Pathological demand avoidance: Individual, societal, or both?


Theodor Adorno

I wrote recently about Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA). In particular, I focused on the possibility of reclaiming PDA as a positive label, arguing that while worries about the role of bio-politics in the construction of PDA are legitimate, existing analyses may nonetheless have overlooked the positive possibility and actuality of reclaiming PDA. My argument emphasised how Milton’s notion that PDA could be seen as an expression of autistic agency might be taken as supporting the PDA identity rather than undermining it. I did this by looking at PDA as a kind of resistance to neo-liberalism, and its unhealthy demands on us. It is worth reading the prior analysis before this one, as this post builds on the explanation and arguments developed there.

I received some helpful emails from PDAers since publishing the blog. I was particularly interested to hear of of PDAer Emily Wilding’s reclamation of the PDA construct as a “Persistent Drive for Autonomy”, which I think is consistent with the above analysis, if we consider how a neo-liberal services economy hinders and undermines the autonomy of those who do not fit its norms and structures. Helpfully, several noted that I failed to cover certain core aspects of PDA in my brief analysis. Most importantly, I overlooked how PDA doesn’t just involve avoiding the demands specifically associated with a Thatcherite culture. Rather, it is associated with the avoidance of all societal demands, including many things the PDAer actually wants to do. This could be anything from eating nice food to going to an event that was eagerly looked forward to. And yes, it is hard to see how such behaviours could fall in the scope of my previous analysis.

Still, I wonder if there’s further room to view the identity in a more humanising light even given the factors I overlooked in my first post. The background for my case comes from the philosopher and critical theorist Theodor Adorno (1903-1969). In his 1951 book Minimal Moralia, Adorno wrote about how, if a psychiatrist could analyse society as a whole, they might see “sickness proper to the time to consist precisely in normality”. Writing prior to the rise of the specific neo-liberal form of capitalism I discussed in the previous post, Adorno’s critique is of capitalism, and how it structures all our relations, more broadly.

More specifically, Adorno depicted a capitalist society in which everything was now is some sense bad or wrong. For under capitalism, individuals are ‘dragged along as an appendage of the process of material production’. Society as a whole, on this view, thus forms a kind of totality that is bad, and in turn this badness filters through to all the specific parts of society – even those things we like and want – tainting them with its wrongness. Even something so inane and nice as “slippers are monuments to the hatred of bending down.”

If this sounds unreasonably pessimistic, consider some contemporary examples: I want to go on holiday, but flying is bad for the environment; I want to eat the sandwich, but factory farming is hideously cruel; I want to order a present for my niece, but Amazon is a corrupt, tax-avoiding multi-national that mistreats its workers. Its hard to find something I want that is not tainted by the badness of a sick society.

Indeed, even if I think it is good to try and resist such badness, I will still find the taint. Say, I want to organise a boycott against Amazon; yet, it turns out to be impossible to do so without using a web space that is hosted on servers owned by Amazon, thus generating more profit for them. Or, I organise a climate protest; but it turns out that for the protest to happen, many people have to drive there, which means more money in the coffers of the oil companies who are largely responsible for the problem I want to protest. Even positive resistance that may have a good effect on the whole, retains at least an element of being tainted, feeding back into and reinforcing the capitalist whole.

Some find Adorno’s analysis too pessimistic (fair enough). But for those of us who are inclined to agree, this might further  open a less pathologising, more humane, way of understanding PDA. For in a society where everything is tainted, and in some sense bad, then it is perfectly reasonable to wish to avoid all of its demands. This may be to greater or lesser extents, and will different depending on the context – but it also holds for those things the PDAer genuinely wants to do. As with the examples I gave above, it is hard to find things we even genuinely want to do that aren’t tainted.

How far can this analysis be taken? It’s important here to acknowledge that the response of PDAers is more often a matter of impulse than rational or reflective deliberations. (Its not like all PDA children are constantly worrying about the ecological impact of, say, eating milk chocolate over the vegan option.) So it would overlook, perhaps risk trivialising, the lived experiences of many PDAers to depict PDA primarily as being some kind of rational or reflective resistance. Still, even if such an avoidance is an impulse, what we can say is that it may express functional instincts. The instinct to question, to resist demands that have a foul taint, as it were. Put simply, on the Adornian analysis, some individuals may instinctively scent the sickness of society, much as one can, say, instinctively mistrust someone based on a general feeling without being able to fully rationalise the mistrust.

In saying this, I certainly don’t mean to overlook how such can be disabling, anxiety inducing, and harmful for the PDAer, in a way that one may understandably wish to be free of. Indeed, as Adorno himself notes, “how comfortless is the thought that the sickness of the normal does not necessarily imply as its opposite the health of the sick, but that the latter usually only present, in a different way, the same disastrous pattern”. In other words, it is perfectly conceivable that PDA is in part a reaction against a sick society, yet still retains elements of that sickness itself — as, by Adorno’s logic, all of us do.