Neurasthenia, Capitalism, and Biopower in HBO’s Westworld

The HBO series Westworld has amassed a large fan base that has grown since the start of the second season. For those who haven’t tuned in, the show is set in the near future and follows the activity of a park full of robots who look and act like humans. Humans pay premium prices to visit the corporate-owned park and interact with the robots, called hosts. In a setting that looks like the ‘wild west,’ the human characters of Westworld enter a world free of consequences where they cannot die, leaving them autonomous to act on their deepest violent and sexual desires leading to torture, killing, and rape.

The first season introduces many of the robotic and human characters, including Evan Rachel Wood’s persona Dolores, who is slowly reaching a more human level of consciousness and realizing the evils of the brutal profit-making venture of the park. Season one follows her and other characters who, through their experiences, highlight the ways the park itself often brings out the worst in people.

Toward the end of the first and beginning of the second season of Westworld, the hosts overthrow the park in the most violent manner imaginable, gathering all the park owners and guests into a black-tie gala only to massacre them. After the smoke clears, Dolores Abernathy reunites with her father Peter, who was previously taken out of the park for “maintenance.” Peter comes and goes from what seems to be an overload of information in his cognitive system, which manifests in symptoms of nervousness and psychological trauma.

Promotional poster for Westworld (junaidro/Flickr)

His journey began in season one, when he picked up a photo from the ground, left behind by a guest, that depicted what looked like Times Square in New York City – bustling, busy, lit up, and geographically far from the gruesome realities of the park. The photo was so starkly different from the ‘old west’ setting that Abernathy knew, that it tripped his cognitive processes, leading him to realize the truth of his existence: he was merely an object for the profitable pleasures catering to human visitors to the park. This was the beginning of his mental breakdown.

Westworld has been lauded for its deep philosophical themes ranging from consciousness and liberation to sin. There is even an academic philosophy book devoted entirely to exploring these themes in the show.1

Yet while watching Westworld from a historian’s perspective, I couldn’t help but see Peter Abernathy’s journey as one of many instances of character development that draw on the complicated history of turn-of-the-century psychological diagnoses, namely neurasthenia. The show’s stories touch on the complex interconnectedness of psychological trauma, nervous and anxiety disorders, and the underworld and negative byproducts of a fast-paced capitalist economy.

Westworld provides a canvas to analyze the themes of agency and bio-power — or the subjugation and control of bodies — within a socio-economic system of profit that, in this case, exploits the bodies of hosts for the benefit of the outside world.2

To begin with, Peter Abernathy’s nervous breakdown is a reminder of the diagnoses of many men and women roughly one hundred years ago. Neurasthenia developed as a clinical term in the late-nineteenth century for a variety of nervous and non-nervous symptoms. The blanket term was used to describe a wide array of maladies including sensitivity to drugs, lack of desire for water, increased levels of indigestion, near-sightedness, the decay of teeth, sensitivity to cold, irritability, nervousness, joint pain, and baldness.

Image of “Hysteria and neurasthenia” (1905) (Internet Book Archive/Flickr)

Thus the theoretical signs of neurasthenia were as varied as the biological realities of the human experience. The term allowed physicians to make sense of a rapidly changing world and a subset of patients that did not easily fit into their existing diagnostic categories. Neurasthenia fit into an era when physicians sought to increasingly exert their professional authority in society.

American psychologist George Beard was the leading proponent of the diagnosis, the chief cause of which, he argued, was modern civilization. Neurasthenia, or nervous exhaustion, Beard wrote, was a modern development due to the prevalence of “steam power, the periodical press, the telegraph, the sciences, and the mental activity of women.”3

The diagnosis of neurasthenia harbored racial, gendered, and class-based assumptions. It was more often a disease of the upper classes and was generally prescribed to over-worked affluent men; in the lower working classes, according to Beard, “functional nervous diseases, except those of a malarial or syphilitic character” were rare.4

Yet, despite the often-convoluted descriptions, it is evident that psychiatrists made clear differences in diagnoses based on moral and class assumptions. And for remedies psychologists generally believed that male neurasthenics, or victims of “brain sprain,” needed time outside to exert the body and rest the mind, while women neurasthenics were told to get rest and stay in the home.5

19th-century cartoon critiquing the treatment of mental illnesses, “The physician of the period,” Puck (Dalympyre/Library of Congress)

The writers of Westworld, knowingly or not, incorporated some pretty clear themes from the neurasthenic experience. Take, for instance, the role of the guests, or the humans paying to visit the park. The show introduces us to William, one of the park’s most prominent guests. William reluctantly enters the Westworld because the family business he is marrying into is seeking to invest in the company that runs the park. William’s future brother-in-law, Logan, insists that William enjoy his time there and relax while indulging in the more “primitive” impulses.

Much like the upper-class neurasthenics of the turn of the century, men like William and Logan seek in the outdoors of Westworld an escape and cure from modern civilization. And much like the men curatively venturing into the woods to harness control over an uncontrollable world, William and Logan join guests who wield ultimate control over their hosts.

