The BuzzFeedification of Mental Health
Did you know that the founder of BuzzFeed predicted that we'd all be yelling at each other about ADHD 25 years ago (kinda)?
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Let’s start with one of my favorite random internet facts: Jonah Peretti, one of the original founders of BuzzFeed, wrote a paper that foretold the site’s entire business model, and the business model of much of the internet. In 1996, as an undergrad at UC Santa Cruz, Peretti submitted a journal article titled Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Contemporary Visual Culture and The Acceleration of Identity Formation and Dissolution.
In the paper, Peretti wrote that capitalism would need to create an ever-growing number of micro-identities for people to fit themselves into, so that those identities could be commodified and marketed to. It’s a really interesting and well-argued paper, in which Peretti summarizes and critiques Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, and delves into psychoanalytic theory and its relationship to consumer society.
Summarizing Deleuze and Guattari, Peretti writes that capitalism breaks down codes, rules and social desires, scrambling the code of human behavior and the human mind so that it can replace these necessities with its own rules, codes and desires.
“As capitalism decodes and deterritorializes it reaches a limit at which point it must artificially reterritorialize by augmenting the state apparatus,” Peretti writes. In other words, capitalism must give us things to make sense of the world because capitalism has taken all our inherent internalized senses of self and community away.
In our modern era, this deterritorializing and reterritorializing happens at a rapid clip: we are asked to identify and deidentify within hours, minutes, or seconds.
On TV, “the viewer is encouraged to identify with cops, thieves, surfers, businessmen, princes, paupers, house wives, and athletes, to name but a few. Indeed, on MTV all of these characters may make an appearance in the course of a two minute video. Newspapers, movies, billboards, and video games also offer a stunning array of images. Not only does each of these mediums contain a surprisingly varied image-repertoire, but a late capitalist subject may encounter all of these mediums in a single day.”
Peretti writes that we are constantly being scrambled, deidentified and made to feel isolated, and thus better subjects to be sold new identities and new relations.
“In Lacanian terms, consumer capitalism needs subjects who continually reenact the infantile drama of mirror stage identifications,” Peretti writes. “These subjects must oscillate quickly between schizophrenic consciousness and idealized ego formations….Put differently, capitalism needs schizophrenia, but it also needs egos. The contradiction is resolved through the acceleration of the temporal rhythm of late capitalist visual culture.”
In other words, the more capitalism wants us to feel scrambled so that we are isolated, automatonized, and susceptible to replacing our own needs with the needs of capital, the more quickly capitalism needs to sell us an ever-wider array of identities to feel secure and logical within.
That Peretti wrote this, and then went on to form BuzzFeed, the company most associated with the rapid-production, hollow-identity-politics media that we’ve come to consider a normal part of internet culture, is almost too on-the-nose.
It’s not unexpected that Peretti, or any other capitalist, would take these lessons from philosophers and turn them into profitable machines of identity breakdown and formation. What is more surprising (at least to me) is that we’ve not only accepted this status quo, but now argue in its favor amongst ourselves as if this selling and enforcing of micro-identity is somehow inherent to our own minds and bodies and social relations, and even worse, somehow morally right.
The internet is filled today with people defending their micro-identities. We yell at each other all day on Twitter about whether any given sexual, psychological, or gender-related identity is valid.
It’s not only expected to have a plethora of micro-identities you are willing to defend to the death now, it’s woke. Which brings us to psychiatric diagnosis.
As you may or may not know (hopefully you are not on Twitter and can teach me how to stop being addicted to it), I was recently the subject of much internet ire after tweeting a brief thread about how ADHD was a symptom of capitalism, and not an inherent brain disorder. To me, this seemed like an obvious, even rote point—no mental illness is just chemical. Illness of all kind, and especially mental illness, is contextual. Sure, inherent brain differences would exist in any society, but what makes a brain difference maladaptive, what makes it hard for people with neurodivergent brains to exist, be happy, thrive, is the societal structure around them. This is not a new nor particularly controversial point—it’s essentially the social model of disability, which has been advocated for by disability activists for generations.
It can be summed up as, “you might be different, but the thing that makes you feel encumbered, bad, unhappy, and incongruous with the world is not the difference of your body or brain, but the lack of structures to support you and your differences, and capitalism’s need for a population of always-productive bodies and brains.”
It didn’t surprise me that people disagreed, but it did surprise me that I was called a eugenicist, a racist, someone who hates disabled people, and who thinks that disabled people would cease to exist under communism (and this was not by a few people, but by hundreds or possibly thousands). The incident was legitimately scary, but it got me very interested in people’s intense anger over my (albeit hastily and provocatively phrased) tweets.
