Exorcism of Subjectivity

Jan van Eyck (St Francis receiving the stigmata, 1432) detail.

“This creature knows and sees that he is lodged down here, among the mire and shit of the world, bound and nailed to the deadest, most stagnant part of the universe, in the lowest storey of the building, the farthest from the vault of heaven; ”
Montaigne (Essays)

“Now, if you obscure what is proper to language and psychic subjectivity in the human, the path to a fascistic scientism is opened up: you claim to understand man by examining his neurons, you treat his suffering without listening to his speech, bombarding him with medications in a purely mechanical fashion. Where is the subject in this? What happens to his singularity? It is held in contempt, whisked away.”
Elisabeth Roudinesco (Jacques Lacan, Past and Present)

“Since theatre ceased to make death its subject it surrendered its authority over the human soul.”
Howard Barker (Death, the One and the Art of Theatre)

“So what, precisely, is the knowledge that madness brings? Most probably, as it is forbidden knowledge, it predicts both the reign of Satan and the end of the world, ultimate happiness and supreme punishment, omnipotence on earth and the descent into hell. The Ship of Fools passes through a landscape of delights where all is offered to desire, a paradise regained of sorts, as men once more become strangers to necessity and want, yet without a return to a state of innocence. This false happiness is the diabolical triumph of the Antichrist, the End that is ever nigh.”
Michel Foucault (History of Madness)

Foucault, in his History of Madness, notes the transition from the 14th to the 15th centuries, and the escalations of interest in madness. Not just madness, of course, but a concern with uncertainty. And the expression of this intensification of anxiety can be seen in painting. The darkness of the 15th century masters, especially the Northern Renaissance, is indeed marked. Painters like Dieric Bouts and Bosch, Grünewald and Petrus Christus, Dürer, Joachim Patinir, and Gerard David. And this only touches on a very few. The engravings of Martin Schongauer, certainly, and my favorite Rogier van der Weyden. There was a developing fear of what was inside man. A fear of subjectivity.

“But the following century brought a vision of the world where knowledge and wisdom were destroyed. This was the great Sabbath of nature, where the mountains were washed away, bones poked up from graves and the earth vomited up its dead; the stars fell from the sky, the earth caught fire and all life died away as the reign of death began. This end was neither a passing moment nor a promise, but the coming of a night in which the ancient season of the world finally passed away. The four horsemen of the apocalypse in the Dürer engraving have indeed been sent by God, but they are no angels of Triumph or reconciliation, nor heralds of serene justice; they are bloodthirsty warriors out for mad vengeance. The world is sliding into universal Fury, and the victor will be neither God nor the Devil, but Madness itself.”
Michel Foucault (Ibid)

Stefan Lochner (The Last Judgement 1435) detail.

Toward the end of that first chapter, Foucault says something significant, I think. And it is something worth considering in light of the current (so called) ‘mental health crisis’. The painters of the Northern Renaissance, far more directly than the Italian, concern themselves with something dark and foreboding in the human soul. This was not just the apocalyptic narratives of Lochner or Bosch, but the more ostensibly pius works of painters like Robert Campin, and his student Rogier van der Leyen. The most technically convincing is, of course, Van Eyck (who had engraved on the frame of his famous self portrait, the motto ‘Als Ich Can’, or ‘best as I can’, which in Dutch is a pun… his last name is Eyck…best as Eyck can…..get it? Never mind). But I have had a perverse love of Van der Weyden, who captures something endlessly sorrowful and tragic. The most strange, almost certainly, and in a sense the most connected to the Foucault thesis, is Jean Hay (also known as Meister von Moulins). Below, at the bottom of this post, you see the main panel of his triptych at the Cathedral of Moulins, which might well appear like a Haight Ashbury concert poster from the 60s. Hay is among the most unsettling of painters. But throughout this work is an indelible questioning of something unconscious.

“Behind the critical consciousness of madness in all its philosophical, scientific, moral and medicinal guises lurks a second, tragic consciousness of madness, which has never really gone away. It is that tragic consciousness that is visible in the last words of Nietzsche and the last visions of Van Gogh. It is that same element that Freud began to perceive at the furthest point of his journey, the great wound that he tried to symbolise in the mythological struggle between the libido and the death instinct. And it is that same consciousness that finds expression in the work of Antonin Artaud. ”
Michel Foucault (Ibid)

I have said almost exactly this, vis a vis, art and (in particular) theatre for forty years. Critical consciousness of madness juxtaposed with the tragically mad. And it is insightful that Foucault singles out Artaud. My eldest son’s middle name is Antonin (which he often has to explain is not in honor of Scalia). Artaud was, when I first read him, an absolute revelation. It also triggered my sense of the deeper implications of theatre. That the off-stage, and not the stage itself, was the center of energy, and of meaning. But I will return to that below. (and it’s something I have written on a good deal in this blog).

