Blog

I’m back on the blog.

I’ve been away for a long time, for a number of reasons. A major one is that the sort of content I might post to a blog appears elsewhere, so I had to figure out the blog’s niche. I share and discuss items of interest via the comments on Google Reader or on my Facebook wall. I share the rare macro-update via my SJC alumni blog (posts about things like, “finished my master’s,” “starting my dissertation,” etc.) and micro-updates via Facebook (like, “I am at a Gogol Bordello show, yinz!”). I only feel the desire to micro-update occasionally, so I never got into Twitter—maintaining an ongoing feed of myself is too much for me. I maintain a small online academic presence via Academia.edu and to some degree, also through Facebook, since it’s where I connect with some other academics including the Humanistic Psychology crowd (American Psychological Association Division 32). I use 43things.com to maintain a database of life goals that fall somewhere between a short-term to-do list and major lifetime achievements, and this is probably where I post the most “personal” information. So this leaves the question, what sort of content will the blog take over or what new sort of content will it generate?

There’s also the question of who my audience will be. All of the spaces mentioned above have different audiences. I overlap content sometimes, especially Google Reader and Facebook, for simultaneous audiences. A small SJC crowd engages in GR discussions, and a broader crowd, mostly current colleagues in Duquesne’s Psychology and Philosophy grad programs but a lot of touch-and-go commenters from my friend-pool, engage on FB (but don’t tend to carry this discussion to the same lengths, given some limitations of the medium, including limited space for typing comments and perhaps some more subtle limitations, too). I feel that the micro-updates on FB are sufficient for sharing a general sense of what’s going on in my life with others, such as friends and relatives with whom I communicate only infrequently, but whom I don’t want to leave in the dark about my life and, presumably, they also maintain some active interest in knowing what’s up with me. The SJC alumni page and blog serves the same purpose, but tailored to a more particular audience—I want the SJC community to be aware, or at least potentially aware, of major happenings in my life that are relevant to my career as how I’m taking up my SJC experience. I want this both in order to maintain some feeling of home and continuity there and to maintain a presence to others from the SJC community so that we can help one another out (primarily, so I can advise SJC students interested in my grad program and foster a connection between the two programs/ these two components of my own education). Academia.edu is the same, a more tailored presence to a more particular audience, and less a dynamic online presence than a site to which I can refer people who ask about my work or where people who go googling for my work will land—in other words, it’s better than an empty business card. Like I said, 43Things is where I post the most personal information online, but few people actually read it, and those who do generally don’t know me in domains other than 43T. This is fine; I mean personal both in the sense of “boring to read about” and “done mostly for my own purposes.” The question here is who will be my audience, or at what level shall I engage my audience? Furthermore, do I want to reach new audiences?

So, given the sort of online content I’m inclined to produce or already produce and its audiences, intended and actual, what’s this blog’s purpose? My sense is that it will take after the personal blogs of academics (for instance, Graham Harman’s blog), which contains mainly thoughts and ideas relevant to work. Graham’s blog also contains personal updates, but not necessarily the sort one talks to one’s friends on the phone about, just things about traveling, what he’s doing now, etc. So, following this model, I’d both be creating a new kind of content by sharing more of my ideas and discussing my work more, and also creating some content overlap or eclipsing old domains (the ones containing macro-updates, and to some degree, my musing about items of interest on GR and FB). Another area I’m inclined to write about has to do more with practice. I’d like to write about experiences related to my work as a psychologist, about how I am positioned in the world and how the personal intersects the world of intellectual musing (for instance, I can foresee writing a post about how strange men often stare and even offer help when they witness me parallel parking, no matter how graceful and elegant my parking job). This is more in the tradition of graduate student blogs I’ve read that are as much about graduate student life as they are about emerging ideas. So, the purpose of this blog will be to share my ideas and reflections on life for a broad audience of acquaintances and strangers, including myself. For me, it will contain beginnings of ideas that I can reference and return to as well as providing a sense of the passage of time, a sort of history of my thoughts, and will have witnesses.

A few concerns I have that I’ll share lest they keep this project from getting started:
I’m concerned about becoming obligated to write or produce a response. I don’t want to have to say something every time there’s an event relevant to the thematic content of my blog, i.e., I don’t want to write a post about sexism for every well-publicized instance of outrageous gender bias. So, this blog has no official theme, it’s not a response to anything in particular (in contrast to a blog like Angry Asian Man). I also have some concerns that this blog will make other content redundant, including offline content like conference papers and articles. Perhaps by putting ideas here I’ll just drop them and won’t let them gestate into bigger ideas. I’m not sure why this would be so—in fact, the opposite seems more likely, that by putting down my ideas in nascent form they are less likely to vanish. But what would be the effect of opening up my stream of ideas to an audience? I worry my ideas will become self-conscious, smaller, more defensively offered. Finally, I have the common concern about composing to a mixed audience. The audiences of my other domains are pretty well-defined, and although some of what I share on those domains is still accessible to others, they don’t access it. I’m not sure who would read or find my blog (patients, students, clinical supervisors, employers?), or whether, given the content I’ve outlined, this would be a concern.

Pascalian psychology

S’il se vante, je l’abaisse,
S’il s’abaisse, je le vante;
Et le contredis toujours,
Jusqu’à ce qu’il comprenne
Qu’il est un monstre incompréhensible.

If he vaunts himself, I abase him,
If he abases himself, I vaunt him;
And contradict him always,
Until he comprehends
That he is an incomprehensible monster.

Look what I found

I think this was the draft I sent. And so, the paper that (along with my other merits, of course) secured my position in this graduate program.

