Psychology is often how societies avoid looking in the mirror.
The reaction to Steve McQueen’s appalling yet beautiful film Shame has exhibited this in predictable and enfuriating ways. Since the outset, Shame has been trailed, reviewed, and discussed as a portrait of “sex addiction,” despite the fact that there is no reference to this disorder at any point in the film. Sex addiction is a disorder that was scarcely heard of 10 years ago, but it has everything going for it as a 21st century explanatory trope. It is exotic, titilating, intriguing, and irritating all at once; it winds up The Daily Mail; we can speculate as to who might really have it and who just needs to pull themselves together. McQueen himself has played up the concept of sex addiction in interviews about the film, maybe because that’s a marketing message that travels best.
The main character in Shame, Brandon (played by Michael Fassbender), is emotionally muted, teeming with a sorrowful rage and physically charismatic. He may be described as “depressed” and refuses to speak about aspects of his past, but he shows no signs of suffering any clinical condition. One of the many brilliant devices used in the film is that there is no explanation or any hint as to why he may have developed into this type of adult man, creating a gap in the plot that makes the film all the more suffocating. He hasn’t begun to “deal with” his problems and shows no sign of wanting to. Nor does the audience receive the psychological metanarrative that we assume as our right nowadays (e.g. David Cameron: “I love the NHS because it helped my sick child” — for which read, otherwise I’m just another selfish Tory). Instead, he just appears utterly stuck with himself.
In these respects, Brandon’s character is entirely at odds with the therapy culture of New York, his home city. Perhaps he represents some form of resistance to the psych sciences in this respect, though not a very appealing one. If the film is “about” sex addiction, then its message is simple: This is what happens if you don’t treat your psychological and emotional ailments. But in a sense, he does treat them through relentless self-gratification, including casual sex, pornography, masturbation, drugs, and virtually anything that avoids intimacy or verbal honesty. The treatments offered by the streets and bars of New York, combined with the internet, become a way of lancing some boil that never stops filling up again with toxins. Toward the end of the film, a scene involving Brandon and two prostitutes portrays sexual desire as a form of filth that is desparately scrubbed away at through the act of sex. The shame being depicted in Shame is that of someone who wants to escape their body altogether. (Placed alongside McQueen’s grotesque 2008 film Hunger, it seems that he has a thing about this.) If Brandon really wants anything, it’s to stop wanting so much.
And this is how the film becomes sociological and, more specifically, Durkheimian. What the psychological interpretation utterly fails to account for is the fact that Brandon lives in a culture organised around giving you exactly what you want. The film had to be set in New York, the only city in the world where you can specify what sort of sesame seed you want on your bagel in what precise pattern. A pivotal moment in the film occurs when Brandon’s sister, Sissy (played by Carey Mulligan), sings a slow, mournful rendition of “New York, New York” in a club, resulting in a single tear slowly rolling down Brandon’s cheek. This is the closest he comes in the film to sharing an emotion.
But why is he crying? Psychologically, the answer is deliberately withheld, both from the other characters and the viewer. But culturally, the moment feels like a requiem for New York City. Shame is never quite a satire, because it’s too sad for that. Instead, it is an angry lament for a social and economic model that promised to satisfy every individual desire and ended up with an economic and social crisis fuelled by taking this promise for granted. The decline of America, and one might even say the West, is tied up with its failure to discover a legitimate limit to egoism. As Keynes said of Hayek, he was unable to stipulate “where to draw the line.”
Durkheim’s Suicide, which I discussed here in relation to current communitarian politics in Britain, examines these same issues. The book begins by seeking to demonstrate statistically that there are aspects of suicide that cannot be reduced to purely psychological or economic explanations. For instance, suicide rates rise during times of rapid economic progress, as well as rapid economic decline. This is crucial for Durkheim in establishing a separate field of sociology.
“Anomic suicide,” which is the form which best diagnoses the modern condition, arises from an absence of mediating institutions, between self and society as a whole. The self suffers from a problem of excessive and arbitrary freedom, finding nothing beyond the ego to value. Psychologically, this becomes a form of depressive narcissism. The problem, as Brandon might understand, is that
Inextinguishable thirst is constantly renewed torture. It has been claimed, indeed, that human activity naturally aspires beyond assignable limits and sets itself unattainable goals. But how can such an undetermined state be any more reconciled with the conditions of mental life than with the demands of physical life? All man’s pleasure in acting, moving and exerting himself implies the sense that his efforts are not in vain and that by walking he has advanced. However, one does not advance when one walks toward no goal, or — which is the same thing — when his goal is infinity.
It’s a shame that McQueen himself didn’t nurture a little more ambivalence in the film’s interpretations. To describe Brandon’s character as a sex addict ring-fences his malaise as a private one, maybe even a neurochemical one. To recognise that there is a gripping and disturbing sociology at work in Shame is not to say that sex addiction is a sham or simply a medicalized version of a sociological disorder. I have no reason to believe that sex addiction is “fake”; Brandon’s character has evident emotional and psychological problems that cause misery.
But what is it about sociological interpretations and metanarratives that eludes critics? Isn’t it often more interesting to ask what is the malaise that we all share at this moment in time than to pinpoint the weirdos, the disruptive neurons, or the unruly chemicals that need targeting? Sure, Durkheim was a metaphysician, but then “addiction” is an entirely metaphysical category in its own right. The entire notion of a compulsion implies higher-order notions of a compeller, a rule, and a punishment. The fact that addiction is a clinical condition that is straying into more and more areas of life is itself an interesting sociological phenomenon. It’s not that the field of psychology does not or should not exist, but efforts to cram more and more into this field represents a form of societal dishonesty that rivals the psychic dishonesty of addicts refusing to come clean.