This is a post about mental health, madness as a kind of resistance as well as a kind of suffering, and dealing with prejudice and oppression. I’m not going to go into particularly horrendous triggering territory, but I will be talking about prejudice and instances of prejudice around race and gender and mental health.
Also note: I’m talking about a lot of different oppressions here. These oppressions are not all the same. As much as I’m talking about the connections between them, these oppressions are not all the same, and I am not claiming all of them as my own.
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Freedom is a Constant Struggle
The producers Arika just put on an extraordinary weekend at the Tramway called Freedom is a Constant Struggle: a weekend-long exploration and celebration of American black radical arts and connected forms, with performances and events from many extraordinary luminaries of that movement, including Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, and M. NourbeSe Philip. My jaw dropped when I saw the programme — to have these amazing people gathered together in community in Glasgow (Glasgow!) was quite wonderful.
One of the events was a discussion with Fred Moten, a poet, educator and academic in black studies. This event was an hour-long tour through critical race theory, a free-moving, explorative, extraordinary piece of education and discourse. Moten spoke personally and theoretically, linking the material and the discursive, moving through some of the key ideas in critical race theory: black sociality as criminality and resistance, art as an expression from black social space, the monumental horror of Passage and the fugitive state within that. Towards the end, he spoke, with a sense of resignation, about Obama. “That other one,” he described him, after talking about Bush. “Yeah, welcome to the club of people mad enough to think they want to run the world. Because only a madman would think he wants to run the world!”
Well, that line got a good laugh and warm clapping, which it deserved, because it was a good line. But something upset me about it. There was a question session later, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to say anything, and then I did. I was terrified, feeling like a peely-wally wee scrote for bringing it up, which is not an uncommon feeling when doing a kind of calling out. I said something like:
“So, I see what’s happening with that line. It’s a good line. You’re giving some kind of claim to reality and thus sanity to the idea that the world cannot and should not be run. And that’s important. But, well… You’ve been talking about various otherings, blackness mostly, but also queerness and femininity, as fugitive spaces, connected to resistance and freedom. And to me madness belongs with those things. I mean… to me some madness, depression, anxiety are all quite reasonable responses to life under capitalism. So… I wondered if you’d like to speak to the material and theoretical connections between blackness and madness.”
He thought for a moment, and then he talked a little about Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation, which is probably the right thing to reference in these circumstances. Then he stopped mid-flow, and rethought, and said something really beautiful, some words that I will hold with me for a long time:
“Well. You just caught me giving them something I shouldn’t be giving them. We don’t want to give them anything we might want later, There’s that Howlin’ Wolf song, where he says, he says maybe we might want to hold on to evil. Yeah, we might need that. So maybe let’s not give them anything. Let’s not give them any adjectives. Let’s just say there’s something wrong with them. Let’s just call them bosses, and leave it at that.”
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Freedom is a Constant Moaning
I suppose I asked the question that I did, worked up my chutzpah in that way, because I’m trying to deal internally with ableist language — that is, language that makes uses of prejudices about disability. Particularly, I’m trying to deal with the self-hate and other-hate that’s entailed in the regular pejorative use of “crazy”, “mad”, “lunatic” and so on. (That’s by far the end of ableist language, so for more about it see discussions like this one in Bitch and this one at Super Opinionated.) I’m well aware that while I have a strong (but of course imperfect) sense of language that’s sexist, racist and homophobic, this is something I’m much less aware of in my daily practices, despite its closeness to me. So I’ve made a decision to get better at it, and asked for help, to be called out myself.
One of the results of this is that I am getting more aware of the presence of this language and behaviour around me, and more angry when I encounter it. This week America failed to pass gun control legislation. The Onion satirical newspaper was angry, and wrote a series of gobsmacked articles about the failure. In several of these, they brought up the idea that the most powerful argument in favour of background checks was that, without them, “mentally ill” or “mentally unstable” people might be able to get hold of guns.
Just in case you were wondering: mental illness is not why we need gun control:
As a group, people with mental health issues are not more violent than any other group in our society. The majority of crimes are not committed by people with psychiatric illness, and multiple studies have proven that there is very little relationship between most of these diseases and violence. The real issue is the fact that people with mental illness are two and a half to four times more likely to be the victims of violence than any other group in our society.
It is not only mad people who shoot people. Shooting people does not necessarily make you mad. In fact, countries with a gun culture and a military culture, like America, spend a lot of time and energy legitimising shooting people, making it necessary and desirable for people to be shot, making shooting people an entirely sane act — with sanity and madness, obviously, defined as binary by the state’s structures of legitimisation and discipline. And constructing narratives where mental illness is dangerous is a sure route to keeping mental health issues closeted, to keeping people who are suffering shameful and scared, to taking away structures of support. This is one reason why the language and behaviour of ableism is so destructive.
(Aside inspired by the people at Crash Course: the Federalist Papers, the wellspring of the US Constitution, made the argument for the Second Amendment that citizens should always have access to the same weapons as their government. Meaning that what’s frightening is not that mad people can get guns, but that the government (no adjectives, just bosses) can get unmanned drones and suitcase nukes and mad people can’t.)