Foucault suggests that…“Artaud never ceased to claim that Western culture lost its tragic focus the moment it finally forgot what he termed the great solar madness of the world, the violent ceremonies which enacted the life and death of ‘the great Fire Satan’.”

Well, yes, but not only. Still, this is basically correct. As far as it goes. Artaud asked why and, more, how humanism, that which perhaps began in the 1500s, so buried the sense of awakening found in a real confrontation with the tragic, and with madness. The answer was partly the narrowing of focus to man alone. Man as the measure of all things. But Artaud denounced text. His search was itself a kind of madness. And his writing ‘on’ the theatre is important not for any analytic insight but because of what he represented. Artaud was denouncing bourgeois society, not text. Denouncing the bourgeoisie is always embedded somehow in tragic expression.

Omar Rayo

“To give up on communism, or on any possible name for emancipatory exceptions, is to give up on the very form of true political desire. ”
Alain Badiou (Ibid)

Elisabeth Roudinesco makes a great point in her dialogue with Alain Badiou, when she notes that for Freud, the Sophoclean tragedy he privileged was Oedipus Rex, while for Lacan it was Oedipus at Colonus. The already shattered sovereign. The already ‘splintered’ ruler. Freud would always remain concerned with patriarchal authority, while Lacan was more concerned with what came after its demise. And this is a roundabout way to return to this fear of what is inside us. And to really understand the course this feeling, this emotion, has taken it is important, I think, at the very least to return to the Middle Ages. (It is clear, too, that one needs go back to Greece, and perhaps ancient China, too). But there is something else here that Badiou touches on. And it is the sense of radical liberatory feeling, and desire, and how many, from Adorno to Lacan were deeply ambivalent about much ‘revolutionary’ activism. Not with revolution, but with a trafficking in the appearance of revolution. I will return to this below (And on the heels of the reprehensible Gabriel Rockhill, late of a very expensive American liberal arts education and his smearing of the Frankfurt School comes Ben Norton repeating the same misinformation and revisionist history).

But Lacan, like Adorno, and to a degree Wittgenstein, is important because of their language. The style of their writing. Badiou notes that Lacan’s prose reflects the unconscious. Lacan is writing from the off-stage.

“…writing always give us more to think than you originally thought you understood, as if each phrase had a remainder that slipped away from all univocal comprehension. What is said is caught up in an act of saying that exceeds its immediacy and never lets itself be exhausted by its first theoretical capture. ”
Alain Badiou (Ibid)

Matthias Grünewald

One must attempt to write around our inherited instrumental logic. The fabric and grammar of language today is now infused with the ideology of scientism and positivism. And worse, as of the last twenty years it is increasingly cybernetic , in a sense. The language of Silicon Valley. Now, Lacan is a very polorizing figure in 20th century thinking. He straddles both psychoanalysis, but also philosophy. And it is the philosophical side that also crosses into political discourse.

“From his first seminars, held between 1953 and 1956, Lacan made the unconscious a language, showing that men and women are inhabited by a speech which constantly prompts them to the disclosure of their being. Subsequently, he deduced from this a theory of the subject determined by the primacy of the symbolic function; and he called the element constitutive of the acts and destiny of this subject the ‘signifier”.
Elisabeth Roudinesco (Lacan In Spite of Everything)

“With Lacan, inversely, writing is a kind of suffering. Writing was for him always a tragic test.”
Elisabeth Roudinesco (Lacan Past and Present)

Lacan was trying to trace the origin of the unconscious. One could say consciousness, too, but probably Lacan wouldn’t.

“Freud employed this noun (das Ding, The Thing) to refer to an irreducible kernel, an original experience, inaccessible to the subject, an unspeakable trace it could not name and in which it did not discern any object. { } The unnameable, then, the one found in the novels of Samuel Beckett and all the contemporary literature fascinated by abjection, filth, crime, autobiographical pathos, and direct plagiarism (without literary metamorphosis) of the life of others. ‘The Thing’ is the prehistoric, mute object buried in an abyss of destruction.”
Elisabeth Roudinesco (Lacan In Spite of Everything)

Tony Ray Jones, photography.

