Emotions and Device-Oriented Psychiatry in the Early Twentieth Century

In July, 1907, the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung and American neurologist Frederick Peterson published the results of their investigations into the galvanometer and the pneumograph in BRAIN, the journal of neurology. The pair had subjected various people to these instruments—people they had identified as “normal” and “insane”—in an attempt to record and quantify certain “emotional” and “psychical changes” in their moods “in connection with sensory and psychical stimuli.” At this time, only a few years into the twentieth century, these scientists—and many others like them—were eager to develop a systematic means of measuring emotion. They sought to demystify and provide a scientific explanation for the enigmatic interface between the body’s nervous system (both the peripheral and central nervous systems) and the presentation of varied human emotions. To this end, instruments such as the galvanometer and pneumograph, then understood as effective “measurer[s] of the emotional tone,” promised to illuminate the physical meanings, mechanisms and perhaps even causes of what they called the “emotional complexes.”

Among the most extreme of the “emotional complexes” was the category of dementia praecox. This was a condition whose “chief characteristic” was, as George H. Kirby noted, “a particular disturbance of the emotions.” Kirby was the first American to develop a classification of psychoses, and his system was later adopted by the American Psychiatry Association in something of a precursor the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the authoritative diagnostic manual used by psychiatrists today. But Kirby was not the first twentieth-century psychiatrist to undertake a modern classification of the psychoses. That honour belonged to Eugen Bleuler, the Swiss psychiatrist under whose supervision Jung and Peterson had conducted their work on the galvanometer and the pneumograph. In fact, Jung and Peterson undertook their research in Bleuler’s laboratory, within the huge University Clinic for Psychiatry at Zurich known as Burghölzli (fig. 1), a building that was idyllically depicted in 1917 by swiss painter Max Gubler (fig. 2), who would tragically later move and die there. In Burghölzli, Jung and Peterson also used Bleuler’s apparatuses—his galvanometer and the pneumograph—to produce their study of the relations between the nerves and emotions. Jung had been awarded his PhD in 1902 based on Bleuler’s reports, and the tense relationship between the two men has been a subject of some scholarly interest.

Figure 1. The Burghölzli psychiatric clinic in Switzerland (1880s). Image: Public Domain.

Figure 2. Max Gluber, Winterlandschaft Burghölzli [Winter Lanscape at Burghölzli] (1917). Courtesy of the Eduard, Ernst and Max Gubler Foundation.
In 1911, only four years after the publication of Jung and Peterson’s investigation, Bleuler would coin the term schizophrenia, proposing that it should replace “dementia praecox.” That older term had been coined by the French physician or “alienist” Phillippe Pinel in the early nineteenth century, and popularised by the influential German psychiatrist Emil Kraeplin in his 1896 textbook Psychiatrie. In Bleuler’s 1911 monograph, titled Dementia Praecox or the Group of Schizophrenias, the Swiss psychiatrist would argue that the earlier term was misleading for practitioners, conveying as it did two deceptive associations. The term, he said, suggested that schizophrenia had something to do with the disease of dementia, as well as with the concept of “precocity,” when in fact it had nothing to do with either. Moreover, Bleuler argued that it was impossible to express the phrase “dementia praecox” as an adjective, which made writing about the disorder nearly impossible.

Despite the fact that Jung and Peterson worked in Bleuler’s laboratory, the way in which these scientists described mental disorders differed markedly, at least in one respect. Strikingly, Bleuler’s paradigmatic psychiatric work of 1911, translated into English from the original German in 1950, almost entirely omits the word “emotion” or “emotional complex.” By contrast, Jung and Peterson’s study of 1907 uses the term “emotion” or “emotional” some 108 times (in a study of roughly 18,000 words). Of course, this is not to say that emotions are altogether excluded from Bleuler’s understanding of schizophrenia. On the contrary, emotions lie at the heart of his symptomatological description of the disorder. At one point in his monograph, Bleuler writes that “many schizophrenic symptoms originate from emotionally charged complexes” and that the “symptomatology is determined by the emotionally charged complex which, in turn, is often dependent on the Anlage [predisposition].” As such, the omission of the word emotion and the general concept of emotionality in Bleuler’s text is puzzling. Of course, it might be explained by the fact that there is no easy German equivalent to the word, and that the text would presumably employ the word “gefühl” (meaning feeling) or “affekt” (meaning affect) to denote the same concept.

Indeed, as psychiatry developed in the following decades, the concept of “feeling” and specifically of the “praecox gefühl”—the praecox feeling—would become one of the most important in the diagnosis of the psychoses. First named by the Dutch psychiatrist H. C. Rümke in the 1940s, the praecox feeling described the way in which the diagnostician would, in some circumstances, need to rely on intuitive reasoning—on their highly attuned and sensitive emotional senses, refined as they were by clinical experience—to reach a diagnosis of schizophrenia. It would be necessary to use this method when a patient was, for reasons related to their pathology, “fundamentally inaccessible,” such as when, because the basic structure of their “being-in-the-world” had altered, the practitioner could identify something about them that was hard to describe in words but “definitely incomprehensible.”