I’m surprised to see that I wrote about Jung. I must’ve been reading him because of the therapy I was in at the time. I thought I mentioned Don Quixote, but apparently not. I’m also struck by how much I read then. Not that I don’t read a lot now, but I do a lot of things other than read. Well, nostalgia trip.

***
January 2006
Application for the Clinical Psychology Ph.D. program at Duquesne University

“Write a personal essay in response to the following: Trace the development of your thinking with respect to psychology, emphasizing which theorists and which of their contributions have had the most important impact on you. Then discuss the convergence of your career goals and scholarly interests with the human science orientation of the Duquesne psychology graduate program.”

My undergraduate education took place at St. John’s College in Annapolis, a Great Books program made up almost entirely of all-required courses consisting of discussions of primary sources. I have read and discussed works by Plato, Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Cervantes, Rilke, Shakespeare, St. Augustine, Pascal, William James, Freud, Jung, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger, among others. My education was general and emphasized no particular interpretation or school of thought. However, it was this education and my own experience from which blossomed my desire to study psychology with Duquesne’s human science orientation, and to become better acquainted with this field and enter into it. Herein, I will describe what led me to these conclusions, and why I believe that Duquesne is the best place for me to learn more.

Every year at St. John’s, students write a major essay on a particular text or question followed by an oral examination. My freshman essay was on a section of Plato’s Symposium, in which Socrates and various interlocutors make speeches about love. I wrote on the relationship between Alcibiades and Socrates in an attempt to discover what made Socrates the object of Alcibiades’ love alongside the broader question: What makes a person lovable? As I was writing, I observed that I was saying much more about Alcibiades, the lover, than Socrates, the beloved, in determining what made Socrates lovable to Alcibiades. “Lovability” was not an intrinsic trait, but something determined by the one who loved—it was something in Alcibiades that made him find Socrates lovable, and thus, he was the source of Socrates’ lovability; he provided meaning and content in the relationship between subject and object. I shared this during my examination, and my tutor (professor) Ms. Eva Brann told me this reminded her of the work of a later philosopher. Later, when I read the Critique of Pure Reason, I knew she had meant Kant.

The Critique allowed me to think further about how the subject could be the source of reality, or how it could be that meaning is created in our witnessing what is, rather than flowing from things to be intercepted by us. Though Kant is speaking directly of how the physical world is cognizable by us, issues about human beings as the source of order and meaning come up at other levels: What does it mean to live in a world in which we provide the meaning, i.e., a world which lacks essential meaning? How do we attribute meaning to things around us and ultimately build lives based on meaning? Another problem arose as well after reading Kant: the self, or the soul, becomes more complex, for when we turn our eye back to ourselves in order to observe ourselves the same way we do the world, we split into a subjective and objective self. The self seems not to be one thing, and only partially knowable as an object observed by the subjective self with no way of knowing whether the two are the same.

I found a comrade in Kierkegaard. I wrote my senior essay on his Philosophical Fragments and the adjoining work named after its pseudonymous author, Johannes Climacus. The latter work is a fictional biography and presents Johannes trapped between the real and the ideal, himself an abstraction—“a stranger to the world.” Kierkegaard uses him as an argument against “purely objective thinking,” in which one tries to remove oneself from the situation in order to observe from a distance. When Johannes attempts this feat all at once he faints, or loses consciousness. That is, he entirely removes himself from the situation, which is supposedly what one attempts to do when one “thinks objectively.” Kierkegaard explains that all conflict takes place within the subject’s consciousness, and any attempt to remove oneself will be unsuccessful. Furthermore, the implication that one will know more and perhaps come in contact with a grand ordering schema if one exchanges one’s individual struggle for a view of oneself from afar is a delusion. It suggests a grand ordering schema which the individual could comprehend if he abstracts himself from his own life and instead takes the standpoint of this higher system and observes himself within it. Even if such a system exists, Kierkegaard explains, it is not ascertainable to human beings.

I drew from Kierkegaard’s work that philosophy should not deal in abstractions, but should concern itself instead with the human predicament and inner states of human beings. In other words, it must shift from an objective to an admittedly subjective stance. Throughout these works, Kierkegaard emphasizes that it is the individual who at stake in a problem, and what matters is the individual’s relation to philosophy and his being in the world. It became clear to me that the study of individual human beings, then, bears the most primary significance. I also understood that the way we study human beings must be different than the way we study anything else.

Later on, I found further concord with respect to how we are to study human beings (particularly myself) through Carl Jung. At the beginning of his autobiography, he writes, “I cannot employ the language of science to trace this process of growth in myself, for I cannot experience myself as a scientific problem.” I take this scientific method to be one in which we observe disinterestedly and according to a set system. But, when the object of study is ourselves the approach must be different than when we study something that is other, distinct and separate from us. It is not fitting to stand at a distance and watch ourselves; it is impossible for me to alienate myself from myself and become purely objective. It is that very humanness, the thing that we cannot separate out and that prevents us from being objective that we desire to know.

I gained some insight into the nature of these human problems from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. Herein, the vulgar, pleasure-seeking, buffoonish Fyodor is told, “above all, do not lie to yourself.” The thought that this man’s outward superficiality and disregard for things meaningful to others might ultimately be a lie raised many interesting thoughts and questions for me, primarily, what does it mean to lie to oneself? A duplicitous self reminded me of the split subjective and objective self, in which one self lives and the other self observes the living without engaging in life. A self formed this way seems an expression of uncertainty that life is wholly worth living, or that one is wholly worth living life. This self is only partially engaged in life while a part persists in doubt; a condition I have come to think of as “tentative existence.” I saw that the most important, basic problem a person faces is deciding, or discovering a reason, to live wholly and authentically.

