We Have Yet to be Modern

In our heads we have two different senses of the word “modern”. We have the idealized version and the pragmatic one.

The idealized version concerns fashion, lifestyle choices, the promise of clean and bright cities bristling with light fixtures.

The practical modern fits the definition from the Latin, which comes from “modo” meaning “just now”. The “just” does not feel special, or illuminating, or romantic. It is simply remarking on a place in time.

And I think one of the key aspects of the year 2020 is how far this disconnect, the one between the idealized “modern” and the actual “modern” has widened.

A parallel for this schism occurs in patients with multiple personality disorder, as evidenced by the recent HBO Max documentary Crazy, Not Insane directed by Alex Gibney. In it, Dorothy Otnow Lewis takes us through her career in a part-biography part-political exploration of crime and punishment versus rehabilitation in the United States Criminal Justice System. Present day interviews of Lewis coincide with videotaped versions of murder suspects in prison or in mental health facilities. Dorothy is precocious, uncompromising, good-natured, and blunt. She has no qualms speaking to the strange derangements that surround these murder suspects, many of whom have been the victims of strange derangements themselves. One particular subject, Max, “gets along” with Dorothy very well, as he rocks back and forth in his chair and covers his face with his hands in what appears to be perpetual torment. Each of these suspects has an “other” who “protects” their partner inside their own heads. And oftentimes this other is stronger, more confident, and often short-tempered. They lash out, to absurd realms, with stabbing and cannibalism and everything in between. When we tend to think of modernity, it is doubtful that we have this in mind.

And if the behavior is not modern, the child abuse these murderers suffered is something suited for the middle ages. Many of these young men and women were sodomized, beaten, burned, raped, cut, and forced to clean up glass while their knees cut themselves red in the pieces stuck in the carpet. Rather than the central crux of the film being the most shocking turn — that the general public and even psychology experts will not take Lewis’s research seriously — it is these acts perpetrated by mothers and fathers against their own children which easily takes the lead. These are not some dated experiences of torture and mutilation as seen during the years Hieronymus Bosch painted the Ship of Fools. These kinds of horrific acts occurred barely a century ago. During the time of the industrial revolution. During the beginning of modernism.

It has been said that Michel Foucault kept gruesome displays of torture in his room during his stay at the Sorbonne. For a long time, I had imagined that Foucault had wanted to keep the atavistic psychology of civilization in his head when he wrote his treatise on madness. Perhaps it was the other way around: perhaps these were the examples of modernism, and he was attempting to articulate it to us in words. Here is Alex Gibney doing largely the same thing.

At its best, the documentary is able to weave together the strange desires of murderers with the behaviors of “typical” Americans who arrive to an execution to see someone die. Each one (usually in Texas), features men and women holding up signs wishing “Burn Bundy Burn” in reference to Ted Bundy, or in some other grisly poster that looks hastily made with sharpie and white posterboard picked up from a corner store. In one particular case, we see a gentlemen who serves as a proxy executioner, an electrician who travels to each place and performs the execution. He has killed 19 according to the archived footage, and he has no qualms over killing more.

Where the documentary slips is perhaps in Dorothy Lewis going after Ted Bundy. Feeling herself mistaken, Lewis is adamant about retracing her steps and correcting the mistake she feels she made when she classified Ted as having bipolar disorder. Based on evidence of letters, as well as some audio interviews, she is making a retrospective judgment that perhaps Ted Bundy might too have suffered from MPD. The background is there: Bundy had a miserable childhood, he gave a signature for letters by the occasional nickname of Sam (who happened to be Ted’s grandfather and abuser), and in one audio clip he finds himself externalizing his identity into a “being” who “takes over” his will.

While the background is apparent, the purpose is not. Lewis takes great pains to address why the death penalty keeps us from evaluating patients further, yet she happens to go after a very famous and very dead man. Scientists have every right to be political, and they have every ability to go where their minds desire, but Lewis’s is best served elsewhere. With the astounding advancements in fMRI technology and the subsequent discoveries in neuroscience on consciousness, some interdisciplinary work is yet to be done. Let Ted Bundy be forgotten.

Still, if a documentary’s highest praise is in garnering attention and a desire to look further into the subject material, consider Crazy, Not Insane a triumph. It forces us to ask questions not just at the individual level, but at society at large. I mentioned earlier that 2020 has ruptured our belief in modernity. How could it not? A global pandemic where the best course of action is what we have always done in human history, which involve the non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPI’s) of social distancing and quarantine. A return to autocratic, populism due to income inequalities and technological leaps like that before the first World War. And while fires and floods continue to pummel our continental United States, Exxon has put its carbon capture project on hold, while pumping gas and building more lines as it has always done. Crazy, Not Insane makes the walls between the mental institution and society porous. If for the purposes of open-minded inquiry and empathy, the documentary is worth a watch.

Originally published at http://theroyleline.blog on December 10, 2020.

Colton tries to picture a world in which nobody trusted their System 1 thinking. He is currently working on trying to be a better listener.

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