With two great books over my shoulder —Raymond Williams’s Keywords (1976), and Sianne Ngai’s Our Aesthetic Categories (2012)—I had the notion of a series of essays on mental health keywords: terms drawn, usually, from psychiatric medicine, but circulating freely in pop culture and everyday idiom, where they carry connotations well beyond the clinical. There are perhaps more of these words than you would expect, and the lexicon is diversifying every day.
This post could have been about the term "OCD," which is used in colloquial speech either accusatorily, to criticize someone's unreasonable exactitude about trivialities (he's so OCD about grammar), or apologetically, to excuse an inability to let something go (sorry I took so long to set the table—I'm kind of OCD), or less often boastfully, to suggest that the speaker is more committed to an orderly life than her interlocutor (I'm OCD about my finances). (Note that in each case OCD becomes something one is rather than something one has —grammatically nonsensical, if we were to unpack the acronym, but perhaps picking up on an unavowed feature of psychiatric discourse.) These uses of "OCD," of course, bear little or no resemblance to the actual medical condition, but they do at least reflect the fact that Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is classified as an anxiety disorder. Indeed, one of the primary features of OCD, as articulated by the National Institute of Mental Health, is that sufferers "don't get pleasure when performing the [compulsive] behaviors or rituals, but get brief relief from the anxiety the thoughts cause"; the affective experience of being trapped, unfree to do otherwise, seems to be part of OCD's symptomatology. Similarly, it's understood in the idiomatic "OCD" that a behavior becomes compulsive when it's neither plausibly motivated by pleasure nor necessary for one's thriving: the speaker above didn't spend five minutes adjusting the axes of the knife and fork because she enjoyed it, but because not doing it would feel bad.
It's odd, then, to turn from "OCD" to "obsessed"—another everyday idiom that draws upon clinical language, but that in dropping the "compulsive" element seems to completely reverse its affective charge. For "obsessed," as we find it in our Twitter feeds and Tumblr pages, is a positive, almost elated word; it describes a kind of infatuation with an object or an oeuvre: I am obsessed with platform boots, with health care policy, with the Coen brothers. But if it were simply a matter of intense liking for an object, we have other words for that; what is the difference that "obsessed" makes? A few propositions:
1) "Obsession" implies research. "I'm obsessed" is, in a sense, a socially acceptable excuse for pure intellectual curiosity of a sort that is rarely indulged in either school or adult employment. One gets the sense that such curiosity feels mysterious to most people, even a shade pathological, and that labelling themselves "obsessed" is a way to make sense of the feeling. Indeed, even in its more consumerist iterations, obsession seems to need explanation, to emerge suddenly and mysteriously in a way that demands investigation in its own right. Hence articles in which "scientists" explain "why we're obsessed" with zombie movies, pumpkin spice flavoring, etc. (The "we" here is obviously quite socially circumscribed, but the articles usually don't acknowledge it—we're meant to take this "we" as more or less coextensive with humanity.)
Not all research falls under the "obsession" rubric; a fascination with neuroscientific experiments or space exploration, for instance, would rarely be classified as an "obsession," coming instead under the category of nerdiness. (This has its own chic, of course, but it's not as universally accessible as obsession.) Rather, one is obsessed with a historical figure, a trial (as in Serial, a phenomenon that generated lots of obsessional discourse), an unsolved mystery, even simply a period ("I'm obsessed with the Edwardian era"). Obsession is typically humanistic, and more specifically forensic: it attempts to excavate a past event. Although it frames itself as a quirky impulse, then, obsession of this sort does nonetheless produce work—a podcast, an article, "content" in its most amorphous sense—and the activities it motivates certainly look like labor: compiling, interviewing, researching, writing. One wonders if "obsession" is something like a calling for the age of precarity: a passion overwhelming enough to inspire self-motivated work, but fleeting enough to allow for frequent job changes.
2) "Obsession" and consumption are intimately related. Fashion magazines list their "obsessions" of the moment, and one (InStyle) even has a recurring feature called "We're Obsessed!" (One precursor of this phenomenon might have been Oprah's "favorite things.") Pinterest, that great systematizer of consumer taste, not only traffics in the language of obsession; it can itself be an object of obsession ("How Obsessed With Pinterest Are You?", asks one Buzzfeed quiz). The products with which one can be obsessed are legion, but they tend to fall within a middle-class, mildly aspirational bandwidth: being obsessed with, say, Chanel coats is acceptable only for celebrities, whom it humanizes, and it's similarly hard to imagine being obsessed with, say, Target's house clothing brand Xhilaration. But one might easily be obsessed with, say, the designer Adam Lippes's limited-time collaboration with Target, which hits a sweet spot between exclusivity and accessibility: most shoppers can afford it, but not everyone will know where to look for it, and it disappears within a month or two. (A quick sidebar here to note that one might define “basic,” that aesthetic pejorative, as being obsessed with products and styles so ubiquitous that they merit mild liking at best: pumpkin spice lattes and Ugg boots and, most notoriously, fall itself.)