Perhaps one of the reasons that Bleuler’s work so rarely refers to emotions and emotional states, whereas Jung and Peterson’s study describes “emotions” so often, is due to the divergent aims of and influences on their authors. Despite presenting itself as a work of psychiatry, Bleuler’s study inherits much from psychoanalysis and Freud, routinely referring to such Freudian concepts as symbolisation, resistance, and the Oedipus complex, among others. Jung and Peterson’s study, by contrast, focuses almost entirely on the quantification of emotions by means of their instruments; it is less a study in taxonomy than an attempt to break away from those symbolic concepts that Freud had introduced only six years earlier. Using instruments and devices, Jung and Peterson seek to bring these disorders of the mind out of the realm of the “invisible” and into the clear light of day. This, as Jeffrey Lieberman notes, was precisely what distinguished the work of neurologists from psychiatrists: “Physicians who specialized in disorders with an observable neural stamp became known as neurologists,” he writes, whereas “those who dealt with the invisible disorders of the mind became known as psychiatrists.”

Historians and philosophers of science have identified the rise of a “device paradigm” in psychiatry from the mid-twentieth century and onward. They point to the invention of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), the emergence of repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) and, from the mid-1950s, the use of psychopharmacological drugs, as evidence of this newly device-oriented science of the mind. However, Jung and Peterson’s investigations—together with some similar, though more controversial, experiments with x-rays in chiropractic medicine—illustrate an earlier turn towards devices. In fact, not only was the shift toward devices well underway in the first decade of the twentieth century, but devices were, at this time, central to the study of emotion. Before psychiatrists such as Bleuler and Kirby established psychiatry’s classification systems, subsuming “emotional complexes” into their systematic taxonomies, measuring human emotions by means of physical tests had been a central object of neurological enquiry.

Figure 3. The most recent version of the E-Meter (courtesy Scientology.org).

Ironically, Jung and Peterson’s methods would be revived in the 1950s, when, after attending a lecture delivered by L. Ron Hubbard, an American inventor named Volney Mathison patented a new device that he described as a “bio-electronic instrument which registers human dynamic emotion in a more accurate and sensitive manner than has been possible with any previous device of comparable simplicity.” Hubbard quickly embraced the device, which is now known as the E-meter (fig. 3, above), and a modified version of this same galvanometer today forms part of the Church of Scientology’s official practices, used to “audit” the emotional complexes of the Church’s adherents.

The Goldwater rule prevents psychiatrists diagnosing Trump from afar but some say there’s too much at stake

This article was originally published on The Conversation, here. I have altered the styling slightly.

In the late nineteenth century, Sigmund Freud’s colleague Wilhelm Fleiss successfully diagnosed an illness in one of Freud’s relatives, without even having met them. Freud was so impressed by Fleiss’s “diagnostic acumen” that he went on to advocate the method in certain circumstances. Freud would write that diagnosing someone without personally examining them was acceptable where the features of certain disorders, such as paranoid schizophrenia (then known as dementia paranoides), made the interview process counterproductive. Here, Freud noted that “a written report or a printed case history can take the place of personal acquaintance with the patient.”

Now, a controversial debate about the ethics of diagnosis at a distance or long-distance diagnosis has arisen in the US. It has come about as commentators have proposed that President Donald Trump suffers from narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), among other conditions. Health professionals have weighed in as well. Psychotherapist and former assistant professor of psychiatry John D. Gartner has been particularly vehement in his assessment of the President. Gartner asserts that Trump suffers from malignant narcissism, a specific manifestation of NPD.

According to the DSM-5—the authoritative psychiatric manual—this condition is characterised by various “traits of antagonism”, including “manipulativeness, deceitfulness, [and] callousness.” Notably, the DSM-5 names the condition only once throughout its hundreds of pages; and some academic psychiatrists say the disorder is understudied and its features largely unsettled, with no treatment yet established.

Despite this, Gartner is convinced that the president’s conduct fulfils the criteria of malignant narcissism—even without having interviewed him:

We’ve seen enough public behaviour by Donald Trump now that we can make this diagnosis indisputably.

Recently, the American Psychoanalytic Association (APsaA) issued a memo to its more than 3,500 members, advising they were “free to comment about political figures as individuals”, and that the APsaA did not regard “political commentary by its individual members an ethical matter.”

By contrast, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) has long maintained a strict ethical stance on the open discussion of public figures’ mental states. Enshrined in the so-called Goldwater rule, the APA’s prescription cautions psychiatrists against diagnosis at a distance. As former APA President Herbert Sacks put it, psychiatrists should avoid engaging in “psychobabble,” especially when it comes to politicians. He said that, when “reported by the media,” such diagnostic speculation only “undermines psychiatry as a science.” Although the Goldwater rule is not enshrined in Australian law, a code of ethics provides guidance to Australian psychiatrists about their conduct in the media.