Another question arose alongside this one, regarding the consciousness a person has of his lie. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche describes “philosophical prejudices,” the prejudged end to which a philosopher directs his philosophy while claiming to make an inquiry with the unknown and undecided truth as the end. These philosophers certainly would not admit to lying, and I wondered to what extent they are aware of their lies. If they are not intending to deceive others for another end, they themselves must be deluded. The possibility of an obscured part of the self, especially a motivating part, inspired further questions, regarding how to get past this complex to the rest of the self that the complex had hidden away.

Again, I later found elucidation from Jung, particularly his description of complexes: automatic patterns of behavior that make a person into an automaton, robbing him of his freedom and engaging him in a determining script. Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilych, living a life directed toward an outward appearance of success, seems a prime example of a person consumed by a complex. It is not until his last days that the realization awakens in him that he has not really lived. It became clear to me that one of the most important things a person can do is to learn one’s lie and reclaim his life. To get back to the obscured self, one had to attentively and artfully find ways for this self to come to consciousness, for it was already clear that the self could not be approached in the manner of other objects of study. Dream analysis as a way for obscured parts of the self to come to light was especially interesting to me. I even became the patient of a primarily Jungian analyst for a few months this past year in order to look for any aspects of myself that I may have obscured and explore techniques for recovering it.

Alongside my own brief experience as a patient, I explored clinical psychology through reading case studies. The most inspiring, and what ultimately made me take an interest in becoming a practitioner, were those of Irvin Yalom. He provided detailed, moving accounts of helping patients assume responsibility for their problems, thereby restoring freedom to them and enabling them to live more authentic, meaningful lives. This freedom, this ability to be in the world fully, seems to be the origin of a great deal of other problems. I became convinced that the skilled therapist did not offer mere coping strategies for these offshoots of the fundamental problem, nor take responsibility for the problem himself (which would simply reinforce the patient’s problem), but could travel alongside his patient and explore the problems of living.

For the past six months, I’ve been guiding students of all ages through intensive programs to increase language expression and comprehension, including reading and sometimes speech therapy exercises. This experience has reinforced my belief that it is best to treat clients individually. Many of my students have been diagnosed with learning disabilities and ADD/ ADHD or are on the autistic spectrum. I am often struck by how much my students are able to accomplish despite their diagnoses. When treated as individuals rather than offered a prescribed course for their particular diagnosis, i.e., regarding them not as utterly determined by their diagnosis, they could achieve more than they were thought able. Some of these students had even been diagnosed prematurely. For example, some children diagnosed with ADD were, in fact, having difficulty comprehending language at some level and so appeared to be distractible.

This shows me that psychology has become too focused on quick diagnosis and often fails to sufficiently explore the source of a patient’s complaint. The present emphasis in treatment seems to be on brief therapy and psychopharmacology. I see clinical psychology facing further limitations and pressures if psychologists are granted the ability to prescribe medication. The job of the therapist seems especially important now because individuals have more freedom and a greater range of choices than ever before. The burden of this freedom is great, and the transformation of this burden into a source of meaning is an urgent and extremely important duty. I want to preserve the great traditions in psychology and psychotherapy that help human beings make use of their potential.

This is also what leads me to Duquesne: the human sciences approach recognizes the dignity and complexity of the subject matter of psychology and recognizes the uniqueness of psychology’s approach as a science. My scholarly goals are broad. I wish to become better acquainted with various traditions which arise from psychology as a human science and become better acquainted with the field up to recent times, enough that I may make my own contribution. I have explained my interests in this paper and the strands leading me to psychology as a human science, and I am certain that further interests within this field will arise as I become more knowledgeable within it and refine myself as a specialist.

I wish most of all to explore clinical work and different types and developments in therapy. I am currently attempting to secure an internship in clinical psychology and plan to spend time later this year as a patient, as I believe that this is an indispensable experience for anyone wishing to become a therapist. I am fascinated by the extraordinary challenge and intricacy of psychotherapy, a calling in which one is an educator, a friend, an explorer, a doctor, and mostly, as Irvin Yalom says, “a fellow traveler,” because, as he explains, “there is no therapist and no person immune to the inherent tragedies of existence.” (The Gift of Therapy). I also wish to make psychotherapy more affordable and widely available, since I notice that many communities do not adequately care for the mentally ill, and insurance coverage makes it difficult for most people to engage in the long-term therapy that would be most beneficial to them. I am also interested in teaching and someday adding my own insights and innovations to the field. Above all, I want, of course, to make a study of the human soul.

On teaching as a graduate student and a note to my psychology of gender class

I am teaching Psychology of Gender this semester.  In my program at D.U., graduate students get full teaching responsibilities after a year of school.  We design our courses, write our syllabi, teach our classes alone and unaided, and assign grades.  We are queens and kings of pedagogy.  Our stipend amount implies that we must take our jobs seriously but also find a non-monetary reward in teaching, generally, the opportunity to corrupt the “youth” (plus or minus eight years my age, generally) as we see fit.  My corruption, which I’m afraid has only been marginally successful thus far, consists in urging my students to accept the midwife model of learning, see themselves as produces rather than consumers of knowledge and that seeming-substance we term “society”, take seriously and as valid objects of contemplation their own opinions and the pop-culture they live amidst and continuously reproduce, feel capable of reading primary sources and recognize that all secondary sources (including textbooks and their professor’s rhetoric, even and especially my rhetoric) are interpretations, and generally to think about what they’re doing in the world.  I really like it when they express a sense that a lot of things about their educations haven’t served them well, because it’s true and shows some emerging enlightenment to be able to say so.  Giving my students as much practice as I can with articulating things in speech and writing is the major way I try to get all of this to come about.

