Madness, Freedom, Resistance: Three Stories

Personal, Politics, Rambles

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.

* * *

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.”

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

Oh lord,

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.

Anger and Twitterstorms

Personal, Politics, Rambles

In Suzanne Moore’s article Seeing red: the power of female anger, she wrote of said anger, “Cherish it, for this is how the future will be made.” She also made an ill-thought off-hand quip about the body shape of a “Brazilian transexual”. This, understandably, pissed people off. Some of them protested calmly, some angrily. She dug in, exposing that there had indeed been some anti-trans* prejudices simmering away in her all along. People got more angry. It was a twitterstorm, where the updates on an issue progress faster than you can read them, where popular twitterers feel obliged to contribute their comments alongside the impassioned multitude, where the anger about the news became a print and broadcast news story itself. With powerful anger directed at her, Moore understandably didn’t find it so easy to cherish.

In the original article, Moore wrote that “Women’s rage is also never seen as what we say it is actually about. It is inchoate, unreadable and uncontrollable.” In the Guardian article about the twitterstorm she wrote that the rhetoric of intersectionality, which has been directed angrily at her, “refuses to engage with many other political discourses and becomes the old hierarchy of oppression.” In a comment on Stella Duffy’s thoughtful blog, she says that people were trying to “silence” or “bully” her, or that this might have been their effect were she not a stronger person. She wrote that trans activists were  “a vocal minority doing no favours for any kind of sisterhood”. In other words, contradicting her own article, she refused to see their anger as being about what they said it was about: how anti-trans* prejudice (often called transphobia or trans-misogyny) comes across in poorly-chosen language, and how such moments exclude trans* people from feminist struggle.


Twitterstorms can be thrilling. I don’t just say this out of privilege: even when it is one of my identity groups that’s speaking out, even when I feel oppressed and degraded and angry, I can feel a thrill in being part of it alongside the hurt. You can type (or in my case often mistype) a strident thought and it can be retweeted far wider than you’d expected. You have a bigger audience for your anger than you usually do. You can perform it. You can feel it hitting your target with more force than in other written media available to you. I couldn’t get an angry article in a print newspaper like Moore can, but I can be part of  the much-read angry response to it. (I nearly wrote “equally-read”, but I’m not sure that’s true, much as I’d like it to be.) The thrill is the thrill of empowerment. Twitterstorms happen because disempowered people are given a kind of power by social media.

Protests can be thrilling in the same way. At their best, you feel as though your combined voices, your combined angry voices, are reaching the right ears, are having an effect. (At their worst, you feel like you’re howling into the void.) The street protest is meant to be a form of empowerment. So is the well-timed smashed window. No-one knew the strength of feeling about tuition fees until Millbank was smashed up and occupied. I defend civil disobedience, I defend direct action, I defend property damage because I think it has an emotional necessity and a strategic role.


A few weeks ago I got involved in a twitterstorm about Scottish identity, about independence and nationalism and so forth. Alasdair Gray had written a now-infamous essay in which he described English immigrants to Scotland as either “settlers” or “colonists”. The Scotsman published an inflammatory gloss on the essay. Cue twitterstorm. Being of Scottish identity but English parentage, having lived all my life in Scotland, I was among those who took umbrage. I wrote some angry tweets. Other people wrote many more. Then I read the essay, and realised that my anger had been hasty and misplaced. There was much less to object to in it than I’d thought, and much to defend. I started contributing to a new bout of the twitterstorm defending the essay and attacking the article. I wrote some more angry tweets. In both sets of angry tweets, I think I wrote some incisive things and some silly things. I also think that this particular social media outrage was ineffective and distracting, and served mainly to whip up fear of anti-Englishness rather than progress an understanding of Scottish cultural politics. A cynic might say that this was not entirely coincidental. Anger, like any other motion, can be manipulated and channelled.


I follow trans* issues as someone deeply engaged with LGBTQ rights and activism, and as someone who cares about my friends and allies. I am more or less cis-gendered. I do not pretend to speak for trans* experience. One thing I feel it might be useful to talk to less activist friends and readers about is how trans* rights often plays out online:

I do not spend time on 4chan, YouTube comments threads or MMORPGs. So with those likely exceptions, the most virulent, prejudiced and hate-filled stuff I’ve seen online has been on anti-trans* blogposts by people and groups calling themselves feminists. There is a brand of feminism which denies the gender identity of trans* people. The hate-graphic, prejudiced rant and transphobic exclusion is the stock-in-trade of these groups. This hatred is pervasive online as it is in meatspace. I think it is reasonable to suggest that one of the reasons Moore’s comments met with such immediate anger is that trans* activists who spend time online are very aware of how much prejudice there is online and the need to combat it there. (Not to suggest that all trans* people reacted the same  way.) I saw, in the original ill-thought line, that there might be some nastier prejudice lurking behind it. I think later comments, as documented by Stavvers (among others), may have borne that out.