What is the Goldwater Rule?

The Goldwater rule is named after an incident involving Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater. Having been defeated in the 1964 US election, Goldwater sued the editor of the shortlived political magazine Fact for defamation. Just one month before the election, Fact’s front page had printed a controversial declaration:

1,189 psychiatrists say Goldwater is psychologically unfit to be president!

Fact had conducted a broad but clinically invalid survey, providing questionnaires to more than 12,000 psychiatrists whose details the magazine had obtained from the American Medical Association’s membership list. Of the 2,417 responses it received, some 1,189 psychiatrists asserted Goldwater was unfit for office.

In the feature article, Fact purported to quote many of the psychiatrists it had surveyed, and used their words to suggest that Goldwater was a “megalomaniac, paranoid, and grossly psychotic”, and even suffering from “schizophrenia.” In the trial that followed, Goldwater was awarded some US$75,000 in punitive damages—enough to ensure that Fact never published another issue. The ruling raised disturbing questions for the APA, threatening not only the reputation of the psychiatric profession, but the future livelihoods of practitioners. In slightly different circumstances, a psychiatrist might face similar civil action, whether “for invasion of privacy or defamation of character.”

In 1973, some four years after the trial, the Goldwater rule was first published in the APA’s professional ethical code. In the most recent 2013 edition, the rule reads as follows:

On occasion psychiatrists are asked for an opinion about an individual who is in the light of public attention or who has disclosed information about himself/herself through public media. In such circumstances, a psychiatrist may share with the public his or her expertise about psychiatric issues in general.

However, it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.

The Rule in Dispute

Many academic psychiatrists disagree with the rule. Some have suggested that breaking the Goldwater rule is ethical when it’s necessary to diagnose “mass murderers” from afar, or when “the importance of the diagnosis of an individual … rise[s] to the level of a national threat.” Others have criticised the rule more generally, calling it “an excessive organisational response” to “an inflammatory and embarrassing moment for American psychiatry.” And one psychiatrist has recently described the prescription as “American society’s gag rule.” In February this year, the New York Times published a letter signed by some 33 psychiatrists who blamed the rule for silencing them at this “critical time”. They wrote that “too much [was] at stake to be silent any longer”, and that Donald Trump’s “emotional instability” had made him “incapable of serving safely as president.”

The tension between the APA and its members, and between the APA and the APsaA, partly reflects the history of the two disciplines. Since the 1940s, psychiatry has increasingly focused on medical interventions, while tending to neglect the “in-depth talk therapies” which, despite their general decline, remain central to the psychoanalytic method.

But the situation is still more complicated than this. After all, the methods of psychiatrists and psychoanalysts often overlap. In many practices, for instance, psychiatrists employ intuitive reasoning in the diagnostic process. For some diagnosticians, the so-called “Praecox-Gefühl” or “praecox feeling” remains at the “clinical core” of diagnosing schizophrenia, despite the method’s varied reliability. First described in the 1940s, the praecox feeling is a complex, emotionally charged intuitive sense that a psychiatrist sometimes gets when detecting the subtle symptoms of an emergent psychosis.

What now for the Goldwater rule?

That psychoanalysts may wish to distinguish themselves from psychiatrists on the Goldwater rule, and vice versa, is unsurprising. In countless ways—more than can be named here—psychoanalysts and psychiatrists adopt different views of their roles in the diagnostic process. This is the result of their different training backgrounds, histories, and professional cultures.

Less expected, however, is the growing feeling among psychoanalysts and psychiatrists alike, that today, more than ever, the Goldwater rule should be set aside. While neither group may wish to admit it, the Trump era may have brought psychiatrists and psychoanalysts closer together—at least on this point.

Emotions and Publishing

I assume that, on occasion, many early-career researchers are tempted, as I am, to reach for those kinds of books that offer a system or model for publishing success. After all, what better way to reassure oneself that an academic career is feasible than to learn about others’ achievements? Dean A. Shepherd’s The Aspiring Entrepreneurship Scholar offers ample straightforward advice to early-career scholars—indeed, the advice is sometimes so straightforward, and the book’s tone so informal, that one may even begin to suspect, as I did, that Shepherd had managed to somehow manipulate the review process to publish it (a sure sign of his scholarly aplomb). How else to explain the offhand equanimity, the conversational register, of some of the remarks? Chapter 2 opens with an exemplary line: “Okay, so maybe this is self-delusional, but I think of scholars, at least the good ones, as highly entrepreneurial.”