After inadvertently (but unabashedly) revealing my pro-choice leanings to my class at this Catholic institution in the second week of the semester, I’ve posted the following note for my students.
“Over the semester, you will get an idea about my various opinions, biases, theoretical orientations, political leanings, etc. (not necessarily because these are things I want to share with you, but because they’re very difficult to hide, particularly in a class like ours that involves so much discussion and includes content that tends to have personal relevance for many people).
The goal of the class, however, is not for you to figure out what I believe and then agree with me (or pretend to agree with me)!  This class is meant to provide means for you to think about your own ideas and opinions.  Therefore, please know that I will never punish you for disagreeing with me.  Your grades, my expectations for your class participation, my general interest in your development as a student and scholar, etc. will not be affected by whether our opinions about whatever are the same or whether they differ.”

I hope they believe me!

On Specialization and the Liberal Arts

This is a brief presentation I wrote for Duquesne’s Interdisciplinary Symposium. I read it to kick off the conference.

The liberal arts are seven branches of knowledge: the trivium of arts pertaining to the mind– logic, grammar, and rhetoric (or, reckoning, reading, and writing), and the quadrivium of arts pertaining to matter (or, quantity and number)– arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. Bachelor of Arts is the degree awarded to those demonstrating proficiency in these arts, Master of Arts to those with greater proficiency. The liberal arts are “liberal” in the sense of free; they constitute the education proper to a free person. They are prerequisite for any number of more particular arts or disciplines since they are tools for any number of other disciplines and because proficiency with them means one has developed her own capabilities in preparation for all sorts of tasks. Though these arts are foundational to our educations and historically to our educational programs and institutions, the liberal arts have stopped being central to our educations– even our so-called liberal arts educations. Rather, much of the liberal arts are left by the wayside while what we study becomes more specialized. No one expects that a “liberal arts” education will involve arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. Similarly, those in the so-called “hard sciences” may regard studies derived from the trivium as mere intellectual luxuries. The trivium and quadrivium have been pulled apart and are then subdivided even farther into specific disciplines.

Here I’ll say a little about the problems that come with the increase of academic specialization, and how this process breaks up the whole formed by the liberal arts. I’ll also discuss how interdisciplinary studies help to rebuild the liberal arts and show that the trivium is not trivial, but that it provides a basis for original ideas. In other words, interdisciplinary studies do not break boundaries of “traditionally defined disciplines,” but rather reveal that these boundaries broke up a prior unity.

***

The development of academic specialties mirrors, and sometimes overlaps with, the development of jobs– not only of particular jobs, but of the idea of a “job” at all. Beginning in the fifteenth century, “there is a steady progress of fragmentation of the stages of work” (McLuhan, p. 20). These stages of work are mechanized– a certain set of rules govern them, and the tasks of the job are specific. The person carrying out the job becomes more and more of a specialist; eventually she is an “expert” at her particular task. She is a part of a system (as Pink Floyd puts it, a “brick in the wall”). David Schwartz references this process when he describes his experience as a psychologist attempting to help those who have been institutionalized or labeled developmentally disabled. He explains that professionals each have “a box in the organization chart” (p. 21) in which they are forced to stay and relate in a prescribed role with particular tasks as well as a particular way of doing them. They get in trouble when they stray from their role since this inevitably means invading someone else’s box in the organizational chart. So, she fits herself to the task. As our technology develops the capability to do more and as we become more specialized in our tasks (or in a sense, to do less), we have to consider the possibility of some strange results. Marshall McLuhan presents these possible results in the form of a joke: “’Come into my parlor,’ says the computer to the specialist.” The secret is, human beings are not very good specialists (not like computers), and the more precise we become, the less suited we are to our tasks. We don’t fit into boxes on organizational charts.

Another approach to work, thought, academia, and living– one represented by interdisciplinary studies and which existed outside of gradual developments in specialization– is to fit one’s task to oneself. Think, for example, of Blaise Pascal, whose activities ranged from composing philosophical and theological writings to making contributions to the geometry of conic sections to inventing a calculator. Or perhaps think of Gottfried Leibniz, an inventor of calculus, a theory of motion, and a series of metaphysical ideas; or Goethe, whose many activities made him a playwright, poet, and theorist on colors and plant morphology. What is truly amazing about these thinkers and the many like them is not the breadth of ideas into which they delved– that’s missing the point. Rather, what is amazing is the way their ideas fit together into a whole, and they inadvertently reveal that these “disciplines” are not so disparate, at all. Each of these thinkers has a way to see the world. They don’t think of their activities as belonging to different disciplines per se– rather, their various ideas have been divided their views up into categories from without. To see what I mean, read Pascal’s Pensees while thinking of his interest in mathematics (many of the pensees have an intricate mathematical structure– it’s like reading a proof), or Leibniz’s calculus while keeping his “monadology” in mind. It is not only in the minds of individual thinkers that these various aspects of thinking about the world come together.

One might also think of the whole formed by Euclid’s geometry books and Plato’s dialogues: Euclid reveals the structure of the world and making it “mathematical” (from ancient Greek “mathema,” or learnable) by reconstructing the world in steps. Plato’s dialogues discover forms, such as the Good, the Just, and the Beautiful, and through steps in argument which make them it knowable. Another example is Isaac Newton’s discovery that the same natural laws that govern the planets govern the earth, alongside Kant’s assertion that there is a single moral law which applies to all of humanity. Examples like these reveal that ideas are better thought of as aspects of a whole than as truly separate disciplines. Specialization is an attempt to know more by going deeply into a piece of the whole, but at some point these specialties or disciplines become farther from one another until we forget they make up a whole or until they truly no longer fit together and there isn’t a possibility for dialogue between specialties. Why is it that humanities students think it doesn’t matter whether or not they know any mathematics?

