“She was not one for emptying her face of expression. ” ― J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey
Before I got contact lenses (i.e., before I could see properly on a regular basis, since I always hated that fishtank-feel glasses have) I thought I had some kind of idea of what my life had been lacking without them.
In some respects, I wasn’t far off. My visual field lost its previous oiliness, where only things close up were concrete and distinct and the backdrop slipped and shimmied at will. I wandered around supermarkets, suddenly thick with texture, muttering Macneice (“I peel and portion/ A Tangerine and spit the pips and feel/ The Drunkenness of things being various.”) And it was a kind of drunkenness, a constant immersion in a strange and almost hallucinatorily bright world, that I couldn’t quite believe was just the normal day-to-day one that other people experienced.
(Continued from here https://thebeetlebox.wordpress.com/2014/05/28/two-genealogies-of-madness-part-one/)
If our concepts of ‘madness” are socially constructed and as such don’t latch onto to an independent reality, it does indeed seem like a death knell for them. They are just fantasies, and worse than that, fantasies which were created to serve a malign social purpose- that of separation, ostracisation and false-reassurance.
This is where the above discussion of Nietzsche becomes important. The genealogy of morals succeeds in undermining the value of the “value-judgements good and evil” at least partly because Christianity cares about truth, and it cares about it’s value system being tied to some external truth about the world. But we do not need to see the conceptual framework behind the practice of psychiatry in this problematic way, as descriptive of a purely scientific phenomenon which is distinct from us and our own mode of life and flourishing .
In my experience people tend to mean one of two very different things when they claim that mental illness is socially constructed.
The first of these is that broader social, economic and historical conditions make people mentally unwell in certain ways. This idea arguably found its most famous express in the work of the philosopher/psychoanalyst pairing Deleuze and Guattari; the rough summary of their work being that the contradictions of capitalism cause people to become schizophrenic.
This kind thought is interesting, complex and something which I obviously have a lot of time for. However it is the second meaning which I want to focus on in the remainder of this post. This meaning is perhaps better expressed as the claim that “mental illness” is socially constructed; that our concepts and understandings of mental illness are ones created through our social history and as such do not tie onto any objective external reality. The conclusion drawn from this often ends up being that we should recognize them as fraudulent and rid ourselves of them. Continue reading