From correspondence regarding the potential efficacy of going crazy to promote social and ideological reorganization

01 01 2016

Rather than diagnose or label Hannah Weiner’s writing or person as schizophrenic, it seems more useful to take a both/and approach, particularly since as I remember her personally and as I read her writings, I see her as both demonstrably and symptomatically schizophrenic and also as sane and rational, connective and compassionate. This fullness of resources and her use of them was part of the powerful nature of Hannah’s personality and of her written work.

I do not question the aptness of such a diagnosis, but like a lot of analytically oriented psychotherapists today, I question the overriding definitive authority of any diagnosis to delimit our attention to and appreciation for the life and processes of another person. (Meanwhile, we should remember that all diagnoses are culturally determined constructions of categories into which folks deemed reasonably subject to behavioral pathologies are lumped together, hopefully in competent conformity with consistent critera, and largely for purposes of managing the economy of healthcare. Meanwhile, many clinicians and researchers question various diagnostic categories’ meaningfulness and utility, while some of them and others may also question diagnosis more generally.)

We might consider that any of us may have buried, denied, or latent paranoid-schizophrenic and psychotic pockets or elements of cognition and perception and processing, which typically appear and disappear easily enough to be occluded and cause us and others no apparently lasting harm or acute suffering. They may, of course, also offer us an opening, as might an acid trip or a near-death experience, to acknowledging and living through truths that we might otherwise be or have been oblivious to or discounting of.

Not only might Hannah as writer “become” others for whom she feels compassion or with whom she feels common cause, but so may the reader who brings any identificatory attention (rather than only a clinically distancing one) to reading her work. The neuropsychology of identification and involuntary sympathetic imitation is increasingly well researched and documented. When we read, hear, or see emotionally or proprioceptively informed expressiveness, our nervous system replicates it within ourselves. I am the hunter throwing the spear. I am the antelope dropping from the penetrating wound.

As we read The Fast, for instance, we to some degree intuitively and involuntarily share in her experience; we don’t remain only voyeurs and analysts, though parts of us (or our synthetic, creatively reading processes) will likely be doing those things too. Dissociative processes (i.e., occlusion of the here-and-now) are inherent in reading any written document, while synthetic, associative and sympathetic processes are also deeply engaged.

My preference almost always for both/and (rather than either/or) reflections on how things are may be seen not only as a protest against dualistic processing and forced choices, but also as a means of staying (partly) sane while experiencing (partial) madness. I think as humans we need to do this, and we do do this, more or less willingly and consciously.

I agree that Hannah in her writing “produces a radical relational field in which she might embody the conflicts and antagonisms of marginalized social groups.” I feel that actually everyone does this, but typically we are not noticing or trying to figure out how to account for such experiences or to turn them usefully to account (e.g., to make ourselves rich, or to support the human rights of others whom we feel such an inherent human sympathetic identification with). We embody them both as sharing in oppression and in subjection to oppression. I would explain this as follows: Male privilege embodies the subjection of women; heterosexual normalizing enacts the marginalization and oppression of sexual minorities and differences; et cetera – most any of us unreflectingly enacts, embodies, or assumes such stances frequently, even if we wish not to. That we feel implicitly and tacitly the identifications with what we may be used to thinking of as “other” will be hard for many people to accept; I would suggest that our culturally reinforced racism, patriarchal mindsets, and so on are primarily defensive against the dilemma of facing the problem of how to include and value those whom we haven’t yet learned how to accept and negotiate with or reconcile to. If a bunch of Syrians are trying to escape with their lives from the wars of terrors that we unleashed 14 years ago in their part of the world, but we don’t speak their language or share their religions or know how to integrate them into our contemporary and rather insecure social and economic models, we quickly learn that we can simply refer to them as dangerous and as potential terrorists or collateral damage, and so keep them and our sympathy for them at arms’ length while we prepare for retaliation to a hypothetical assault – a retaliation that we know from history (if we notice history) has often been premature and preemptive in its actual occasions.

I agree with and like your thought that through a kind of ‘going crazy’ “we might come into contact with more of the “unthought thoughts” of our culture’s history,” and that we might achieve this by staging or reenacting trauma, however this is done, but presumably with some transparency to indicate the references within the metaphorical, so that an intolerable or nearly unbearable truth may become apparent to the readers, viewers, audiences. This seems to me an activist role, whether it’s artistic or not, though it is not the only kind of activism. Ai Weiwei’s instagram interpersonal selfies on Lesbos seem to me more like a ‘going sane’ than manifesting ‘craziness,’ but of course they also represent a choice with which most world citizens would find themselves feeling they were going crazy, were they to enact it as he does, embedded even for a few days with the reception of exhausted, starving, grieving, traumatized refugees from the boats there. Discovering and exploring and developing ways to stage or enact historical (past or present) trauma that engages those who have not yet been able to come to terms with its reality is a valuable and difficult challenge.

