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Ronnie Laing

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R. D. Laing (1927-1989)

Like Fanon, Fromm and Reich Ronnie Laing was a psychiatrist. He was born, raised and educated in Glasgow and during his most renowned professional carreer was living and practicing in London in the 1960s. His theories of Schizophrenia dramatically challenged conventional models at that time. He wrote extensively on mental illness and particularly the experience of psychosis. He is noted for his existential views on the causes and treatment of mental illness, which went against the psychiatric orthodoxy of the time. By taking the expressions or communications of the individual patient or client as representing valid descriptions of lived experience or reality rather than as symptoms of some separate or underlying disorder, Laing was challenging the normative diagnostic models of "mental illness". He is often associated with the anti-psychiatry movement although, like many of his contemporaries also critical of psychiatry, he himself rejected this label. He made a significant contribution to the ethics of psychology. He believed that the psychotic experience was singularly misunderstood in the Western World and that in other cultures it equated with highly prized and respected visionary experiences from which the "psychotic" could return with deep insights into the nature of (human) reality.

Laing was born and schooled in Glasgow before studying medicine at the University of Glasgow. Following this he spent two years working as a psychiatrist in the British Army and leaving in 1953 to work at Gartnavel Hospital in Glasgow. In 1956 he moved to the Tavistock Institute in London where most of his seminal theories were developed. He left there in 1964.



Beyond or in extension of psychiatry, Laing's fields of interest were in social phenomenology and existentialism. He was very much interested in the realm of experience - of the subject. The publication of The Divided Self (1960) raised the issue of the social and culturwaql context of schizophrenia, suggesting that the schzophrenic's supposedly incompreensible utterings were understandable within the context of his or fhe social-life experience. In The Divided Self Laing explains how we all exist in the world as human beings, circumscribed by others who carry a model of us in their heads, just as we carry models of them in our heads. Our feelings and motivations derive very much from this condition of 'being in the world' in the sense of existing for others, who exist for us. In his studies of the family circumstances of schizophrenics, Laing demonstrated how amnbiguities and misunderstandings of attributed identity and denial of experience can be significantly related to psychotic episodes. Laing went beyond this, however, to suggest that the normative diagnostic and treatment patterns of schizophrenic patients, by extending the denial of the schizophrenic experience, actually contributed to it. This theory brought him into conflict with both the psychiatric profession (who continue to the present to be in the thrall of the pharmeceutical companies making fortunes from dispencing management-medications) and the families of schizophrenics who felt "blamed" by Laing for the psychosis of their family members. Much of this criticism was both ill-founded and unjust. Laing himself acknowledged that the families of schizophrenics were themselves unaware of the dynamics of their perceptions and expectations associated with their psychotic family members. Nevertheless, laing became to a large extent the bete noire of the psychiatric profession in the 1960s.

He began is theoretical journey in 1961 with the publication of Self and Others - in which he begins to interrogate the identity formation of individuals in social and particularly family relationships. In 1964, with Aaron Esterson he then went on to write Sanity Madness and the Family, in which they recorded a series of diadic interviews with several families of schizoprenic patients. Their interviews revealed the small dishonesties that exist in family settings in the interests of maintaining family "peace" and unity. These dishonesties lie at the root of the denials of experience that lead to psychotic episodes. But Laing's theories were extending beyond the limits of the family to suggest culture-wide bases for psychosis. In this he echoed the work and writings of Gregory Bateson who, in 1956 ghad proposed the double-bind theory of Schizophreania. Gregory Bateson and his colleagues Paul Watzlawick, Donald Jackson, and Jay Haley (1956, Bateson, G., Jackson, D. D., Jay Haley & Weakland, J., "Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia", Behavioral Science, vol.1) articulated a related theory of schizophrenia as stemming from double bind situations where a person receives different or contradictory messages.) Madness was therefore an expression of this distress, and should be valued as a cathartic and trans-formative experience.(Wikipedia)

He was clearly extending his analysis of psychosis into sthe socio-political-cultural spheres, much like Fanon and Fromm). In 1964 he also participated with his colleague at the Tavistock, David Cooper in an analysis of the work of Sartre and in an attempt (like Gorz) to reconcile the works of Sartre with those of Marx. The result, Reason and Violence: A Decade of Sartre's Philosophy (1964) was opaque and somewhat impenetrable.

In 1966 he extended his work with Esterson to undertake a Tavistock study of families in detail. The result, Interpersonal Perception (1966) was a remarkable and relatively unacknowledged revelation of family dynamics based upon a series of overlayed interviews. Laing and Esterson interviewed families in differing constellations. They interviewed individuals individually and in diads and then they interviewed the families as a whole. What appeared was a series of differing identities for each family member dependent upon the social (family) setting of the interview. People said dramatically different things about themselves and each other depending upon whether they were alone, with the person they were discussing or grouped with the whole family. What became apparent was a series of spiralling miscommunications or "knots". These would be later extended and dramatised in his 1970 book of that name.

Laing's socio-political theories begin to come clear in a 1967 polemic The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise in which he for the first time writes for a general audience:

"What we call 'normal' is a product of repression, denial, splitting, projection, introjection and other forms of destructive action on experience. It is radically estranged from the structure of being. The more one sees this, the more senseless it is to continue with generalized descriptions of supposedly specifically schizoid, schizophrenic, hysterical 'mechanisms.' There are forms of alienation that are relatively strange to statistically 'normal' forms of alienation. The 'normally' alienated person, by reason of the fact that he acts more or less like everyone else, is taken to be sane. Other forms of alienation that are out of step with the prevailing state of alienation are those that are labeled by the 'formal' majority as bad or mad."  (The Politics of Experience, 1967)

And again:

"The condition of alienation, of being asleep, of being unconscious, of being out of one's mind is the condition of the normal man. Society highly values its normal man. It educates children to lose themselves, and to become absurd, and thus to be normal. Normal men have killed perhaps 100,000,000 of their fellow normal men in the last fifty years." 

It was a book that was to launch Laing into the forefront of the 1960s Counterculture movement. It burst onto the public sphere at just that time when the quertioning of normative beliefs and values was at its height. A year later would see the assassination of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, the Chicago Democratic Conventiuon, the Seige of the Pentagon and the escalation of the Vietnam War (and the Draft). The book burst like a bombshell on the youth culture of the mid-1960s and led to a much wider interest in Laing's other theoretical and earlier writings. He became a cult figure - a situation he found distasteful. In 1970 he produced Knots -  a simple but powerful analysis of the mysteries and ambiguities of diadic experience:

"They are playing a game.

They are playing at not playing a game.

If I show them I see they are,

I shall break the rules and they will punish me.

I must play their game of not seeing that I see the game."

It was a beautiful and simple testament to the intricasies of human communication. Although he published several more books, this was to be the last of his major influential writings, and he turned increasingly towards "body work". When I met him in 1967, he espoused a deep interest in the work of  Wilhelm Reich , and later, in the early 1970s, he recommended that I study yoga with his own yoga teacher Arthur Balaskas. His involvement with Balaskas kindled in him a deep interest in the birthing experience and together with several colleages he became interested in Rebirthing.

I had met him in 1966 when I was (traumatically) researching British prisons, and later in 1968 when I was involved in studying mental hospitals. His writings left an indelible impression on my spirit. Literally, he helped me to find my voice. We met again in the early 1970s as his interest in Bodywork and  Rebirthing was increasing.

He died in France at the age of 61 of a heart attack while playing tennis with his friend Robert Firestone.

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