There is an important aspect to take note of in both Freud and Lacan, and it is evident in other ways in thinkers like Wittgenstein — and it is the manner of turning away from science, per se. In Wittgenstein’s case the turn happened before he ever wrote. But Roudinesco observed Freud left neurology behind, because, finally, it didn’t matter if the memories, or even the topography of the body was real. Lacan left behind optics and embryology because he, too, felt fantasy mattered far more. For Wittgenstein there was language first, and then one might discuss science, whether of colours or math. Although math is, in its way, fantasy, too.

This privileging of the imagination, perhaps of the imaginary, against the brute materialism, was subversive in many circles. The difficulty with Lacan is that he appropriated Freud’s ‘das ding’, and made of it, probably, his most important idea. Without going into great detail about Lacanian terminology, or the complex evolution of his ideas (which rivaled Freud’s) this ‘unspeakable trace’, this originary and archaic something, which is always ‘not there’, always out of reach, is somehow an ingredient in the formation of the unconscious. One might well say it is also an ingredient in the formation of the human, and if we wanted a cooking metaphor (which we already have, I guess) it would be a bit like yeast in the baking of bread. That is, if yeast were unknown to the baker (or to the bread, if you follow). But to step back just a moment, and note the infamous Sokal/Bricmont affair (google it). The only thing there is to say is that this was very low hanging fruit. What I find interesting in retrospect is that Sokal is a professor of math and physics. His special interest is in quantum theory. If one wants to be literal here, *metaphysics* is a study of that which is beyond or not of the physical. Like, oh, quantum theory. Now, I would be the first to acknowledge that a huge amount of post structuralist (and Lacanian) writing is terrible. And that’s why this hoax was such low hanging fruit. It is the same, in a sense, with vulgar marxism whose practitioners love to engage in a kind of left virtue signaling by uprooting the latest ‘anti communist’. (true or not) { see Ben Norton }. I digress. Lacan had a curious relationship to metaphysics, per se. For Lacan, meaning was never the first order of content, but eliminates the thinkability of content for the thinkability of an effect (this is a sort of paraphrase of Badiou). This is what I find important in Lacan. And it immediately raises issues of language and aesthetics.

Bridget Riley

The thinkability question is, in fact, tied into metaphysics. This was in short form the idea that contemporary physics, stuff like quantum theory, is proscribed by language, but not just language, but by the historical inheritance of metaphysical language.

This is perilously close to Heidegger when he talks about the Pre Socratics (well, and Plato). But in effect this notion is that (to be reductive) consciousness, or unconsciousness, or both, are restricted because of a certain turn in ‘thinking’ that reduced everything to only ‘what-it.is’. The birth of science, or scientific thinking, in a one sense. As Badiou puts it, ‘things come to be counted’. Things meaning non things, too. There, I hope that’s clear { joke }. The point is that actually Lacan (and Freud) were far more radical than Heidegger. For even my gloss here is Lacanian, and not scholastic or phenomenological, etc. By another route, Adorno came to much the same conclusion. Logical positivism was the culmination of things ‘coming to be counted’. But I will add a couple more notes vis a vis Badiou, on this particular point.

“Here we’ve reached an absolutely, intrinsically fundamental point. Lacan’s thesis is as follows: if you interrogate the One in terms of its being, you come back to that history of metaphysics as dis-being, you propose a thinking of the One in the Heideggerian sense, you interrogate the One in terms of its being with regard to the fate of the ontological question. That much I think can be said.”
Alain Badiou (Lacan )

The ‘One’ is what hides Freud’s ‘das ding’. Or tries to. The ‘One’ is ‘what-it-is’. For however you want to describe this; as originary action or activity that our mind (choose from a whole menu of words here, like soul or, buddha nature, et al) or something close to the reveal that is tragedy, it is behind, or before, the ‘coming to be counted’. It is normative.

“This means that the One as unifying unity in thought is really the norm for any subsequent determination of being.”
Alain Badiou (Ibid)

For Melanie Klein this ‘thing’ was the archaic form of the mother, and for other object relation theorists, it is primal attachment; some form of lost connectivity with birth, womb, breast, a broken bond or attachment, and this Beckett trace of unnameable psychic punctum has to confronted vis a vis language.

The idea of a self must be interrogated through, firstly, language, too. And it also returns this post to the topic of madness.

For Lacan, speech is the key that unlocks the human. It is why the figure of the Oracle has always fascinated me so much. I wrote somewhere that the secret of the Oracle was that she spoke. It was ‘just’ speaking. And that is theatre. (which Artaud didn’t understand).