Despite a profusion of many such general statements in the book, statements with a wide application for would-be scholars of all types, what I discovered within a few moments’ reading—but which I had not, I admit, initially realised when I downloaded the book via my institution’s subscription—was that Shepherd’s manual is not for all scholars at all. It does not explicitly propose that we, in whatever fields of study, take an “entrepreneurial” approach to a scholarly career—and why would it? The book is not addressed to all scholars but is, rather—and of course!—a guide written for—quite literally—“entrepreneurship scholars.” Of course, as you might have guessed, I had somehow, no doubt frivolously, imagined that Shepherd’s title was a strange nominalisation of the phrase “entrepreneurial scholar,” and that his book therefore sought to advance a particularly “entrepreneurial” strategy for a “successful academic career,” whatever the field. How wrong I was. But, despite this, my own quite remarkable misprision, the book proved to grant a few noteworthy insights for all of us in academia.

But first a little more on the book’s tone. It should probably be noted regardfully that the book is published by Palgrave Pivot, an imprint of Palgrave Macmillan designed for scholars who wish to publish a work longer than a journal article but shorter than a monograph. These compact books are published as e-books, but perfect-bound volumes can be ordered on demand. And it seems that this Palgrave imprint facilitates—or, better, encourages—precisely the kind of informal, this expert-but-accessible, style of writing preferred by Shepherd; or, in fact, I should say that it facilitates this as well as many other kinds of idiosyncratic writing, since Palgrave Pivot is set up to allow authors to publish their works at their “natural lengths”—to save them the adversity of cutting a long work down to the standard 8,000-word article, and the hardship of elaborating a short book up to to the 80,000-word breadth of the monograph. The imprint is also, it seems, all for authors publishing works that do not bear the seriousness of the monograph, nor the epistemological rigour of the article. As such, you might even say that these books represent, in some ways, the formalisation of the academic blog. After all, they’re also very quickly produced, with a turnover publication time of only twelve weeks following peer review. Hence, I suppose, the name “pivot.” But just in case I am being unclear, I think these volumes represent a positive expansion of the academic publishing ecosystem.

And while I’m talking shop: one thing that I immediately noticed about this imprint’s productions were the books’ formatting details—clearly the ramifications of this new modality of academic publishing—such as the way the chapter title pages were organised. Like journal articles, each chapter title page had a selection of keywords, a copyright notice (stipulating that copyright in the work was held by the author), and a DOI number. It’s certainly a smart-looking series, typeset in the classically sleek but sharp ITC Galliard (the same font the Library of America uses in its books), as opposed to ITC Stone Serif, the usual fare in Palgrave’s non-Pivot series books; although it is also a curious hybrid, what with this strange chapter metadata in a text that is released digitally, as an e-book, but is yet-not-fully digitised, a “photographic” pdf rather than a “live” hypertext.

None of this has much to do with Shepherd’s writing, however. And, lest my earlier meaning be misread, none of my earlier comments were supposed to suggest that Shepherd’s informality, this aporetic self doubting (“Okay, so maybe this is self-delusional”), is threaded through the entirety of his book—far from it. Shepherd, I soon realised, writes not with the insouciance of the careless, and not with “informality” as such, but with the openness and directness of a guru. It is, of course, the appropriate tone for a guidebook, something of a Dale Carnegie or Carl Crow done gone academese. And I imagine that, as an “entrepreneurship scholar,” Shepherd’s “down-to-business” style of writing is an asset—and not uncommon in journals in the field of business entrepreneurship, such as the one of which Shepherd is himself the editor, the Journal of Business Venturing. But what I thought would make an interesting and productive addition to my notes, here, were the various references and allusions Shepherd makes to the emotional world of the aspiring scholar, and particularly to the emotional conflicts they face in their attempts to publish their research.

In the opening chapter, Shepherd discusses the unusually buoyant attitude he took to the revise-and-resubmit (“R&R”) decision letter while still a doctoral student: “Believe it or not,” he writes, “I was excited when I received a rejection letter,” excited “that three scholars had read my work, found something interesting in it, and provided me feedback.” And while Shepherd implies that he “no longer feels” as positive about receiving R&Rs as he did then, he does continue to feel more positively about them than most of his colleagues, one of whom, when they asked him “how to deal with the negative emotions associated with such a decision letter,” prompted incredulity on his part. But what Shepherd writes next about his process is worth quoting at length, if only because few scholars seem to have written as candidly as he does of their emotional reactions to R&R letters—that is, of the way in which they have learnt to manage their own emotions. But this long quotation will also allow me to quickly look at the tropological figures Shepherd produces to explain his emotional defences against the familiar melancholy of dejection:

Returning to the issue of excitement in receiving feedback on a rejected paper, I used that excitement to drop other work and immediately begin to interpret the letter and the spirit of the reviewers’ comment [sic] to improve the paper and resubmit it to another journal. I thought about a paper as having momentum and believed it was important to keep the momentum rolling. On the flipside, I felt that if a paper sat, it lost momentum and required more effort to “start the ball rolling” again. Fortunately, having peers as co-authors and choosing to work with people with similar values, I was able to quickly learn, enhance the quality of each paper, and put them “back in play” at journals. Speed came from energy and momentum, not from cutting corners.

