Snakeskin Jacket Syndrome

by Rob Horning

6 June 2008


The most recent Harper’s has an interesting article about culture-bound syndromes (the fear of having one’s penis stolen in particular, a Nigerian phenomenon). Culture-bound illnesses are society-specific mental illnesses that would seem to be an acute expression of some aspect of that culture’s fears and preoccupations. It takes the pervasive ideology and renders it intimately and pathologically personal, employing it to explain away otherwise nebulous complexes of symptoms of dis-ease and anxiety. A culture’s concerns find bodily expression; obviously this has something to do with the prevalence of eating disorders in Western society. In this overview of culture-bound disorders, we learn this:

In North America the incidence of anorexia nervosa increased dramatically since the 1960s, coinciding with a drastic change in the feminine body ideal towards thinness, as propagated by the fashion lords and publicized by the media [GARNER & GARFINKEL 1980; JONES et al. 1980; LUCAS et al. 1991]. It is of interest that the weight tables used by American physicians, supposedly objective scientific measures of “normal” standards of health, followed the fashionable downward trend in female body weight [RITENBAUGH 1982]. The increasing frequency of anorexia nervosa is associated with socio-cultural factors such as disturbance of intrafamily relations due to the nuclearization and limitation of Western families, and the penetrant influence of the mass media popularizing Hollywood-type life styles and beauty ideals. Since the 1980s, cases of anorexia nervosa have also become increasingly known in non-Western countries among young women in social strata exposed to heavy Westernizing influence, notably in Japan and Hong Kong [Di NICOLA 1990; LEE et al. 1993]. The epidemic spreading of anorexia nervosa among young females of all Western countries, and among certain Asian populations and immigrants under Westernizing influence, links this syndrome to socio-cultural emphases and developments in modern Western societies.

In The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi’s overarching argument in the book is that the coming of the machine led to an extremely dislocating shift to a market culture in 19th century Europe that disoriented the populace and threw value systems into chaos. In the culture-bound disorders overview, the authors write: “The bouffée délirante reactions are sudden attacks of brief duration with paranoid delusions and often concomitant hallucinations, typically precipitated by an intense fear of magical persecution through sorcery or witchcraft. They are also characterized by a confusional state and by highly emotionalized behaviour and, after the attack, by amnesia, or rather disavowal.” That is basically identical to the penis-thieving described in the Harper’s article. The overview continues, “In its symptomatology, the bouffée délirante is reminiscent of the transient psychotic reactions occurring in the early phases of industrialization and mass-urbanization in 19th century Europe; described under such names as folie hystérique in Paris and amentia transitonia in Vienna” [empahsis added]. The reorganization necessitated when implementing a market system has the potential to unleash these strange social illnesses, which seem like pathological ways of expressing a personal resistance to the “creative destruction” of market culture that the conscious mind perhaps wouldn’t bother with, knowing it is futile.

In many ways the Harper’s article was reminiscent of this unforgettable Atlantic article by Carl Elliott about voluntary amputees (a phenomenon which, incidentally, is back in the news), but it culminates in the author wanting to enact an instance of hysterical penis theivery. Thankfully Elliott did not remove his own leg in the name of journalistic diligence. Elliott was preoccupied with the very frightening question of whether merely describing an ailment like wanting to have your limbs removed was enough to make people catch it. The author of the Harper’s piece seemed to be trying to test that premise, seeing the ability to contract a culture-bound phobia as proof of having truly become acclimated to a foreign culture. This paragraph from Eliot’s article nicely captures what is at stake:

Ian Hacking uses the term “semantic contagion” to describe the way in which publicly identifying and describing a condition creates the means by which that condition spreads. He says it is always possible for people to reinterpret their past in light of a new conceptual category. And it is also possible for them to contemplate actions that they may not have contemplated before. When I was living in New Zealand, ten years ago, I had a conversation with Paul Mullen, who was then the chair of psychological medicine at the University of Otago, and who had told me that he was a member of a government committee whose job it was to decide whether pornographic materials should be allowed into the country. I bristled at the idea of censorship, and asked him how he could justify being a part of something like that. He just laughed and said that if I could see what his committee was banning, I would change my mind. His position was that some sexual acts would never even occur to a person in an entire lifetime of thinking about sex if not for seeing them pictured in these books. He went on to describe to me various alarming acts that, it was true, had never occurred to me. Mullen was of the opinion that people were better off never having conceptualized such acts, and in retrospect, I think he may have been right.