How does this consumer orientation jibe with the association of obsession with research—seemingly a purely intellectual activity? It's perhaps trite to observe that research is acquisitive; even when she doesn't seek to own the objects in question, the researcher wants to collect them, to have at her fingertips a kind of information trove. (I myself assembled these theses on obsession with the help of an app called Pearltrees, a kind of Pinterest for academics.) What's more, though, obsessional discourse indicates the degree to which consumption is now "powered by" research (to use a favorite information-technology idiom): the same search tools we use to do our jobs, if our jobs involve moving information around, are used at least as often to find new restaurants, new gadgets, or new pairs of shoes; moreover, the latter motivation is often the animating one behind new developments in search technology. It's perhaps fitting that when obsession does enter the sphere of production, then, it names production that frames itself as unconventional, uniquely personal, "outsider"; see, for instance, the company Casper, which advertises its "obsessively engineered mattresses" (primarily on podcasts, which, as mentioned above, are also often examples of obsessional work). Such products address themselves directly to the consumer, who is imagined to be sick and tired of the corporate norm (Big Mattress, for example, and just look here if you think I'm kidding).
It might seem essential to obsession of this sort that it needs an object: one is obsessed with, never simply obsessed. Or is one?
There may be an implied object to these products—fitness, or a sexual partner, or oneself—but the word seems to verge here on describing a personality trait, a kind of intensity ("intense," though not a clinical term, is another interesting psychological keyword—"she's intense," "it was intense") combined with a magnetism that makes one the object of obsession. Here we touch upon what we might call the paradox of romantic obsession, especially as it relates to consumer culture: for a woman to be obsessed with a man is at best embarrassing and at worst terrifying; obsession itself is something a woman is supposed to do in the presence of her female friends, not around men, with whom it would damage her carefully cultivated cool and laid-back aura; but in order to make herself potentially obsessable —to have lips, legs, hair that can inspire obsession in a romantic partner —a woman is more or less required to obsess over her own body in a mode at once critical and oddly erotically charged. All of this suggests that the capacity to be obsessed can itself be a commodity, both on the romantic "market" and, perhaps, on the labor market. (Sociologists, anthropologists, behavioral economists, I put it to you: does "obsessed" ever appear in the self-description of young folks looking for jobs?)
3) "Obsession" is collective. This is true, first, on the level of tastemakers—the aforementioned fashion magazines; news and culture sites like Slate, Salon, Vox, etc.; music and movie reviewers like Entertainment Weekly—for whom the "we" in "we're obsessed" is editorial and frequently evokes the workplace setting ("these days, the office is obsessed with ..."). This smallish social group, in turn, extends itself out to the reader/viewer/consumer, who by adopting this obsession as her own gains access to a community. (The trajectory isn't always top-down, of course; sometimes an ordinary individual discovers an obsession that then pulls others in; this is perhaps the primary distinction between obsessional research and obsessional consumption.)
It's in this feature that colloquial obsession differs most dramatically from its clinical counterpart. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is often isolating: it traps its victims in thought loops and forces them to perform elaborate rituals that make social interaction increasingly difficult. The obsessional discourse I'm talking about here, by contrast, requires collective buy-in, partly so that it feels socially acceptable; to be obsessed with an entirely uninteresting person who lived in the recent past, for instance, may have a certain quirky This American Life-type charm, but also feels dangerously close to mental illness. But the collective also matters to obsession because it enables crowdsourcing, a way to fulfill obsession's impulse to gather information. Indeed, like the idea of crowdsourcing, obsessional discourse seems to point toward the experience not of using but of being a search engine, of having a kind of neural "alert" out for information on certain subjects, of tagging incoming data according to one's needs, of privileging ideas and information that have passed through the hands of as many other people as possible.
If all this sounds dystopian, it's not meant to be; rather, I'm suggesting that obsessional discourse points toward the affective experience of a new way of imagining one's own cognitive processes. And that's what this project attempts to clarify: the subtle, day-to-day evolution of our metaphors of mind, and the corresponding slow changes in cognition itself. In subsequent posts, I’ll draw your attention to a few more ways that we’ve lately been understanding the brain and behavior —not in the responsibly peer-reviewed context of neuroscience or psychology journals, but “on the ground,” in our spontaneously generated accounts of why we act the way we do. Whether they will cohere into a unified model of contemporary cognition, or fragment and disperse our consciously held theories of mind, remains to be seen.