Through speed and working with colleagues on papers out of our dissertations, my colleagues and I were able to generate a reasonable number of papers in the first couple of years post-dissertation. We believed that having a “reasonable” number of papers “in play” (i.e., at least three or four papers under review at top journals) was important for two primary reasons. First, we believed that the more papers we worked on, the more feedback we would receive. Feedback not only helped us improve the quality of the specific paper but also provided the basis for a deeper understanding of what reviewers were looking for and how to address these issues and follow their recommendations. Upon reflection, we were engaging in deliberate practice and hopefully building expertise. We certainly had many opportunities to learn from our failures, but fortunately, we also had some successes—some small wins—which allowed me to start to believe that maybe I could make a career as an entrepreneurship scholar.

While Shepherd magnanimously—and doubtless truthfully—attributes a degree of his success in turning papers over quickly and effectively to his helpful peers and colleagues, what is perhaps more notable about the above summary is Shepherd’s emphasis on “excitement,” “momentum” and “speed.” None of these three words is a one that we would first associate with the monastic labour of research. They better convey the personality of the explorer or adventurer—even the champion sportsperson.

Better still, these nouns remind me of Freud’s haughty, swaggering vision of himself as a “conquistador” in the letter of which I wrote in my last post. The year was 1900, and Freud, vainglorious, wrote of his personality thus: “I am by temperament nothing but a conquistador . . . with all the curiosity, daring, and tenacity of a man of this sort.” I suppose there are many ways to find success as a scholar; however, what strikes me as salient about Shepherd’s keywords and Freud’s self-portrait is the common emphasis they place on this constitutive tenacity, this positively “dopaminergic” sense of ferment, that seems required of the emotionally durable scholar. In different ways, both authors suggest the importance of maintaining, for want of a better idiom, something of a quickness of mind and spirit. Excitement and energy, it may be, then, are the emotional antinomies of dormancy, the affective defences to torpor, no less in academia than elsewhere. But then, of course, we already knew that.

The Emotional Economy of Busywork

Busywork, or work that keeps one busy but serves no value in and of itself, is variously familiar to us all. But busywork seems just as likely to affect the lives of researchers, of “knowledge workers,” as it is to bear upon those of other professionals—if not more likely. Indeed, if academics are not excoriating the increasing intensity of the administrative tasks and duties they must perform in their day-to-day lives, they are likely to be heard speaking of “administrative creep” and “administrative glut,” the suggestive expressions given, respectively, to the unstanchable rise of non-academic positions, and the disproportionate load of administrative staff members appointed to them, within modern universities. But these commiserations, of course, amount only to a synecdochic dismissal of busywork more generally, a eulogy for a time in which the predomination of administrative tasks in academia was allegedly less pronounced.

But even the academic blog risks becoming an exemplary instance of work that keeps its author busy, but serves no material purpose. Despite its potential popularity, the blog post, it seems, could never substitute for the gold standard of academic publishing, namely, the refereed (peer-reviewed) journal article, especially when it comes to the assessment of professional academic achievement, the inevitable instance in which one academic’s research profile and activities are adjudged against those of their peers, whether for a new job, a promotion, or an award. That the blog may still be regarded less as research proper than as a category of professional service must seem instinctively true to many researchers, even despite the fact that many authorities, both within and outside academic institutions, have urged academics to blog. Of course, as I write this post, the advantages that the blog imparts to one in improving their research toolkit—their set of writing and reading skills—seem obvious. Blogs can surely help researchers to formulate their thoughts, to express their ideas more clearly, and to improve their writing. What is more, an academic blog, as many have argued before, promises to grow one’s readership, to pique the interest if other researchers and would-be readers—even (although it is quite difficult to know for certain) to create a positive impression in the minds of those considering one’s potential productivity as a scholar, or one’s status as a “public intellectual,” if not a tenured or full-time one.

But (to return to where I began) the academic blog may also be categorised as busywork, as a mode of pointless, repetitive, habitualised writing, just as readily as it may be understood as a skill-honing praxis or a “lead generator.” For even as it transpires to improve one’s writing, to enhance one’s effectiveness as a composer of text, or to bolster one’s reputation outside the cloisters, the academic blog, unfortunately, is the wrong kind of text for attaining scholarly cachet. For as many academics will admit, the academic blog has proved unlikely to offer anything of value to the job-seeking scholar in the cold, increasingly market-led and budget-aware academic economy, the specular (read: intercitational) institution in which one’s status as a knowledge producer, as a “productive,” output-driven academic professional, is paramount, and less affirmed by the volume of one’s voice before the world at large (much less the world wide web) than by the frequency of one’s citations among one’s institutional colleagues. The academic economy, of course, has myriad persuasive reasons for remaining in this way so hermetic and self-enclosed. After all, the university, at least when it comes to knowledge, cannot be expected to respond to populism or celebrity—other than when for specific disciplinary purposes, of course.

