Sunday, 1 January 2017

The Politics Of Experience And The Bird Of Paradise - RD Laing


When anything is ever written about Ronald Laing it often seems to be with a prefix of 'controversial' but for many people he was always thought to be talking absolute sense. Absolute common sense, in fact, if such a thing exists?
The Politics Of Experience And The Bird Of Paradise is a collection of essays detailing and expounding upon some of Laing's ideas and thoughts in the fields of psychoanalysis and psychiatry, along with a prose piece tagged on at the end that reads like something that could have leaked from the mind of William Burroughs before being cut up and folded in.

There's a lot going on in Laing's essays, so much so that to simply write up a quick review isn't really sufficient. Rather, a whole thesis is demanded but of course, I'm not about to do that here because this is The Art Of Exmouth not Psychology Today. The bottom line of (some of) what Laing is saying is that the world is an asylum. Reality is an asylum that we're all conditioned into adjusting and adapting to through actual violence, the threat of violence and (more controversially - there's that word again) violence masquerading as love.

"They fuck you up, your mum and dad," as Larkin put it which is what Laing was saying but years earlier and in far greater detail: 'From the moment of birth, when the stone-age baby confronts the twentieth-century mother, the baby is subjected to forces of violence, called love, as its mother and father have been, and their parents and their parents before them. These forces are mainly concerned with destroying most of its potentialities. This enterprise is on the whole successful. By the time the new human being is fifteen or so, we are left with a being like ourselves. A half-crazed creature, more or less adjusted to a mad world. This is normality in our present age.'

What is so unsettling is how quickly this process of normalization takes hold and how we come to readily accept things that are inherently problematic. In one instance, Laing describes a woman grinding foodstuff down a goose's neck through a funnel and then asks if this is a description of cruelty to an animal? The woman disclaims any motivation or intention of cruelty so what does that leave us with? What is going on here?
'If an animal is debased to a manufactured piece of produce, a sort of biochemical complex - so that its flesh and organs are simply material that has a certain texture in the mouth (soft, tender, tough), a taste, perhaps a smell - then to describe the animal positively in those terms is to debase oneself by debasing being itself.
A positive description is not 'neutral' or 'objective'. In the case of geese-as-raw-material-for-pate, one can only give a negative description if the description is to remain underpinned by a valid ontology. That is to say, the description moves in the light of what this activity is a brutalization of, a debasement of, a desecration of: namely, the true nature of human beings and of animals.
... Meanwhile Vietnam goes on.'
To bring things more up to date, the normalization of the problematic continues as in the normalization of imposed austerity, the normalization of a sex predator as the President of the United States, the normalization of never-ending war in the Middle East, the normalization of powerlessness in the face of globalisation and the super-rich, and so on and so forth.

On reading some of the reviews of The Politics Of Experience on Goodreads, it's interesting to see how Laing's ideas come as revelations to a lot of people because by now I'd have thought a lot of this stuff such as reality being an asylum is old hat. Apparently it's not.
The thing to ask at this stage in the game, however, is what good does knowing any of this do us? What benefit is there in knowing for example that reality is an asylum? Does it lift a veil from our eyes? Well, to a certain extent yes, it does. It reveals the power structures in place; from parents, the family, society and the State that enforce that reality. It reveals to us that the reality in which we exist is an imposed one that we are all prisoners within.

But it tells us also that another reality is possible. That another reality can be created. And in that tiny straw to be clutched lies hope not only for the individual but for the whole of mankind.
John Serpico

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