I Culture Therapy: Interview with Dr. Viola Timm

 Prof. Dr. Viola Timm was a Hayman PhD at the University of California and a Mellon researcher at Johns Hopkins University. She has taught at the University of California, Santa Barbara and Irvine, New York University, and the University of Fortaleza, Brazil among other academic institutions. She writes about public health, Shakespeare, psychoanalysis and technology. She is currently an independent researcher based in Berlin and continues to contribute to her fields of expertise. She is currently developing an experimental method of cultural therapy online that brings complex interdisciplinary learning about media technology in the humanities to the contemporary reader and consumer. You may find out more here: https://www.designwithin.net/

NP: You have a richly textured background that includes art, literature, language, public health and psychoanalysis. How would you describe the path you took to arrive at where you are now?

Timm: I was raised in the old liberal arts tradition that originated in the 18th century, which emphasized personal development and individual curricular diversity over political identity. The liberal arts today have morphed into handmaidens to a culturally negating form of political action that no longer teaches integrative methods of processing different types of information and cultural products. The education I received from home and from various institutions ranging from opera, ballet, theater, travel and languages to world-class research institutions is not available as a single package, especially since the pre-20th century liberal arts traditions have been discontinued today, to the detriment of human development. My work and my research certainly carry the unique stamp of my development, but also always engage in dialogue with the contemporary reader that keeps my thoughts focused on the cutting edge of the times. I follow one simple rule: keep a hand on the pulse of the reader. The human mind is the finest instrument available for detecting the most miniscule changes in the cultural climate. I’m also a big gadget lover, so technology is under my skin. I work with it consciously and intensely.

NP: Design Within – Literary E Spa & Consumer Arts is a fascinating and upbeat perspective. How would you assess its place in the digital world?

Timm: Yes, you are absolutely correct to hear the harmonious notes of optimism in the posts. I want to repackage the abandoned liberal arts institutions for expenditure online. Call it cultural recycling and responsible disposal. I don’t want to see the wonderful old methods of cultivating taste and rich inner experience get lost for future generations. The Internet gives me hope, because that’s where thinking individuals “live” today. I didn’t want to just write a blog offering information. We have Wikipedia, its blog extensions, online libraries, and countless other sources for that. They are doing a great job and I use them extensively, but that’s not what I’m aiming at. I want to bring the readers to a more profound understanding of their own cultural needs. My research keeps confirming that mental health is 100% cultural. We are looking at a catastrophic explosion of mental health problems if we continue to neglect cultural health.

NP: How would you explain the service and what the reader will gain from it?

Timm: The science behind my method is long and tedious. I want to spare the reader all that without sacrificing a privileged panorama of the complexity of the human mind pushed to its limits. It is a tricky balance. Most scientists need decades to master the fundamental structural levels of their field. In fact, most basic researchers today never question the theoretical base of their disciplines, but that is where the real value is for the humanities. Structural re-thinking, internal engineering if you will, takes time and loving dedication. I am hoping to awaken a need for this slumbering part of human experience at the individual, private consumer level, because that’s where it is most effective.

NP: Is the service you offer then purely for private use?

Timm: Yes, initially yes. The short-term gain is certainly intended for the individual consumer. But on the long run our increasingly global society stands to gain inventive solutions to problems and creative new structures for preserving our past that will improve the quality of life immensely. Richly textured minds trained in multi-layered abstract thinking are more likely to invest time and energy in unexplored territory that benefits everyone. Technology is an enabler in the sense that it frees up time and energy from menial tasks, including more complex ones like teaching basic skills, data gathering and standard analysis, accounting, and even nursing. Yet humans are not wired to do nothing and we need to think ahead to accommodate the emerging cultural and mental needs of individuals no longer fettered to 9 to 5 schedules and automated mental tasks such as railroad or airport coordination.

NP: Is there an ethical gain as well?

Timm: Yes, absolutely. Another area of substantial gain is interpersonal communication. The term society does not apply to empty, impersonal mass structures and pre-programmed communities, which is what we teach today, but to elective circles and more intimate settings as well. My posts will train readers gradually to pay attention to transitional objects and phenomena, to borrow Winnicott’s brilliant formulation, as they help them relate first and foremost to themselves, their immediate milieus, collections, practices, rituals and sacraments, and then to others.

The words we use to communicate with those immediately in our presence are, after all, quasi-objective and quasi-subjective, because they are experienced both as belonging to us and as “moving,” emotionally and physically, the person standing before us. A person trained in self-reflexivity will be more attentive to the way he or she positions and is positioned by others. She will be more sensitive to the transitional objects the other person needs to remain within their comfort zone. The goal is to instill the values of service to others, not by conforming to mass formats and empty traditional etiquette, but by granting others the space we ourselves need to thrive and feel luxurious. Luxury does not consist in material objects alone, but in the quality of relational sensations and experiences. Today many appear completely unaware of this dimension of experience, even of their own interior, not because they don’t have it, but because we don’t encourage it. I want to make it visible and present.

NP: Who are your teachers and inspirations?

Timm: Of course I am not the first person to ponder these questions. Historically my closest predecessors would be Sigmund Freud and Martin Heidegger. Freud’s body of work, which I consider more fine art and literature than science, represents the first attempt to design a service that focuses on individual expression and use of language. Freud also attempted the first bridge between the humanities and the medical sciences. His therapy is called “the talking cure.” He wanted to systematize the use of language to achieve optimal mental health, but found the task impossible, precisely because, like fingerprints, the use of language and transitional objects is absolutely unique to the individual. But Freud did not fail. He was the first proponent of a transfer of medical therapeutic methods from the operation table to linguistic abstraction. This is what we experience with the implementation of every new technology. The current challenge is the transfer of most social services and nearly all-public spaces from their physical addresses to the virtual realm of the Internet. This transfer has occurred in the human mind long ago. The Internet simply externalized it.