In a 2016 essay commiserating the death of the academic film blog, a form whose life, we learn, lasted a mere fifteen years (from 2000 to 2015), Amanda Klein observes the unfortunate truth about digital academic discourse. The problem is that the impact of the research, however obvious it may appear to the author, just cannot be measured, or at least cannot be quantified in the same way that the peer-reviewed journal article is purported to be quantifiable—namely, by citations. Mourning the death of the academic blog, specifically that of the film scholar, Klein argues that the form simply

did not yield the legitimacy so many of us hoped for. Despite my best efforts to demonstrate the value of my own blog—citing research opportunities it unearthed, connections made in the field, and the way the medium forced me to grapple with new and exciting ideas I never would have explored on paper—the glaring absence of traditional peer review makes it difficult to quantify how blogging has impacted my research, teaching and service (the holy trifecta of academic values), even though it has greatly contributed to all three.

Klein’s experience makes obvious the fact that academic blogging occurs in an ecology or environment that is decidedly more “digital” than that of traditional, refereed academic research. But her essay also indicates how the academic world has yet to embrace or trust, much less to adapt to, the new parameters, the new rules, of this digital ecology. Not only is the academic blog post never expected to be published in paper form, neither by its author nor its reader; it is also understood as a different kind of research work, with a distinctive set of aims, to that which is published under the consraints of the review process. Understood less as the site of formal knowledge transmission than a means by which to report or disseminate the act of knowledge making, the academic blog can do little more than advise its reader that, somewhere else, in the heterotopia of real work, of bona fide erudition, knowledge has been, is being, or will soon be made. The busywork of the academic blog may consist in adumbrating its shape, in sketching this knowledge at some spatio-temporal distance from its origin, but rarely will it substitute for the work itself.

More formally, we know that the academic blog is a work in which an author’s references will usually go uncited (instead taking the form of hyperlinks—although an exception, of course, is this blog), and one in which the author’s arguments go unreviewed by their peers. In fact, the entire system in which blogging occurs—from the initial administrative processes (finding and commissioning a webhost, developing a content management system, paying for hosting, and so on), to the production processes (perhaps writing within a CMS rather than a word processor, uploading or publishing work unilaterally or independently, rather than by means of a collaborative, bilateral email process)—takes place outside of the academic publishing system, and in reality at many removes from the standard peer-review process. What is more, the blog, at least in theory, is sometimes understood as a provisional, temporary, reviewable, and redactable form. Unlike the apparent permanence of the printed page, the material life of the blog post is at once unreliable and indeterminable. The effects of the blog’s perceived impermanence are both epistemological and technological, as if leaving the impression of text on paper marked a grand point of termination, an authoritative condition of finality, and a truly “material” imprimatur of authority, that the blog post can never receive, can never engender on its own.

But the material and conceptual distinction between the digital page and the printed one—between, say, the online website and the analogue book—is by now an old and overstated one. If anything, it is a distinction or dichotomy with many comparable antecedents, such as that between page and screen, or between stage and screen, distinctions that, in the broadest of practical terms, cannot be said to affect the communication or reception of knowledge. How else, for instance, to explain the unquestioned acceptance of airplane safety videos, whose contents, only decades ago, were distributed in paper form? Instinctively we know that, when it comes to essential meanings, the medium does not generally have an impact on comprehension. And, despite the obvious attractions of McLuhanism for detailed media analyses, varied linguistic studies have concluded that, at the level of comprehension and learning, it makes no difference if the knowledge-producing object is a hypertextual medium or a printed medium. Presented with the same information on a page or screen, and with all other things being equal, learners or readers will generally learn and read at the same rate, and with the same rates of accuracy. If it is a provocative conclusion, it is one that is at least generally supported by an attestation expressed by various textual theorists: that the move from analogue to digital texts is far from “an absolute paradigm shift.” And, in any case, doing away with this distinction allows us to address the emotional and affective economy of busywork, to gain fresh insight into the desires or drives (triebs) that lead some of us to engage in busywork as a matter of priority, and of the rewards or compromises that flow therefrom.

The discussion of paper texts reminds me of remarks once uttered by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, remarks that gesture at the erotic allure of busywork, and which are not at all—excuse the pun—immaterial in this note, which addresses busywork in the digital context, the newer ecology in which we busy ourselves today. For those authors, the seduction of busywork lay in the fetishism of “fondling records”—of, in other words, paper shuffling. As they write,

The truth is that sexuality is everywhere: the way a bureaucrat fondles his records, a judge administers justice, a businessman causes money to circulate; the way the bourgeoisie fucks the proletariat; and so on.

