind, in negotiating this most difficult terrain.

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