Monthly Archives: April 2021

The thinker’s debut

I’ve been wandering lately, in my dreams, into busy landscapes, discontinuous scenes, performing stream-of-unconscious travel. A recent excursion was atop a high-rise in an urban setting, amidst a modest gathering of partygoers. The setting might have been futurist, post-Covid, around about dusk beneath a mauve sky with a tawny glow upon a horizon. A crowd of about fifty people are tentatively assembled on this rooftop garden and plaza, milling about rows of empty seats, holding tall glasses of wine or champagne and waiting for either a performance or a presentation—no difference, I suppose. As I stride in, feeling like an interloper, I guess that the first description is more accurate. There are clues to an impending musical entertainment: an electronic drum set, absent a drummer, plus several microphones set up some feet apart as if prepared for a group; a couple of technicians on their knees, scrutinizing equipment or rolling up troublesome cables. Behind an electric piano or synthesizer, a lone figure is tinkling upon keys, rapt in concentration. He or she—the figure is androgynous—is familiar to me but altered, though despite the physical differences, the demeanor is unmistakable: beyond introverted, hunched and prickly like a vole, the figure plays their instrument as if no one is there.

There are plenty there, all dressed in black—sexy, sophisticated, death-like evening wear black. Even the technicians are dressed in black, which in itself doesn’t seem unusual. In fact, the ephemera matches my associations of concert-going experiences half-forgotten, only the atmosphere betrays an unsaid influence. In my dreamy thought I am surprised, still thinking that gatherings like this are forbidden, which might explain the air of reticence and sepulchral gloom. Just feet away from the piano-playing figure, a pair of onlookers consult with each other, appearing officious, responsible, and smooth. They are managers, perhaps, or hosts of the event that seems about to begin. Regardless, the performer, still alone on stage despite evidence that others will join (her?), persists in self-absorption, and as I move towards this figure I invisibly helicopter, fascinated and envious. Why envious? I am now gazing at the person, at last deciding it is the she I thought it was, and wanting to intrude, and query. How do you do it? I want to ask. How did you do it? How did you manage to stay this silent, this removed, this seemingly disdainful of the pack, the norm, the orthodoxy, the everything-that-is-normal, and yet curry this seeming interest?

Is it just your talent that got you into this trendy post-modernist milieu? You’ve made some effort to fit in, having dressed alike, almost. Although, I think that is silver glittering trim upon your performance costume, which sets you apart, if only just. Also, there is a hint of stylizing gel in your spiked hair, which is fashionably disheveled yet revealing of effort—at least a modicum of worry before a bathroom mirror, I think. This surprises me. Maybe it disappoints, for I have projected onto you nothing less than separatist cool and lack of pretension. Perhaps it’s merely a glimpse into your effortless knowing, this well-dressed gesture; this ambient presence of yours. I am asking you questions now, only you’re not answering. I know. You do not owe me anything, including explanations or help, but I am curious, and I am hoping that is enough to pry your mind open so you can tell me your deal, and then help me with my desire.

See, I’m not sure but I think you might be in danger. I think this because I am in danger, and I further think that the you in this scene is really me, preparing to go public with something that I have kept to myself for some time and now it is getting its opening night. I wish I could be as poised, as confident and self-contained as you seem. Wait…what happened? You seemed to start something, say something, and then share a thought, not music, with the crowd. There was a misunderstanding, it seemed, about music and words. A different expectation. The gathering of the ordinarily cool and winning: they misunderstood, thinking you plainly earnest when—I know—what you were going for was ironic detachment which would then be mirrored, in further irony, by a resonant intelligence. This was supposed to be a club, a secret society introducing a novel medium. Now you’ve walked away with a frown on your face, a tiny streak of sweat streaming away from a gelled curl of hair, because some idea you had has let you down. And you looked at me, I think—just a fleeting glimpse, perhaps thinking I was someone who might help you get away, escape with me, for this is now our shared, infuriating problem.

