Mad Studies and Advocacy

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.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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6 Responses to Mad Studies and Advocacy

  1. Peter Alexander says:

    One SHOULD get more contented as one gets older. Not everyone does, but if you are not in want, you should be able to find contentment. I have, and I’m quite sure that you will continue to do so as well.

  2. David Hunter says:

    Dear Jonathan,

    You write: “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.”

    Exactly. And what are the traditional privileges appertaining to mad people?: scorn, abuse, neglect, horror, “there but for the grace of god,” institutionalization, barbaric “medical” treatments. In short, stigma. We are a minority and as such need to band together in order to protect ourselves from the overwhelming majority of society that seeks to shame and abuse us.

    You wonder why it has taken so long (in comparison with other minority causes) to get our shit together. Because of the nature of the debility itself. It precludes purposeful action.

    As far as Phil’s point about whether mental illness being either a disorder or an identity. It is both and neither. In other words, the dichotomy is beside the point, or a rhetorical gesture.

    Given the literally hundreds of books giving first hand accounts or portrayals of depression and schizophrenia alone, you should have no trouble finding one if you wish to learn what it is like being that/this way. But let me point to Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and its metaphor. You are sitting on the couch, probably don’t know why you are there, you might be attempting to read but you can’t concentrate on the book. Gradually (or suddenly) you are within an large bell jar. You can see out but you can’t touch anything, and no one outside can touch you. You can talk but no one can hear, and you can’t hear anyone. You are in the world but you are completely cut off from it. The pain is overwhelming. Eventually the air becomes so stale that you can no longer breathe and you collapse.

    I’m not suggesting that Mad Studies is going to fix us, or even be the path to success within academe. I do suggest that greater understanding of so-called mental illnesses by the unafflicted would go a long way to alleviating the stigma that we sickies face, particularly at work.

    How about being part of the solution?


  3. philphord says:

    Hi David,

    As always, it’s good to see you at our site. It’s a tricky thing, the question of people who aren’t on the inside of an experience (of disability, race, gender, etc.) commenting on matters pertaining to those who do. It has become common for those “inside” to tell those “outside” to be quiet, to listen and not talk, to stop assuming the “privilege” of their presumed normality, to stop speaking for or about people who are different from them . . . in short it has become common to scold the outsiders for presuming to say anything at all. And while this is natural and human sort of reaction (and at times warranted), there will also always be times when someone will want to say “yeah, but *that* person is OK . . . s/he’s cool . . .” even though s/he doesn’t have the same experience we do.

    Which is my reaction to Jonathan’s writing here. Jonathan may lack tact at times (he would be the first to admit it), but he doesn’t lack compassion. And anyway, when you think of it, none of us has the same experience as anyone else. The fact that I have suffered from unipolar depression in no way gives me a basis to talk about someone with bipolar depression, even though the two conditions are in some ways similar. For that matter I can’t speak for anyone else with unipolar depression, if “speaking for” someone means speaking in such a way that assumes a complete and 1:1 relationship between my understanding of experience and theirs. Such complete understanding is impossible. A moral perfectionism on this score would leave us (and increasingly does leave us) with nothing whatsoever to say to or about one another. And this condition serves neither scholarship nor social justice. (Though it does serve our corporocratic overlords, for whom this silence is ideal and for whom the balkanization of social identity merely offers new niche markets they can exploit: they can sell us our presumed identities back to us.)

    If, as scholars, we want to have a conversation, we need to accord some charity to one another.

    Though he can speak for himself (here I am, speaking on his behalf!) I don’t think Jonathan is saying anything against community or organizing or advocacy as such; he’s arguing that scholarship relies upon a kind of questioning without prior restraint, while advocacy requires holding to, investing in, a particular point of view that will always place a prior constraint on what a scholar can ask and say. And while it’s a complex argument, I think he’s got a point.

    That said, in my experience I have never met a scholar who did not have *something* s/he believed in that did not issue a prior restraint on what s/he would be willing to ask. (It might be a matter of race or gender or it might be an unreasoning attachment to the works of Dvorak or perhaps even an attachment to the notion of humanistic study.) So while I too like the freedom to ask whatever questions I like and dislike those who try to abridge or control that freedom, I recognize that it’s not a perfect world, that perfect freedom is impossible because human beings are not perfect.

    But that’s an argument that we can all have, regardless of our individual experience and background. I would miss Jonathan’s voice in such a discussion.

