An Investigation of Mental Distress and Modernity

The following post is from Ed Lord, a mental health nurse who has worked in acute settings since graduating from the University of Nottingham in 2007. Ed describes himself as an activist of green-anarchist persuasion. In this piece he introduces the work of his MSc, which brings together his understandings as a nurse with his wider understandings of the modern world and the health of the environment.
We feel that Ed raises some themes which are indispensable for a network which attempts to explore the practice and context of mental health nursing in 2015.
Please feel free to ask Ed questions, or comment on this piece using the ‘comments’ stream.


“To assert that we can be whole/enlightened/healed within the present madness amounts to endorsing the madness” (Zerzan 2002, p158)

Having spent numerous years getting angry about environmental and social issues in my spare time whilst working as a nurse on acute mental health wards I have increasingly felt the need to draw the two domains together. A recent opportunity to express this materialised in the chance to ‘fly the nest’ of ‘Health Sciences’ and conduct a research thesis towards an MSc in Social Theory and Urban Space (Critical Human Geography), supervised by Professor Marcus Doel at Swansea University.

I have felt an uncomfortable mismatch between my original aim to work in a non-commercial ‘helping’ profession and the reality on the ground, not just in the structures of psychiatry, but in the deeply dysfunctional wider context that I have fought against as an anarchist. The questions being asked and the ways of asking are not coming close to the task of ‘cracking open’ these profound issues. In response to this my research has aimed to be a methodological insurrection acknowledging that we find ourselves “at the point of the decay of an epoch” where the dominant stories have “begun to lose their explanatory cogency” (Lumsden 2013, p42). To this end I have been exploring in depth the work of philosopher, psychotherapist and activist Felix Guattari (best known for his “Capitalism and Schizophrenia” collaborations with Gilles Deleuze), and particularly his radical practice “Schizoanalysis” (Deleuze and Guattari 2009 [1972] and 2013 [1980]). I have sought to de-stabilise further by combining Guattari’s Schizoanalysis with the Green-Anarchy of philosopher John Zerzan. Thus I have developed a ‘Wild Schizoanalysis’ as a first step towards a critique of the ‘everyday’, a scale too often taken for granted and infused by ‘powers’ that “make certain aspects of the events we constantly come across no so much hard to question as hard to even think of as containing questions at all” (Thrift 2007, p.19).

My critique has centred upon modernity, how we live day to day in this context and how this can be seen as a ‘colonisation’ of our ‘life-world’ (to borrow from Jurgen Habermas). Herbert Marcuse calls these practices “enslaving contentment”, the daily activities that are little more than “performances required to sustain destructive prosperity” (2002 [1964], p.248). I argue that despite ‘Enlightenment’ arguments that modernity is a ‘progressive’ ordered whole with no ‘outside’, this is a delusion and a profoundly damaging delusion at that. This delusion is based upon a Cartesian (following Descartes’ mind-body split) reductionist Euro-centric ideology that has unleashed genocide on indigenous cultures world-wide, multiplied individual mental pathology, delivered a species extinction rate 1000 times the background rate and brought the biosphere to the point of collapse. It thus turns out that “the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant” (Adorno and Horkheimer 1997 [1944], p.3). I propose that Psychiatry represents an intertwining of modernity and mental distress, as Foucault (2001 [1967]) and others have documented psychiatry had its genesis in modernity and only makes sense as an explanatory framework in this context. It is not a universally applicable discipline as its globalising ideologues would desire (for a critique of this tendency see: Mills 2014), but a situated and contingent ‘ethno-theory’. Thus separate aspects of psychiatry cannot be critiqued without reference to modernity, as the tentacles of the two are so closely intertwined. This would be like campaigning for the cessation of anti-biotic over-use in factory farm livestock without asking why the setting necessitates this medication and even makes this seem a sensible solution in the first place. The medication cannot be separated from the industry, just as mental distress cannot be separated from modernity. As the philosopher Paul Virilio puts it “the tragic chorus is the city itself” (Virilio 2007 [2005], p.19).

As a further illustration I analyse modernist city planning as a partner discipline to psychiatry. Psychiatry’s universalist claims are a side stepping of the weight of history, just as the aim of planning is to “build on a clear site […] to replace the ‘accidental’ lay-out of the ground” (Le Corbusier quoted in Smith 2001, p.31). The modern city and the modern technique of ‘health’ thus become one and the same thing, they are the embodiment of the intertwining tentacles discussed previously. Thus “the nature and origins of our distress remain hidden from us, and it becomes ‘free floating’, unanchored to any recognisable ‘cause’” (Kidner 2007, p.128), just as the interior of our mass produced car, office with its suspended ceilings and plastic carpet or brick box in suburbia are shy at disclosing their origins, are ‘free floating’ and literally ‘could be anywhere’. David Kidner analyses this abstraction in the case of ‘depression’, arguing that the industrial domain comes to re-define ‘human welfare’ thereby ‘misconstruing human needs’ as an unacknowledged emergent property of the normal functioning of industrial society (Kidner 2007, 2012). Thus he concludes that as the ‘natural’ world of a healthy bio-diverse environment is systematically impoverished and destroyed, so is the human psyche in exactly the same fashion. The crux of this matter is, however, that a ‘firewall’ is built between the two domains thus obscuring their virtually identical unfolding, leaving depression, anxiety and the like as individual problems, “reflecting personal inadequacy” and demanding individualised solutions/treatments (2007, p.135).

