Cushman's Postmodernism

Bruce Denner (
Thu, 28 Mar 1996 22:09:33 -0800

My colleague Lois, knowing my sentiments, invited me to post my
thoughts on Cushman's Constructing the Self, Constructing America. Whereas
she took issue with Cushman's potential undermining of psychotherapy, I
wish to raise a more general question suggested by Cushman's work, viz:

Do postmodern social science texts undermine current understandings of
scientific objectivity and moral/political neutrality; and, hence,
implicitly legitimate scientific commitment to a moral/political position?

Cushman raises this possibility by doing the following:
1- Provides us with a "history of ideas" approach to the helping
professions which is based on an ideological critique of helping practices.
2- Derives a psychotherapy practice from his social constructionist vision.
But, of course, one must ask: "How persuasive is his ideological critique;
and how successful has he been in translating social theory into clinical

As I read him, Cushman reflections on the 19th century helping
practices are quite intriguing, but his account of the contemporary scene
leaves much to be desired. Cushman's contribution to our current
understanding of the current scene is obviously "communitarian." There is
strong support for the notion that we have lost our sense of community. But
I do not think that Cushman has shed any light on this problem with his
notion of the "empty self."

Basically, I don't know how to take the word ""empty." Sometimes he
means "empty" in the sense of devoid of meaning, especially when he rants
on and on about consumerism. Did Professor Cushman write his text on a word
processor or did he use a quill pen?

In other contexts, Cushman uses the term "empty" to mean blank,
unformed. Well, is it not appropriate for a self-theorist to start with a
"blank" notion of self in the newborn (save any genetic, biological
components) and tell a story how the self evolves, that is to say,
"fills."? It is almost as if Cushman objects to any theory of the self
because, by definition, this theory would have little to say about
community. But I don't see why notions of self and community need be
mutually exclusive. So, Cushman's contemporary commentary seems little more
than a privileging of community at the expense of any psychology.

Cushman is on strong ground when he emphasizes how frequently the
helping professions have bought the prevailing ideology "hook, line and
sinker." Surely therapists have been guilty of prejudice and "adjusting
clients to an obnoxious world." But this has been pointed out before. The
question is Cushman's contribution to this dilemma.

Here Cushman wrestles with the problem of scale. How does one build a
connection between the macro events of social movements and the micro
events of an individual life? His use of Heideggerean discourse
(throwness), to build this bridge, is quite mystifying.

Consider this analogy. Physics has developed an entirely different
discourse to deal with sub-atomic particles. The physical laws that account
for pendulum movement are entirely different than those that explain
nuclear fusion. By the same token, one can hardly expect the language of
large scale social movements to speak to the micro-movements of a person's

For example; The middle-aged man who is awakening in the middle of
the night with anxiety attacks is probably suffering from a mind-deading
job, the pointless acquisition of consumer goods, the emptiness of family
life, etc. But all that talk does not speak to how he is to cope with these
attacks in the here and now. Waxing political is, at best, a diversionary
tactic. At his worse, Cushman is encouraging us to change our psychotherapy
chairs into pulpits and preach the good life.

Let's return to the original question, concerning the postmodern
critique of value neutrality. Clearly, Cushman feels that postmodernism (a
term burden with meanings) gives him license to drop traditional
professional neutrality. He makes this move because he understands the
postmodern perspective as dropping the "truth-value" distinction. Thus, he
feels free to be a prophet. But the problem, for me, is that, in truth
(dare I use that word) , Cushman is not a postmodernist at all. Cushman is
a (fairly simple-minded) modernist critical theorist who freely employs
the traditional "ideology critique." Namely: "My opponents are steeped in
ideological obscuration while I (Cushman), see things the way they are or,
perhaps, should be." Moreover, he commits a version of the psychologist's
fallacy. That is, he equates the ideological origins of an idea with the
value of its concrete practices. By his lights, the VW should be a heinous
design because of its association with fascism.

So, in the end, we really can't use Cushman to answer my original
question of the postmodern deconstruction of scientific objectivity. Is
anybody interested in exploring this notion with other texts?