Bartolome Bemejo (Descent of Christ. 1475) detail.

“There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.”
Ludwig Wittgenstein (Tractatus)

They are metaphysics. Wittgenstein also said ethics and aesthetics are one. This is an idea Adorno echoed, so did Heiner Muller, Howard Barker, and so have many others, mostly playwrights. Badiou has another book, in a series on what he calls anti-philosophy. And that book is on Wittgenstein. And it’s an inspired coupling (he has another on Nietzsche). But it is Lacan and Wittgenstein that so illuminate one another. Wittgenstein said God does not reveal himeslf *in* the world. God is, and this is true of Kierkegaard, too, I think, that which does not come to be counted.

Lacan is impossible to summarize, notoriously so. But for my purposes here his ideas on metaphysics, and his well known notions of the unconscious as structured like the unconscious, are hugely relevant.

At the end of a panel discussion, Roudinesco answers a question about Lacan’s importance…

“Lacan as a weapon of subversion against the current capitalist system: this capitalism of finance, dehumanized, with no people or subject, prone to slipping out of control…{ } To associate the categorical imperative with an imperative of jouissance in order to show that it is a matter of two sides of a same problematic: this is what allows one to be intelligently indignant about both sides of contemporary society, scientism and obscurantism.”
Elisabeth Roudinesco (Ibid)

Jonathan Wateridge

“It may be though that a degree of non-coherence is more essential to the experience of madness than it is to any other. Perhaps dispersal is a fundamental part of this experience, bringing us closer to the primordial facts than a diversity of modes of elaboration one could arrange along an evolutionary schema. And whereas in most other forms of knowledge, the object is slowly seized in the convergence of its profiles, here divergence might be inscribed in the structures themselves, authorising only a broken, fragmentary consciousness of madness from the outset, in a debate that could not end.”
Michel Foucault (Ibid)

A critical consciousness of madness (per Foucault) is only possible if set against a backdrop of normalcy, and well, sanity. But there has never been, really, a very clear demarcation.

“The merely critical consciousness that those outsiders have somehow deviated rests on the consciousness that they have chosen a different path, and there it finds its justification, at the same time becomes brighter and obscure, turning into unmediated dogma. This is not the troubled consciousness of being engaged in the difference and homogeneity of madness and reason, but rather the consciousness of the difference between madness and reason, a consciousness only possible inside the confines of the homogeneity of a group considered to be the bearers of the norms of reason. Although it is social, normative and has a solid base from the outset, this practical consciousness of madness is still dramatic, and while it implies solidarity inside the group, it also demonstrates the urgency of the partition.”
Michel Foucault (Ibid)

The problem that has developed over the last forty years (and one could argue longer) is the erosion of reason. And over the last, say, twenty years, the loss or shrinking of meaning. Here is why I spent so much time on Lacan (and Freud). The fear of what is inside us, the one Foucault described arising in the 14th century and on into the 15th and 16th even, is something that needs to be viewed from the perspective of AI today. This fear of subjectivity, as I put it, feels as if it a characteristic of being human. It obviously is shaped differently in different historical periods, and social treatment changes and state policies change, but perhaps *fear* of our unknown core drives ideas of this juxtaposition of madness and sanity.

Yasuhiro Ishimoto, photography.

The perspective society takes regarding mental illness (including the banalizing of its description) also effects the experience of non experience of aberrant psychological conditions. Certainly radical psychologists like R.D. Laing or Thomas Szasz emphasized the madness itself was social. The conditions of capitalism itself are irrational. Foucault notes that in the 14th century the madman was a recognizable figure. Not so by the 18th and 19th centuries.

“For their part, physicians and savants would interrogate madness itself, and the natural space that it occupied, treating it as another ill among many, the upsets of the body and the soul, a natural phenomenon that developed both in nature and against it. What we have then is a double system of interrogations that seem to look in two directions: a philosophical question, more critical than theoretical, and a medical question that implies an entire movement of discursive knowledge. One of these questions concerns the nature of reason, and the manner in which it authorises the division into the reasonable and the unreasonable; the other concerns what there is of the rational or the irrational in nature and in the fantasies of its variations.”
Michel Foucault (Ibid)

And here, again, one is faced with the inheritance of the Enlightenment. And perhaps also what the Enlightenment poached from the Renaissance. But the question is, then, how to identify reason. Not the normal, so much, but reason itself.