To make my ‘wild schizoanalysis’ operative in my research I explore three case studies through this analytical lens, these are the Zapatista insurgency in southern Mexico, the First Nations movement in North America known as “Idle No More” and the ‘un-civilised’ art and literary project originating in the UK known as “Dark Mountain” (links for these three at the end of this blog entry). It will be noted that none of these are primarily ‘mental health’ projects, but this is deliberate as I try to prise away our approaches to and understandings of mental distress from the neurotic (as Deleuze and Guattari say of Lacanian Psychoanalysis) disciplinary rabbit holes within which they are frantically digging. This is a crossing of the ‘firewall’ discussed above. Guattari’s entire career has been characterised as an effort to make these ‘transversal’ movements (Genosko in Guattari 2008 [1989]) and Zerzan is damning in his take on the disabling effects of division of labour (2012, pp.1-23. and pp.97-99).

This blog and my research project generally is aimed at an opening up of discourse, as the start of an insurrection that will end ‘who knows where?’ I conclude my thesis with some implications from de-colonial practices, as (following Frantz Fanon) “the “terror” of decolonization is the terror of radical possibility generated from within the scene of colonization” (Kawash 1999, p.240). I am definitely not, however, providing a ‘blueprint’ for action. This would be as authoritarian and reductionist as the thing I am problematizing in the first place.

So, let’s get talking, let’s start feeling uncomfortable with modernity, let’s get uncivilised and let’s get outside into the fresh air and see where this thing could take us…



Adorno, TW and Horkheimer, M. (1997) [1944]. Dialectic of Enlightenment. London; Verso.

Deleuze, G and Guattari, F. (2013) [1980]. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. London; Bloomsbury Academic

Deleuze, G and Guattari, F. (2009) [1972]. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. London: Penguin Books.

Foucault, M. (2001) [1967]. Madness and Civilization. Abingdon, Oxon; Routledge

Guattari, F. (2008) [1989]. The Three Ecologies. London: Continuum.

Kawash, S. (1999). Terrorists and Vampires: Fanon’s Spectral Violence of Decolonization. pp. 235-257. In Alessandrini, A (Ed). (1999). Frantz Fanon: Critical Perspectives. London; Routledge.

Kidner, D. (2012). Nature and Experience in the Culture of Delusion: How Industrial Society Lost Touch with Reality. Basingstoke; Palgrave Macmillan.

Kidner, D. (2007). Depression and the Natural World: Towards a Critical Ecology of Psychological Distress. Critical Psychology. 19, 123-146.

Lumsden, S. (2013). Poststructuralism and Modern European Philosophy. pp. 23-46. In Dillet, B, MacKenzie, I and Porter, R (Eds) (2013). The Edinburgh Companion to Poststructuralism. Edinburgh University Press.

Marcuse, H. (2002) [1964].  One-Dimensional Man. Abingdon, Oxon; Routledge.

Mills, C. (2014). Decolonizing Global Mental Health: The psychiatrization of the majority world. Hove; Routledge.

Smith, M. (2001). Repetition and Difference: Lefebvre, Le Corbusier and Modernity’s (Im)moral Landscape. Ethics, Place and Environment. 4 (1). pp 31-44.

Thrift, N. J. (2007). Non-representational theory: Space, politics, affect. Abingdon, Oxon; Routledge.

Virilio, P. (2007) [2005]. The Original Accident. Cambridge; Polity Press.

Zerzan, J. (2012). Future Primitive Revisited. Los Angeles; Feral House.

Zerzan, J. (2002). Running on Emptiness: The Pathology of Civilisation. Los Angeles; Feral House.

2 thoughts on “An Investigation of Mental Distress and Modernity

Add yours

  1. What an interesting essay, and so much to ponder on (and some of it I don’t understand). I do understand that there’s this firewall (good metaphor) between being able to understand or look at something as a “social” problem or as an “individual” problem, and yet without being universalising, to understand these as “ethno-theorising” in order to keep things particular. (But then of course within that there ARE deeply personal and individual stories.) So this is then a way to get a new glimpse at psychiatry and the people who practice it and are practiced on? I’m interested in these things in terms of clutter in peoples houses (“hoarding”) and also self-harming as something teenagers seem to be doing a lot. So will keep thinking and reading your writings, Ed… Make sure to let me know when you post! Best wishes, Annie x


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