I had already been writing this essay, but the firestorm really hammered home just how much our lives on the internet have been captured by the micro identity formation outlined in Jonah Peretti’s essay, and later exploited by his company.
I realized that through a couple of stupid tweets, I wasn’t challenging people to think of mental health differently, I was accidentally challenging the ability of people to feel secure in their micro-identities they’d created or found through the internet.
This search for an identity that explains how bad you feel in our current world of course predates the internet. The DSM is in a way a precursor to what Peretti and other captains of the media industry would perfect online. It’s no coincidence that the DSM and the internet have found each other and combined into something much larger and scarier than either technology on their own. They’re both immensely powerful categorization machines.
The book provides an ever-growing list of disorders to categorize patients under. In the newest edition of the DSM, it’s no longer enough to be depressed, you can have myriad forms of depression, including ones that are based in grieving the loss of a loved one for an “unusually long” time. Even many psychiatrists have begun to turn against the DSM as it categorizes more and more human behavior as disordered.
This always-expanding list of diagnoses is useful in that they enable medical professionals to prescribe the correct drugs (whether those drugs actually work is a topic for another time), assign the right codes for insurance purposes, and suggest more specific modalities of treatment based on disorders. But to suggest these disorders are inherent parts of the brain, is frankly, bullshit.
If we were to believe that the diagnoses of the DSM were inherent to the human brain, we’d also have to believe that Black people’s brains are inherently three to four times more psychotic than white people’s, that LGBTQ people’s brains are inherently more depressed and prone to suicide, and that transness and schizophrenia, autism, and ADHD are all linked by brain chemistry.
And to deny that mental differences are contextual is to deny that other cultures have completely different ways of dealing with them that don’t follow what we’ve assumed to be a fool-proof, scientific American method.
For what it’s worth, the same thing happens with many American categories of difference, including transness and queerness, where we’ve assumed that other culture’s versions of gender and sexual variance are somehow worse than ours and then used this to justify our imperialism (see: Jasbir Puar). What’s unclear to me is why we now seem to see the error of this thinking with gender, but not with mental health and psychiatry.
So when someone says, for example, “it’s ableist to say ADHD is contextual to our society and not an inherent feature of the brain,” I’d respond, “it’s ableist to say it’s not!” Otherwise you have to believe that queer, Black, trans people’s brains are somehow more diseased, and that people outside of Western, capitalist countries are just waiting for us to adequately diagnose and medicate them.
The much more obvious answer is that mental disorders, while influenced by genetic factors, are largely caused by trauma and context, and that oppressed groups of people experience way more trauma under capitalism, and are way less able to navigate the context of American society because it was built without them in mind, and in many cases to intentionally harm them.
This, again, should not even be controversial. Even the most pro-capitalist psychiatrists would be amongst the first to tell you that brain disorders are influenced by environment as much as they are by genetics (they would obviously disagree about the capitalism part, but that’s besides the point). Which is why the anger my tweets inspired were so jarring to me, until I realized they had less to do with mental health and more to do with the ways our identities have been formed in the internet era.
What BuzzFeed popularized we now have perfected and enforced amongst each other, no help from a media executive needed any longer. Every day on the internet we are subjected to myriad memes about mental health:
This one is one of my favorites because it posits that having a hard time focusing while working from home during the pandemic is a sign of ADHD, as opposed to a sign that we’re all supposed to work normally as if hundreds of thousands of people aren’t dying from government neglect around us.
If you relate to these tweets you must have ADHD, right? Well, I personally have been diagnosed with ADHD, took meds for it, hated them, felt the diagnosis limited my ability to think about my brain in constructive ways, and dispensed with it. So then I must have been misdiagnosed, the internet warriors exclaim! And this is where the ulterior, subconscious motive becomes more clear: for people, especially young people on the internet, the memes, and their furor over people who disagree with them, are not really about mental health, they’re about enforcing identity categories that help define us in this era of capitalism when everything feels completely out of control, especially as our lives are increasingly dominated by this vast categorization and surveillance machine we call the internet.
As Peretti (before he became a media boss), echoing Deleuze and Guattari, suggested, capitalism breaks down all of our traditional and inborn codes, rules, morals and communities, so that we feel completely lost, and then sells us new ones that require state or corporate intervention.