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Gravity all nonsense now

Ya know, amid all this writing about 2001 recently, and previously about Dr. Strangelove, I’ve neglected what is likely the most relevant Kubrick film to mine and Joe Farley’s book, Getting Real About Sex Addiction. That would be A Clockwork Orange, a legendary dystopian fiction about a teenager who fights, rapes, and steals in a dreary near future Britain—near future in the sixties and early seventies, that is, when the book and the film were respectively produced. The book, published in 1962 by author Anthony Burgess, was likely the product of an era when dystopian books were popular, following the models of 1984 and Brave New World, plus the renewal of mischievous first-person narrative, most notably represented by Nabokov with his groundbreakingly salacious yet erudite work, Lolita. In writing A Clockwork Orange, Burgess was also exorcising demons, as his wife had previously been assaulted by US army deserters in London during a blackout, and he believed he was dying from a brain tumor. Still, what he produced was a story that satirized totalitarian measures to thwart individual freedom, like brainwashing and aversive conditioning, instead extoling the redemptive value of free will. See, in Burgess’ novel, the naughty malchick (from the novel’s language called Nadsat) named Alex is caught by authorities after his exploits, subjected to a regimen of conditioning techniques (called Ludovico), and then released from prison, after which he receives fairy-tale like payback from all of his earlier victims. Driven to a suicide attempt that fails, Alex suffers, but his misfortune backfires upon the government that “conditioned” him, which is forced to acknowledge its inhuman methods of social reform and thus undo the conditioning the Alex previously underwent. In the end, the novel’s protagonist is free again, but in a chapter that didn’t appear in the US until the mid-eighties, Alex decides that he no longer wishes to fight, rape, and steal as he once did. Instead, he wishes to grow up and become civilized.

             Back in the day, and especially upon release of Kubrick’s 1971 film version of A Clockwork Orange, which follows the original American version of the novel and therefore omits the epilogue narrative, much was written and said about the theme of free will versus the need for behavioral control in society. Though he lived and worked in Britain, Kubrick ignored the British version of the novel, with its redemptive, supposedly Christian ending, instead choosing to stick with irony throughout his film. As a result, the most famous ending of the story is one in which Alex gleefully returns to his old ways, cynically proclaiming “I was cured alright”, while cavorting naked with a girl in a dreamy vision of whitewashed background, peopled with applauding onlookers, all of whom are dressed in height of Victorian fashion, as if auditioning for Kubrick’s next film, a period drama entitled Barry Lyndon. For Kubrick, Alex was half Richard III and half Humbert Humbert (from Lolita), only without the obscuring qualities of sophistication. In Kubrick’s mind, Alex is a Hobbesian primitive, free and innocent, living out a private myth in which social controls don’t exist—only unconscious wishes do. Kubrick and Burgess may have agreed that behavioral conditioning techniques, drawn from the B.F. Skinner ethos that man must learn to live “beyond freedom and dignity” (a title of one of Skinner’s books), are antithetical to human freedom and also ineffective, but Kubrick was less interested in moral order than the unknowns of the human mind, and therefore, for him, A Clockwork Orange is a psychological myth requiring an ambiguous ending.

             B.F. Skinner may be a forgotten figure in modern psychology, despite being considered one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century. His concept of operant conditioning, which entails commonly known constructs of positive and negative reinforcement, punishment and extinction, was based on the premise that human free will is illusory; that behavior can and should be shaped by environmental controls so as to achieve civil order. Implicitly, this view contested the Freudian notion that human behavior is controlled intrapsychically, and that human society on the whole is civilized via the human capacity for repression, which is ultimately necessary and benevolent. Over time, average parents and school systems, for example, decided that Skinner was right, and that a behavior-shaping system, sometimes punitive but cleansed with language of scientific pedigree, was just what the, uh, doctor ordered. Yes, DO SOMETHING, cries a plaintive crowd that does not whoop and cheer at words like “unknown”, “unconscious”, or “private myth”. Skinner’s notion was that modern psychology could indeed offset the contingencies of life—that which others blithely pronounce as “out of our control”.

In a way, Kubrick agreed, albeit with flippant humor. For example, I’m not the first to notice that he alters some significant details from the novel, and no, I’m not talking about the “Singin’ in the Rain” sequence, though I did think that was ingenious, as do most observers. What is more salient is Kubrick’s portrayal of Alex in prison in the mid-section of the story, which does not feature Alex killing a fellow inmate in an over-crowded cell, contrary to Burgess’ novel. Instead, in the film, Alex is an overly-compliant, obsequious figure who cozies up to the prison chaplain while his jailors, plus the warden, see through his servility. As a result, he is selected for the experimental aversive conditioning project despite his good behavior, not because of it. Here, the establishment (and Kubrick) appear to suggest that a controlling environment can indeed shape an individual’s behavior—at least over the short-term. In prison, Alex’s unconscious, which is neither timebound nor located in reality but rather in his dreams, is compartmentalized. He has visions of his return to a licentious lifestyle in the future. In fact, they are spurred rather than reformed by his reading of The Bible, which entices him with its passages of bloody, adulterous, and generally sinful behavior. Far from being “out of control”, Alex seems privately able to contain impulses (his id, if you like), believing that he will resume his former ways as soon as he is able.

