23 December 2009

Continentalist Blithering - Feel Free to Practice Your Textual Hermeneutics

I feel obliged* to warn you all that this post has a high content of continental philosophy, pseudo-structuralism and a dash of queer theory tossed in for "funsies".

After the last post, I have Foucault's Madness and Civilisation on the brain. The question I keep returning to is how one might live out one's madness as a valid instantiation of being in the world whilst also not doing so in a manner that is alienating.

My reading of Foucault comes through the filter of the bias footnoted below and I make no claim as to it's being particularly the best reading. Because of this, I intend to stick to the ideas that reading Foucault has given me rather than trying to elucidate the text. Here endeth the disclaimer.

Rights talk is more than a little incoherent philosophically but it is a very useful way of talking about the privileged space that should be accorded the individual within a society. Because of the way human rights play into the way in which the mad are treated, it is perhaps the most appropriate way for me to approach this question of how to live out madness validly.

Oh God: It has just become stunningly clear and perspicuous to me that this is going to take much longer to write than I intended and it's late. I'm copping out.

I will stop with a question. Might the mad have a human right to be mad insofar as it is subjectively desirable and does not lead to harming others? If so, how would this work? The axiom I take for this is that madnesses are unique, that they are not total and as such are a valuable, non-fungible individual experience. Our current ways of treating madness implicitly devalue madness and deny that the content of madness has in it anything relevant to the human experience. Is this right? Does this infringe on the right to self-expression?

No, this is not going to be an anti-psychiatry rant. Psychiatry has done great things for me. But it's not perfect and it's worth using new ways to analyse it as a whole.

More soon and in the meantime, I welcome everyone's thoughts on the matter.


*I am obliged by my increasing Anglo-American Analytic Philosophy bias - the LSE tends to entrench any such tendencies. In real life, these distinctions matter less and less but they do persist in that we study the philosophers who wrote when the distinction was more real.


  1. (I've had a real struggle posting a response to this since Blogger deems my comment too long). Hence I've had to copy and past it in 2 sections....

    It's been over 16 years since I read 'Madness and Civilisation' and my frayed copy is at home on a shelf, 75 miles south of where I am now so I can't refer back to said text.
    However, I remember not quite being able to take its premise seriously enough given the historical inaccuracies (or rather the selectivity of the evidence to support the thesis) it revealed. I think I quibbled over the so called 'great confinement' which, Monsieur Foucault rather sweepingly identified as a total European phenomenon occuring some time in the latter half of the 17th century (if it happened at all then it was most widespread in the 19th).
    However, that's all pendantry.
    I too have mixed feelings about the anti-psychiatry accusations of the debasement of the mentally-ill, plus the extent to which mental illness is less a natural fact and more a cultural construct, sustained by a grid of administrative and medico-psychiatric practices (which will always be with us IMO). Yet evidently such ponderings always come back to questions of freedom and control, knowledge and power (as Foucault rightly proposed).
    .... to be continued....

  2. ...Psychiatry has come along way, as has treatment of the 'mentally ill'. I don't have much experience of either but I am mostly impressed by the humane attitude of the hospital where I work, the fact that inpatients have access to us (lovely advice workers) and advocates (quasi-legal folk that help negotiate their right to the kind of treatment they feel is or isn't appropriate). I spend quite a lot of time in meetings, 'awareness' days etc where the emphasis is on non-pathologising mental illness, recognising each individual's specificity and 'normalising' mental-unhealth (for goodness sake, they even called it 'mental wealth' on my training last week!)
    Most people I meet whose opinions I respect on this matter are usually in agreement over the issue that mental-unwellbeing is really only truly a problem if and when it causes distress to either or both the individual and others. Of course, we could argue infinitely over the origins and management of the distresses with the likely outcome of resorting back to questions of social control.
    In my limited experience, socio-economic factors are key when it comes to separating the undesirable from the esteemed species of 'madness'. For example, I've been helping a man who was sectioned after sitting outside his house naked on a sofa one summer afternoon (he didn't understand why this marked him out as 'ill', stating, quite rightly - 'If I was living in the Caribbean, the neighbours would have joined me rather than called the police'). I frequently enjoyed similar when living on a remote farmstead in Southern France where no one seemed to find it especially unusual (farmers often drove tractors clad only in grubby Y-fronts). This man, however, lived on a council estate, was out of work and had poor literacy skills - all of which conspired to land him in hospital with a diagnosis of bipolar plus a personality disorder. Context is everything.
    On the other hand, madness is often 'subjectively desirable' in the more privileged classes. Steven Fry, Jeanette Winterson et al. all claim to have privileged insight and creativity as a consequence of their 'mood-disorder' and the most part of the public respect that, regard them as unique and gifted individuals and enjoy the fruits of their 'nuttiness' without recourse to pathologising. (plus neither have been hospitalised nor medicated)
    Bottom line; social class determines the extent to which you have a 'right to be mad' - at least 75% of the time - just as it determines your entitlement to most other things (tax evasion, fraud, sexual indiscretion and so on) without excessive penalties or criminalisation.
    I don't think I've answered your question. I could have another bash at this when I’m back home, have dug out my 20 year old lecture notes and am not being force-fed gin and tonic every 2 hours!
    Have a lovely Christmas ( I really do mean to reply to your kindly mail just as soon as I get a quiet moment where i don't have to wrap presents or taste-test Cranberry sauce)

  3. Thank you for the really excellent comments! If it's all right with you, I'd like to put them in the follow up post.

  4. By all means and feel free to edit (I don't give quite so much thought to grammar,structure, spelling etc. when writing comments)!
    While not a philosopher (I come more from the anthropological/historical tradition), I'm really fascinated by these issues - as I think you know. In fact I now remember the first time i came accross your blog and left you that great long rambling comment about the Ancients!!
    Look forward to future installments.

  5. There are a lot of aspects to my madness that I find impossible to live with, and I do appreciate psychiatry for giving me a way to get rid of those things. But going to psychiatry to get rid of those things means I am in mental health care, where they also want to rid me of some of the madness that I do appreciate. In my mind, mental health care should be given based on how much one's mental state interferes with what s/he wants out of life. There are fears that I have that might get in the way of the things some people want in life, like getting married and having kids, but because I do not want those things, I see no need to work through those fears; they aren't worth it to me. (And even if my lack of desire in those areas is because of those fears, I still feel like I have plenty of desire for plenty of things; more than enough to fill up multiple happy lifetimes.)

    Let me keep the madnesses that I like (my pessimism) or that don't bother me (those fears). I will tell you which ones I want to get rid of. Let me improve my life on my terms; it is MY life after all.

  6. Thanks Kate!

    Jessa- I think you make a very strong point. Why would anyone be motivated to root out all things that could be called madness if they did not believe madness to be meaningless or useless experience? When the privilege of making the distinction is entirely removed from the individual it interferes with that individual's rightful autonomy.

    I'll be back to this after Boxing Day.