“The peculiar laugh of tragedy. The laugh on the rim of death.”
Howard Barker (Ibid)

Gunther Forg

What is the connection between the dwindling of tragedy and the growth of reason? Of a specific kind of reason. And in the 17th and 18th centuries the idea of madness was strictly in relation to reason. Reason as synonymous with normalcy. Boissier de Sauvages writes in 1772…

“To reveal the hallucination or the madness with which he is taken, he does not have to produce faulty syllogisms: the hallucination or the error in his mind is immediately discernible from the disparity that exists between his actions and the behaviour of normal men.”
François Boissier de Sauvages (Nosologie méthodique)

This is the voice of rationality, of reason. Reason became less about content and more about social demeanour in a sense. The man of reason was controlled, and here there is a reflection of class, something lacking in Foucault. The underclass were noisy, the cultured upper class quiet. And Foucault even notes that the desire for the societies (in Europe anyway) of the 18th century was to silence madness. To mute it.

“Historians like to speak of the period in Europe from the late fifteenth to the dawn of the eighteenth century as the early modern era. This was an age of great religious, political, cultural and economic transformations. It saw the withering of the feudal system and the rise of the nation state, the extension of trade and markets in Europe, the circumnavigation of the globe and the growing power of absolute monarchs…{ } And it saw the massive cultural transformations we over-schematically refer to as the Renaissance…{ } and the birth of the Scientific Revolution. Not to mention something that seemingly sits incongruously amid this list, except when one recalls the century of religious wars and blood-letting that accompanied the Reformation: witch-hunts all across Europe, a veritable epidemic of trials, tortures and executions – agonizing deaths most often inflicted by being burned alive, though other witches were hanged or drowned, dismembered or crushed to death under piles of rocks.”
Andrew Skull (Madness in Civilization)

Here it is worth noting that witches were believed to be ‘possessed’. Their ‘mad’ behavior was because of copulation with the devil (or a minion thereof). In the era of a Hobbes, a disbeliever in spirits, the vast majority of the *educated* (sic) DID believe in witches and the devil, in spirits and ghosts even. Men of reason, through to the start of the 19th century, were believers in possession and demonic influences in the world. So, the mad were something more than just possessed, they were ‘instantly recognizable’ but in what way? By what means?

Jenny Saville

“Felix Platter (1536–1614), who taught medicine at the University of Basle, encountered melancholics who ‘persuade themselves that they are damned, abandoned by God, and…fear the last judgment and eternal punishment’. Like other forms of ‘Alienation of Mind’, these disturbances were often ‘Natural, a certain affect so affecting the Brain the seat of Reason’. But equally, they might prove to be ‘Preternatural proceeding from an evil Spirit’.”
Andrew Skull (Ibid)

The most advanced thinkers of the 16th and 17th centuries, including Galileo and Isaac Newton practised astrology and alchemy. The doctors of the time bled and scarred and purged patients, they employed amulets and leeches. These were the men juxtaposed to the mad. In other words the differences between the world of the occult and the natural were not at all well drawn. The so called lunatic was often one who simply threatened violence and destruction (of property)– but in fact the numbers deemed lunatics were, according to records in England at least, relatively fractional. All of this points up that the advent of the 19th century may be the most significant of cultural boundaries. But madness permeated the cultural landscape and was represented in art from the 1400s through to the late 1700s. And certainly Shakespeare looms prominently. And tragedy was directly a theatrical action, an engagement, that existed outside the rationalizing principles and normalcy. If the fear of the hidden in ourselves that motivated cultural expression (and societal anxiety) in the early 15th century, perhaps most notably in the north of Europe, then that fear never disappeared but it was alleviated to some degree by an increasing institutionalization of reason.

Skull makes a very insightful observation that in music, in 1781, Mozart’s Idomeneo was increasing rhythmic complexity in the interest of emotional complexity, ….but also “The music acquires a furious intensity. Elettra gives expression to her despair and her anger, her voice soaring, then dissolving into fragmentary hysterical cries, while the agitated orchestral accompaniment mixes syncopation and harmonically unstable elements with dissonance, an explosive combination that evokes her raging, tormented soul. Handel had used repetition in ‘Orlando’, perhaps to suggest the compulsions of madness, and Elettra’s aria is notable too, as Daniel Heartz has emphasized, both for stammering repetitions in Elettra’s singing, and for ‘a turning figure, repeated incessantly in the strings like a haunting obsession’.”
Andrew Skull (Ibid)

Enzo Cucchi

Repetition and madness. Obsession. Freud’s insights into and his emphasis on repetition are of great importance here. In one sense the growing institutionalization of reason gave forth to cultural expressions of unreason. The tragic had migrated and become codified. Unreason and madness were becoming more codified, too. That obsessive repetition in Handel has migrated into the controlled obsessive manipulating of smartphone screens.

