The Political Self: Understanding the Social Context for Mental Illness

Integrating the Inner and the Outer: How Society Shapes Who We Are

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In my 2017 book, The Political Self: Understanding the Social Context for Mental Illness (Routledge), I explore how our social and economic contexts profoundly affect our mental health and well-being, and how modern neuroscientific and psychodynamic research has significantly developed our understanding of these wider discussions. The book therefore looks both inside and outside—indeed one of the main themes of the volume is that the conceptually discrete categories of “inner” and “outer” in reality constantly interact, shape, and inform each other. Severing these two worlds, it suggests, has led both to a devitalised and dissociated form of politics, and to a disengaged and disempowering form of therapy and analysis.

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“Rather than separating our understanding of economic and social practices from our understanding of affective development and human development, we need to bring them together, to align them: we need to realise that politics, the external world, is not a world without an ‘inner’.”

Drawing on a number of leading figures in these fields, including Iain McGilchrist, Sue Gerhardt, David Smail, Nick Totton, Joel Bakan, Nick Duffell, Dave Grossman, Joel Kovel, Jonathan Rowson, and James Hillman, the book argues that we need to understand people and their psychological distress in an essentially social and environmental context. Rather than separating our understanding of economic and social practices from our understanding of affective development and human development, we need to bring them together, to align them: we need to realise that politics, the external world, is not a world without an “inner”. And for this to happen, we need a new integrated model for mental health, and a new politics: we need a new dialogue between the political and personal worlds, and a recognition of how psychotherapeutic practice and the psyche both shape and are powerfully shaped by existing structures and interests.

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The Marriage Hearse: Blake, Jesus, and the Critique of Marriage and Family Values

Why Mr Blake Cried: Monogamy, Matrimony and the Mind-Forg’d Manacles

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In his fascinating exploration of the ideological status and function of traditional marriage and the role of ‘family values’, Theodore W. Jennings shows how in the Bible Jesus actually radically subverts these institutions and ways of relating, seeking to replace them with more inclusive, equal, and genuinely socially integrative forms of living. It is interesting in this respect that one of the first things that spiritual communities do is to replace the atomising, inward-looking, emotionally toxic and politically hierarchical structure of the ‘family’ with more open and egalitarian forms of living. Though in contemporary society, as in Jesus’s day, ‘The Family’ is held up as integral to its power structure and affective organisation of stratified, socially isolated, inward-looking, and hierarchical power dynamics, which the institution of The Family both transmits and reflects, another way of living, and of being is possible.  Breaking the ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ that weld us to these old ways of thinking – and more importantly ways of feeling – was one of the central tasks of Jesus’s mission, and was both echoed and developed by the generation of radical poets and thinkers of Blake’s day, including Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, Rousseau, and of course Blake himself.  Before a more awakened and liberated form of society can emerge, Blake suggests, we have to transcend our existing shackles (it is no coincidence that Jennings for example calls one of his chapters ‘Marriage, Family, and Slavery’ – echoing Wollstonecraft’s earlier critique of this institution for the regressive and toxic situations and spaces it generates). And in order to do that, we first need to understand what the concept of The Family actually is. 

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