So, herein lies delicious questions for readers of A Clockwork Orange, or readers of other sci-fi or dystopian literature, and in the near future, perhaps, for readers of our book, Getting Real About Sex Addiction: what is it that really conditions Alex in the state-controlled yet anarchic world in which he lives? What is it that truly controls, manipulates, or “conditions” a person with addictive tendencies in a society that may be state-controlled, or media controlled, or else, as filmmaker and philosopher Susan Sontag once observed, is plainly saturated with mind-controlling agents? Because overabundance is as controlling as repressive governance, the ethics of conditioning in its variable forms are a muddied lake. At first, Alex seems free: whatever exists in his environment seems transformed, made to fit his obsession, his rules. Further, he is a performer, not a voyeur. If pornography exists in his future world of Nadsat teenage life, he’d be less interested, though he’d likely patronize online dating culture and swipe his way through choices if that existed. However, he is mostly id-like in his existence, lacking certain ego aspirations, such as profit-seeking, or social advancement. And despite a brief yearning for power (he seizes leadership of his droogs after they rebel against him), he feels no need to impart wisdom or to implement efficiency or realistic vision in his planning. Perhaps this is why the character is likeable to some: he is utterly separated from the adult world; dreamy and childlike in his habits. His private world undoes reality. Even gravity is nonsense to him.

After he is caught and later subjected to the invasive Ludovico treatment, he is docile and impotent, but that doesn’t spare him the justice that Burgess, readers, and to a lesser degree Kubrick, fashion for him. Like many other redemption-seeking, penitent criminals, he is challenged—serendipitously in his case—to face his formers victims; to identify with them by suffering versions of the fate he’d dealt them. Fate seems the true perspective of the artist in Kubrick: what he seemed to believe was that individuals beset with instincts are destined to pursue instincts to their bitter end, and that systems designed to contain those instincts will inevitably fail at some point. Think of the pattern in Kubrick’s middle-period films alone: the “fail-safe” system in Dr. Strangelove; the “perfectly” functioning and streamlining computer HAL in 2001; the blasé and cynical “clockwork” state of Clockwork Orange—in each of these cases, the contingencies of life overtake man’s attempts to order society. Try as we might, succeed as we might at times, our inclinations towards pleasure and aggression escape through the cracks in the barriers.

In mine and Joe Farley’s book, Getting Real About Sex Addiction, soon to be published by Rowman & Littlefield, we write of several Alex-types, interspersed with an equal number who are more passive in their addictions, who are compelled by others’ discovery of their deeds to likewise identify with their victims; to become victims in another sense. Subject to full-disclosure exercises, repeated polygraph exams, and behavioral contracts replete with agreed-upon “consequences”, to name just a few interventions that are typical, treated sex addicts walk a plank of shame having rarely chosen the course of treatment that is laid before them. Most are mandated, either by courts because of an illegal act like use of prostitution, though more commonly by relationship-threatening spouses and other partners, and while they are typically contrite and eager to prove that they can live better without compulsive sexual behaviors, few would have chosen the interventions aimed at them had they not been caught doing what they were doing. As my co-author and I suggest, this contaminates a process of psychotherapy, especially one that purports to be an in-depth episode, not to mention a process of change that, amid the zeitgeist sexual politics of our era, is differentially offered to men and women. 

One illustration introduces what our book evidences across contexts, exposing double standards and irony if not quite moral order in our field of discipline. In a treatment team discussion, a female therapist speaks of her interventions when leading a sex addiction treatment group within a short-term intensive outpatient program. In a room of a half a dozen men, she asks a provocative, honesty-inducing, “here-and-now” question: “how many of you are objectifying me right now?” and later seems proud of her clinical skill and bravery, only there’s no plaintive crowd to whoop and cheer at her righteous action. It’s a good question, right? A sound, challenging, isn’t-it-about-time question, asked by a trained professional who symbolizes a victim society’s rebuke of the guilty. Just so the reader knows, female sex addicts also exist, according to the cognoscenti of this niche field, but they are under-served, according to these same observers. Treatment for women, like the above-described treatment for men: it just isn’t offered nearly as much, with nearly as many resources in the community available to them. Damn it! Once again, women are marginalized, neglected, denied the privilege of facing tough, soul-penetrating questions like “are any of you objectifying me right now?” Actually, since that exchange with that female therapist, I’ve imagined asking the question she asked to a roomful of women who identify as sex addicts, or even one-on-one to a woman who likewise identifies as such. Yes, I’ve imagined being that skillful and brave. I’ve also imagined being sued and having my license suspended or revoked for either sexual misconduct, or else for traumatizing a vulnerable patient.

In Latin, the pertinent phrase is Quad Erad Demonstratum, or QED.