There is today, a strange sclerosis of institutional authority. On the one hand we live in an age of increasingly blind acceptance of all authority. On the other hand that authority itself is increasingly coercive and arbitrary. And here again class needs to be emphasized. In the age of electronic media the visibility of skepticism is limited. What ‘is’ visible is controlled and vetted. And the working class plays almost no role in the vetting. Actually they play absolutely no role in it. The world of reason is pre-packaged and anodyne. The juxtaposition with *madness* is opaque. Madness is now mental illness. And while governments accept and even announce a mental health crisis, the definition of mental illness is highly prescribed.

The victorian age saw a huge increase in the building of asylums for the ‘insane’. This spread throughout Europe and even into the colonies. The locking away of the mad served several purposes for the state, and for wealthy. It was a clear mechanism to simply disappear an unwanted population.

“In England and Wales, more than 150,000 patients were to be found locked up in mental hospitals on any given day during the 1950s; in the United States the figure was nearly four times that many. Throughout Europe, mass confinement of the mad had been the rule from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, and the pattern was replicated wherever the West made its presence felt.”
Andrew Skull (Ibid)

Lucas Cranach the elder (Christ and Mary Magdalene) 1512

Mental hospitals continued to rise up through the early post war period. After the horrors of Nazi death camps came to public attention, the idea of asylums came under a new scrutiny. But the decline didn’t really begin until the discovery of chemical asylums appeared.

“The downturn in American and British mental hospital populations began in the mid-1950s, coinciding almost precisely with the introduction of the first modern drug treatment for major mental illness. Chlorpromazine, marketed as Thorazine in the United States and Largactil (or ‘large action’) in Europe and elsewhere, was approved for sale by the United States Food and Drug Administration in 1954 (for more on this, see below). Thirteen months later, it was being given to two million people in that country alone. Most psychiatrists hailed the therapeutic breakthrough they claimed this represented. Instead of relying on crude empirical treatments including the various shock therapies, or the even cruder surgical intervention that was lobotomy, the profession could now prescribe and administer that classic symbolic accoutrement of the modern physician – drugs.”
Andrew Skull (Ibid)

There were other factors, though, in the deinstitutionalising of the mentally ill. Economics played a role, clearly, but it was more than that. Critics of conventional ideas about mental health, like the aforementioned Laing and Szasz helped change the ideology of treatment, but it was likely Erving Goffman’s Asylums (1961) that played the most significant role.

“Goffman sought to produce something very different from the dense descriptions of other sociologists, attempting instead to demonstrate that mental hospitals as a class were what he called ‘total institutions’, places where work, sleep and play all took place in the same constricting environment. Life under such circumstances, he argued, proved massively damaging to those confined. Behaviours that looked pathological to the outsider were, on the contrary, understandable responses to the grossly deforming impact of mental hospital existence. Long-continued residence in such places tended inexorably to damage and dehumanize the inmates, who were ‘crushed by the weight’ of what, on close inspection, was essentially a ‘self-alienating moral servitude’.”
Andrew Skull (Ibid)

So here again there appears the paradox of adjustment to the irrational. If society is irrational, then adjustment to this flawed model is itself irrational. And to return to Lacan, there remains a lurking and hidden fear, a deep existential anxiety that cannot legislated away.

Richard Anuszkiewicz

“They have served to remove the patient from the scene of his symptomatic behavior…but this function has been performed by fences, not doctors. And the price that the patient has had to pay for this service has been considerable dislocation from civil life, alienation from loved ones who arranged the commitment, mortification due to hospital regimentation and surveillance…”
Erving Goffman (The Insanity of Place, 1971)

Sounds a bit like the lockdown protocols for Covid.

The pandemic provided the state with a justification to return to thinking that was prevalent during the Victorian era. But of course more than that, for the lockdowns took on ideological importance and allowed for a normalizing of thinking that was (and is) closer to the 12th century treatment of lepers.

Cutting across the story of the 20th century treatment of the mentally ill comes the role of eugenics. And again class. The idea that science could provide definitions of biological degeneration and inferiority were embraced wholesale at the turn of the 20th century (and provided a model for Nazi, Germany).