Interdisciplinary studies, then, are not so much about opening up paths between different disciplines but removing barriers between them. The interdisciplinarian develops abilities which transcend a particular discipline. She finds common strands among disciplines rather than becoming a jack of all trades. She develops a unique and informed perspective, as only a human being can do. This is the aim of a liberal arts education; it is what a person educated in the liberal arts should be able to do.

References

Joseph, Mariam. (2002). The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books.

“Liberal Arts.” From Encyclopedia Britannica Concise. Retrieved 2pm 2/12/2008. http://concise.britannica.com/ebc/article-9370154/liberal-arts

McLuhan, Marshall & Fiore, Quentin. (1967). The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. New York: Bantam Books.

Schwartz, David. (1997). Who Cares?: Rediscovering Community. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Snow, C.P. (1959). The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. Cambridge University Press.

On Goal-Setting

On 43 things goals (written for 43 Things now defunct”ideas” page which invited suggestions from users on how to improve the site– I wrote this entry for the most popular idea on the page: “Create a hierarchy”).

1) On goals contained by other goals: Some of the goals one may set are contained by other goals. For example, if I “feel better,” I may also “stop procrastinating” and then I might “learn German” and “find something to do next year.” Perhaps a hierarchy of goals might solve this problem. The ability to order goals implies a hierarchy of importance, but not an order of achievement. Perhaps something like freemind (http://freemind.sourceforge.net/wiki/index.php/Main_Page) might be a solution, since it would indicate which goals are contained by other goals. Tagging is sort of like this– perhaps it could be more explicitely so if there were tags like “meta-goal, primary goal, secondary goal, hopes, plans.”

2) On the appropriateness and achievability of goals: Not surprisingly (and not altogether wrongly), 43 Things presumes that people work like computers. If we program ourselves correctly, any goal may be met. This is the cognitive/behavioral model of psychology– if your life isn’t going the way you’d like, learn, practice, and habituate yourself to do better. This makes me think that only goals that can be achieved by working at the behavioral level should be allowed on 43 Things. If I want to “feel better,” and I think I can do it through practice, it’s a good goal. If, however, it’s a problem that doesn’t lend itself to a particular method, and I feel bad not because of the way I’m acting (and acting differently wouldn’t make me feel better, or I may not be able to act differenlty because of feeling bad) but more because of deep, inner conflicts involving my self-concept, early childhood impressions, etc., it means that A) this is not one goal (it might be split into various behavioral goals like “get therapy,” “sleep more”, etc.) and B) that it may not be solvable through behavior modification alone. Perhaps after achieving other goals I might find that I feel better, but I can’t simply “feel better” the way I can “learn German” or “visit Chicago.” This is probably why “stop procrastinating” is such a popular goal– it is the meta-goal, what it means is “figure out how to set achievable goals and achieve them” or simply, “achieve my goals.” Setting a time-limit to goals might help this. It will encourage people to set goals that can be achieved by acting differently according to a plan. Not being able to set infinitely many goals is a step in this direction– you must achieve something before you can add another thing to your list. To reiterate my point: all goals on 43 Things ought to be solvable directly by behavior modification as long as there is no built-in hierarchy, and one should be able to write an entry with a plan to achieve the goal. “Crochet better” is a pretty good goal, because I know exactly what I have to do to achieve it, and it’s more or less one thing. Even that, though, might be divided into “sign up for crochet class,” “buy some yarn for crocheting,” “buy a book of crochet projects,” etc. This makes 43 Things more of a “to-do” list than a set of hopes and dreams, and it would contain only lists of goals one can achieve by one’s own will. Then again, I understand the desire to list what one hopes for, and that all the tiny behavioral goals are for the sake of these greater ends. Some of those ends aren’t even goals– fall in love, for example. That’s an event that isn’t entirely dependent on one’s own will (at least not directly– although one is more likely to fall in love when one is happy, and more likely to be happy when one is secure, and more likely to be secure when one is employed, etc.– so set the goal to get a job and have a place to live on your own if your goal is love). If your goal is to “be in love,” or “have someone fall in love with me,” then adding it to your list won’t help you get it done (unless, you know, you meet some hottie on 43 Things who wants to help.) It seems that the best solution is a hierarchy.

What I Do as a Psychotherapist

I am writing this entry in preparation for my clinical work in my second year of graduate school in clinical psychology, having completed around seventy hours of work with individual clients and some as yet uncalculated sum of hours of supervision, training, and clinical writing. My program provides a background in the philosophical and theoretical background of psychology, particularly the existential-phenomenological and psychodynamic traditions; qualitative research; and clinical practice. These three pillars more or less relate to one another, and it is, of course, up to the individual to find a golden thread. One of the important connections to make is between how one acts as a therapist and what one believes about the nature of man and the good life. (One is eventually asked to lay this down officially as part of the comprehensive examinations, in the clinical position paper.) This is not the place that I will go deeply into what I believe about what we are or ought to be, nor will I even discuss whether therapy is possible. This paper will simply give a description of what I find myself doing in therapy sessions, and perhaps an attempt at explanation of why I do these things.

I will discuss what I tend to notice and respond to when I am in the position of the psychotherapist, what I recoil from, what I feel during sessions in general, and my evolving “theory of therapy.” I’m not sure whether I fit into a certain school– I am probably closer to the humanistic therapies than anything else, although I feel I regard patients with a psychoanalytic eye. By that, I mean that I see many parts of an individual hidden from that individual, and many motives that are not clear to the person enacting them. There is an unconscious force at work. On the other hand, the unconscious is not hidden at all, expressing itself in every gesture, in the person’s comportment toward every situation. It is hidden on the surface. Anyway, theories of psychology should arise from clinical practice, so here is what I tend to do and to notice:

When I first talk with a new patient, and for our first sessions (sometimes for a while), I find myself listening for ways that the person “makes sense.” For example, I had a patient who felt unconfident in making decisions for herself. She related a few times when she had attempted to make her own decisions and encountered negative consequences from others, primarily the loss of support. Thus, her anxiety surrounding making more decisions makes sense. Her difficulty did not arise from nowhere– it is situated. This is also a way I establish rapport with my patient. She sees that I am attending to her closely and that I don’t think she’s “crazy,” but that what she’s doing somehow “makes sense.”

