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Weariness of the Self

Weariness of the Self: Diagnosing the History of Depression in the Contemporary Age

Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 345
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  • Book Info
    Weariness of the Self
    Book Description:

    Drawing on the accumulated knowledge of a lifetime devoted to the study of the individual in modern democratic society, Ehrenberg shows that the phenomenon of modern depression is not a construction of the pharmaceutical industry but a pathology arising from inadequacy in a social context where success is attributed to, and expected of, the autonomous individual. In so doing, he provides both a novel and convincing description of the illness that clarifies the intertwining relationship between its diagnostic history and changes in social norms and values.

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-7715-2
    Subjects: Psychology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Foreword
    (pp. xi-xii)
    Allan Young

    The publication ofLa fatigue d’étre soi: Dépression et sociétéin an English translation will be welcomed by scholars and clinicians familiar with the French edition and eager to have Alain Ehrenberg’s vision of the history and sociology of depression made available anglophone audiences. Ehrenberg’s book is already familiar to European readers through German, Italian, and Spanish editions. The book will be “unfamiliar” to most anglophone readers not only because it is newly translated but also because it is at odds with the conventional understanding of depression and sociology in North America. In his illuminating introduction, written for this edition,...

  5. PREFACE Listening to the Spirit of Depression: A Tale of Two Continents
    (pp. xiii-2)
  6. INTRODUCTION: The Sovereignty of the Self or the Return of Nervousness
    (pp. 3-14)

    Today, depression represents the different facets of our unhappiness. During the 1940s, it was simply a syndrome noticed in most mental illnesses and did not receive any societal attention. In 1970, psychiatry demonstrated – with numbers to prove it – that depression was the most widespread illness in the world, while psychoanalysts noticed a net increase in depressive cases within their client base. Today, it captures the attention of psychoanalysts, just as psychosis did fifty years ago. And therein lies its medical success. Simultaneously, newspapers and magazines take it for a fashionable illness, perhaps even a kind of world weariness. Depression has...


      (pp. 15-20)

      We have set our objective: to understand the mutations of the notion of the individual through the second half of the twentieth century. Which history of depression should we now study in order to reach our goal?

      Let us begin by observing what was written on the history of depression in psychiatric treatises: first we find melancholia, whose long history originates in Greek antiquity. It was characterized by great pain, with its main manifestation being listlessness and torper, once considered as one of the seven deadly sins (acedia). We then find delirium (mania), which Christianity believed to be the symptom...

    • 1 The Birth of the Psychic Self
      (pp. 21-44)

      As the first symposium on the depressives state in France opened at the Saint-Anne Hospital in November 1954, the speaker mentioned a specific name: Pierre Janet. “At the beginning of the century,” declared Dr Julien Rouart, “there was much talk about certain neurotic depressions that have since disappeared, like neurasthenia, and Pierre Janet founded his entire psychasthenia theory on the notion of ‘a lowering in psychological tension.’ In fact … neurotic depressions are in contrast to the psychotic type as constitutional weakness is to illness.”⁴ Asthenia, lowering, weakness: the depressive mentality is built upon inadequacy. Freud, psychoanalysts have since pointed...

    • 2 Electroconvulsive Therapy: Technique, Mood, and Depression
      (pp. 45-69)

      “We no doubt meet all around us,” Janet wrote in 1932, “many weakened individuals who are not at a normal level but who are treated more or less like normal individuals.” He was apparently pointing out the lack of social and medical attention for these seemingly normal individuals who were, in fact, abnormal. He added, “If I am not mistaken, the analysis of this weakness, and its remedy, when it may come into existence, will become very important in the future.”¹ Six years later, Freud referred to possible chemical substances: “The future,” he said in his last book, “may teach...

    • 3 The Socialization of an Indefinable Pathology
      (pp. 70-100)

      The introduction of antidepressants and anxiolytics greatly amplified depression’s medical and social ramifications. The prospect of using molecules to lift one’s black moods led a growing number of psychiatrists to establish practices and allowed general practitioners to respond to complaints they had been hearing from their patients for some time. The generalists, however, had to contend with a number of uncertainties regarding their psychiatric tools.¹ The pharmaceutical industry had become an active player. As had the media: as of the late 1950s, magazines stressed over and over again that even those in the best of health could be liable to...


