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(The author is a senior at Harvard; his field of concentration is biochemistry.)
The Politics of Experience is the attempt of Ronald Laing, a Scottish psychiatrist, "to document some forms of our contemporary violation of ourselves." The widespread interest the book has generated since it reached the American market in September suggest that Laing succeeds in his endeavor, that many have found in it clues to their alienation.
The title is a misnomer. The book is not a politics of experience. Politics, as Laing understands it, consists of "the ways [in which] persons exercise control and power over one another." Laing examines some of the forms of control and power which affect individual experience -- psychotherapy, family, school, the group. However, the primary intent of the book is experience not politics.
Laing uses the concept of experience to provide a phenomenological approach to psychology. Thus, for Laing, experience includes and combines perception, imagination, fantasy, reverie, dream and memory. He is firm that experience "is not 'subjective' rather than 'objective', not 'inner' rather than 'outer', not process rather than praxis, not some doubtful data dredged up from introspection rather than extro-spection." Experience is the totality arising from the resolution of all these dichotomies, a sum greater than its parts. Behavior is only the external manifestation of experience, the sign of one person's experience that can be experienced by another. Experience is the basis of ontology; it is all that constitutes being human.
Laing indicts modern society for producing an alienated experience and a false reality by indoctrinating its members to overemphasize the "outer" and suppress the "inner." By "inner" Laing means "out way of seeing the external world and all those realities that have no 'external,' 'objective' presence--imagination, dreams, fantasies, trances, the realities of contemplative and meditative states, realities of which modern man, for the most part, has not the slightest awareness." "Normal" human experience is a shrivelled vestige of the potentials of human experience; it is an experience so exclusively dedicated to external substance that it loses internal meaning.
Experience is then the keystone of Laing's psychotherapy, his social critique and his suggestions for the improvement of the human condition. Psychotherapy is too often an attempt to impose the psychiatrist's "sane" reality in place of the patient's insane" reality. Such value judgments only compound the patient's trouble, by seeking to reinstate, without reintegrating, the experience which the patient had fled. Many cases of schizophrenia and psychosis are attempts to recapture the internal meaning which the patient had lost. Psychotherapy, according to Laing, should encourage and assist the internal voyages of self-discovery rather than coerce the patient back to external "sane" reality by sedation, electric shocks, or other interventionist therapy. Psychotherapy should be an attempt by patient and therapist to recapture the wholeness of experience.
Laing sees socialization as the process which destroys experience. The home and the school condition children to social acceptable forms of behavior and experience. Possible experience is limited from the wide range of human potential to the narrow field of the socially desirable. The family is an institution that does violence to experience in the name of love. The school deadens the experience of the children it claims to be awakening.
Experience is further devastated by the creation of pseudo-objects and pseudo-realities which have no validity in the individual's internal world and no substance in the external world, yet are experienced as objective entities. These pseudo-objects are reifications of the fundamental structures of experience which are shared by men as a result of their socialization. Laing conceptualizes two of these structures as Them and Us. Them is the sense of shame, the dynamism behind gossip and scandal. An individual often acts not by his own values of feelings but by what he experiences as Their values, values outside him. Us is the sense of group loyalty. Groups depend on unified experience, on the internalization of common social modes of being in their members. This internalization produces a sense of Us. Us is experienced as an organism which supersedes individual identity. Both group loyalty and shame place responsibility for motivation outside the individual. They drive man to acts which he would not conscience on his won, and they remove form him the satisfying, meaning-giving knowledge that his actions come from himself.
This is the extent of Laing's social critique. Laing offers no political solution. He does not wish to grace the social structuring and modes of experience by treating them with the dignity of real objects. The solution lies in experience not politics. The cend politics, those which remove the individual from the alienating process of controlling and being controlled by others. Laing calls for tolerance and exploration of modes of experience other than egoic in which the world and the self are experienced "in terms of a consistent identity, a me-here over against you-there, within a framework of certain ground structures of space and time shared with other members of society." The ego is both the product and the instrument of socialization. Alienation is ego-tripping, the predict of excessive adjustment to society. By dissolving the ego, the self can be resurrected and can enter other worlds of "inner" space and time. Laing's other worlds are individual need not commit his experience to political control.
In the last third of the book, Lasing describes the experiences which trans-familiar to the religious mystic and to some psychotics. They are associated with the source of life, eternity, death-in-life, timelessness, knowledge of the void, and the divine founts of religion and ecstasy.
From voyages into inner time and space, Laing says, men can be reborn, no longer alienated, but capable of a new kind of ego-functioning in which the ego is "the servant of the divine, no longer its betrayer." The rediscovery of the inner components of experience is Laing's most constructive suggestion on the problem of alienation.
