A few hours after last week's murder of a television reporter and her cameraman in Moneta, Va. -- broadcast live, as it was happening, on a local morning news program -- the killer released his own video. Evidently recorded with a digital camera carried at eye level, it puts the viewer in his place as he walks towards his victims. Once at point-blank range, the gun in his right hand enters the bottom of the screen, moving unsteadily for a few (very long) seconds, taking aim and firing.
The killer made sure this unsettling document went public via social media. Before long, someone had combined it with footage of the shooting as it had aired on television to create a synchronized split-screen record of the event, like a scene in a Brian De Palma movie. I've read about this mash-up but not seen it, and won't, and will refrain from speculating on why anyone considered it a potential worth realizing. (Watching the TV clip and the killer's point-of-view video on the day of the shootings left me feeling morally compromised enough, thank you very much.)
But the whole obscene spectacle echoes a number of points made by Franco Berardi in Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide, published by Verso this spring -- a book I have considered discussing in this column for a couple of months now, while also wanting to avoid it for reasons that the author himself would clearly understand. “Crime, mass murders, suicide -- these are not subjects for a good-natured guy,” he writes. “I’m not a morbid person …. Nevertheless, at the end of summer 2012, I started writing this text almost in a state of rapture, half-consciously, dragged by a sort of excitement and curiosity, and primarily driven by the perception that here, in these dark subjects, there is something peculiar to the spirit of our time.”
The author, who also goes by the nickname Bifo, teaches the social history of communication at the Accademia di belle Arti in Milan and worked with Radio Alice, the now legendary pirate radio station that broadcast in Italy during the mid-1970s. (He gave an interesting interview about Radio Alice in 2010.)
The summer of 2012, when Berardi started writing the new book, was also when James Holmes opened fire on the audience of a late-night screening of a Batman film in Aurora, Colo., killing a dozen people and wounding many more. Holmes entered the theater wearing paramilitary gear (gloves, gas mask, helmet, etc.) and a number of survivors remarked that their first thought was that he was engaged in a publicity stunt or some kind of fan role play. One patron resorted to a cinematic reference to describe the scene after Holmes opened fire: “The guy looked like the Terminator. He didn’t say anything. He was just shooting and shooting and shooting.”
Berardi followed the news, struck by the idea that Holmes “wanted to eliminate the separation between the spectator and the movie; he wanted to be in the movie.” And in that regard Holmes belongs to a subset of the spree killers of recent years -- those who document themselves, leaving behind diaries, written or video, as well as detailed explanations for why they are doing what they do. They don't just kill people at random and then, usually, themselves. They prepare press kits first. (Holmes did not kill himself, but suicide by cop seems at least a very probable outcome of any such incident.)
Other cases Berardi writes about are Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine killers, and Seung-Hui Cho, who massacred 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007. But the phenomenon is not strictly American, and Berardi also discusses Pekka-Eric Auvinen, who killed eight people and himself at his high school in Finland, and Anders Breivik, who massacred 77 people in Norway.
The book might well have included Elliot Rodger, who recorded a smirking rant on video and circulated an interminable autobiographical statement called “My Twisted World” before killing six people and himself in Isla Vista, Calif., last year. And now we have Vester Flanagan, also known as Bryce Williams. His innovation went beyond merely explaining himself (he faxed a lengthy suicide note after the shooting), by giving the vast, anonymous Internet public his point of view on the crime, in as literal a sense as possible.
In calling his book Heroes, Berardi is both indulging an especially dark sense of irony and pointing out something at least as horrifying as the crimes. “Roaming in the blogosphere,” he says, “I read texts of young students who declare to be admirers of [Seung-Hui] Cho because they feel the same hatred for the bullying that they have endured for years.” From a little supplementary roaming, one learns that Cho expressed admiration for the two Columbine killers -- while Vester Flanagan paid his respects to all three in his suicide note.
Only parts of the written and video communications Cho sent to NBC News were made public at the time -- a decision that Berardi guesses was made “because they sounded too much like a frightening manifesto for the frail people of the precarious generation, a call to explosive suicide launched to all the lonely young nerds of the world.” Clearly the effort at containment did not work, and today no gatekeeper can prevent the killer’s statement from circulating in full and immediately.
But overt bullying of the traditional sort -- the harassment and torture, verbal and physical, of one’s peers -- forms only part of the experience of shared misery that Berardi considers. more pervasive are the strains of precarity (a labor market geared to temporary work, without benefits and even the minimal continuity of personnel that makes friendship or sociability possible) and of constantly being drawn into the digital vortex:
“The individual is a smiling, lonely monad who walks in the urban space in tender continuous interaction with the photos, the tweets, the games that emanate from a personal screen. The social relation is transformed into a cabled interconnection whose rules and procedures are hidden in the coded linguistics of the web.” (Think of the like button on Facebook as an example.)
