Alan Young, PTSD, and is anything real?

Thoughts on trauma, social constructionism, and confusion

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Pixabay: skeeze

none of these writers — neither Pepys, nor Shakespeare, nor the author of Gilgamesh — was referring to the thing that we now call the traumatic memory, for this memory was unavailable to them.

His argument, in short, is that memory is unable to function without a sense of ‘I’. The ‘I’ — our sense of identity — exists partly as a byproduct of the fact that we are beings with memory; and simultaneously, that memory is only possible because we have a sense of ‘who we are’ and therefore these memories are, in some sense, ‘ours’. However, much as our conception of what the ‘I’ means is shaped, moulded, by the present — that is, the society in which we currently live — and is therefore different to the societies of the past, so the intrinsic concept of memory has changed over time, too. We do not identify as ourselves in the same way humans did in Shakespeare’s time; similarly, we do not remember how he did. Therefore, the term PTSD is anachronistic, to say the least, and moreover, constructed by the present reality in which we live. Just a couple of centuries ago, this trauma hadn’t been ‘constructed’ and couldn’t, therefore, have existed.

the reality of PTSD is confirmed empirically by its place in people’s lives, by their experiences and convictions, and by the personal and collective investments that have been made in it.

Which is good of him, to admit that the symptoms aren’t all just ‘constructed’ in the heads of the soldiers who experience it, or worse, that they are making their symptoms up, something like those suffering from electromagnetic hypersensitivity. As Young concedes — though the concession comes across almost reluctantly — the fact that soldiers are willing to write about their experiences suggests the illness exists. Over half of Vietnam War veterans experienced PTSD according to some research, and the memoirs of these soldiers reflect that. For example, Phillip Caputo in his brilliant A Rumor of War writes

I… doubted my capacity to endure many more physical or emotional shocks. I had… alternating moods of depression and rage that came over me for no apparent reason. Recovery has been less than total.

And Bill Poffenberger is brutally honest about his attempted suicide, and how he (at the time of writing) still feels suicidal, writing ‘Today, sometimes I just want to aim my bike at a semi. End it. I hurt a lot sometimes.’ Examples like this litter the memoirs and letters of soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War, and it seems silly to suggest that veterans of other wars didn’t face similar experiences. (Anyone who wants some more examples is welcome to read my Master’s thesis.)

the extreme cultural constructionism that Young deploys when it suits his rhetorical posture and then abandons to assert his own authority with the reader is as unstable a place to stand as its historicist predecessor was fifty years ago. We cannot write psychiatric nosology with perfect objectivity (pure “discovering” with no contextual admixture of “inventing”) any more than we can write history with perfect objectivity. But if we can never claim a conclusive account of human activity, this does not mean that truthfulness in disclosure of interests, methods, data, and analysis is unattainable or irrelevant, or that any method, data, analysis is as good as any other.

Other reviews of Young’s work are less critical, lauding, brown-nosing, even, such as from the definitely-not social constructionist American Historical Review, the probably-not-pseudoscientific Journal of Psychotherapy, and some obviously-nonpartisan bloke who studies the Philosophy and History of Science (not the science itself, mind), who rave about it as ‘brilliant’, ‘fascinating’, and a ‘model study of the construction of mental illness’. It’s interesting that an ethnologist feels himself at all qualified to discuss the science and pathophysiology of a mental illness that even the experts don’t fully understand yet, in a manner that Shay essentially describes as (paraphrasing) pretending to know about it but not really knowing anything.

Social constructionism

Young’s book fits into a longish history of literature which argues that everything is just a social construct, even illnesses which are making people commit suicide. The debate about whether reality is a predominantly a social construction or whether an objective reality exists is one that has been going on in earnest since at least the seventies in history and the humanities, and far longer than that in philosophy.

Linguistic problems

Saussure’s ideas were, at the time, revolutionary, and he is sometimes cited as one of the founders of linguistics, until his ideas were completely replaced by those of Noam Chomsky. The father of modern linguistics made the argument that humans possess something called Universal Grammar, which is to say we are in possession of an innate ability to learn language — language is, in other words, already within us, and it merely needs to be ‘activated’ by some external input, such as the speech of our parents and others around us, for us to learn it. This was in contradiction to earlier ideas, particularly those of B. F. Skinner, who argued for behaviourism, which posited children learn language simply by hearing it and copying. Chomsky argued that this couldn’t be the case because of the ‘poverty of the input’ — often, speech is very ungrammatical, so a child’s ability to construct completely grammatical sentences cannot be predicated solely on their hearing and repeating things. He hence concluded language production must be innate. Indeed, Chomsky’s initial review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior is thought to have kickstarted what is know known as the cognitive revolution, which essentially gave birth to cognitive science, along with a few other texts by scientists working in artificial intelligence and George Miller’s seminal psychology paper ‘The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two’.

Saussure’s views are not held, so far as I know, by modern linguists, only by literary critics and the occasional philosopher. [Strict adherence to Saussure] has elicited wrong film and literary theory on a grand scale. One can find dozens of books of literary theory bogged down in signifiers and signifieds, but only a handful that refers to Chomsky.

It’s a legitimate point. Chomsky is the greatest linguist who’s ever lived at the the time of writing; his contributions to linguistics revolutionised the profession; he is regularly referred to as the father of modern linguistics. Despite being one of the most cited scholars ever, it doesn’t seem that his ideas hold much weight in literary studies, or even cultural studies, despite their scientific falsifiability and influence on the left-wing anti-imperialist political viewpoints that many of those sympathetic to poststructuralism have. An interesting contradiction, wouldn’t you say? Perhaps this is similar to Young’s use of neuroscientific and biological concepts in his book; that is to say, that an ethnologist probably doesn’t have much experience in these fields, much as the cultural theorists and philosophers who coopted the bits of linguistics that appealed to them didn’t actually know anything (or presumably give a toss) about linguistics.

Goodbye to postmodernism/structuralism/constructionism?

None of this is to say that poststructuralism, or deconstructionism, and the social constructionism, or social constructivism, which comes with it, haven’t done anything good. Queer theorists who used poststructuralism to tear down binary ideas of being either gay or straight undoubtedly helped the LGBT community, breaking down stigma and maximising inclusivity. Gender theorists like Judith Butler deconstructed differences between genders, famously describing them as a ‘performance’ which helped to liberate women. And however unintelligible the ideas are, Michel Foucault, perhaps the most famous poststructuralist who didn’t want to be called a poststructuralist, developed his ideas of changing power dynamics throughout history which have influenced just about every social science and humanities discipline since. More recently, the emerging field of animal studies (you heard that right) is potentially developing upon these ideas and methods to break down traditional binaries between humans and animals, which has the potential to lead to us having a more humane relationship with them

Peter Hitchens once told me I have no sense of humour. Twitter/Insta: @JamesMAlston Bookstagram: @thebibliographer

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