Here we see an instance of the aftereffects of busywork. The bureaucrat who “fondles his records” does so while remembering the gratification he has received not only in compiling but in coming to possess and rely on them. For what is likely to be remembered, here, and what is likely to be continuously incanted as the documents are stroked, is the accomplishment of the task that engendered them. It is an act of self-assurance, a performative recitation of the very same pleasure that coincided with these documents’ original production. And yet, the word “production” here, as with all nouns related to engenderment, is misleading, as it is an ersatz efficacy, and in fact a false economy, that underlies the busywork of administration. (No wonder, then, that so many contemporary administrative processes have become automated. Institutions and governments have come to realise the essential paradox of modern-day administration, the circuitous logic of busywork in the age of digital reproduction: however useful the busywork may actually be, and no matter how large the return on investment, it is at once always too expensive (for bureaucrats, after all, are well paid) and never cheap enough—at least not when automation offers the tantalising hope, the utopian dream, of costless administration, of free busywork.)

In all of its banality and repetitiousness, and in spite of its obvious irrelevance, busywork imbues the busyworker with the validating pleasure of realising their effectiveness and productivity, a requisite catharsis that is central to the emotional wellbeing of all humans, to our feelings of stability and security in the world, and perhaps just as central to the lives of most (other) animals. And it is no surprise that, like a child who grips a teddy or doll (or, perhaps more likely today, their iPhone), the bureaucrat is said to keep a caressing hand on their documents. For in each case, the object marks the symbolic vessel into which so much of the subject’s exertions, so much of their energies, have been channelled. It hardly seems relevant whether those exertions have been “productive” on any objective accounting of performance—whether those exertions have had greater benefit to society, to research, or to the economy, for instance. The triviality of the work, which is to say of the busywork, is of no importance, just so long as it is capable of producing the emotional discharge, the catharsis, for which it was undertaken (unconsciously or not).

Of course, many pursuits are trivial in precisely the same way as administrative busywork is trivial. Online gaming, for instance, is often acknowledged as an activity that provides the gamer with the short-term emotional rewards they may desire, and yet is also liable to problematic, if not plainly destructive and compulsive overuse, can become an excessive and problematic preoccupation that affects the gamer’s life in other, seemingly unjustifiable ways. And sports and other recreational activities, including running, might also be regarded as comparable to busywork, at least insofar as these activities are also liable to dependence behaviours. All of this, of course, assumes that busywork is itself the product of an addiction or a compulsion, an assumption that I am late to address. However, rather than turning to the cognitive science, psychological, or psychiatric literature, I would like to now supplement my discussion of busywork with a brief historical excursion into the life of Sigmund Freud, specifically relating to his close friendship with Wilhelm Fleiss.

Fleiss was the German Jewish throat and mouth surgeon (otolaryngologist) whom Freud had befriended just after Freud and Josef Breuer had published their Studies on Hysteria in 1895, and after which Freud parted ways with Breuer, whom he had scolded (at least privately) for a dubious incident involving “Anna O.,” Breuer’s patient. Didier Anzieu has written about the relationship that subsequently developed between Freud and Fleiss. As Anzieu notes, Freud and Fleiss were “bound together by their noses,” sutured in a strong “bond made all the stronger by cocaine.” Whereas Freud had “revealed the substance to medicine, and only just failed to discover its anaesthetic properties,” Fleiss had adopted the substance as his go-to medical tool for almost all nose complaints, urging “his patients, Freud’s patients, and Freud himself to undergo treatment of the affected parts of the nose with a local application of cocaine.” In many ways, Freud both depended on and idealised Fleiss, whom he called on often for prescriptions of cocaine. As time wore on, however, and notably after Freud had faced two transformative incidents, he and Fleiss’s relationship began to break down.

What is of significance in this biographical history for the purposes of this note’s discussion of busywork? The answer lies in the distinction between busywork and “effective work or achievement” that Freud would soon come to focus on, a distinction that he would use to define the difference between himself and Fleiss as he began to distance himself from his colleague at the turn of the century. Patrick Mahony has drawn attention to the destructive impact that performing only busywork had on Fleiss during this period, both in terms of Fleiss’s own health (increasingly poor under the strain of his cocaine addiction and associated bouts of paranoia), and in terms of his professional reputation as an academic scientist, most notably relating to his loss of standing before Freud himself. In fact, as Mahony suggests, it was Fleiss’s increased tendency to prioritise busywork over serious scholarship that led to Freud’s dismissal or “deidealisation” of his once-beloved colleague, a man for whom Freud, as he would later suggest to a friend, had once harboured not just amorous but erotic feelings. As Mahony writes,

In his narcissistically influenced break with Fliess, the conquistadorial Freud was expecting more than prolific production per se. As time went on, the author of a publishing cure became less enchanted with Fliess’s orally delivered flights of imagination, and attributed mounting significance to the qualitative distinction between Arbeit (work in general) and Leistung (effective work or achievement)—a crucial distinction often obfuscated in Strachey’s translation in the Standard Edition. The record speaks for itself. In 1897, Fliess published a book completed the previous year; between 1897 and 1900, however—the period when the great masterpiece of psychoanalysis was being penned—Fliess published but one short article, a state of affairs that periodically stirred Freud, even while he still considered Fliess as his critical reader and unique “Other,” to vent his disillusionment about Fliess’s lack of effective work in a series of ironical remarks.