  4. With thanks to Phil for the defense, and to David Hunter for his thoughts.

    1) “You wonder why it has taken so long (in comparison with other minority causes) to get our shit together.” I didn’t wonder any such thing; perhaps you meant this in the sense of “one wonders.”

    2) “How about being part of the solution?” Solution to *what*, David? I’m not a neurochemist, and as a humanities-type guy I think I’m out of my depth in terms of curing madness, and one of my points was that a lot of people would disagree on precisely what constitutes “madness” is and whether treatment of it is justified, or instead an unwarranted intrusion on people’s uniquenesses designed to make them more obedient little drones, etc. etc. Is there some specific problem wanting a solution? Is there even any agreement on what “madness” actually is? Absent that, wouldn’t any action/solution/strategy be misplaced and inappropriate?

    If there’s no definition of madness, and behaviors and capacities differ so widely across the spectrum, what of a *concrete* nature are you looking for?

    3) I appreciate that there might be problems at work. Outside of advocating medication to control extreme behaviors, I don’t know what to say. In the first place, for a mental condition to make *anyone* feel unsafe—I alluded to this in the blogpost—is absolutely unacceptable. So the varieties of madness that lead in that direction call for, in my opinion, very clear safeguards to protect the innocent. Are we talking about hallucinations, or PTSD? If someone freaks out and injures or kills an innocent person because of a mental disability, that isn’t the problem of society to somehow put up with, and it sure isn’t an unavoidable “expression” of mad “identity.” (Worse yet, of course, are cases where people stop taking prescription meds for one reason or another.) I don’t believe that however extreme that sounds, my theorizing about how the “advocacy” would follow such an action is in any way far fetched.

    4) The main point of my post is that especially in higher education, “identity” and “advocacy” cannot be valorized in isolation of other concerns and consideration. Identity and advocacy have a long history in academic culture, and have become talismanic terms—what applies to them is something like the opposite of prior restraint. They are de facto good, and if marshaled in an argument the opponent is automatically put on the defensive, if not penalty box or loser’s chair. And one of my bedrock beliefs about higher education in particular is that questioning and confronting is our business, and I have a great suspicion of things we dassn’t say or question. The case I was making is that mere identity and advocacy can, for me, fall into that category.

    5) You don’t want to hear about pop-culture representations of madness, I would imagine, and have all kinds of problems with them. Although it was unevenly handled from episode to episode, I thought that some of the issues raised in the Eric McCormack TV series *Perception* were thought-provoking…but as far as I can recall, no one was put in danger, the lead character ended up being wildly eccentric as a result of his madness but not dangerous or unprofessional, etc.

    6) The point about my “for all intents and purposes” line is that I’m not claiming similar challenges, false compare, “I’m like you but still *I* think…”, etc. It’s more like a full-disclosure statement in which I acknowledge the privilege I enjoy. What I still don’t understand is precisely what the “mad” community (quotes indicate my discomfort with the term, and its lack of precision) wants from those they feel to be not mad. Resentment against historic mistreatment? OK; I’ll buy it, though the mad certainly aren’t alone. Redress? Harder to achieve in an era of canonization of St. Ronald Reagan. What other “knowledges” are you referring to? You used the word, “sickie,” presumably as a challenge; if the mad seek to follow the pattern of other marginalized groups finding their identities and advocating for themselves, then this would involve situating—ah—”sickie” “knowledge,” no matter how distorted or delusional, as somehow equivalent to “sane” knowledge.

    I could be glib and make some jokes about contemporary political debate. Instead, I’ll admit that I’m not going out of my way to soft-pedal the issues as I see them, and that it may be read as a lack of tact. In this case, I see it as a lack of dissembling. A concept like “Mad people’s knowledges,” if it involves more than the memory of injuries suffered, is unacceptable if left vague. So what precisely should the sane vouchsafe the mad (and I suppose definitions are still wanting), in the academy, the workplace, the world? There can, will, and should be no solution, whether I’m part of it or not, if the problem itself can’t even be named.

  5. David A. Powers says:

    I suppose I’ll jump in here too. First of all, whatever the status of neurons, there is no reason that we can’t advocate together for better treatment of mentally ill individuals. I propose this struggle should not should be waged in the name of some fictitious identity. Rather, it should be undertaken as part of the general struggle for human rights.

    The fact is that many of the issues that mentally ill people face could be resolved by ensuring that all individuals have access to food, water, housing, medical care, and a basic income regardless of employment. I realize “human rights” may not be a perfect political concept, but I think in this case it lets us adequately formulate political demands without getting mired in identity politics. Focusing on human rights also provides some framework for different interest groups to find common ground and collaborate.

