Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: Comments on Cape Town Covers, Colonial Catwalks, and Getting Caught

By Schwartz, Hillel | Cultural Analysis, Annual 2002 | Go to article overview

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: Comments on Cape Town Covers, Colonial Catwalks, and Getting Caught


Schwartz, Hillel, Cultural Analysis


Not the return of the repressed but the return of the ex pressed: OCD, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.

"Obsession" [

Insinuated then insulated completely within the person, obsession could be magnificent but it was also difficult to exorcise, since there were no longer any obvious handles, no demons to yank away. Obsession was not a result of illusion but the consequence of a flat-out cultural investment in illusions, themselves chief and profitable products of industrial modernity: technical feats of stage magic, photography, motion pictures, cartoons, synthetics, television, Walkmen (its disembodied voices following you everywhere), superrealism, appropriationism, computer graphics ... How to disabuse people of obsession when society rewarded them for their tight purchase on, and gamboling with, illusions?

Obsession worked well for capital accumulation and the manufacture of profitable illusions, but by the mid-20th century we had need again of obsession's vanished twin, that evil force acting from without. In the aftermath of the Nazi collective, within the binary math of Cold War socialities, and across the divisive math of Viet Nam, North and West required a new anthropology, one that reasserted the meddling presence of external disturbing powers.

Wherefore the resort to "compulsion"--"to urge irresistibly, to constrain, oblige, force," as the OED tells us. Leon Salzman traced the contours of obsession and obsessive personality in 1968, summing up a century of therapeutic experience and exasperation with "obsessives" just as the war in Vietnam entered its most divisive stages, and in the same year, Erwin W.M. Straus's 1948 study, On Obsession: A Clinical and Methodological Study, was reprinted. Nonetheless, the hyphenate disorder Obsessive-Compulsive became thoroughly conjoint only in the 1980s while Calvin Klein was introducing its own Obsession, "a blend of vanilla, amber, orange blossom, oak-moss, and other oriental spices" for women in 1985 and a "refreshing, oriental, woody fragrance ... a blend of lavender, mandarin, clove, nutmeg, and amber" for men in 1986, both "for romantic wear." Despite--or due to--the introduction and success of the tricyclic antidepressant clomipramine (Anafranil) in Europe around 1980 and the United States in 1990, OCD was soon epidemic, or so one might gather from Ian Osborn's Tormenting Thoughts and Secret Rituals: The Hidden Epidemic of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (1998) or from taking a whiff of the Cicara Company knock-off of Obsession for men, called, oh yes, Compulsion. (2)

Compulsion and obsession are both engaged by Philip Jenkins, but the hyphenate disorder that arose concurrently with the specter of the serial murderer is surprisingly absent from his essay, as is also the idea of "copycat" crimes, a phrase new to the 20th century and more deeply etched in the 1990s in terms of copycat murder.

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