Phil’s testimony about depression (see his Mad Studies blogpost for the most recent example), like that of other friends, always impresses me because it’s so clear-eyed and brutally self-pitiless. It the Black Dog is to be found in my family, I didn’t inherit it—in fact, I seem to get happier and more contented the older I get. (I’m also told I get grumpier, but that’s normal. Don’t make me get out my gradebook.) For me, the concept of “Mad Studies” throws up a red flag or ten, but it’s the sort of thing that looks on the surface like a somewhat unexceptional new subdiscipline like many others. So we have Marxist Studies and Cultural Studies and Postcolonial Studies; moving toward identity issues we have Africana Studies and Hispanic Studies and Jewish Studies and Gender Studies, and now (among many, many others), Mad Studies. One common pattern would be for it to be taken blazingly seriously by its founders and followers while for academics of a certain age (I’ll quote my much-missed father, Prof. Samuel I Bellman: “fusty old profs, with the one-leg-after-the-other, breathe-in-breathe-out, just managing to get to their classes”) such a new discipline might garner a raised eyebrow, a vague and possibly condescending smile, and little more. This is a (st)age I have now reached so I get it, Dad, I get it.
This one merits a closer look, though. I have no skin in this game: for all my weirdnesses and eccentricities, and despite my belief that we’re all on some kind of spectrum—that absolute mean-“normality” doesn’t exist, in other words—I personally do not have to deal with “difference” as it’s generally meant, physically or mentally or psychologically. For all intents and purposes I’m a neurotypical, able-bodied, straight white guy, period, and (once I finally managed to become employed) have benefited from all the traditional privileges appertaining thereunto.
So I read the social media posts from my many friends who are either neurodiverse or who have neurodiverse children, or who have chronic illnesses (perhaps invisible ones like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, if it’s still called that, or chronic pain conditions), or depression, or serious physical situations that may or may not be apparent, etc. I try to learn, and I note the unavoidable self-obsession (sorry but yes) that can result from dealing with some kind of hideously challenging life circumstance, day in and day out. As a human, you are expected to interact and compete as an equal with fellow humans, sure, but you personally are forced to run with heavy weights, and everything about your life, or your child’s life, amounts to somehow trying to make up for that additional burden. That brand of self-centeredness and constant self-advocacy is a natural by-product to simply trying to function, to stay in your lane, and the alternative is simply to collapse. Never mind “level playing field,” because the concept is irrelevant to someone running with a Black Dog on his back, or who can’t run at all, or whose body generates pain because of a diabolical nervous disorder, or who is often exhausted for no bloody reason, etc. Lots of my friends are academics, so the act of being employed on even a part-time basis, or finishing an article or blogpost, or just doing daily exercise often takes a level of resolve that might shock a fusty old someone-like-me.
One problematic point is the distinction between physical and mental illness. My friends who suffer from chronic pain and fatigue are far less interested in identity than simply in a cure, thank you very much. They don’t want to be “different,” damn it, just fix the flaming problem—and it is a problem, thank you, not “difference” to be validated—and let them return to life. But surely many mental illnesses are treatable with drug therapies, and could thus be made much more manageable? But these might potentially flatten out (say) the highs, altering people’s essential nature, and thus be unwarranted intrustions. Oliver Sacks has written of such cases. The exhilaration of the highs is more obvious, but I knew someone whose wife once shared that her severely bipolar husband valued the no-lower-than-this lows because those were the only times that the small child they’d lost to a heart defect could come and “be with” him, regardless of how it debilitated him otherwise. The line between what should and shouldn’t be corrected, or celebrated, or accommodated, grows hazy.
The primary question about Mad Studies, though—Phil touched on it already—has to do with the difference between advocacy and discipline. The dividing line is elusive, especially when it is understood that situating oneself or one’s work in a particular area is de facto endorsement; it is not going to be an act of interrogation and resistance to that area. Misogynists and gay-bashers don’t enter gender studies to sabotage it from the inside; they flee, because to be within a discipline is an implicit proclamation of its validity, however much disagreement there is within the tent. Same with Postcolonialism, which is a particular critical perspective; in Postcolonial Studies the basic postcolonial understanding of power and appropriation both cultural and physical cannot be questioned because the subdiscipline is based thereupon. No point in being involved if there isn’t sympathetic buy-in.
