Texan director S. F. Brownrigg’s 1973 drive-in classic Don’t Look in the Basement, aka The Forgotten, is a dark lampoon of experimental psychiatry. In the movie, one Dr. Stephens employs an unusual method to cure the insane at his small, country-farm asylum. The procedure is called “Obsession Development Theory.” As it is explained at a job interview to the young, beautiful Nurse Charlotte Beale: “Dr. Stephens believed that insanity was not a breaking away from reality but rather a very complex series of obsessions. Psychiatrists have always tried to reverse that—you know, bring the patient back to normalcy. But Dr. Stephens believed the opposite, that these obsessions could be pushed . . . forced to grow so ominous that the patient would have to use their own strength to destroy them!” The result of this radical tack: the poor doctor is axed nearly to death during a session and the loonies, predictably, take over the bin: Nurse Beale, unwitting, is being interviewed by one of Dr. Stephens’s patients.
The reality Sylvère Lotringer discovered in 1988 in an experimental state-sponsored behavioral treatment center for sexual “deviates” in Chicago is admittedly less colorful than the goings-on in Brownrigg’s fictional Greenpark. But their practice of “boredom therapy,” as Lotringer calls it, is astonishingly similar, and what it lacks in poetic appeal it more than makes up for in wrong-headedness. The new, second edition of his Overexposed: Perverting Perversions updates the 1988 original with a foreword, on the growing use of sexology in the United States and around the world, and a chapter, “Satiate,” a kind of Deleuzian poem comprised of phrases patients were required to repeat out loud according to their sexual predilection. In the original’s expository introductory and concluding chapters, Lotringer provides history and background and roundly rejects the behaviorist approach to sexuality. But the major and by far most fascinating portion of the book is his original “interview” of the unflappable Dr. Seymour Sachs. Lotringer’s semifictional shrink is composited from several years of tape-recorded conversations with the clinical staff of the Chicago institution (name withheld for legal reasons), including its Dr. Sachs, himself. Overexposed uncovers a system that deals with pedophiles by trying to numb them into—to quote the good doctor—“extinction” through “masturbatory satiation”: the patient is made to beat off so much to his erotic fantasies their predilection becomes abhorrent to them, or so the theory goes. S. F. Brownrigg eat your heart out—it doesn’t get any better than that!
In his “interviews,” Sachs is constantly navigating issues of ethics, though he unsurprisingly chooses to be far less critical of himself than Lotringer is. The doctor himself introduces the elephant in the room, ie: the sinister aspects of behavioral psychchology’s methods, and he freely offers the comparison between his work with sociopaths and the frightening techniques portrayed in A Clockwork Orange. It’s a comparison that shadows the entire book. While Lotringer is no satirist, his objections to the methods of Dr. Sachs and those like him are not so removed from those of Burgess. Our problem, as Lotringer sees it, is that we live in a Christian/Freudian world in which we are made to fear our awareness of our own capacity for free thinking; it is always the strategy of power to make us believe that we must be protected against ourselves. From the viewpoint of behavioral psychology, we are the first line of defense against our own fantasies and must be made to police ourselves for telltale signs of some psychic queerness. Divide and conquer! It’s the oldest trick in the book. The only new wrinkle is that we’re divided against ourselves.
What distinguishes Lotringer’s big picture from Burgess’s is the influence of French Theory. Semiotext(e), the author’s press, is responsible for introducing a number of indispensable francophone thinkers into English. At times, however, Lotringer’s intimate knowledge of them, delivered in rapid-fire shorthand, obscures his meaning. A few sweeping assertions, particularly in the last chapter, could probably have benefited from a little more elucidation. In his post-script, he claims, “With a wave of the hand, Foucault’s thesis [in The History of Sexuality] dismissed and demolished the theories of repression which had been developed over a decade by the Frankfurt School,” a statement which might have landed a bit harder given a little more explanation.
During the darkest moment of the “Reclamation Treatment” endured by Alex, our “Friend and Humble Narrator” in A Clockwork Orange, he complains, “Am I like just some animal or dog?” Lotringer’s analysis of the ability of behavioral science to solve human problems is practically identical: “Instead of enhancing the deepest mysteries in human kind,” he protests, “it turns us into dogs.” The book, by the author’s own admission, is highly influenced by Deleuze and Guattari and Foucault; Lotringer in fact initially pitched Overexposed as a follow-up to The History of Sexuality. While it might not rise quite to that vaunted level, the obvious greater value of Overexposed is no doubt in getting Dr. Sachs and his white-coated cronies on tape. The “interviews” provide a stark ready-made reminder of just how urgent it still is to find a way through Freud’s paranoid regime of “repression”.
© Daniel Mendel-Black, originally published in Modern Painters, Summer 2007