Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Learn from book reviews, Part Deux

A book that I admire and that I have taught in Medical Anthropology is Emily Martin's Bipolar Expeditions. Encountering Martin at the annual meetings, I told - nay, gushed to - her that a number of my students had been quite moved, lending and even buying copies for friends. I think they appreciated both her questioning of what "makes" a mental illness and her understanding that bipolar really means something. Constructed, but not fiction.

So, I read with interest this review of Gary Greenberg's Manufacturing Depression: The Secret History of a Modern Disease, by Adam Phillips in the May 24 issue of The Nation. Is it the author or the reviewer that takes the next step in grounding the making of mental illness in the politics of the times?

In this sense, whatever else it is - and it is an interesting book about many things - Manufacturing Depression is a book about liberal democracy, which allows people the freedom to tell competing stories, and the scientific rather than religious forces that threaten to undermine it. It is also a book that shows how deeply wedded all the talking cures - the nonmedical mental health treatments - are to the defense of liberal democracy rather than, as they once were, to a more radical politics. (Fantasies of liberation are not what they were.) "You can tell your own story about your discontents," Greenberg writes, "and my guess is that it will be better than the one that the depression doctors have manufactured." It's when therapies don't err on the side of guessing games, and don't acknowledge that this is what they are, that they become dangerous. The only therapies we should trust are the enemies of militant competence.

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