One of the results of this twitterstorm is that more people have been exposed to trans* issues. The virulent arguments that take place regulary online already have got a wider hearing. I suspect the wikipedia pages for “inersectionality” and “cis-gendered” got a hike in hits. More disturbingly, transphobic hate speech has also been published more prominently, most recently in Julie Buchill’s shockingly hateful Guardian piece (trigger warning for serious hate speech). I’m not saying “it’s good that some people got angry and brought it to your attention so that you can discuss it reasonably”; I am saying “Now you know. Get angry.”


We should not be in the business of telling marginalised and oppressed groups when they’re allowed to be angry. We should not be in the business of telling them how to conduct their political discourse. Often pleas for calm, pleas for reasonable debate and measured reactions, can seem to be doing one or both of these things. When Owen Jones called for more “reasonable” reactions over the Moore controversy, he got a Twitter tongue-lashing, and I think deservedly so.

Another problematic call is to “attack your enemies and educate your allies”. This is deployed in situations like Moore’s. The argument is that often prejudiced comments come out of ignorance, rather than out of hatred, so we need to educate our allies rather than ostracise them and fracture “the movement”. The problem with this is that there is not one movement. Not everyone is an ally who might look like one. Calls for a unified left are often, by implication, calls to leave some groups out in the cold. A feminism which does not call Moore out for her prejudiced remarks is a feminism which excludes trans* people and their allies.

People who complain about their oppression and exclusion by individuals within or the organisation of a movement are often accused of “splitting the movement”. They are not. The are actually calling for solidarity. They are demanding respect and inclusion by a movement. The splitters are those who refuse to listen – who get defensive, a particularly toxic breed of angry.


Sometimes I’m in a place where I can’t tweet – out of signal, at work, in a meeting – and I think or find something to say in 140 characters. I make a note so that I can tweet it later. Four times out of five, when I’m back on Twitter, I no longer have any desire to make that tweet.

So much of Twitter is driven by momentary impulse. Language is cheap there. It is very hard to express complexity. Arguments are reductive. They entrench quickly, and reach understanding rarely.

“Fuck off and die” is truly horrible thing to say to someone, and that it can now be said in a public forum in response to a comment column is very strange. It could only happen where language is cheap. This does not mean that it can or should never be said. I can’t speak for someone else’s anger, and even if I could it would be fruitless to try and do so.


Dan Savage is another media figure who’s said some really stupid and prejudiced stuff  about trans* people. (I can find no one link to distill this, so perhaps do some wide reading if you want.) He’s been subject to twitterstorms, he’s even been glitter-bombed. And I have heard him change. He is by his own admission more informed on trans* issues now, and his advice is better. I don’t know if that’s come about because of the level of anger, or because friends sat him down and explained the problems. He still says stuff now and then that I find deeply objectionable. I shout obscenities at the laptop. I hope that people are calling him out on it in person and maybe even via Twitter. I hope people are being reasoned and angry, whichever works. Maybe they both do.

I love listening to Dan Savage because he is boisterous, strident, angry, and his advice is often powerful as a result. I think we need his anger in the media, I think we need his presence. I also think that the personality – his arrogance and forthrightness – which makes him important and necessary is also likely to lead him to say stupid and objectionable things. I expect we will have to continue to call him out on them. That is, as Dan would say, the price of admission.

I do not want to sanitise Dan Savage, and I do not want to silence Suzanne Moore. I think we need voices like theirs. I also think we need angry, strident voices to call them out on their mistakes, and I am glad that Twitter provides one way to do that. I do think that Savage is an ally. I am undecided about Moore.


I took a couple of workshops in non-violent communication. I found them useful. But I know I am not alone in feeling that sometimes saying “I hear what you are saying. I am feeling…” can be used to exercise power in exactly the same way as — can be just as violent as — “Fuck off and die.”


If  you’ve stuck with me this far, you’ve probably got a right to ask “But what are you trying to say, Harry? What’s your conclusion?”  I’m writing in this partial, elliptical way because I don’t have one, or at least not a fixed and easily-formulated one.

I think that anger is necessary and that it is messy. I think that when someone is angry at you, you should try to listen to why they’re angry before you defend yourself. I think that the same anger that can undermine power can be used by power to undermine social struggles. I think that sometimes being angry at someone is justified and sometimes it’s not, but that the business of figuring out which is which is often a dead end. I think that it’s very hard to tell in the moment whether any given angry statement is strategic, and that that’s rarely what motivates it anyway. I think that emotional necessity is as good a reason to get angry as strategy, if not better.


P.S. I’d better live up to my own words. I tried to write this as carefully as I can. I’m white, middle-class, and reasonably comfortable in my maleness: i.e., I carry a lot of privilege. I’ve tried not to speak for anyone else’s experience. I may have said something that pissed you off. Please tell me. I promise not to get angry about it. Probably.

Three Rejections

Events, Personal, Poetry, Theatre

I do lots of self-promotion. This feels necessary. When I make work, whether it’s a theatre show or a poetry book or just a blogpost, I rarely have much of a publicity budget or team behind me, so I make liberal use of social media to help attract an audience. Being young, being new, I have to work hard to attract interest in my work. I figure that talking about it a lot on social media attracts more people than it annoys. I might be wrong.