Related to this, I try to get a sense of my patient’s world. What is her experience like? What are some essential components of her life? I learn this by looking for patterns. I look/ listen not only for patterns in events she relates, explicit or oblique (here is a loose example of what I mean: explicitly, she might date the same “type” of man, more obliquely, she may date men who are in some way like her father), but for patterns in words and phrases she uses, in her body language, or in other styles she uses. I had one patient who often said “I’m done with that/ them,” but then would continue on in the situation/ with the person nonetheless.

Another way I try to get a sense of my patient’s world, at a more advanced level, is to discover ways that the pattens manifest themselves. I try to look at the therapeutic situation, and more the assessment session, as a microcosm. The patient’s world will be recreated in the therapy room. How she deals with some situations will reproduce itself in the assessment. The patient has a particular world, this world is structured in a particular way, and this structure will reproduce itself on micro- and macro- levels.

I also tend to remember a lot. I remember general and particular things my patient tells me, including words and phrases she uses often. I remember events in her life, including former challenges and problems. I sometimes remember exemplary events– “the time the worst thing happened,” or “the time what you were afraid would happen did not happen,” and so on. In this way, I treat therapy sessions as somewhat continuous. What the patient brought up three sessions ago may relate to what she brought up in this session. I often point out connections– “that sounds like the situation from your dream” or “it seems like you experienced disappointment about not getting the job in the same way you experienced it when you didn’t win the game” and so on. Sometimes this forms a narrative or whole that was not present before, and helps with “making sense.” Sometimes it helps the patient feel understood. Sometimes it helps to consider events in light of other events. Overall, doing this ends up helping the person to notice patterns, and perhaps to observe these pattens in action.

I try to point out ways that the structure of the patient’s world is reproduced in the therapeutic situation (I think this may legitimately be called transference). The first time I do this might be in the assessment session. For example, if the patient has an angry outburst when she is unable to put together a WAIS block design, and has come in to therapy concerned about a possible break-up with a partner due to her angry outbursts, this would be an opportune moment to observe and discuss what happens in these moments. Other opportunities may come up in therapy sessions, such as how a patient reacts to the therapy room, contingencies like noises outside or a lack of air conditioning, or for a particularly dramatic example that happened to one of my patients, finding her ex in the waiting room. I also sometimes point out a patient’s reactions to me– how she seems to feel about me, what our relationship is like– but I find this more difficult, both because it’s intimidating, especially when a patient is angry or disappointed with me, and because I don’t want the patient to feel unsafe or invaded. This last move requires a great deal of trust and rapport.

Observations from Psychotherapy on How Using Social Software Influences How We Structure Our Worlds

Through a surge of new acquaintances who quickly dispersed to their separate locations across the continent (colleagues from a brief summer job in New York), I’ve been pulled back, hard, into the Facebook. I want desperately to keep in contact with these wonderful people, and this is the way I know how. (Letters? Too slow– and who writes letters? Phone calls? Too personal– and what if the sentiment wears off? And what if I’m there for one of social softwares’ less noble uses, such as observing/ spying on my new friends and trying to learn about their other identities/ who they are in their real lives?). Anyway, one thing leads to another (as they say), and now I’m one hell of a participant-observer.

Social software keeps coming up in my clinical work. It appears in two major ways: 1) as an extension of my client’s social life, i.e., an ex-boyfriend made a change on his profile intended to publicly humiliate her, and 2) as a manifestation of neurosis or self-perception. What I mean by those rather vague expressions may be illustrated by a client who is perpetually dissatisfied with what his social software profile expresses. It is either too honest and revelatory of his faults, or conceals too much, making the imagined audience (people with whom he might end up becoming romantically or sexually involved) suspicious. He is displeased with his digital body, as he is with his “real life” expressions of identity and his physical presence. Nothing outward seems pleasing.

I was disappointed at first when I concluded that there’s nothing new under the sun– that more or less, the internet recapitulates what’s out here. Sure, there’s no need to express class/ race/ age/ gender/ whatever on the internet, and you can choose not to state those things, purposefully deceive or get around giving a straightforward answer about your categories, or perhaps somewhere out there create an identity that doesn’t rely on these categories at all (yes, this is why I’m interested in the furries); BUT for the most part people get as close as they can to making a digital representation of what they are out here, consciously or no. I realize, though, that the representation itself is quite interesting and can be a great metaphor for how one views oneself/ wants to be viewed by others. The second person I mentioned above gave me a great image for his way of being neurotic when he described changing his profile a few times a day. What an incredible resource for a psychotherapist.

There is one real change I’ve noticed that follows the widespread use of social software. A serious social-software user has a different sort of lifestyle than a person who does not participate. This makes knowing about social software not just a fun bonus or a resource for a therapist, but an essential piece of knowledge if she is working with the youth (anyone in the youth culture) and is to understand his world. I’m a little confused about the phenomenon I’m about to describe, as I think a lot of people who have noticed this phenomenon are, as indicated by articles I’ve read about how damn narcissistic the youth are these days. Social software promotes living a public, externalized life. Facebook is the worst at this– I still hate the newsfeed, which is a stream of gossip and an implicit privacy invasion (for more elaboration on how the newsfeed invades privacy see danah boyd, here: http://www.danah.org/papers/FacebookAndPrivacy.html). What goes on the internet– one one’s profile, blog, etc.– is subject to an audience. We get used to acting for an audience and displaying ourselves. Profile pages are advertisements for ourselves, even when we’re not using the network for dating or getting to know students at the college we want to attend (how people used the Facebook back in the day before everyone was allowed on, so I’ve heard).