“These mental gymnastics point to a larger problem that the theory of degeneration created for psychiatrists and for patients and their families. For the former, biological determinism provided an excuse for therapeutic failure and a new rationale for the institutions over which they presided, at the price of their claims to be part of a therapeutic profession. For patients and their families, it added a layer of shame and disgrace on top of the stigma that traditionally clung to the mad. The poor folk who contributed the bulk of those confined in what were now called “mental hospitals” were largely powerless to contest these realities and would not have been listened to anyway. ”
Andrew Scull (Desperate Remedies)

Here is the logic of the Enlightenment, again. And a logic that provided cover for class assault. Another worthy sidebar is to remember that in the late 1800s, those suffering from syphilis, and there were very many, were diagnosed, often, as insane. The condition was called General Paralysis of the Insane (GPI). Even after the discovery of a cure for syphilis, many were admitted to asylums for GPI.

Eric Gyamfi, photography.

There remains this fear of the subjective. And there is a social and ideological implication to identifying the mad. They are the *other*.

“The madman is the other in relation to the others, the other, in the sense of an exception, amongst others, in the sense of the universal. All forms of interiority are therefore banished: the madman is self-evidently mad, but his madness stands out against the backdrop of the outside world, and the relation that defines him, exposes him wholly, through objective comparisons, to the gaze of reason. Between the madman and the subject who notes ‘that man is mad’, a gulf emerges, which is no longer simply the Cartesian void of ‘I am not that man’, but is filled instead with the plenitude of a double system of alterity. It is a distance filled with boundary markers, which can thus be measured and can vary: the madman is different to a greater or lesser degree in a group of people which in turn is more or less universal. The madman becomes relative, the better to be stripped of his powers: once that uncanny presence within, perilously close in the thought of the Renaissance, lurking in the heart of reason, he is now expelled to a different realm, where the danger he presents is disarmed. Doubly so, in that what he now represents is the difference of the Other in the exteriority of others.”
Michel Foucault (Ibid)

The rise of bio-psychiatry and the authority given the Diagnostic Manual, has accelerated the already de-humanizing aspects of treatment for those deemed mentally ill. The erasure of the figure of the ‘madman’ has meant the erasure of subjectivity.

“In the drive to produce a universal and objective classification, and to provide a Procrustean bed into which every individual’s psychopathology can and must be fitted, the central goals of those working within the DSM paradigm are to eliminate so far as is possible individual clinical judgment, with all the differences of opinion that inevitably flow from relying on something so mutable; and to banish human subjectivity more generally.”
Andrew Skull (Ibid)

In a society today that increasingly manufactures new distractions daily, most of them linked to smart phones and computers, a good percentage of the populace has abandoned reading altogether. Thirty years ago people had largely stopped reading books (unless in school) and read magazines. Today they read nothing. They go to platforms like TikTok or Instagram that make sure there is NOTHING to read. On a basic level this has meant people so habituated suffer a shrunken inner life. It is no longer clear that the western populace even has an inner life. But more significantly, the role of marketing and propaganda is enormous. Politics is pure marketing today. And it is becoming more clear that the Covid protocols have served to cultivate (though this was already existing to some degree) an atmosphere of paranoia, and of rote obedience. Dissent has perhaps never been more stigmatized. In a society in which the skills for discernment and informed judgement have atrophied, the ability to evaluate propaganda has been acutely damaged. Certainly this is evident in the educated (mostly white) bourgeoisie. The political is presented on all sides, left, right, and center, with prepackaged pablum, bromides and revisionist kitsch histories. For the left, the ascension of well financed and professionally designed internet sites and appealing (almost exclusively white and University educated) spokespeople deliver messages that appear to be radically dissenting, but are not. Dig just a little bit and you find the Imperialist west is ultimately granted permission to carry on as before. The message is the state and its technical experts know best. The global south needs, above all else, more help from the white saviors of the advanced west.

Andrew Tshabangu, photography

The idea of madness, then, is even more ephemeral than it ever has been. Under cover of a constant assault on difference, an enforced conformism, and a demand to not offend, ANYONE, the banalizing of the idea of reason and unreason results in the pure solipsism of transhumanists public intellectuals (sic) like Harari or the puerile jargon of a Jordan Peterson. The sound of radicalism, or the experience of it in art, is ever more rare. Everything is designed to waste your time. To mentally fatigue you and depress you. But that’s ok, there is a pill for that.

The last act in this new authoritarian apparatus is the removal of human faces and voices. The last foothold for subjectivity is disappearing.