But the result of this is that I do a lot of bragging. This makes me feel uncomfortable. When I see friends and colleagues talk about their successes, I sometimes get anxious, start comparing myself to them, start worrying that I’m not doing well enough. Professional jealousy is shameful, embarrassing, and, I expect, ubiquitous. I would not like to be causing others to feel likewise.

I was really inspired and entertained by Tracey S Rosenberg’s NaReLeMo, in which she attempted to receive at least one rejection letter in the month of November. She failed at that too.

I write many, many proposals. At least 60% of them get rejected. Probably more. That’s how this arty thing works. Some of them are ideas that I developed specifically for the proposal context, and I’m always a little sad that they’re unlikely ever to be realised, and that only a couplle of people everry know about them. With the kind of performance work I do, the hardest part is coming up with the idea in the first place, and the most fun part is actually making it happen.

For all these reasons, I’ve decided to expose my soft belly and post three rejected proposals here. Like all the texts on this site, they’re under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License, which means you can do what you like with them as long as you credit me and don’t use them commercially (click the link for the full details). If you’d like to help me do something with them, get in touch. They’re as I submitted them, except that I’ve removed the “artist’s statement”-type stuff, and I’ve occasionally removed bits to disguise where I submitted them. This isn’t to protect me, but to not seem to be slagging off the organisations: in each case I received a kind, professional rejection letter, and as an event programmer myself I entirely defend their right to reject me. If you work out what it was for, which you might, then just know that I wish each project the best and genuinely am glad for those who’re doing it. The professional jealousy gremlins can awa bile thir heids.

1. Tilting at Windbags

In November 2012 I (@harrygiles) began regularly insulting Donald Trump (@realDonaldTrump) on Twitter. It started because he made an off-hand comment about Scotland, and I joined in a nationwide tirade of broad Scots insults. I became fascinated by his own Twitter feed, with its statements veering between asininity and terror. I found myself daily coming up with new ways to be mean to him in 140 characters or fewer. He has never responded.

I would now like to engage more deeply with the broadcast insult as an artistic form. I want to know what makes me and others shout bile into the 140 character void. Is it motivated by a desire to pass on the trauma of childhood bullying, or the desire to undermine powerful public bullies? It certainly has no effect on Donald Trump, nor on any of the political campaigns against his businesses, but does it have any effect, positive or negative, on our minds?

Tilting at Windbags will be a free-standing insult booth, comprising vertical banner, table, chair, portable communication device and stack of feedback forms. Passers by will be invited to write an insult to Donald Trump (or the celebrity hate figure of their choice), using either specially-created Twitter accounts or, if they wish, their own. Having publicly insulted someone, they will then be asked a couple of follow-up questions: Did they achieve what they wanted to? Do they feel any better now? And do they think the insult had any effect?

download the full proposal

2. All I Want For Christmas Is The Downfall Of Globalised Late Capitalism

Participants will be guided through a simple one page form which will define their ideal strategy for an anti-capitalist revolution. They will be able to choose between immediate or gradualist, pacifist or militant, as well as many other options, including their own definitions, and a tick-all-that-apply list of tactics. They will also be asked to define a Mission Statement and three Strategic Objectives for the revolution. Finally, they will decide how the artwork’s £5 budget (defined as the usual budget for an office secret santa present) could be used to ensure the success of their revolution, including a breakdown of costs. The artist’s role will be to explain the form, offer prompts for stuck participants, and conversational guidance for subtle tactical points.

The following week, the participants’ suggested revolutionary strategies will be posted to a dedicated Facebook page and shared with all. The strategy which receives the most “likes” in that week will be deemed the winner, and so the artist will spend a £5 budget as suggested there. Thus a global revolution will be effected by democratic choice and on the smallest of possible budgets. A happy new year will be had by all.

The artwork (both 5 minute interaction and resulting revolution) is intended to be for all ages. The form will be written accessibly, and the artist will engage participants in conversation led by their own interests, knowledge and opinions (that is to say, rather than the artist’s). The aims of the whole are (a) to find helpful ways to talk about to anyone about revolution; (b) to satirise (i) form-filling, (ii) popular votes, and (iii) revolution; and (c) to effect the downfall of globalised late capitalism.

download the full proposal

3. Two Months (a sort of play)

The Promenade by Seafield Road East, Portobello.
Two middle-aged men in 19th century clothing are looking at the sea.

A: I expected more.

B: Portobello road, Portobello road / Street where the riches of ages are stowed / Anything and everything a chap can unload / Is sold off the barrow in Portobello road / You’ll find what you want in the Portobello road.

A: I’m not entirely sure that

B: Belladonna’s on the high street / Her breasts upon the offbeat / And the stalls are just the side shows / Victoriana’s old clothes / Yeah she got the skirt so tight now / She wanna travel light now

A: Really I don’t think that’s particularly

B: You don’t have to brave the crowds or the bad weather, or worry about stock availability. You can now have direct access to the great new design talent and quirky fashions available . . . all from the comfort of your own home or office.

A: I’m terribly sorry.

download the full play