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The milk shake displacement

Thoughts of customer service or something like it on my mind. Big establishments, small establishments: they say they have my back. Reasonable books. That was the name of the mom and pop, second-hand biblio that I sauntered within, thinking about the name. If it was bigger, it wouldn’t be reasonable, I thought. I glanced over at a diffident clerk: head down, ensconced in a text, uninvested in my business. Now that’s familiar, I next thought. I considered troubling him with questions, making him work for a living. I’d be what I long to be to bigger establishments, the ones I quasi work for plus the one I’ve been writing and soon-to-be publishing about—an irritant. The prices. Is that the reasonable part, I wondered? Or would it be about something else, this quaint moniker? Might the clerk bend over backwards to find a title on one of the back shelves of this cozy little store? Would he make a phone call, place an order, and have something not in stock in my possession within a week or two?

I left the man alone. I further bit down on a quip about the store’s name, thinking that several others had trodden that path already. After all, there would have been nothing worse than hearing a weary chuckle of someone pretending to enjoy originality. Torture. This man had done nothing to merit my torture. This contrasts with the dispatchers of Cigna, an insurance company that near employs me and decides, roughly four times a year, usually at the end of fiscal quarters, to mess with my head and income. It’s a good thing that I’m not wholly dependent upon them, but when they are in an obstreperous mood, their marching orders to claim support staff can do enough to dent an otherwise good month. Take this last month, for instance. I’d sent in a claim worth several hundred dollars for a beneficiary, and usually the turnaround of reimbursement takes about three weeks. Something hadn’t felt right, however, and as I scurried to complete one or two other claims, I noted a box on one to be filled out and felt in my gut the mistake I’d made on that first claim of the week. Cigna would not be forgiving, I predicted, about the un-checked box in my head. On cue, I received a letter indicating that not only had my earlier claim been denied for the reason suspected, but that the beneficiary didn’t exist. That’s what they do if you’ve made a mistake: it’s like you and your patient don’t exist. I duly sent in a replacement claim, but that got lost in the system too, and I received another denial letter, again referencing the first claim, as if the mistake upon that would infect all others. The die was cast, and I’d been here before in Cigna’s version of a Kafka short story. A hapless second dispatcher simply reiterated that there was “no record” of my submission, but kindly offered to process the claim himself, giving me his personal fax number. What customer service! One might think.

Not really. Well, it was letter-writing time. Teeth-gnashing time—time to let someone have it, give them a hard time, make them wonder why they work for Cigna; have them consider the corruption of the insurance industry; have them feeling used by higher-ups, forced to absorb the bereft anger of unhappy providers like myself; to have them break ranks, ultimately, and stop working for the man; to make them cry. I got the beneficiary involved, had him calling after the claims, letting them know that their “no records” dictum wouldn’t fly when we were holding letters with Cigna letterhead emblazoned upon them. Wouldn’t that be embarrassing, to deny the existence of a claim when the customer was holding a letter proving otherwise? Apparently not. It seems that some are impervious to irony, to embarrassment, tears and shame. These dispatchers—they’re trained in impassivity, or else they’re drugged and told to feed us lines like, “I’m sorry for your inconvenience, you can go ahead and re-submit to our black hole department. The fax number is…” Is this what the social justice crowd are telling us? Is this what they’re really pissed about: that too many in society can just stare back at them, unmoved, un-dislodged from their complacency; insufficiently bothered to acknowledge wrongness and make something happen with the system.

After weeks involving tiresome crap like this, Saturdays are a languid, somnolent haul. Leisure is made difficult; even hard-ons, as Martin Amis once wrote, are hard. Pulling up (ha-ha) to a McDonald’s drive-thru, I knew I was letting the standards drop, but I didn’t think I was in for a hard time with a dispatcher. However, as I idled behind a phalanx of other hungry but lazy diners, waiting to exchange words with a man in a box with a warbly microphone by his side, I felt again that sense that something easy and routine was about to be anything but that. My passenger, an old-school afficionado of Mickey D options, called out for a filet O’ fish. I, gazing up at a rangy, schematic menu that was actually hard to follow, settled upon a side of fries and an Oreo shake, having just caught the word “Oreo” with a passing glance. Choices, packed together, or bundled, managed to confuse me.

“We don’t have Oreo shakes,” said a weary, officious voice. He’d obviously explained this before and was indignant that benefic—sorry, customers—weren’t getting the hang of social change. “We have an Oreo McFlurty”

“A What?

“A McFlurty” Was is McFlurty? Or was is McFlurry. I couldn’t tell, but I had the impression that if I’d asked again the man’s bottom would have exploded and I’d be getting spittle in my dessert no matter what kind of shake it was. Still, I pushed my luck, venturing a minor quip.

“I take it that’s similar to a shake?

There was a pause during which someone might have been questioning their place in this world, only to return, sounding reasonable, patient, and ready to give an eminently just answer:

“Yes. It’s like a shake”

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