The point here is not, of course, that YouTube and instant messaging have spawned robotic psycho killers programmed to avenge themselves on society by going on suicide missions. Berardi’s larger point is that most of the suffering involved never reaches the point of exploding into violence -- and when it does, the violence tends overwhelmingly to be self-inflicted. In a classic sociological study, Emil Durkheim characterized some forms of suicide as anomic, resulting from feeling disconnected from or unnecessary for social life. But anomie is the new normal. “According to the World Health Organization,” Berardi writes, “suicide is today the second cause of death among young people, after car accidents, which is often a disguised form of suicide.” He also cites a report from WHO that indicates a 60 percent increase in the suicide rate over the past 45 years.
The resentment, narcissism, scapegoat seeking and rage of those who use mass media and mass murder to remind the world that they exist are pathological. But they are also, in Berardi’s analysis, extreme forms of “a paralysis of empathic relations and an increasing fragility of the common ground of interpersonal understanding [that] are becoming common features in the psycho-scape of our time.”
An empirical-minded social scientist would probably dismiss all of this as so much impressionism and speculation. But it reverberated in my head after seeing Vester Flanagan’s video a week ago, and I’m all too certain that won’t be the last time.
Last week, an independent investigation of the American Psychological Association found that several of its leaders aided the U.S. Department of Defense’s controversial enhanced interrogation program by loosing constraints on military psychologists. It was another bombshell in the ongoing saga of the U.S. war on terror in which psychologists have long served as foot soldiers. Now, it appears, psychologists were among its instigators, too.
Leaders of the APA used the profession’s ethics policy to promote unethical activity, rather than to curb it. How? Between 2000 and 2008, APA leaders changed their ethics policy to match the unethical activities that some psychologists wanted to carry out -- and thus make potential torture appear ethical. “The evidence supports the conclusion that APA officials colluded with DoD officials to, at the least, adopt and maintain APA ethics policies that were not more restrictive than the guidelines that key DoD officials wanted,” the investigation found, “and that were as closely aligned as possible with DoD policies, guidelines, practices or preferences, as articulated to APA by these DoD officials.” Among the main culprits was the APA’s own ethics director.
Commentators claim that the organization is unique, and in some ways it is. The APA’s leaders had the uncommonly poor judgment and moral weakness to intentionally alter its ethics policy to aid their personal enlistment into the war on terror. Then they had the exceptional bad luck to get caught.
Yet the focus on a few moral monsters misses a massive, systemic quirk in how the APA -- and many other organizations -- creates its code of ethics. The elite professionals who are empowered to write and change an ethics policy have tremendous influence over its content. But ethics policies are anonymous because they have force only to the extent that they appear to represent the position of an entire organization, not a few powerful people. The process is designed to erase the mark of those heavy hands who write the rules for everyone.
The APA’s current scandal may be new, but its problems on this front are decades old. The APA passed its first comprehensive code of ethics in 1973 after seven years of work by six top U.S. psychologists who had been appointed by the APA’s leadership. I have examined the records of this committee’s work housed at the Library of Congress and recently published my findings in Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. The men were given an impossible task: to write a code that represented the ethical views of all psychologists and at the same time erase their own biases and interests. The effort was prompted by worries that if the organization neglected to regulate itself, the government would do it for them. “President Nixon is moving rapidly in this area,” one psychologist at the time put it. “Behavioral scientists must stay ahead of him or we will be in big trouble.” Among the troubles they were facing within the profession was how psychologists could continue to be employed and funded by the U.S. military and not appear to break the profession’s ethics policy -- precisely the contradiction that resulted in APA’s current imbroglio.
In an effort to appear democratic and transparent, the members of the 1973 ethics committee collected survey responses from thousands of psychologists and interviewed key stakeholders in the profession. Psychologists reported back with descriptions of activities that ranged from callous to criminal -- research with LSD, government-backed counterinsurgency efforts, neglect of informed consent. Still, the six psychologists had to boil down an ocean of responses into an ethics code that purported to fit with all psychologists’ needs and perspectives -- which included their own.
At the height of the Cold War, scores of psychologists painted a picture of a profession rife with secrecy and dodgy funding sources. They specifically told of military research that appeared to require an abdication of ethics. “These are seen as highly necessary studies,” one psychologist reported regarding research he did for the Defense Department. “Unless the research is highly realistic, it will not provoke psychological stress and hence will be useless.” In one study, the human subject was led to believe he was in an underwater chamber. “The subject sits in this chamber and performs specific tasks at an equipment console. If water rises inside the chamber one of the controls is supposed to exhaust it. At first the control operates. Later, however, if fails and the water gradually rises higher and higher around the subject’s body.” But the human subject was not really underwater and the psychologist was in control. “It is the practice to stop the experience at various points for different subjects, depending upon the amount of excitement they appear to show at different water levels.”