A major factor in Freud’s deidealization of his alter ego Fliess, therefore, was the recognition of the increasing gap between the latter’s self-glorifying busywork, and his capacity to externalize or transfer (übertragen) it into publication—that is, into a substantial amount of effective written performance that could be evaluated by the scientific community at large.

Mahony’s account is interesting for a number of reasons, not least because of the implications it has for Freud’s own view about the emotional economy of busywork. Mahony suggests that Freud must have wished to end his friendship with Fleiss, not because he resented him after his “bungled surgery on Emma Eckstein,” but because he viewed Fleiss as timorous and weak-willed, as a scholar who was just not courageous enough to produce in writing—and to publish—what his oral presentations presaged. As Mahony writes, “The Interpretation of Dreams marks Freud’s distance from the publicly less adventurous Fliess, and it stands as an example of how Freud’s taking the risk of a partial writing out did not vitiate the overall status of his scientific and textual masterpiece.”

To achieve a “partial writing out,” then, involves taking a “risk,” involves a willingness to fail, to be ridiculed, as well as a wish to be recognised. Indeed, when Mahony refers to Freud as conquistadorial, the adjective is no mere decoration. In a letter to Fleiss of 1900, Freud identified himself as just such an explorer:

For I am actually not at all a man of science, not an observer, not an experimenter, not a thinker. I am by temperament nothing but a conquistador—an adventurer, if you want it translated—with all the curiosity, daring, and tenacity of a man of this sort.

By contrast, those who compulsively engage in arbeit—busywork, or “work in general”—may be expected to exhibit a distinctive pattern of risk-avoidance, to be otherwise commonly engaged in compulsive or addictive behaviours (such as in Fleiss’s case), and, in short, to be lacking in the “curiosity, daring, and tenacity” characteristic of, in Freud’s appellation, the conquistador.

Freud would go on to write of “repetition compulsion” in 1920 as “the manifestation of the power of the repressed.” It is a conceptualisation of repeated behaviours (such as those often brought into action during busywork) that understands them as the reflections, as the symptoms, of the now-repressed disappointments and frustrated desires of the scorned infant. However, Freud’s varied examples of these behaviours do not strike the reader as examples of busywork; in all its banality, in its inanity and innocuousness, and owing to its apparent lack of, say, suitable new targets for deeply emotional feelings—“objects for their jealousy”—busywork does not, at first instance, appear to be a suitable way for a traumatised individual to repeat their “unpleasure,” not the kind of performance that is likely to sate the urges of the individual who, for one reason or other, is led to “repeat painful traumatic experiences and to recreate inner issues and relationships from the past.”

And yet, if we are to interpret busywork more broadly, and at the same time offer a narrow example, it begins to appear as an excellent candidate for Freud’s conceptualisation of repetition compulsion. Take, say, the “unofficial” example of busywork given to us by the narrative of Freud’s relationship with Fleiss. Here the otolaryngologist begins to busily postulate ever more improbable psychological theories in various unpublished documents (letters, for instance), as well as to communicate them orally; but he never publishes these ideas in scientific journals. In this case we can begin to see ways in which busywork—specifically writing and thinking but not publishing—may in fact function as a profoundly appropriate substitute for the trauma that comes from unsuccessfully performing the so-called “real work” (Leistung), which, in this case, would be constituted by Fleiss’s publication and dissemination of his theories and ideas. So, it might be said that the author who is led to write continuously but does not change their writing habits or patterns—and who never concludes their writing, their work thus forever remaining in draft form—may be understood, if not as a candidate for hypergraphia or a related disorder, as having been given over to a repetition compulsion. And while the repeated behaviour may well take the form of a completely unrelated performance (so that a writing disorder, such as hypergraphia, need not be based on a traumatic writing experience), the compulsion might also be said, in Fleiss’s case, to have been precipitated by the very trauma of not producing, say, publishable or rewardable writing in the past. Or, more to the point, we could say that it has been precipitated by the trauma of having produced only poor writing—work that has been severely criticised or impugned by precisely those whom one writes for.

There is much more that I could write on this subject—on repetition compulsion specifically, on busywork as an example of the same, and on writing as an incidental spur to emotional and psychological trauma. (The irony of saying so not is not lost on me.) However, at the risk of giving myself only more busywork, I will save those impulses for future notes.