I think among other things of the Holocaust museum my kids and I went to in DC this fall, of Laura Poitras’s film on Edward Snowden, of Reznikoff’s Testimony, yet these are not evidently performed by someone feeling or acting crazy, and their form or style doesn’t appear to enact craziness. How this enactment of ‘crazy’ can/might happen and yield results in conscious reorganization of ideological or situational assessments of reality by persons as yet not strongly motivated to act on their evidence or information, I’m not so sure. Hannah’s work may make some poets more attentive to Native American concerns and our government’s betrayal of them, but I don’t know that we will see any consequent disruption or reorganization of business as usual. Maybe you have noticed other examples of a kind of efficacy here. I tend to think that imaginative and decisive citizen activism, prominently including civil disobedience by those brave and willing enough to combine such ‘crazy’ but nonviolent decisions with ideological values based on questioning as well as understanding, may be the most powerful course for such development, independently of whether artistic significance is apparently involved or not.

I think some kind of sensation of going crazy must come with learning and acknowledging horrific truths about our heritage, our legacy, and our current affairs. Suspending a presumptive requirement that we make sure that everything we know “fits” together may be essential to our capability to learn ‘the news’ and also to reconsider received opinions and reassuring attitudes that we have been brought up on and felt reinforced through our cultural connections over time. To witness anyone sticking her neck out for others she doesn’t (for her own family’s survival) need to risk her privileges over, may often lead well-intentioned people to think she is a bit nuts – rather than just brave and sensible – perhaps because her behavior takes demonstrative and potentially frightening risks at the same time as it violates accepted norms of behavior, framing, authority, and so on.

I agree that art may be “at best a regulation of this craziness, an acceptable way of acting crazy.” The line between ‘regulation’ and ‘containment’ is porous and indefinite. The artist’s attention, judgment and choices are always ‘policing’ her own processes and products-in-the-making. We are always both sane and crazy, both implicated and observing, both connecting and disconnecting, or so it seems to me. If we push the angle of acting out as crazy, suggesting a focus on our personal derangement and/or behavioral exceptionalism, we are allowing ourselves to become acceptable as the artist (a romanticized or extraordinary self-status), somewhat as the “village idiot” may have been acceptable within the community, prior to the enforcement and containment of policing psychiatric authorities over interpersonally unmanageable and eonomically non-utilitarian differences within cultures. The village idiot may not typically have been accepted in the community even as a teacher of some sort of wisdom or consciousness. Even the Fool in King Lear appears to teach to little effect until his royal pupil is at least half-mad, and the King’s deracination as a qualifying effect is one that the Fool doesn’t seem in any way responsible for.

Black Lives Matter has recently enacted, as did Occupy Wall Street, an interruption or disruption of business as usual, both symbolically and effectively, as its constituents grabbed microphones and shouted pointedly while taking up otherwise organized public spaces. Such crazy-not-crazy behaviors have made a difference, as did white people sitting at black lunch counters in the 50s and college kids burning draft cards in the 70s. How much difference is hard to assess reliably. That difficulty contributes, I think, to most ‘sane’ people’s reluctance to go out of their way to look ‘crazy’ or ‘impulsive’ through similarly demonstrative actions, even while we can easily know that the more such actions are taken by more people, the more difference they will make in how powers deploy themselves (whether they remain nominally and functionally in the same hands or not – the effort to affect established powers and power structures to react is in itself something of a reorganization of power, if only very temporarily).

So I guess, at the moment, to answer your question, I think that actions that facilitate the largest possible involvement, especially of ‘boots on the [locally frozen winter, globally melting and softening] ground,’ will most effectively generate meaning and impact to inspire social change of significant magnitude, both on established powers and also on the reflections of other people who learn of such actions. And I would suggest that such actions might be seen as crazy if taken up by one private person acting alone without framing publicity, and pretty crazy if taken up by a handful of people with little or no publicity mobilized, but less and less crazy the more people are engaged in actual bodily present actions, whether they control the publicity much or not.


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