Is this a cultural change or an opportunity for narcissists/ a promotion of the pathology known as narcissism? I was bothered earlier this year by a friend who had this whole relationship online– his partner lived in the same town, and yet it still seemed that most of their relationship happened on Facebook. I knew their every move through heart/ broken heart symbols, wall posts, and the like. Facebook became the primary way he communicated what was up with them, meaning that something would be announced on the internet, and the next day people would ask him how he was doing. I thought there was an implicit contract where a piece of information spread through “real life” social channels and then one’s profile was made to match– the representation follows the actual. For him, the representation was the actual. This odd shallowness is social software narcissism. Clearly, it still creeps me out a little, and I like to think I’m beyond it (see my earlier post called “pending,” referring to the then-pending deletion of my facebook profile).

On the other hand, the semi-anonymous audience of one’s peers may be the great contribution of social software. MySpace presents you with a bunch of kids your age who you know in “real life” to various degrees, and definitely does not include your mom. What better place to experiment with a developing identity? What safer place to out yourself, as whatever you can’t be in high school? How awesome is it that so many people can be impressed by my taste in books and film, and that people I barely know can write congratulatory notes on my “wall” when I get my M.A.? I feel like I’m tapped directly into the zeitgeist, updated to the minute. I wonder, though, whether this is a good way to engage with others, as a gigantic mirror. Back to the old question of whether the internet marks an evolution of how humans live and communicate, or whether it just gives us a way to indulge ourselves that we couldn’t before.

A Teleological Exploration of Anorexia Nervosa

This is a “weekly reflection” paper written for my psychopathology class.

What is the experience of an anorexic person? In the case of anorexia, as with other disruptions and disorders, I find this a more interesting and precise question than asking about the origin of the disorder and more useful for transforming it. How is it that the anorectic perceives the world (what sort of a subject is she, and what sort of an objectivity does the world have), and as an extension from this question — as we often ask in class — what is it that she is trying to accomplish/ what is the telos of her disorder?

To get closer to this question, I have been watching video diaries and “thinspiration” (( These show images of very thin women and words of encouragement to support one in her quest to “stay the course” of anorexia. Statements about what one may accomplish by being thin — popularity, power, being a “symbol of perfection” — accompany the images. )) video clips on youtube.com put together by young anorexic women who label themselves “pro-ana.” Their videos have an idealistic, cold, militant tone. Members of the community leave comments on one another’s productions, encouraging one another to keep up the hard work. They speak aggressively about outsiders and “posers” — those who do not meet the criteria for anorexia. I see evidence of the stubbornness Gabbard and Malan describe — the difficulty of establishing and maintaining a therapeutic relationship, her unwillingness to begin to speak, hiding suicidal wishes, etc. They seem to mistrust outsiders and speak constantly of others’ misunderstanding or weakness as shown by their inability to be anorexic themselves. The young women in this community typically have a great deal of knowledge about the diagnostic criteria for eating disorders (which they use to debunk posers) and the medical risks, which are taken as the price one must be willing to pay rather than as deterrents. Accepting these risks is a sign of one’s seriousness. To these anorectics, as if they were spokespeople for the anti-psychiatry movement, anorexia is a lifestyle choice and not a disease equivalent to a cancer on the soul in terms of the freedom and ownership involved for the sufferer. Having anorexia, or rather, being anorexic, is a source of pride and strength.

I sympathize and even agree with them to some extent (indeed, to the same extent that I agree with anti-psychiatry). It does not seem that one can ever experience mental illness as one experiences cancer — as we have discussed, we make meaning from our mental lives, the experience is simply not equivalent, even if a mental illness is similar causally to cancer as a product of biology/ genetics or the environment. As such, this manner of being in the world is worth understanding. (This is another reason why etiology does not interest me nearly so much as, and sometimes even seems irrelevant in light of, a subject’s interpretation of her experience.) However, there seems to be at least one essential misunderstanding at the core of anorexia and simply leaving it unresolved does the anorexic person a disservice and makes it clear that her disease is not so much a matter of choice as a conclusion based on faulty premises.

In the case of eating disorders, as with most (if not all) of the disorders we have discussed in class thus far, there seems to be some kind of a split involved. One part of the patient is not communicating with another part which becomes an unknown influence, one bit of ego is split off and pitted against another bit, or a process has started that was not carried out, leaving part of the patient’s soul lingering in the past, in all cases presenting an un-integrated human being/ soul. An anorectic seems to live under a similar split, and it seems key to bring this split to her conscious attention for her to see that anorexia is not as much a matter of choice or control as she thought and thus paradoxically to stop choosing anorexia.

I am drawn to the “pro-ana” community as a source of understanding anorexia because they display a different side of anorexia than the one I typically hear described by observers (though they may not be representative of all eating-disordered persons). Szekely and DeFazio discuss how most accounts of anorexia “fall into either psychological or sociological reductionism,” (pg. 374) simplifying or distorting the situation. Observers sometimes paint the anorectic as someone who is an utterly passive victim of her society damned to attempt to achieve impossible beauty standards (really, anorexics reach beyond these standards, making a mockery of American ideals). From her side, the anorectic is not nearly so weak — in fact, she is powerful, strong, superior, engaged in a mission few dare to undertake (as I will discuss shortly, this seems to be based on a bad understanding, though this does not seem to mean that anorexic women are passive or weak). Observers also seem to make anorexia into a perceptual disturbance — the anorectic “thinks she is fat” and even “sees herself as fat.” The image here is an emaciated woman looking at an obese reflection in the mirror, as in Seligman’s interpretation of her patient’s distorted self-portrait.

