Madness, Neither Free Nor Pure

Suppose one were to ask why so many Americans go mad: an estimated 57.7 million American adults suffer from some form of mental illness, and approximately one in four of those are seriously mentally ill.

LarvalSubjects, in a recent post and thread at his remarkable Lacanian blog, links this to the sources of his own despair. He writes,

There has been a collapse of our sense of who we are as individuals, (the “selfness of our self” as Kierkegaard might say), the orderliness or lawfulness of the world, and of purposes and goals. Or maybe this is just me. I cannot seem to find any fixity for my identity. I am suspicious of any goals I set for myself, suspecting some hidden catch behind them. And the world appears chaotic to me. Where is the joy in schizophrenic processes of desiring-production promised to me by Deleuze and Guattari? Why do I experience this as so anxiety provoking?

It is not for me or anyone to try, via the blogosphere, to soothe his anxieties, or even to map them in a way that prepares them for entry into some game of critique. However, it might be possible for me to examine how Deleuze and Guattari (specifically in the book Anti-Oedipus) figure in these conversations about madness.

Deleuze and Guattari are often identified with the schizophrenic as we know him; that is, with the muttering and unstable person who turns on family and friends, and exhibits all the rage and anxiety one would expect from a person who cannot read the world, and who is therefore confronted with a bewildering set of demands that he interprets in a paranoid fashion.

I refer to a “set of demands” because ultimately the schizophrenic, as he is idealized by Deleuze and Guattari, is not a mentally ill person. A mentally ill person is responding to the expectations of his society, and responding wrongly. A person who is producing desires, on the other hand, is writing his own codes in the absence of defined social expectations. For example, if two people take solitary hikes, and one of them spends the entire hike singing “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd, neither are mad. The silent one gets to experience his environment more fully, perhaps, but from the standpoint of desire, that is neither better nor worse than singing. The question of madness simply cannot arise.

I’ll linger for a moment on this question of joy, of Nietzschean or perhaps Deleuzian joy, before turning to tragedy. The sort of liberation (or, in Deleuzian terms, “deterritorialization”) that is supposed to produce joy is a necessary condition of capitalism, but this has already been taken into account — re-territorialized — and that not freely. In order to be both the consumer who enjoys his leisure time, and the worker who meets the demands of productivity, one must be transformed over and over again. These transformations are adaptive rather than revolutionary, and are thus superficial compared to the perpetual demand that one live up to the moment. This demand takes its toll on everyone.

A lot of skeptical readers dismiss Anti-Oedipus on the grounds that it is somehow cruel to people who are actually mad, and who need help more than they need a book written in their honor. In fact, Deleuze and Guattari would agree that recognizably insane people need help, because they have been forced to conform to a particular and maddening form of alienation that puts them and others in considerable danger. To dismiss Anti-Oedipus out of a supposed concern for mental illness actually means acting as though mental illness arises in a pure fashion, without reference to the immense difficulties of contemporary life.

In my own life, I’ve known several people who became permanently mentally ill, and others who passed through periods of nonadjustment to varying degrees. In none of these cases would it be at all reasonable to talk about madness in the same way one would talk about the common cold (ignoring, for the moment, the deeply contextual nature and etiology of illnesses like the common cold). Instead, these illnesses were linked to American recreational drug culture, American psychiatric and antidepressant culture, the American indifference to poverty, and the shifting ground of familial obligation and rites of passage. (Clearly, trying to understand just those four fields leads one inexorably to a study of the whole society.) Medical terms like “latent schizophrenia” only reveal the ex post facto nature of diagnoses of insanity, and the tendency of such diagnoses to erase the significant social facts that become concrete through individual lives.

The shootings at Virginia Tech are a tragedy that we as a society have been struggling to understand, and we have been doing so partly through our understanding of madness. That’s a start; still, there is no way to comprehend those deaths without reference to the guns that Seung-Hui Cho was able to procure, and the drama of shootings to which our culture obsessively pays homage. Those guns worked their way into his consciousness; troubled as he was, he would have lived a different life in a country with adequate gun control. Many of the analyses of what was wrong with him will be written in order to avoid the question of why he was able to transform from a maladjusted person into a shooter.

If anything, Deleuze and Guattari help us understand the phenomenon of the shootings, because they contributed so much to our understanding of the single knot that binds madness to sanity, and even to psychoanalysis, within Western society. Seung-Hui Cho’s criticisms of his fellow students were similar to the criticisms of college life in I Am Charlotte Simmons. I read one of his plays: the debauched, illegitimate, and abusive father is unmistakably Oedipal. He did not inhabit a world different from our own, and our responsibility to the dead goes beyond investigating why this one young man wasn’t understood and treated in time.