I have finally reached the point where I can no longer refrain from writing a critical cultural commentary on a certain someone, a certain ‘celebrity consumer academic,’ who I’m confident I do not need to name because of the truly singular position she has come to occupy in public and academic discourse. Following the advice of one of my mentors I will endeavor to avoid anything that might be considered a “personal attack,” and instead focus my critical energies on her public reception.
Let me begin with the assumption that by referencing a ‘celebrity consumer academic,’ it is almost certain that, for the average academic or simply informed/educated reader, at most two individuals will come to mind (neither of whom, as it happens, need be named). If we limit ourselves to psychosis, one remains. This “social fact”—if my cultural sensibilities and intuitions are not misleading me—in itself should disturb us. And I do not only refer to her privileged access to high profile forums (the New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Ed, the American Journal of Psychiatry (non peer-reviewed)) but the unthinking, seemingly reflexive ease with which the academic/research community (and so many others) have embraced her as a figure, a token, a representative, an exotic and expiatory other, and exemplar (of what, I surely need to add, but this will require further unpacking). Where is the critical analysis of such a singular public figure (and her various discursive ‘appearances’)? Where the efforts to reflect on the intersections of ‘schizophrenia’ (and academic success) with race, poverty, and other forms of socioeconomic oppression and privilege?
This past week (for a research project) I’ve been spending significant amounts of time at a ‘center for recovery’ in Chicago—something like a blend of a drop-in center, day program and community outreach hub for an unambiguously disadvantaged group of individuals with serious psychiatric disabilities, almost all members of ethnic/racial minority communities and living in extreme poverty. When asked whether they’d be able to give us the name of a significant other involved in their care or decision-making about treatment (part of our research protocol), the vast majority couldn’t come up with a single name. I would estimate that most of these individuals have, at some point, also been implicated in the criminal justice and/or foster care ‘systems.’ By conventional standards their clothes are dirty, their appearances ‘unkempt,’ and so on. We all, I hope, know the spiel. By ‘convention’—and certainly as implied by a certain recent New York Times commentary on “success” and “schizophrenia” (SWMNBN, 2013)–these individuals are not a “success”; their lives are not a “success,” they are not “high-functioning” or “high achievers” and they certainly have little in common with SWMNBN.
Success is, of course, an extraordinarily ‘loaded’ word and when we use it with respect to ‘disadvantaged’ communities the uncomfortable tension between the valorization of the white middle class ‘mainstream’, and the alternating pathologization and romanticization of ‘the poor,’ is par for the course. This is not the time or place to tackle this tension. What I want instead is to remind people of the depth and breadth of the sociopolitical “problematics” embedded in and exemplified by accounts such as the one referenced above, and to question the ease with which such accounts are uncritically praised, quoted, cited, retweeted. Again and again. And again. By academics. (Or I would not be writing now.)
Can patients “buy” recovery? This is one question I want to pose. “Is so-called schizophrenia the ‘real’ problem?” is another. The medical model most certainly pushes us in this direction—it is “symptoms” that prevent service users from succeeding (or perhaps inadequate learned or ‘native’ coping). Would anyone who has ever worked in a psychiatric rehabilitation setting believe this?
My point is not the nauseatingly banal truism that people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia can “succeed” in conventional terms (which we’ve known for a very long time, with all due respect to our paradigm shattering SWMNBN). Instead it is that we cannot (and must not and should not) ignore the staggering complexities of the cultural and social and political barriers faced by individuals with ‘that’ diagnosis in general. A basic insight of intersectional theory is that oppression is never merely additive: it is not that schizophrenia+black+poverty+childhood trauma equals 4, while schizophrenia equals 1. Instead it’s that “schizophrenia,” in the context of intersecting trauma and oppression and cultural (im)possibility, is actually something different in kind; an agencement, to use Deleuze and Guattari’s phrase, in which the connection of fragments or statements or enonces, becomes a new and irreducible, if unstable, unity.
And then, then, what are the stakes and implications of ‘using’ SWMNBN, her writings, her person, in the way “we” do and have? Retweeting, affirming, sedimenting….? What sort of representative is she and what does she represent? What sort of narrative has she helped populate, with what effects on other narratives,other possibilities of being ‘succesful’ or ‘recognized’?
So, academic colleagues and allies, please think before you retweet. Please self-reflect on your own implication in further sedimenting the Saks empire, when there are so many real “heroes,” so many remarkable people who society has beaten down. An “advocate” is not someone who accrues thousands or millions of dollars in “awards” and “accolades”; a real advocate helps real people, tackles real issues, even when there is no money in sight.