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Master of Moulins (Jean Hay). (central panel of Moulins triptych.) 1498


  1. George Mc says:

    The Roudunesco quote (“…if you obscure what is proper to language and psychic subjectivity in the human, the path to a fascistic scientism is opened up: you claim to understand man by examining his neurons, you treat his suffering without listening to his speech…..”) put me in mind of the character of House MD played by Hugh Laurie who avoided face to face contact with his patients because “everybody lies” – with clearly no consideration that even the lies are important as an indicator of disease. No – in the world of this series, all consciousness is banished apart, of course, from the consciousness of House himself which is taken as absolute objectivity.

  2. John Steppling says:

    I’m doing an interview tomorrow, part of that Thinking Thomas series. Its the second one I’ve done. Anyway, he wants to talk about theatre. So I was reading some old posts. And these comments appeared and I thought our dialogue here:

    “Russell Jacoby wrote something very pertinent to this:
    “Freudian concepts exposed the fraud of the existence of the “individual.” To be absolutely clear here: the Freudian concepts expose the fraud, not so as to perpetuate it, but undo it. That is, unlike the mechanical behaviorists, the point was not to prove that the individual was an illusion; rather it was to show to what extent the individual did not yet exist. To critical theory, psychoanalysis demonstrates the degree to which the individual is de-individualized by society.”

    and ” I was reminded of T.J. Clark’s analysis of Jackson Pollock. I don’t think anyone ever wrote as beautifully or correctly about Pollock. (see Farewell to an Idea). But one point he made was that Pollock worked incessantly against metaphor. And without getting into this in any detail one point Clark made was that it wasn’t just the abstraction. For…to quote Clark…“A painting could very well be purged of all traces and afterimages of likeness, in the way Fried celebrates, and still not do the work
    against metaphor I have just been describing. We could have – I think we do have – a strictly “optical,” anti-figurative abstract painting which all the same stood in a reiterative relation to the imaginary orders of a world we think we know. An inert relation, Pollock would reckon. A relation to Nature, for instance, in which nothing of that dismal category was put under pressure.”

    and ““In the 1950 paintings, Adorno might say, the poles of metaphor tend to split apart and simplify. On the one hand, the figures of dissonance become schematic, black and white: dissonance recognizes itself as mimesis, as handwriting, as theater of some sort: it is extracted from the mix of sensuousness. Number 32, 1950 is the prime example. And on the other, Nature returns – Lavender Mist, Autumn Rhythm, One – metaphors whose very breathing completeness carries within it the sign of a practice coming to an end.”
    T.J. Clark (Ibid)”

    as for House, I remember rather enjoying that show in a guilty pleasure sort of way. Part of it is that Laurie is very good. Too good for TV probably but he infused this shlock with a kind of depth it otherwise didn’t deserve.

  3. George Mc says:

    That reading of Freud ironically reverses the Conservative critique of Marx I.e the critique that complain that Marx doesn’t care about the individual who, as conceived by this conservative view, already existed fully formed at the beginning. All of which suggests that Conservatives are actually opposed to the emergence of the individual.

  4. I was enjoying your article until you wrote the phrase “Nazi death camps”. My God, even the most thoughtful and antiestablishment people are brainwashed. Open your mind and don’t be so arrogant to think that you have avoided all the regime’s propaganda conditioning.


  5. Regino Robainas says:

    Yeah, what the world and we lack is a
    sense of reverence, i.e. self-reverence
    in place of the zombie slave morality
    that will no pride or ethics just to
    get their piece of system cheese. Both
    East and West and all directions. As
    Nietszche wrote, we need a transmutation
    of values. Enough insulting Behaviorism ,
    logical positivism, and statistics.

  6. John Steppling says:

    You get this one. Dont come back, ok? Linking Nazi sympathizers, far right bigots and Hitler admirers is not something I tend to accept. Something rather sad about this nutter being Yehudi Menuhin’s son. That can’t have been easy. I saw Menuhin pere many years ago in one of his Ravi Shankar tours. You know, Shankar….one of the mud people—- sub continent scum etc. It also worries me you enjoyed anything I wrote.

  7. Regino Robainas says:

    John, the unusual placement
    of your commentt as following my
    remark may confuse some to think
    that the exorcism of the fascist
    referred to me. Let’s exorcise
    as nuch of the Christian and
    Zionist bourgeoisie as we can


  8. Regino Robainas says:

    It seems very clear by now that we face
    & must confront bigger infestatons of
    the horrible roots of our decaying empire
    tracing back to our beginnings

    While we should not expectt to agree with
    each other on every matter of concern, or
    want to construct a medieval cannon of
    respectibility, our minimal standard should
    be no fascists allowed.

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