    As far as Mad Studies, I question the idea that I share something in common with other people who have mental illness, except insofar as we are “denied” human rights–but that formulation is itself misleading. The human rights that we advocate for do not yet exist. But they should exist, and they could exist.

    The very idea that all “Mad” people must have something in common is problematic to me. This logic that everyone needs to be the same and fit in, is the very same logic that oppresses us for being different than the norm in the first place. Instead of attacking the logic, identity politics actually reinforces it. In the name of diversity, the chosen identity becomes a new norm, while the lived experiences of those who differ from that norm are once again erased. Beyond that, in this case the identity politics approach could easily devolve into conflict between factions defined by the different categories of mental illness. The identity-based approach will inevitably reinforce stereotypes, and groups will police membership and excommunicate those who don’t fit the group norm of madness.

    And on the subject of who gets to be in the group, Jonathan brought up a really important issue when he touched on the issue of criminality and madness. The question of who is mad is not obvious, and when you think about it, it is highly problematic. Do serial killers count? How about child molesters? What about Jim Jones, Josef Stalin, Pol Pot, or Hitler? What about Donald Trump, or the Fundamentalist mormons in that standoff with the federal government?

    Surely some would say these people are “mad.” I’m sorry, I’m not going to sit in a room with and hold hands with them because someone claims that we are all mad and should celebrate the diversity of our madness!

    And really, what does “Madness” have to do with mental illness? I would argue, following Foucault, that these terms have very different meanings. Mental Illness is not madness, it is a category that seeks to drive away madness by comprehending and explaining categories of human behavior.

    Madness is different. Madness is that which cannot be understood, explained, or comprehended. When I think about the question, “Who is mad?” the answer to me is clear. It’s ALWAYS ANOTHER, another being who I simply cannot understand from the point of view of my own consciousness. One can even be a stranger, other, to oneself: “I lost my mind, I went crazy, I had a breakdown, I don’t know what I was thinking, I was mad with anger…”

    If Mad Studies was simply the study of otherness, without trying to merge the categories of mental illness and madness, that might actually be interesting. As an alternative, I propose WEIRD STUDIES.

    Weirdos of the world, unite.

    • David Hunter says:

      You raise some good points, David.
      First, a link to WHO and human rights for the mentally ill:
      Second, the use by academics of “Mad Studies” to characterize succinctly what they study seems to me to be in the tradition of “the other” adopting the label used by outsiders to scorn them, e.g., Quakers (the Religious Society of Friends). Whether that label is the most appropriate is a moot point; the horse has bolted from the barn. There may also be a greater willingness (definitional differentiation or resonance) between British and Canadian usage, and American usage.
      Third, the definition suggested in a 2014 blog post is pretty wide-ranging: “Mad Studies is an area of education, scholarship, and analysis about the experiences, history, culture, political organising, narratives, writings and most importantly, the PEOPLE who identify as: Mad; psychiatric survivors; consumers; service users; mentally ill; patients, neuro-diverse; inmates; disabled -to name a few of the “identity labels” our community may choose to use.”
      Inasmuch as education is advocacy (and it is), we should expect to read strong arguments for the improvement of treatment and understanding of madness, mental illness, call it what you will.
      Fourth, “Mad Studies” is a label for an area of scholarship that is focused on the psychologically abnormal. We are at the extremes of the bell curve. The normal majority has shunned or excluded or shamed or abused or tortured or misunderstood us. Is there victimhood here? Of course. But that is no different from other Studies.
      Fifth, like Women and Gender Studies or African-American Studies, the focus provided by Mad Studies will eventually result in a rich vein of scholarship. That increase in understanding should help relieve suffering, stigma, and the fear that loads the term mad with so much weight.
      Sixth, for an example of the combination of scholarly analysis and personal experience I suggest reading my English Department colleague Ann Cvetkovich, “Depression: A Public Feeling” (Duke University Press, 2012). The irony of the subtitle will be readily apparent.
      Seventh, even the most scholarly of topics is not without its personal angle and we can be thankful that authors are now free to admit their engagement. I note Erik Seeman, “Death in the New World: Cross-Cultural Encounters, 1492-1800” (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010) ends his narrative of the deathways of early America with a description of a visit to the Martyrs’ Shrine, Midland, Ontario, where he sees the bones of Jesuit martyrs, takes communion and finds himself “shaking and sweating. … I began to glimpse the power of holy bones” (301).

      Weird, mad or just plain crazy

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