And yet, and yet. What, then, does it mean to hold on to our adjectives? When do we get to use them and how? You’ll note that I’ve allowed myself to use “mad” in the previous paragraphs, because I think it’s important and not prejudicial in this context. Words, language objects, do not have an existence independent of their sociohistorical context — dealing with prejudice is not just a matter of learning the right word list. Understanding this fully, in an embodied way, is vital to ensuring that we can call each other out (as we must do) without becoming cops: ensuring we can call each other out as neighbours.
There’s a deeper argument I’m reaching for here, and struggling to frame. I have a suspicion of the word-list approach to overcoming oppression, not really because some people behave like cops with them (and I do think we must call each other out, and I do also know that often “you’re shutting down the discussion!” is used as an excuse by arseholes to stay arseholes, and I do also believe that sometimes behaving like a neighbour means getting really angry when you have to), but because I suspect that sometimes they’re just part of a liberal assimilationist discourse. That if we can just get enough people not to say “crazy” we can be part of the same society. That calling out is sometimes not a form of resistance at all, but a form of capitulation, a way of saying “I give up. This society will always oppress me. I admit it. So you don’t need to verbally insult me any more.” In other words: I believe we need the word lists, but what I want most of all is to make each of the words on them my own, to claim it for myself, and to not give them to the bosses. And yes, calling out is part of the process of holding on to our words.
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Freedom is a Constant Dying
A while ago I was researching mental health practices in radical social movements. Ideas of the social construction of madness (Foucault, aye, and Laing, and more) are pretty common in radical politics, unsurprisingly. The response to that seems to come in two main forms. The first is work like Mindful Occupation: Rising Up Without Burning Out — practical guides to mutual support, to dealing with mental health crises as a radical community, to trauma and tranquility. The second is work like the Icarus Project, whose tagline is “navigating the space between brilliance and madness”. They do practical work too, especially on radical peer support groups for mental health, but they’re also engaged in celebrating and valorising some aspects of the mad experience. They seem to have begun by engaging particularly with bipolar, which in its manic phases can be extraordinarily creative; there’s an argument that there’s a kind of freedom in this, a kind of liberation, or at least something beautiful. That in mania’s rejection of standard routines of capitalist production, in its resistance to normative sociality, there’s something to celebrate.
Now, I’m not going to be too critical about that. But I was talking to a close friend about it once, and they called some kind of bullshit on it. They’re not bipolar, suffering more from forms of depression and anxiety. “I don’t have a phase where I’m a beautiful unique butterfly,” they said. “There’s nothing to celebrate for me. It just feels fucking awful.” True. One result of that is that when I read about things like Mad Pride, my first thought is to initiate something called Mad Shame. That is, pointing out what Gay Shame points out: that Pride movements are very easily co-opted by oppressive discourses of liberal self-fulfilment, that there’s something toxic in being given specific and legitimised places to be proud of yourself in when your life is delegitimised in every other spaces, that assimilation is impossible and not desirable anyway.
Talking first about trans identities in relation to similar issues, but with wider implications, Terre Thaemlitz, who appears in the next Arika episode in May, has this to say, worth quoting at length:
It is a preconception that trans-folk are “creative” and “talented,” whether it be a cliché MTF talent for performativity, or a cliché FTM talent for invisibility. This is not unlike the preconception that those in the autistic spectrum must also be savant. Or the preconception that blind people are inherently talented at music. Or the preconception that all physically challenged people can become Paralympians. Or the preconception that all mentally challenged people can become Special Olympians. Each of these misguided preconceptions relies on countless unspoken issues of mobility and access, on both social and subjective levels. Each of these preconceptions omits the home ridden and closeted. And each of these preconceptions demands of people a peculiarly optimistic brand of individual performance and self-actualization that is interwoven with the value systems of contemporary global humanism and capitalism.
Over the years I have written and spoken many times against the language of positivity, optimism, hope, dreams and PrideTM, as cultivated within the ideological mechanisms of globalization. In particular, I am concerned with how the cultural demand for positivity in all aspects of life enacts a reciprocal prohibition on negativity. This prohibition extends to critical discourses from the Left as well. I consider negativity an indispensible aspect of any cultural endeavor that frames itself as “critical.” What is “resistance” if not a negative push against domination? Conversely, what shame-based system of domination does not associate its own power with goodness, pride and positivity? Like it or not, the language of positivity is infused with an ideological desire for power-sharing, and not actual divestments of power.
from We Are Not Welcome Here.
Again, here is a claiming of negative space. Here, holding on to adjectives does not necessarily mean celebrating them, does not mean being proud of our adjectives, bur rather it means fully embodying their negativity and their resistance. This will sometimes look like joy and this will sometimes look like shame; mostly, it will look like both at the same time.
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so where does this leave us? How do we move from a world in which we are fugitives to a world in which we are free? How do we claim that criminal state hard enough and long enough until it collapses? What would that collapse look like? Is it even what we want? I don’t know. They say that freedom is a constant struggle. They say that freedom is a constant sorrow. They say that freedom is a constant dying. Oh lord, we’ve died so long we must be free. We must be free.
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