Laing's formula for human fulfillment--the discovery of whole experience through voyages into inner space--is closely related to qualities which two modern psychological thinkers have identified as feminine. Erik Erikson, in "Womanhood and the Inner Space," organizes female identity around the concept of a productive inner space. He attributes to women and artistically gifted men an inner life, a sensitive indwelling and inwardness. Robert Lifton in "Women as Knower" attributes to women an insight which is related to their close identification with organic life and "whole experience," organic knowledge is essentially phenomenological, resolving an awareness of the selfprocess of the knower with rigorous cognitive standards.
The traditional separation of male and female roles has been based on male responsibility for economic welfare and social status, the relation of the family to the external society, and female responsibility for household functions and child-rearing, the internal maintenance of the family. Freud's concept of two principles of mental functioning, the pleasure and reality principles, is useful here. Freud noted that individual development was governed by the pleasure principle, and the development of civiliza- its perpetuation. He postulates the development of this insight into a new modality of cognition which he calls "organic knowledge." Like Laing's tion by the reality principle, the need to make alternations in the real world. The ego mediates between the individual and society, between pleasure and reality. Alienation, postulated in Freudian terms, results from an imbalance of reality and pleasure principles in favor of the former. Since the female role had required less adjustment to the reality principle, and has retained a closer conection with the sources of individual development, it is not surprising that feminine qualities should be associated with unalienated human potentials.
Beyond anatomical differences, what is female is so by dint of the same disjunctive process of society that have separated outer from inner. The resolution of the two dichotomies is interrelated. The reinterpretation of the inner life with the now predominating outer life will require the resurrection in all men of the sensitivity to the immediate environment and to the self which have been largely relegated to the female sex and to artists during the male striving for the domination of the human and physical environment. In mankind's fulfillment, make and female, and outer and inner will no longer be polarized extremes but will be opposite directions serving as references on a continuous psychological and social field.
Laing offers no general social theory which formulates the disjunctive processes. Each individual must seek his won salvation through his own experience.
Laing criticizes Freud for not having "constructs for any social system generated by more than one person at a time." The criticism is somewhat hasty. While Freud lacks a construct for interpersonal relations comparable to Laing's Us and Them, Freud's pleasure and reality principles provide an approach to the problem of the individual and society which has no counterpart in Laing. Laing show no recognition of the economic basis of civilization, and does not attempt to reconcile his suggestions on sanity and inner voyages with an economic theory. Laing distrusts the validity of any system too large to be experienced by one person.
Herbert Marcuse, in Eros and Civilization, has used Freud's pleasure and reality principles to achieve a formulation of the resolution of the disjunctive processes of society. He foresees the complete alienation of labor, the stage at which ultimate automation has eliminated all want and necessity and minimized, to the point of elimination, the need for work. Ultimate automation will obviate the values of productivity, utility, competition and mastery and domination of the human and non-human environments which are components of the Freudian reality principle, called by Marcuse "the performance principle." The reality principle, no longer a performance principle, will be fundamentally altered and will lose its repressive aspects. In the non-repressive civilization envisioned by Marcuse, "the subjective and objective world, man and nature are harmonized."
Marcuse is a contemporary extension of the rational, analytic tradition which included Freud. Laing is a contemporary representative of the mystical humanist tradition which, in the last two centuries, has produced such formidable anti-rationalists as Blake, Nietzsche, and Hesse. The position of Laing in this tradition is beyond the scope of this article; his parallels with Blake, Nietzsche and Hesse too numerous to summarize here.
I have known two students who have dropped out of school in the last few months while undergoing what might be called a crisis of self-discovery. Both of them felt two books were extremely relevant to their crises: Hesse's Demian and Laing's Politics of Experience. Like the hero of Hesse's Demian both boys felt a need to withdraw from the definitions and demands of the academic and business worlds, to explore and cultivate a world inside them, "to try to live," in Hesse's words, "in accord with the promptings which came from the true self." They sensed an inner reality which was as consistent and self-validating as the external reality with which it was at odds.
The experiences of these young men attest to the relevance of The Politics of Experience. Laing's emphasis on the need in modern life to restore the meaning of the inner to the substance of the outer has pinpointed a particularly virulent and prevalent form of the contemporary malaise of alienation.
The Politics of Experience has many problems, among them erratic style and a multiplicity of directions and intentions, evidenced by the non-fulfillment of the title, and arising from the book's origin as a conglomeration of separate articles. As a program for radical change it leaves much to be desired. Its constructive suggestions are two: treat the mentally ill with more respect; and discover yourself by temporarily dissolving your ego. But Laing's mystical humanism offers a necessary and valuable antithesis to the analytic tradition in radical social thought. It is a loud, passionate reminder that mankind's fulfillment is by definition the fulfillment of each individual's experience.
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