The Null Device

Posts matching tags 'john shirley'


John Shirley, who wrote some very dark and fucked-up post-cyberpunk scifi stories, has a Mental State of the Union, about the rise of mental illness of various sorts in our society, and the way that this is exacerbated by all sorts of things, from neurotoxins in the food chain to a generation of Ritalin kids to the dismantling of unprofitably expensive support networks for the mentally ill; he concludes with the suggestion that our society itself may be pervasively insane:

What is insanity? Among other things, it's the idea that we're immune to consequences. A madman thinks he's invulnerable -- at times when he's not being paranoid, as our Sane Leaders were in the McCarthy era. We think we can dump billions of pounds of toxins into ourselves -- and not have one in three people come down with cancer and one in five with a psychiatric disorder. We are insane as a society. We are far more asleep, more automatic, more mechanistic in our reactions, our behavior than we know -- and that is something psychiatry diagnoses as disassociation.
What if, as a society, we're far crazier than we realize? What if -- and that includes this magazine's hipster readership, each with his or her own set of conditioned psychological reflexes and insanely overblown vanities -- what if we're all truly -- not figuratively, but truly -- insane? We happen to be insane in a way that's functional, like a heroin addict who gets enough dope so he doesn't start screaming and manages to get through his day. But he knows his addiction in insanity. We're functional -- but insane.

Though that begs the question: was there ever a "sane" society? Did humanity or its ancestors once live in some primal arcadian utopia where everybody was sane, with insanity being a natural symptom of language/technology/urbanisation? Or is "sanity" itself (as defined above) on the scale of any society above a certain small size an impossible Platonic ideal, with human psychology being what it is?

It has been noted that the human brain can handle about 150 social relationships at any one time; any societies with more than that number of members require details to be abstracted away (Malcolm Gladwell mentions this in The Tipping Point). Perhaps any society that's not divided into autonomous units of 150 or fewer people automatically becomes "insane"?

better living through chemistry insanity john shirley mental health society 9

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