NP: I’m intrigued by your research and the possibilities your online service offers for self-help. Do you see yourself as creating a trend or helping to realize something that is already taking place and that you’re tapping into a need while expanding people’s intellectual/cultural/social horizons?

Timm: Very nicely put. The short answer is yes, I want to create a need, intentionally and premeditatedly. At a deep unconscious level, the need is already there, but I want to make people aware of it. The unconscious knows math and accounting as well, every therapist will tell you that, but we still need to take the steps to make that knowledge conscious and useful. That’s where my service comes in. The need I’m referring to is knowledge of the interior and understanding of one’s boundaries and infinity. I want to awaken curiosity about what’s within, because it is as infinite as the universe and we still know very little about it. Psychology and philosophy, especially theology’s focus on the cultivation of the relationship to Christ, have scratched the surface, but there is a lot more to know there. Life online has evolved to a level that was unthinkable ten years ago. The selfie-culture is the most superficial expression of what’s taking place at a more profound level online, the need to establish one’s online presence and persona. This is the need I am addressing and creating in a sense. Training in the liberal arts has just found a new vocation, but it can only happen online.

I want to look at online existence therapeutically. Some psychologists are talking about addiction, but I find that narrative insufficient and counter-productive. We need to harness the energy that’s being poured into the Internet for positive personal development that can only increase the quality of life.

The therapy I envision is very close to Freud’s, but instead of meeting customers physically once or twice a week, I send a text I have designed very carefully and generously to allow the reader plenty of space on the linguistic playground to have an experience that is unique, multi-layered, meaningful, and memorable. This is what the traditional novel also tried to do. In fact, Freud was a huge connoisseur of fine literature. Most of his knowledge came from literary texts. But the novel today is mass-formatted. It doesn’t speak to the individual anymore and no longer serves that mentally healthy purpose of the private playground. My service does. Instead of a talking cure, an online reading cure: Freud in reverse at the individual level.

I am also looking forward to including dialogue and discussion. I plan to offer more personalized, tailored experience to potential clients who will specify their particular needs and preferences. I plan to expand the service to include Q and A, as well as moderated forum discussion. I want to give the reader space to begin designing their inner identity, help them recognize its existence and make it an active player in their lives. I want them to learn to articulate their inner experience on my site, in the context I provide, so they can take what they learn there to other parts of life on- and off-line.

NP: In your travels, studies and research do you sense a desire to look at traditional cultural contexts but move beyond them and shape our own?

Timm: This is a difficult question. I am very aware and highly sensitized to the cultural environment, which has a history. History is not just something that happened yesterday and was no more. It is an active, permanent co-creator and co-designer of human reality. We must give up the hope of birthing new cultures if we abandon the care of the past. It is impossible, because of the way human memory supports the structures of reality. Heidegger’s work is deeply conscious of the reality-making function of language. His only failing was his historically determined blindness to Biblical language and sacramental experience. But such were his times. Heidegger, like Freud, failed to appreciate the functional influence of the Bible not only on the German language, about which he wrote, but on all languages, whose cultural roots were structurally transformed by the import of the Bible. Many of my posts are dedicated to these theoretical questions. I certainly disclose the scientific background of the service.

Like Freud, Heidegger successfully mapped a bridge between physical being-in-time and language, as well as between language and technology. The internet is the structure that may finally allow us to build this bridge, because it is the first “personal” technology; the PC and its extensions from laptop to smart phone and tablet are private and individual, unlike film, TV, and radio. We have a highly personalized new medium we are still treating like the mass media of the past century, because we don’t know any better. The methods of mass technology, are, however, highly dysfunctional and inadequate when applied to the internet.

Since the Biblical is the only culture I know at the level of professional expertise, my service is limited to those who have a structural relationship to it. The service is by no means universal, though I imagine everyone can gain insight from it. It’s not possible for Biblical cultures to move “beyond” the Bible. That would be tantamount to asking them to move beyond their respective languages. But it is possible to learn from our experience and change the way we re-produce, store, and transmit our cultural legacies. The Biblical legacy has a few centuries of secular thought to process. It fell behind the times and behind its own principles, with dire historical consequences. It’s up to us to bring it up to speed. Secularization was a profoundly Christian phenomenon, but it has reached its historical limit and we are about to begin the process of its archiving and historicizing. The weak state of the humanities today has incapacitated real progress. The university is ill-equipped to handle this monumental task, so I am beginning to suspect it will take place off-campus and online. It has already begun.

NP: Is there a social problem you care most deeply about and that you would like to address in your work?

Timm: Yes, there is one problem related to Internet behavior I find of paramount importance today: online bullying. We understand the problem too little, we research it too insufficiently and inadequately, and we are failing to protect the most vulnerable, but also the most talented and sensitive youths. Bullying is a form of online conformism that is practiced at the most primitive level of social functioning. The Internet eliminates physical human contact and thus allows for the breakdown of barriers and inhibitions, which on the one hand is liberating and promising, but on the other potentially tearing down the social fabric. I am absolutely against any kind of Internet censure or policing of content. That will not solve the problem; it will only force it into the deep web.

The only way to combat the psychologically disastrous, deforming effects of bullying on young minds is to fortify them with strong individual identities. The bully is someone with a very weak personal identity, which is why they feel the need to force everyone else to conform to what he or she considers the acceptable standard of communal identity. We need to work actively to break down this pattern of identity-formation and combat it with character development. This is something we can only achieve through the introduction of individual curricula, the teaching of individual character, and by stimulating private edification, which is exactly the service I want to see blossom on the Internet. I very much hope to start a trend that will reach all levels of education.