Studies like this were hotly disputed among psychologists at the time. Some felt that being deceived or hurt, especially by an authority figure like a psychologist, fundamentally damaged people. Humans are fragile, the line went, and can be psychologically scarred by psychologists themselves.
Yet the six members of the 1973 ethics committee were skeptical. The committee's leader, Stuart Cook, found the position implausible based on his own experience as a researcher and in his early training as a student. “When I was a subject I expected to be deceived; I knew that performance under stress was an issue,” he reflected. After talking with colleagues about the trade-offs of tighter ethics for psychologists, Stuart delivered the punch line: “We should cut down our obligation to fully inform."
Another ethics committee member, William McGuire, regarded the “fragile self” view as ludicrous in general and its main (female) proponents ridiculous in particular. McGuire had made a celebrated career studying persuasion -- largely funded by the U.S. government in light of its Cold War concerns about political indoctrination. McGuire is a good example of how the ethical views of the policy writers did not stray far from their own personal stakes in ethics policies. “My feeling is that the field must face up to the fact that there are a lot of moral costs in psychological research and that this can be done only by going through two steps,” McGuire told a colleague. “The first step is to admit, well, all right, there is something morally bothersome about many aspects of the research including leaning ever so slightly on people to get them to participate, or especially misleading them about the nature of the research even in minor ways, using their behavior or behavioral traces without their explicit consent, etc. But going through this first step frankly and admitting there are unpleasant aspects of the research does not mean that we cannot do it. On the contrary,” he continued, “it is necessary to go through the second step and decide whether the reasons for doing the research outweigh these reasons for not doing it.” This view fit tidily with support of military research using stress, deception, drugs and other contested methods.
In 1971, the committee published a draft of the ethics policy they had created to gauge APA members’ responses. When a few of the ethics committee members considered taking seriously the complaints from that large faction of psychologists who raised concerns about the laxity of the draft ethics code, McGuire threatened to quit. “It seems to me that there has been a change in mood in the committee in a somewhat conservative direction, which surprised me a little bit and made me worry lest I might have fallen out of tune with the other committee members,” he explained. “I do want to mention that the committee members had moved in a direction and distance that I had not quite anticipated so that perhaps I would be perceived as holding back progress or being an obstructionist.”
Instead, William McGuire, Stuart Cook and the four other psychologists stuck together and ushered in an ethics policy that corresponded to their own research needs and interests. The final version of the 1973 ethics code, for example, eased restrictions on psychologists’ use of deception that had appeared in earlier drafts. The final policy allowed researchers to lie -- for the sake of science -- despite the loudly announced disagreement from many psychologists that deception, stress and other forms of harm, however temporary, could do long-term damage to people and deserved to be controlled through the APA’s code of ethics.
In 1973, as in events leading to the APA’s current crisis, the organization’s ethics policy bore the marks of the handful of psychologists who were empowered to write the rules. Like anyone, they had their own political and scientific interests in the content of the ethics policy. But unlike others, and to a varying degree, they managed their own interests by changing the policy to suit their interests.
In recent weeks, critics have rightly and roundly condemned the current APA leaders who are at fault in the recent scandal. But it is misguided to think that the APA’s problem of professional ethics can be solved by throwing out a few exceptionally bad apples.
Next month, thousands of psychologists are meeting for the APA’s annual convention. They will have plenty to discuss. It is clear that some leaders behaved condemnably -- perhaps criminally -- and three have already been forced out. Yet continuing to castigate individuals alone misses the larger problem.
The APA’s current ethics mess is a problem inherent to its method of setting professional ethics policy and a problem that faces professional organizations more broadly. Professions’ codes of ethics are made to seem anonymous, dropped into the world by some higher moral authority. But ethics codes have authors. In the long term, the APA’s problems will not be solved by repeating the same process that empowers a select elite to write ethics policy, then removes their connection to it.
All ethics codes have authors who work to erase the appearance of their influence. Personal interests are inevitable, if not unmanageable, and it may be best for the APA -- and other professional groups -- to keep the link between an ethics policy and its authors. Take a new lesson from the Hippocratic oath by observing its name. The APA should make its ethics policies like most other papers that scientists write: give the code of ethics a byline.
Nietzsche’s injunction is terse and direct, but simple it isn’t. Just about the most hopelessly off-target paraphrase possible would be that familiar bit of advice to anybody facing a socially anxious situation: “Relax and just be yourself!” The philosopher has something altogether more strenuous in mind: an effort in which “what you are” includes both raw material and the capacity to shape it. The athlete, musician, or artisan is engaged in such a process of becoming -- the strengthening, testing, and refining “potentials” that can barely be said to exist unless strengthened, tested, and refined.
