The Myth Of Alternative Health

Rosalind Coward

Faber and Faber, London, 1989

Since this book was published, the popularity of Alternative Health ideas, practices and products has increased apace. Coward tries to provide socio-political contexts for this cultural phenomenon. Although the book does not seek to evaluate the efficacy of Natural Medicine, the work of contextualization reveals grave problems for the validation of many of the practices.

The key to this fashionable doxa is its essentialism: it claims a knowledge of Nature derived not from observation or experiment, but from metaphysical notions such as wholeness, vital force, and so on. This approach ascribes, in a dogmatic fashion, fixed essences to life, humanity, and personality.

Nature is rendered static and strangely lifeless by some of the central doctrines. The typical exponent manages to have avoided learning anything at all from such unavoidable figures as Darwin, Marx, Freud and Einstein, enraptured by a vision of a wholly benign, balanced, harmonious world, free of conflicts and complexities.

Despising science, yet happy to purloin the jargon, the doxa yanks terms out of context and arrives at juvenile concepts of, notoriously, energy, with no attempt made to connect the new usage with the standard usage: extending or correcting a concept which is never explicated to begin with. Coward reminds us that the people who study and work with energy understand that it is something that is transformed from one form to another, in complex and measurable ways, unlike the insipid impostor with its fixed essence and facile dualism of positive and negative.

A devotee of chi is quoted as saying that "energy is the essence of a person", thus reducing psychology to the same miserable fate as physics. This is wholesale reductionism, whereby the richness of human experience and the endless fascinations of the material world are made to wither into the ritual monotony of threadbare platitudes.

Unfortunately here Coward attempts to impute connotations in an arbitrary manner, construing energy as primarily an industrial concept (p.57), and going on (p.65), without any grounds, to claim that the doxa is partly manifesting anxiety about resources. Slipshod sociology rubs along with addled psychology, as when (p.118) she imagines that, like other therapies, behaviourism assumes that personal change is a matter of consciousness (which behaviourism definitively avoids discussing).

She shows how Nature is too often simply equated with tradition, in a move which confuses Culture and Nature. This strand of thought is akin to an extremely dubious ethnocentric stance in anthropology, which ascribes primitivism to other cultures so that they become barely cultural people at all, merely natural beings like animals. The general term for this obfuscation is reification: treating cultural phenomena as if they were natural, usually for the purposes of legitimating the existing power structure.

Coward notices a contradiction between essentialist and fatalist (e.g. astrological) ideas about the person, and doctrines which proclaim limitless control of life by the empowered individual. There seems to be a simple-minded reactionary moralism at work, whereby a person's problems are soluble straightforwardly by that person, if only she will buy the right products and recite accordingly. A stark contrast arises between the modest psychoanalytical goals of reducing outright misery to manageable neurosis, and the strikingly American model of limitless achievement advertized by assertiveness training and other practices.

Unfortunately here Coward imagines that, like other therapies, behaviourism assumes that personal change is a matter of consciousness (which behaviourism definitively avoids discussing).

There are well-founded complaints about impersonal and mechanical medical treatment. Parasitic on the constructive notion that medical practice should consider the person as a whole, as opposed to a particular symptom or organ, is the dogma that there is such a thing as a whole person, in the sense of an achievable self-unity, blessed by harmony and balance, and free of inner conflict. This, Coward suggests, is a fantasy notion central to Alternative Health.

Further examples of fantasy notions can be found in the realm of Creative Visualization, wherein we find the purportedly wholesome individual (typified by The Rum'un) reeking of the conditioned avarice of Western affluent society.

Coward casts doubt on the claim that stress is a peculiarly 20th Century ailment, asking why anyone should think that life in 19th Century factories would be stress-free.

The general attitude towards food depends on the concept of Nature, in that the food processing industry is concerned with perceived risks from Nature, whereas Alternative Nutrition is more worried about risks from Culture. Coward argues that individualist natural dieting is not going to be effectual in changing food production and consumption patterns if it is not combined with political work to alter the economic system in general. This aspect of life is one which the asocial, ahistorical individualism of the doxa is unable to grasp.

Similarly, the defects of conventional medical practice cannot wholly be ascribed to the concept of allopathy. Impersonal medical treatment is a function of traditional divisions of labour and hierarchies, political pressures and priorities, and the vagaries of the market system. Focusing on allopathy misses the importance of economic and social structures, as ever with idealist individualism.



Paul Taylor 2001