      (pp. 101-105)

      We could, at the end of the 1960s, reasonably divide depression into three groups: endogenous depression, neurotic depression,¹ and reactive depression (which is necessarily exogenous). Endogenous depression had deep somatic roots and its mechanisms were biological in that they affected sensations, feelings, and emotions (i.e., subjective and psychic experience). Neurotic depression was the most involved with the idea of personality, and it was the one that came closest to being apsychopathological disorder. Reactive depression emphasized the influence of external circumstances, and it could affect the healthiest and the most stable among us.

      If the role of antidepressants in treatment...

    • 4 The Psychological Front: Guilt without an Instruction Manual
      (pp. 106-135)

      During an international conference on depression held in October 1970 in New York, Heinz Lehmann proposed a percentage and a number that would be picked up and repeated for a long time to come: the prevalence of depression at any one moment represented 3 percent of the western population, meaning 100 million people were suffering from it.⁵ It had become the most widespread mental pathology on the planet.⁶ The Swiss Paul Kielholz, director of the psychiatric clinic in Bâle, after having organized two conferences at Saint-Moritz in 1972 and 1973, respectively, founded, in 1975, the International Committee for the Treatment...

    • 5 The Medical Front: New Avenues for the Depressive Mood
      (pp. 136-162)

      If the 1970s saw the dissemination of a new psychological culture, they also saw that of a new biological culture, which replaced the configuration established in the 1940s. The psychiatric approach to medication for the mind was situated along the Janet-Cerletti-Freud axis. Cerletti provided the linkage for a complementary relationship between deficit (for which Janet furnished the model) and conflict (which was part of Freud’s territory). On psychiatry’s medical front, the severing of this linkage would render the category of neurosis moribund.

      While the techniques for self-multiplication were being developed by new therapies, the increased prominence of depression as a...


      (pp. 163-165)

      The first shift in direction for the system of norms defining the individual in the first half of the twentieth century involved “being oneself.” This is what characterized the “general spirit” of the new normality. At the pathological level, clinical practice, especially that of psychoanalysis, altered its focus from a domain where conflict, guilt, and anxiety prevailed to a domain where inadequacy, the void, compulsion, and impulse delineated the portrait of pathological humanity. The new normative approach and the new pathology were concerned less with identification (with well-defined parental images or social roles) than with identity. Identity was the first...

    • 6 The Depressive Breakdown
      (pp. 166-189)

      The traditional emphasis on mental pain has moved towards pathological action: mood disorders would be less characteristic of depression than would those involving the inability to act. The latter are the favourite targets of molecules: by moving the individual towards action, they improve her mood. Insecurity about identity, as we have seen, and disturbed activity, as we will see, are the two facets of depressive states at the end of the twentieth century. Depression embodies not only the passion for being oneself and its difficulty but also the need for initiative and the difficulty of carrying it through. How can...

    • 7 The Uncertain Subject of Depression, or End-of-the-Century Individuality
      (pp. 190-229)

      The ability to act by oneself is at the heart of socialization, and the breakdown of action is the fundamental disorder of depression. There are two ways of understanding the situation: one is concerned only with the subject of conflict, the other has nothing to do with conflict. The controversy between Janet and Freud was played out a century later in a completely different normative and psychiatric context. If depression really is the double pathological manifestation of psychic liberation and individual initiative, then, necessarily, internal splits other than those of conflict will be played out. At the psychiatric level, today...

  10. CONCLUSION: The Weight of the Possible
    (pp. 230-234)

    Depression threatens the person who resembles only herself the way sin haunted the soul turned towards God or guilt gnawed at the person torn by conflict. More than a source of mental pain, it is a way of life. The major fact of individuality during the second half of the twentieth century was the confrontation between the notion of limitless possibility and the notion of the uncontrolled. The rise of depression set off the tensions produced by this confrontation, as the realm of the permitted crumbled before the onslaught of the possible.

    This book took inspiration from an intention found...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 235-296)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 297-332)
  13. Index
    (pp. 333-345)