Nietzsche’s influence on Sigmund Freud has always been a vexed matter. (Perhaps especially for Freud himself, who always denied that there was one, despite abundant evidence to the contrary.) Adam Phillips avoids the question entirely in Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst, a new title in the Yale University Press series Jewish Lives. The omission seems doubly odd given that Phillips himself is a psychoanalyst: Freud’s repeated but not quite credible insistence that he'd never been able to read more than half a page of the philosopher’s work sure does look like a symptom of, to borrow Harold Bloom’s expression, the anxiety of influence.
Originally presented as the Clark Lectures at the University of Cambridge earlier this year, Becoming Freud makes no claim to compete with the major biographies by Ernest Jones and Peter Gay. The annual lecture series (begun in the 19th century to honor a Shakespeare scholar who was a fellow at Trinity College) is dedicated to aspects of literature. But the book touches on Freud’s literary interests only intermittently.
Warrant for discussing the founding patriarch of psychoanalysis in the same venue where T. S. Eliot lectured on metaphysical poetry lies, rather, in the status of Freud’s work. It is “of a piece," Phillips says, "with much of the great modernist literature, all of which was written in his lifetime; a literature in which — we can take the names of Proust, Musil, and Joyce as emblematic — the coherent narratives of and about the past were put into question … [during] a period of extraordinary energy and invention and improvisation.”
At the same time, Freud’s participation in the upheaval was not a matter of choice or preference. He showed “little interest in contemporary art, and was dismissive of Surrealism, which owed so much to him; he had no interest whatsoever in opera or music, something of a feat in the Vienna of his time.”
The case studies he published bore proper medical titles (e.g., “Notes Upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis” or "Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-Year-old Boy”) and presented what Freud considered rigorous methods for a scientific understanding of the human psyche. But they read like short stories or novellas, and are now usually remembered for the pseudonyms assigned to the patients (“the Rat Man” and “Little Hans,” respectively) whose stories Freud tells and interprets. He wrote the papers as technical literature, not “creative nonfiction,” and blurring of genres troubled him. Getting the ideas taken seriously by his peers was hard enough without being taken as an experimental author as well.
A fluent and renowned essayist in his own right, Phillips has a knack for aphorisms and apothegms that, after a few pages, tends toward a rather oblique mode of accessibility. It’s been said that while his work always feels brilliant while you’re reading it, that’s the only thing you can remember about it afterward. And there is something to the complaint, much of the time. Becoming Freud is an exception, I think. The chapters add up in a way that his essays, when collected between covers, generally do not.
The book assumes at least some familiarity with Freud’s own life and work, as well as an immunity to caricatures of them. That thins out the potential audience considerably. But for the reader with a little traction, Becoming Freud is one of the more suggestive books on its subject to come along in a while.
The author takes as a central point Freud’s hostility to biography -- expressed in his late 20s, well before establishing himself professionally, let alone developing new ideas. A biographer gathers up documents and recollections, and assembles them into causal sequences revealing the shape and coherence of someone’s life. Which is not just a presumptuous task but one vulnerable to all the tricks of memory and private agendas (acknowledged and otherwise) of everyone involved.
“This, for Freud, would be faux psychoanalysis,” writes Phillips. “Freud revealed to us that when it comes to motive no one can speak for anyone else. And that more often than not people resist speaking on their own behalf.” What they do instead is to come up with stories, explanations, and assumptions that seem to make life coherent, at the risk of trapping them into "buried-alive lives” — both driven and burned out by "the inextricability of their ambitions and their sexuality.”
The alternative, of course, is analysis. Just for the record, I am not quite persuaded by that claim. (Karl Kraus’s remark that psychoanalysis is the very disease that it pretends to cure seems a lot more on the money, pardon the expression.) But Freud's fundamental insight retains its force: people are, in Phillips’s words, “the only animals that [are] ambivalent about their development,” that “longed to grow up” but "hated growing up, and sabotaged it.”
Freud's patients came from that portion of the population which could not find a practical way to combine desire, frustration, and misery in socially acceptable ways. And as a Jew working in Vienna (the city that elected a candidate from the Anti-Semitic League as mayor in 1896, while Freud was deep in struggle with his own emotions following his father’s death) he may have been at the perfect vantage point to develop his understanding of modern life as a process that, Phillips writes, "selected out the parts and versions of the individual that were unacceptable to the state and left the individual stranded with whatever of himself didn’t fit in.” The personality becomes a regime "in which vigilant and punitively repressive authorities are in continual surveillance.”
Becoming Freud doesn’t narrate the development of psychoanalytic ideas or try to put them in social and cultural context; or rather, it does so only incidentally. It is primarily a book how Freud became someone able to think such thoughts, in such a context (how he became what he was) despite all the resistance that effort always generates. The book ends with its subject at the age of 50, with most of 35 more difficult and productive years ahead of him. I hope the author finds an occasion to write about those later decades — about how Freud occupied and managed what he had become.