Deep in a chasm of irony lies wreckage of the past. Within that imbroglio, amidst the shattered glass and broken dreams of countless worldviews and ideologies, a ray of sunlight catches a shard of sheered bottle. Light concentrates into heat and with magnification a tiny plume of smoke ensues; a fire begins lapping at its surroundings and, to startled onlookers, everything comes into focus right here, right now. In an allegory this is presentism: a certainty that now is the most vital time and the highest state of knowledge and awareness. Oh, those poor minions of decayed traditions and belief systems who remain caught in the past!
Of course, the idea that the here and now is the height of progress within society and science conveniently functions to uphold current powers that be and the ways of being that got them there. Studying history can only lead to tricky questions—such as how the present might have been otherwise had other, more egalitarian or peaceful, decisions been made by those with the wherewithal to make them. Not dwelling on the past because we don’t live there anymore heightens to a new dimension under the rubric of presentism: here, historical perspective seems not only boring and trite but downright wrongheaded. Nevertheless, every present is also the culmination of past realities and future possibilities, all tightly focused in a flammable bundle of certainty that the present is the most important version of events.
“Are present events and entities somehow more real than those wholly in the past or in the future? If you’re inclined to answer ‘Yes’, you’re inclined towards presentism” (Deng, online). All the cosmos seem to cathect in a singular here-and-now under presentism; underlying a certainty that newer is truer lies faith in the present as the apex of humankind’s intellectual and scientific achievements. Intuitively, this feels nice, although senior’s homes are full of folks who know better, physically and mentally.
Enter sociology, the black sheep denizen of epistemic grey areas where history comes to appear as a succession of epochs, each unique in core beliefs and cultural values. Up until the flower-waving tumult of the 1960s, for instance, sociology tended to be dominated by structural functionalism whereby each element of existing reality came, in the present as well as the past and future, to exist precisely because it was necessary and useful for the stable maintenance of a social whole. Everything had its place, like Tupperware stacked in a cupboard. There wasn’t much room for revolution in this view and that was a bill of sale that worked fine for those seeking to protect their power and control. Structural functionalism’s most prestigious theorist, Talcott Parsons (a pastor’s son from Kansas), nevertheless stated that whenever we present facts based on evidence, we belie the reality that it’s a set of beliefs and ideas that led us to ask certain questions and deliver certain answers with a haughty air of personal absolution from the murk of ambiguity. “That a person denies the fact that he is theorizing is no reason for taking him at his word and failing to investigate what implicit theory is involved in his statements” (online).
Elements of Society: Functioning For You or Who?
Textbooks are great examples of presentism; no matter the discipline, the newer the book the most up to date it tends to be. Like old globes showing long defunct nation names, old textbooks collect not only dust but also sneers from pupils who wish to be with the times. That is, when we aren’t distracted by the present fad of smartphone streaming apps. A decade or two is an eternity in culture and society and a quarter century easily counts as a lifetime. Consider how in the late 1990’s (last century, folks!) television commercials were deregulated, thus allowing a plethora of ads for psychiatric medicines. “I am suggesting that flooding us with ads for conditions we have—and that many of us don’t have—is bad for our mental health, undermines the relationship between patients and doctors, and pollutes the public sphere with invitations to hypochondria” (Nichols, online). As Parsons predicted, despite functionalism’s search for stability within social structures, the white coat priesthood of scientific certainty had entered the bowels of our essence as citizens. Like leeches in a New Zealand sheep pasture, we may not even realize that the way we see our mental reality is partly shaped by prevalent discourses of our era. By seeing the world as a series of diagnoses we as a society have come to view ourselves and others, not to mention our children, in different ways.
The commercialization of mental health has implications for the state of discourse, too. Easily we can cast aspersions at others, or provide a mental comfort blanket to ourselves, by imagining feelings and beliefs as part of a scale of mental health disorders. Feeling ill at ease, dis-eased, comes naturally when advertisements imply that mental health pills are part of one’s everyday consumer experience.
Tom Nichols concludes that the mental health boom, economically speaking, has spawned a whole generation of citizens who see their state of mind and emotion as potentially part of a scale or spectrum, one that can be ameliorated by one or many pharmaceutical medicines. This may be well and good but that assumes that present solutions are working better than ones from the past. For instance, Freudian thought once was crucial to the therapy industrial complex just as assorted anxiety and depression pills are central to the therapy complex today. And while Freud seems infantile on the surface, his concerns with power (the phallus) certainly ring true when we consider struggles like rent increases and social disorder today. “If you wonder why we are a self-absorbed, querulous, neurotic society, it might have something to do with a barrage of ads meant to turn us into hypochondriacs who are determined to make our doctors prescribe us the thing we just saw.” (online). I must have something, we unconsciously or knowingly think! Second guessing ourself all the time, we become quivering shadows or our otherwise-cogent selves. With our mental health as a textbook case of presentism we can, with our AU critical thinking skills in tow, recall that as history unfolds society doesn’t so much discover timeless truths (that seem with time to be self-evident) so much as society re-frames and re-narrates reality in different ways to match different times. Probably a few decades in the future society will have a new take, a new paradigm, and as students it behooves us to keep this in mind amidst our other critical thinking skills.
You Are You But Are You Alone In Your Identity?
Individuation, the consumerist idea that the core of society is a series of individuals who must each adapt, innovate, and adjust to an invisible hand of economic and cultural order, is only one of many historical conceptions of human nature and our bodily realms. Instead of members of a tribe, class or grouping, we come to frame our lives as individual consumers achieving and illustrating our lives with private choices in the marketplace. Pieces of flair, if you will. And when we don’t feel fulfilled we look into ourselves, specifically our brains, and find that for all our ills there’s a waiting pill. When we don’t feel well we naturally turn to Big Pharma and it’s marketed products for wellness. Yet, other forms of aid (like the many types of therapy covered in AU’s PSYCH 630: Current Psychotherapies) do exist. Recall, for instance, that the Exorcist was a hit film a half century ago for a reason: the mysteries of our minds were a topic of inquiry then as now, but the metamorphic and counter-empirical nature of neuroses were still under the thrall of Freudian imagery (that itself is closer to religious metaphysics than hard science.
Mental health has always been one of many societal topics of interest to pupils and academics, but presently it’s seen as one of a long line of consumer issues with various products vying for supremacy in the manner of motor oils or driveway sealant. To assume that experts in our day have everything right, signed, sealed, and delivered and with a tidy bonus in their bank accounts, would be sociologically to reach a diagnosis too soon. For the social world to come we may actually see our current ways of thinking as on a spectrum of superstition with literal exorcism. After all, as the pianist Billy Joel famously sang, “we didn’t start the fire, it’s been always burning since the world’s been turning!”
Deng, N. (2019). ‘Thisness, Presentism: An Essay On Time, Truth and Ontology’. Notre Dame Philosophical Review. Retrieved from https://ndpr.nd.edu/reviews/thisness-presentism-an-essay-on-time-truth-and-ontology/
Parson, T. Retrieved from https://quotefancy.com/media/wallpaper/3840×2160/5829596-Talcott-Parsons-Quote-But-the-fact-a-person-denies-that-he-is.jpg
Psychology 630. Talking Cures: The Evolution of Psychotherapy. (2022). Athabasca University. Retrieved from https://www.athabascau.ca/syllabi/psyc/psyc630.html
Nichols, T. (2022). ‘How ads helped to create a nation of querulous hypochondriacs’. The Atlantic. Like this: