R. D. Laing in the USA, 1972—and His Message to the Smartphone-Obsessed 21st Century

Guest blog post by Dr Adrian Chapman, Florida State University London Centre, and University of Glasgow Library Research Fellow

Black and white photograph of R D Laing.

Laing pictured in the 1980s. (MS Laing WF21)

In Patrick Marmion’s 2017 stage play, The Divided Laing: Or The Two Ronnies, David Cooper, a colleague of the Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing, relates a terrible vision of the future. He and Laing are in Kingsley Hall, the East London experimental community that Laing established in the mid-1960s. Cooper foresees a world in which behaviour is regulated by phones that people must carry everywhere. In this world where something called googling has replaced libraries, using a phone for just making calls makes someone a weirdo or a radical.

There is no doubt that Laing would have been horrified by a world in which couples out for dinner spend more time on their smartphones than speaking to one another. But I don’t think he would have been surprised. He was as aware of our tendency to distract ourselves as he was aware of the need for the mind to settle down. Such settling down—being rather than doing—was one of his 1972 US lecture tour themes.

The University of Glasgow Library’s Special Collections holds an unrivalled collection of materials associated with that tour—in particular,  the film R.D. Laing in the USA made by the director and producer Peter Robinson. As a Library Research Fellow, I’ve viewed hours and hours of footage showing Laing on the US college lecture circuit.

He spoke about the nature of ‘true’ asylum (a safe place, a sanctuary) and critiqued psychiatry. He condemned what he saw as the narrowness of medical education (and education more generally). He lamented the poor quality of food and the built environment, and called for increased bodily awareness. Rejecting the New Left demand for revolution, he said that change could only come from individuals. Keying into women’s liberation and the rise of the home birth movement, he inveighed against hospital childbirth practices and institutional sexism.

He had a lot to say, then. But he was not speaking purely out of the goodness of his heart. He was short of money: the tour was a business venture. The schedule was highly demanding and he had to work very hard for his dollars. From November 11th to December 6th 1972, he undertook a coast-to-coast US tour covering the North-East, Mid-West, Mid-Atlantic, South and West of the country. There would have been little time for Laing to simply allow himself to be, and it’s no wonder that at one point he became ill.

Just a few months previously, he had been meditating with a holy man in the foothills of the Himalayas. Then he was enjoying a sabbatical away from his intense professional life in London. When he returned, he noticed the unhealthy state of his bank account: the college lecture circuit beckoned. On his US tour, he discussed meditation extensively. While rejecting the image of the guru and stressing that as a ‘student of life’ he had no answers, only questions, Laing’s talk of meditation’s benefits came close to proselytizing.

He argued that meditation, despite the difficulties of allowing one’s mind to settle, offers a route beyond life’s socially sanctioned and conventional rhythms. Influenced by the idiorhythmic lives of monks on Mount Athos, Greece, he urged people to tune into their own tempos and patterns. But he also made it clear that we flee such rhythms and that too frequently others cannot allow us just to be. (We face the same difficulties today, of course.)

Early on during his tour, doctors in Chicago introduced Laing to a teenage psychiatric patient. A diagnosed schizophrenic, the signs of her supposed illness included eating differently and at different times to the rest of her family. She also spent hours on end staring at her wall. But why, Laing asked his listeners, could she not be allowed to get up and sleep when she needed to? Why could she not eat what she wanted? And why could she not simply stare at the wall? She was causing no harm to herself or others. Anyway, she spent far less time staring at the wall than her parents spent staring at the TV, he told audiences to their great amusement.

According to Laing, the girl had simply adopted a meditative practice to deal with her unbearable domestic situation. In a more propitious social setting, she would have been able to stare at the wall to her heart’s content. In Laing’s presentation of her, the girl becomes a countercultural rebel, someone—like so many other young people identifying with the counter-culture—trying to “do her own thing.”

For Laing, finding your own rhythm meant much more than working from home or being able to go to the gym at midnight so you can have a beach-ready body. Like Roland Barthes, the literary and cultural theorist who spoke about idiorhthmy in his 1977 College de France lectures, personal rhythm for Laing included the rhythm of your speech, breathing, movement, thinking and desiring.

This view of personal rhythm is urgently relevant in our accelerated, neoliberal age—a world in which we spend so much time tapping on screens and in which there is often no time left after working and shopping, plus fashioning and re-fashioning socially acceptable online versions of ourselves on Facebook or Instagram.

In his recent book, Not Working, the psychoanalyst and academic Josh Cohen draws a distinction between being and doing. Being, he contends, is vital to creativity and personal meaning. Many of his patients, he says, find it difficult or even impossible to settle down, to simply let themselves be. Instead, they take dubious refuge in over-work and in distractions like fiddling with their iPhones. His argument draws on the ideas of Donald Winnicott, an English psychoanalyst and obstetrician. The line of thinking, though, is very close to Laing’s. Not surprisingly, Winnicott supervised Laing during his psychoanalytic training at the Tavistock Clinic, London.

Of course, the world has changed a great deal since Laing toured America in the early 1970s. Now working hours are longer, employment is less secure and lunch ‘al desko’ more common than a proper lunch hour. Laing spoke of meditation as a way of finding oneself. Now meditation and mindfulness are no longer fringe pursuits. All too often, they are promoted, especially by the ‘wellness industry’, as productivity tools: meditate and you will be better able to satisfy your boss’s demands; be more mindful and get more done!

But the need to be, to discover one’s unique patterns of being—whether through meditation or other means—is as strong now, and perhaps stronger, than it was when Laing stressed its necessity in 1972. The Scottish psychiatrist, very much identified with the 1960s and 70s and sometimes dismissed as a countercultural relic, can still speak to us today. He might not be able to free us easily from tapping compulsively on our smartphones, but perhaps he could help us put them aside for a moment and begin attending to something more important.

This article draws upon work conducted as a Library Research Fellow at The University of Glasgow in 2019. I have paraphrased from holdings gifted to University of Glasgow Library, in particular “R.D. Laing in the USA” © 1972-2014 Surveillance Films, Inc.

If you heard Laing on his US lecture tour or helped organise the lectures, do get in touch. I’m currently writing about Laing and would like to include further interview material in my book.

Adrian Chapman

Florida State University London Centre

E-mail: anchapman@fsu.edu

Twitter: @dradrianchapman


Categories: Archives and Special Collections, Library, Special Collections


2 replies

  1. I studied Laing’s work as a university undergraduate, and I was greatly impressed by the authenticity of fhis observations. Now you have succeeded in showing me that he was not just a guru but also a prophet. Thank you!


  1. R. D. Laing in the USA, 1972—and His Message to the Smartphone-Obsessed 21st Century – jamesgray2

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