By insisting that everyone falls into a category—neurotypical vs. atypical, ADHD vs. whatever other diagnosis, “real” depression as opposed to intense sadness or grief—we are creating and enforcing structures to understand the world that has been made so incomprehensible to us. We are finding community and meaning through the process of definition. And when someone challenges those definitions, I think it makes people feel like their community (which largely exists online these days), and their very identity, are at risk of falling apart.
We are, in essence, constantly BuzzFeed-quizzing each other to find out where our alliances lie, who we can trust, and who we can feel in community with, because without those categories, life on the internet would be much too vast, disagreeable, and scary a space (I don’t think it’s a coincidence a large majority of the ADHD angry tweeters were young, as they are the most subject to the vast terror of internet capitalism, and the least able to seek a community and meaning outside of it).
There is of course nothing wrong with being diagnosed, and even less wrong with finding solace, help and community through that diagnosis. We all need to survive and thrive in this world, and often it is through diagnosis that we are able to.
The danger lies in how we enforce and contextualize these categories. To view them as inherent is to break the bonds between us. If we cannot commune with each other, relate to each other, love each other, argue with each other, without feeling that we are irreconcilably different because of something endemic to our psyches (you have ADHD, I have BPD, we are not the same), we lessen the chance that we will be able to build actual solidarity, and fight against the structures that cause us all to feel so mentally ill.
These stringent diagnoses also disenable personal progress. At different points in my life, I could have been diagnosed with about ten different psychiatric disorders. After a near-death experience in 2017, I exhibited signs of psychosis. As the acute stage of my recovery from that trauma waned so did the psychosis. Instead, I exhibited signs of generalized anxiety disorder. About a year into my recovery I was deeply depressed, my body and brain exhausted from the amount of work it had to do to process the event, and all the preceding traumas it had triggered. A year after that, as I started to feel “normal” again, I would often feel hypomanic—I was so used to feeling despondent that any excitement made me feel unmoored. In that time, I’d seen four mental health professionals: two psychologists, and two psychiatrists, before sticking with one of each. And each had a different diagnosis for me. Psychiatrist Number One offered Lexapro, an antidepressant (in this case, an SSRI). It made me suicidal, I quickly switched to Effexor, another antidepressant (an SNRI). Had I believed that each of these diagnoses was an inherent part of my brain as opposed to a snapshot of where my mental state was at that moment, I think I wouldn’t have been able to make progress, and move on from my trauma, and incorporate it into my life.
I see the same thing happening now with diagnosis writ large on the internet: we all feel stuck, yelling over each other about who is more right, who has more of a right to speak based on their DSM diagnosis, who should be in community with who, all while excusing the material realities that gave us our fucked up, in-need-of-medication, traumatized brains. Stuck, but also terrified, willing to lash out at the very idea that a better world in which we feel less traumatized is possible, a world in which our differences are simply that—differences, and not debilitating disorders (an aside: people online were claiming that they knew ADHD was inherent to their brain because it didn’t only affect their work, but their ability to get up in the morning, to organize their lives, to build meaningful relationships—to which I would say, your definition of capitalism and its impacts is much too limited. Capitalism affects every fiber of our being, the traumas our parents pass down to us, the ways we are able (or more importantly unable) to connect to each other).
Again, this does not mean that diagnosis is bad. But I do think it’s interesting we feel so wedded to diagnoses at the same time we've learned to dispense with and challenge other categories. We’ve learned that gender is changeable, that sexuality is fluid, and yet more and more we’re chained to the idea that mental health is inherent and forever. Perhaps as everything else changes so rapidly around us, it’s the last vestige of stability we feel—a fantasy that at least as this ever-more-rapid breakdown of our communities and ways of being is forced upon us by late capitalism, our brains will remain the same, from birth to death, from now until the end of capitalism and beyond; broken, but at least stable.
So, how to treat diagnosis? I think like a BuzzFeed quiz: it can be helpful, it can be fun, it can help you find community, but it is not any more useful or true than a BuzzFeed quiz, and it too is exceedingly ephemeral. Before you know it, it’ll be gone like so many memes, and a new one will take its place.
Peretti funnily enough proposes the start of a good solution in his essay (how I wish he’d kept being smart and didn’t sell his soul to the Gods of Content):
“A successful contemporary politics has stakes in defining the rhythmic flow between schizophrenic and identificatory impulses,” he writes. “Hopefully, alternative rhythms can challenge, or at least syncopate, the accelerating rhythm of late capitalism.”
What he’s saying is that we need to stop taking the stripping of our identities and the selling of new ones to us as a given, and start to create our own, at our own pace, in our own way.