Based on the evidence I have gathered from internet field observations of “pro-ana” young women, they are highly sensitive and aware of how they look and place an enormous amount of significance on it, but do not seem to misperceive their appearances. As one of the anorexic women in Lintott’s article describes it, bony knuckles are a sign of strength. It seems that the anorectic’s body is magnified or distorted in terms of significance, but not that the body is literally seen as fat. This is to simplify the anorectic’s perception.

The misunderstanding for the anorexic person, rather, seems to be based on the divide between the visual/ objective/ symbol-laden body and the felt/ subjective/ personal body. While I find Boss’ essentialism and rigidity in terms of what is normal/ right/ good as disturbing here as I have found it in his other writings, the case histories I read for this week helped me sort out the distinction between the specular body and the felt body, and what seems to differentiate eating disorders from psychosomatic disturbances. Psychosomatic symptoms are displaced from the soul to the body, revealing that the boundary between them is permeable if present at all. “How else could the intestines of our patient have been so completely in accord with her attitude or her world-relationship…?” (Boss, 152). These are disorders of the felt body, the body that is me. Anorexia seems to be a disease of the specular body, or the body that is other — indeed, the disease may be that subject-body is replaced by the object-body.

While some of the readings point to this conclusion in terms of a young girl who does not differentiate into a true subject because her mother is too close to her (superficially, this seems to be the explanation for just about every disorder we’ve studied so far!), Lintott’s Sublime Hunger provided the most help in my teleological examination of anorexia. The body is the source of disease because the appearance of the body is highly important in our culture; it is a carrier of symbols, so overdetermined that one may wish to leave it behind (this is part of my support for internet communication, as I discussed in my last reflection — it actually provides the opportunity for us to abandon or re-create our specular bodies, by which others impugn us with stereotyped identities, so that we might communicate more authentically, for instance, without limitations others impose on our race or gender). As Lintott describes it, anorectics work on their objective bodies. They transcend their bodies and work on them from beyond, disconnected from them and living in a transcendental Kantian realm. The moral rigidity, alexithymia, and perfectionism all point to a beyond-human existence in which the body is “other.”

An eating disorder is purposiveness without purpose: a way of being that is blind to its true telos. As Lintott says in reference to the concept of the sublime from Kant’s Critique of Judgment, “The sublime is not meant to be a way of life” (pg. 6). Forever reveling in the divine disrupts (eventually ends) being. I once asked a friend who had just written his undergraduate thesis on that book what stopped people from staring transfixed at beautiful objects, and he said, “they get hungry.” In other words, earthly needs take over, the body in its mortal/ felt/ subjective sphere commands attention. The telos of an eating disorder seems to be, as Lintott states, “complete perfection — total domination of will over matter” (pg. 6). The impossibility of this telos is the blindness of an eating disorder and the logical error I referenced above. As one of the anorexic women in Lintott’s article states, “’I just can’t win for losing.’” Here is a moment of identification: in a way that she was not before, this woman is her body. Felt body comes to life. She sees that “to use an eating disorder to perpetuate the feeling of the sublime is to foreclose on the future possibility of that feeling” (pg. 6) and “strength and freedom cannot be sustained in a body too frail to hold itself up” (pg. 8). This identification and integration is the beginning of healing.

pending

my statement on/ to the facebook, with heavy influence from danah boyd:

Social software applications (read: friendster, myspace, facebook, in which a user articulates an identity and visualizes existing social connections and networks new ones) have been of interest for a long time. However, I’ve realized the error of my ways—while I still have some waning affection for apps in which identity articulation is of secondary interest (especially 43Things, a goal-setting, support group style social software), these identity-primary apps now bother the hell out of me. So I’m deleting all my accounts. I’ve set the date for Jan. 23, 2007, unless I’m taken down beforehand.

It’s the self-production that really bothers me, even more than the replacement of “friends” with “friendsters” in the social economy (see danah boyd, http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue11_12/boyd/index.html) and comfortable, safe social space with cyberspace. Indeed, that is more of a response to a need than a production or a displacement—there is no “place” per se where kids, especially the geeks, can be together freely and safely. Instead, they hang out in the network.

I did see this coming (http://www.amygda7a.com/?p=5). Eventually this style of self-identification becomes mundane, adolescent. I am no longer in a position where I wish to be identified by my list of favorite books or bands. My identity is no longer fluid enough that I get pleasure from rearranging it publicly or posting notes to create a sought-after appearance. Maybe it’s because I’ve found a vocation, or because I’m pretty sure I’m in love to stay, or I’m reaching critical mass of humans I can keep close. Here I am. For better or for worse.

There’s also the matter of facebook’s privacy invasion. The perpetual, streamlined gossip that pops up every time I log in as the facebook news feed puts an uncomfortable twist on an ordinary social scene. It’s not like normal gossip that must be sought out or might even go unnoticed, but gossip presented in such a way that I feel like I’ve got everyone’s phone line tapped, like my contacts exist as information more than they are anything else. Why should I want to keep an eye on everyone’s business? I would suggest that it’s the same reason that moves me to turn myself into a virtual advertisement (btw, I don’t condemn this universally—myspace is great if you’re a band looking for gigs, and I predict it will eventually become more blatantly commercial, an online business directory). My “friends” are as objectified as I am to myself.

Facebook provided a great service—it was wonderful to find again those of you with whom I’ve been out of touch for some time and have the equivalent of a handshake and a brief chat. You may still find me at http://www.amygda7a.com, on 43 Things & co. (for now!), by the email listed above or , or you may give me a damn phone call.