Next, consider the park’s hosts, the robots built to look like humans who are slowly gaining consciousness through the two seasons of the show. Peter Abernathy’s development is a more obvious connection to the history of neurasthenia. His reaction to the ultra-modern photograph is a metaphor for the nervous breakdown in response to “over-civilization,” or in this instance realizing the true meaning of what the park means for his existence. With an instance of clarity and in a sinister tone while addressing the park creators, Abernathy states, “You are in a prison of your own sins.” Breakdowns like this are not limited to Abernathy.

The show is rife with examples of hosts breaking the written code and either malfunctioning (mechanically breaking down) or wandering off into their own existence and harming themselves. In the worldview of men like Beard, Abernathy’s mind could not withstand modern life in the form of consciousness and knowledge of his place in the capitalistic and violent park system.

The human-host relationship is reminiscent of the power dynamics between the turn-of-the-century’s growing medical establishment and the relatively powerless patient. In the show, we also meet Bernard, a host built to resemble Arnold, the deceased co-creator of the park. Arnold had realized early in the park development how immoral the project was when he discovered that the robots were gaining consciousness, and forced Dolores to kill him when his partner, Dr. Robert Ford, refused to delay opening the park.

Ford (portrayed by Anthony Hopkins), created Bernard in such a way that he inherited all of Arnold’s memories, including those of his divorce and the painful death of his son. Ford and Arnold manufactured the park and hosts together, and through Bernard, Ford brought Arnold back into his life. Yet Ford wielded complete physical and mental control over Bernard, forcing him to kill, create, and eventually break down in his own right. Ford’s control over Bernard resembles the social-medical authority of turn-of-the-century physicians over the lives of neurasthenics, hysterics, and mentally-ill patients more broadly.

Medical histories of neurasthenia as told by physicians like George Beard often tell of men going into nature to harness their illness, as nature allegedly held out the hope of a cure through venturing far from modern and busy cities. With some exceptions, it is often a story of male triumph over tragedy.

Westworld tells a different story. Instead, it is women who are the powerful leaders who triumph over the neurasthenic diagnosis. Dolores Abernathy, for example, recurrently comes to terms with the true nature of her existence as a robot and just as often has that knowledge wiped. When she finally achieves full consciousness at the hands of Arnold through repeated sessions of what seems like therapy, she uses her newfound knowledge to destroy the very system that has imprisoned her.

Westworld logo (Wikimedia Commons)

Similarly, Maeve Millay, the host who runs a brothel, comes to the realization of her existence after manually increasing her cognitive ability by altering the system’s code. Just as Dolores benefitted from the complicated nature of her reality, Maeve used it to begin an odyssey to find her long-lost daughter and escape the park indefinitely. Thus the experiences of Dolores and Maeve illustrate that in Westworld, women harness the power of modern civilization and their existence in a complex world more capably than men.

Beard argued that neurasthenia was a human reaction to modern civilization manifested in nervousness, inebriety, and fatigue, among other symptoms. Despite the many assumptions embedded in his analysis, the truth is that nervous symptoms like anxiety, alcoholism, and drug addiction existed, and still exist, within a highly industrialized capitalist society driven by an emphasis on productivity, with vast inequities in wealth and health.

Symptoms seen in “neurasthenic” patients in many ways could have been the very real human responses to the real insecurities of the time, derived in part through a socio-economic system that seems to be just as prevalent in the plot of Westworld. Additionally, control over one’s body, mind, and economic and social security in both worlds seems limited at best. Hence, the very sense of a host revolt over the capitalistic system that controls them elicits a violent response.

In the real turn-of-the-century world, mainstream society did not often believe that the unhealthy capital-labor-medical system was causing these symptoms. Nor did patients diagnosed with neurasthenia collectively exert their patient power in ways that modern health and disability activists have. In Westworld, the tables have turned. Hosts like Dolores and Maeve recognized the wrongs of the system that created the park and profited from their exploitation, and they then took matters into their own hands to define their lived experience in their own way.

And today, thanks to powerful networks of activists, the realities are changing. The patient is beginning to exert more power in the medical-industrial complex, making problematic systems of profit more visible.

The popularity of a show that deploys these themes reveals that medical power is no longer solely within the hands of the medical antecedents of men like Beard. Nor is it completely in the hands of the private sector who have controlled access to health resources. It hints at Americans’ longing for a society where wealthy corporations don’t profit from human sickness and individuals wield power in bodily decisions.

Notes

  1. See William Irwin, James B. South, Kimberly S. Engels, eds., Westworld and Philosophy (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2018). Return to text.
  2. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Volume 1 (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 140. Return to text.
  3. George M. Beard, American Nervousness: Its Causes and Consequences, A Supplement to Nervous Exhaustion (Neurasthenia) (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1881). Return to text.
  4. Ibid., 92. Return to text.
  5. Michael S. Kimmel, Manhood in America: A Cultural History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). Return to text.

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