Adam Phillips: ‘Taste is problematic when it is a militant and aggressive narrowing of the mind’

The psychoanalyst and writer on an exhibition he’s created about ‘the vulgar’, and when taste becomes narrow-mindedness

The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips is the author of essays and books that include On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored; and Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life. With his partner, the curator and academic Judith Clark, he has created an exhibition at the Barbican, London called The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined, which questions the idea of bad taste, and opens at the Barbican, London, on 13 October.

Why vulgarity?
Judith and I have talked for years intermittently of doing something on the idea of the vulgar. It’s one of those words that we all have a definition of – but what is it, exactly?

It seems very much an English word, given that it is so wrapped up with ideas of class…
There is a whole range of people for whom the word is very powerful. It is not a word I would use, because I think of it as very unpleasant. When I started thinking about it, one thing led to another. I came at it with a sort of outsider’s view perhaps, in part because I grew up as a middle-class Jew in Cardiff. Among my parents’ contemporaries were people who would refer to Jews as vulgar – and therefore at least some of the people of my parents’ generation were overly worried about being thought of as vulgar.

Were you aware of that anxiety in your childhood?
It was more unspoken than anything. But as for any immigrant families, there is a pressure not to stand out, to be accepted and assimilated. And to be able to play the game.

That game is always full of unwritten rules about taste – in part to expose those who don’t know them…
Yes, although one of the things the exhibition suggests is that so-called vulgarity is often just experimental living. If there is a group you aspire to be a member of, what do you do? One thing you could do is imitate them. In imitating a group you could be consciously or unconsciously parodying them and mocking them.

In any group it seems there are always people policing those attempts. What’s the effect of that?
What is always striking about the owners of taste is how aggressive they feel they have to be in proving they are right. It is a sadomasochistic contract: I know what is good, and therefore if you disagree you are clueless or worse. It is an extreme form of cruelty and designed to make everybody intimidated. The more intimidated people are the less they enjoy thinking and wondering.

It seems lately it has again become more acceptable to scapegoat certain groups in that way…
It does. It is odd to live in a democracy and to see how it often defines pleasure in terms of its exclusivity. Relative scarcity could bring out the best in people but in fact it tends to bring out the worst in people. You get a pseudo Darwinian culture that implies that the “best” people are the richest people.

We are living in a year of the most obvious example of that character in recent memory: Donald Trump. Would you call him a vulgarian?
I wouldn’t, because it doesn’t tell us enough. The worst thing about Trump is that he elicits in people who don’t like him a version of being Trump. We become more contemptuous and prejudicial. Trump calls up the Trump in people that don’t like him.

What would be a better mechanism for dealing with him?
To give non-humiliating reasons for why you don’t agree with him. It’s a bit like Brexit. Brexit rendered people inarticulate. If you believe in democracy you have to believe that other people have very good reasons for believing what they believe, and be prepared to welcome that and to talk with them.

Do those habits chime with your psychoanalytic concerns?
It is similar in that it is about our ideas of what is acceptable. Psychoanalysis is about what people do with and about the things and the people they cannot bear.

Do you think the psychoanalytic issues you write about are always in some ways attempts at understanding yourself?
I think that may be true. But I also think that the idea of self-knowledge is hugely overrated. In our society it is as though it has been generally agreed that what we need is always more self-knowledge. Often it is just an anxiety state, another protection racket.

And dependent on the idea that our self is fixed and understandable?
Yes, we can get very attached to a single picture of ourselves. The most difficult thing to accept for many of us is that there is continual change built in. There is a wish to fix a kind of CV about oneself which is a set of formulas: the kind of person I think I am. It is useful in the way that a really bad map is useful.

That habit of narrowing ourselves down, why do we do that?
The difficulty is being able to bear the complexity of your own mind. We choose lots of ways of narrowing our minds, from drugs and alcohol to interests and opinions. It seems to me that taste is problematic when it is a militant and aggressive narrowing of the mind, when it says “I know what I like – and don’t like – and you’ve got to agree with me”. A more experimental view of trying new things out is healthier – and there is less of an inclination to mock or be angered by what you don’t understand.

We need to be more aware of our preconceptions when confronted by things that confound us?
If you take the images and fashion in our show, where you are tempted to be contemptuous why not just ask yourself why you might want to be? Is the pleasure of mocking really greater than another, more generous kind of pleasure? It is a very strange idea that we always need to “get it” and being dismissive if we don’t. It’s strange because in lots of situations – in music, say, or in sex – being open to experience is the pleasure.

How much better have you become yourself at doing that over the years – stripping away preconception and trying to be open to things as they are?
I would say in some ways I have become less moralistic as I have got older. But then I think the combination of witnessing the scale of injustice and cruelty in the world, and realising your own impotence, the question is more how you avoid being crazy. There is a tendency in those circumstances to retreat into smaller and smaller groups of people who you believe think like you do.

And what’s the antidote to that, would you say?
Two things: kindness and conversation.


Tim Adams

The GuardianTramp

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