Phil notes, though, that discipline and identity are hard to separate: he quotes a Nick Walter piece in reference to the question of whether we refer to someone as “suffering from homosexuality”—“No, we don’t. The implication of this phrasing — that being gay is some kind of disease — is offensive.” True, but it might be more accurate to say that we don’t anymore, because the way homosexuality used to be referred to in the psychiatric literature and popular culture was pretty much that—a deviant pathology. So the fundamental basis of queer theory and related subdisciplines is first and foremost that a different sexual orientation and/or identification is not wrong or bad; it’s part of the diversity of human orientations and identifications. In other words, it is one of the varieties of normal. Typicality is not normal; diversity is, and once that is established we can move on to the specific awarenesses and approaches this or any such area have to teach.
“But is a mental disorder and illness or an identity?” The answer to Phil’s brutal question is, of course, “depends on who you ask.” A voice or two about what the Black Dog can reveal to those familiar with it/suffering from it that others might not be able to perceive are quoted and acknowledged. In rhetorical terms, I think it would be quite possible to make the same argument about schizophrenia; those like me mired in their psychotypicality cannot perceive reality in the kaleidoscopic, fearsome, possibly inspirational and/or enlighting and/or revealing way that schizophrenics do. So the loss is ours, one might say; these are experiences and perceptions that are denied us owing to our straitened perceptual vocabulary.
(There was an episode of House that was about little people, with all kinds of pride and sass coming from a little mother, but when it transpired that her little daughter was actually small for a wholly correctable medical reason, she brushed aside her daughter’s defensive identity argument and told her to get the treatment because of the opportunities it would open up. Yes, a TV show, but this is precisely the issue under discussion.)
So if we’re talking about something that isn’t good vs. bad but rather just different, it really does become a matter for advocacy. Advocacy, which as I say is an integral part of “studies,” lies outside justice or fairness, though they sometimes coincide; it’s advocacy, a different enterprise. (Here’s an overview of Mad Pride.) It is relatively straightforward to talk about justice where there is discrimination based on race, religion, gender, or sexual preference. However, in the legal world, it isn’t about “fairness,” it’s about your client getting the best defense possible. So we’ve got the “twinkie defense,” affluenza as excuse for moral bankruptcy, and (truth!) mitigating circumstance for the poor darlings who behave hideously because they can’t help themselves. That’s the best defense that can be provided, so such parties are “entitled” to the best defense their attorneys can provide, sowing doubt in the jurors’ minds and so on, and for the attorneys involved anything less is a breach of professional responsibility. The attorney’s role is not to play judge and jury, to mete out justice and fairness; it is to provide advocacy, period. However ridiculous it may seem to suggest that Mad Studies might inspire some surprising defenses or assertions, in my mind there’s no question, particularly in a high-profile case where—win or lose—money is to be made, attention to be attracted, and so on.
If “Mad Studies” is a discipline, then madness is but one more human variation, not to be castigated or judged. Do I exaggerate? The first point of a recent manifesto-type post from the “Mad Studies Network” is “We aim to work towards making and preserving space for mad people’s knowledges and histories within the academy and within services.”
“Mad people’s knowledges.” For a competent Advocate, it is no distance at all to the position that every thought or act is automatically not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity, regardless of who or what has been hurt, or what norms have been flouted. And special pleading in identity cases is already an old tradition; the acdemic identity politics of the 1990s were rife with strident claims, often based on questionable stereotypes, about things that should be allowed to some groups, in professional situations, but not others. This sounds insane (and I certainly thought it was), but such opinions were by no means uncommon. “Women’s ways of relating” was one such (all women being, you know, the same), and Black men talking about basketball around the water cooler (I am not making this up)—because it was so cultural important to them but not to whites—was another. Very few were contesting all the self-righteous browbeating at that time. Rather, people just looked the other way and shrugged helplessly. I was there, and I will never forget the the impotent hand-wringing. “Well, they’re talking a lot about that now,” people would limply mutter, and not look you in th eye.
This, to me, is a key point with Mad Studies. Queer Theory very consciously takes a word with a negative connotation and makes it a positive…is out about it. Mad Studies follows the same strategy, but the implications and ultimate consequences would be far different. Situating “mad” as one of the variations of normally human would have implications far beyond those of other disciplines, and the primrose path to that quite possibly dangerous place has already been well mapped and well traveled.
The humanities have often had to contend with accusations of pointless triviality and self-importance, and Mad Studies seems custom-made for true humanities-haters, especially in that it elevates the dread “relativism” to a whole new level. It almost seems like a glib, Ender’s Game-kind of destruction from within. What I don’t know is if there is an academic protocol for simply calling something outlandish out as crap, over the line. I’ve never heard it done, except in private. This new discipline would be, I think, my first candidate.