I’m inclined to agree to, though I’m completely uncomfortable with the further implication that there should be limits on the freedom of thought; that some ideas are too dangerous to be expressed even in a putatively free culture.

But perhaps the notion of freedom needs more careful consideration in light of “semantic contagion.” At SkepticLawyer, an Australian legal blog, this discussion, prompted by a Tyler Cowen lecture, of liberty and culture’s interaction made me wonder if the fixation on personal freedom (the snakeskin jacket syndrome) was itself a culture-bound syndrome.

Finally, in language sure to gladden the heart of jurisprudes everywhere, throughout the address [Cowen] placed considerable emphasis on the rule of law and the benefits that flow from it. What poor countries need is not more liberty, but more law, law that is abstract, end-independent but - and this is the clincher - also enforced. He then moved into territory that is politically dangerous, but needs to be addressed: one of the things that helps promote both liberty and prosperity throughout the Anglosphere is citizens’ widespread ability to be loyal to a set of abstract concepts. Russia, he pointed out, is failing as a free society not because it is poor - Putin’s shrewed management of high commodity prices has put paid to much Russian poverty - but because Russians tend to privilege their friends and contacts above all else, leading to epic levels of corruption. Corruption, of course, is a signal rule of law failure.
He then asked, somewhat rhetorically, if liberty was confined (and defined) by culture: ‘We should not presume that our values are as universal as we often think they are’. What happens, he asked (also rhetorically), if - in order to enjoy the benefits of liberty and prosperity - societies have to undergo a major cultural transformation, including the loss of many appealing values? Cowen focused on Russian loyalty and friendship, but there are potentially many others. Think, for example, of the extended family so privileged throughout the Islamic world, or the communitarian values common in many indigenous societies.

Take that one step further—perhaps the struggle to exchange communitarian values for market-based ones throws off pathological symptoms: What if individuality (and the consequent preoccupation with personal freedom) itself is a kind of sickness that the demands of a market society imposes on us, forcing us to surrender those other indigenous values. This, more or less, is what Polanyi argues in The Great Transformation. The labor market requires the end of paternalist protections extended by pre-market societies; to make this palatable, the destruction of the safety net is represented as the freedom from state intervention into personal life. Polanyi writes,

To separate labor from other activities of life and to subject it to the laws of the market was to annihilate all organic forms of existence and replace them by a different type of organization, an atomistic and individualistic one. Such a scene of destruction was best served by the application of freedom of contract. In practice this meant that the noncontractual organizations of kinship, neighborhood, profession, and creed were to be liquidated since they claimed the allegiance of the individual and thus restrained his freedom. To represent this principle as one of noninterference, as economic liberals were wont to do, was merely the expression of an ingrained prejudice in favor of a definite kind of interference, namely, such as would destroy noncontractual relations between individuals and prevent their spontaneous reformation.

So Sailor’s fetishistic attachment to his snakeskin jacket in Wild at Heart—“a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom”—is perhaps emblematic of our need in general to cling to the consolation prize of individuality in the face of our loss of a more-organic value system, which roots our self-worth in a social system—in a community’s mode of functioning. But we are too far along the path of a market society to turn back; we’d experience that pre-market culture as unfreedom, the loss of possibilities, even though we rarely seize upon all those possibilities and are likely to feel oppressed by them. Yet we are haunted by these values, and perhaps our submerged longing for them causes us to pervert the freedom the market culture supplies us with, leading us to come up with wildly bizarre uses of freedom, like lopping off our limbs.


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