A culture of madness?

In the 1960s and into the 1970s the psychotic individual increasingly became positioned both as ‘victim’ and ‘anti-hero’.  Psychiatrists such as Ronald Laing and his colleagues argued that schizophrenia was caused by dysfunctional (if not outright pathological) family relationships, in which the schizophrenic subject found themselves in an impossible, no-win situation.  And although the proponents of biological psychiatry have  tried ever since to totally discredit this idea, and to argue that schizophrenia has a biological foundation and has nothing to do with family dynamics, there is plenty of clinical evidence to suggest that there is something peculiar about the family backgrounds of many psychotic people.  This connects closely with Lacan’s idea that psychosis is linked to a failure of the signifier of the Name-of-the-Father (more of that later).

However, what is perhaps even more problematic is the notion that somehow the psychotic subject is ‘heroic’; or perhaps it would be better to say, ‘anti-heroic’.  In many ways, the psychotic is the ultimate deviant, the ultimate non- conformist.  Furthermore, he or she often has the audacity to see through and point out the contradictions, hypocrisy, fictions and downright falsehoods that enable ‘normal’ (i.e. neurotic) social life to function in the first place.

This gave rise, in some quarters, to the idea that the psychotic individual (and this usually meant the schizophrenic subject) was an ‘outsider’, someone who was not bound by the (neurotic and hypocritical) niceties and conventions of everyday social relationships. The problem here was not so much that this was (and still is) not true, but that this was seen as being, in some way, ‘glamorous’ or ‘romantic’.  Of course, this resonated perfectly with the zeitgeist of the late 1960s and early to mid 1970s, where all sorts of things were glamorised and romanticised that would nowadays be seriously frowned upon.  However, it also left a lasting legacy which we are still struggling with today.

Part of this legacy was what might be described as the ‘phenomenological turn’ in psychotherapy, which began in the wake of anti-psychiatry and which continues to this day.  I would argue that most of the ‘person-centred’ therapies, and even, to a certain extent, cognitive-behavioural therapy, owes a great deal to this ‘turn’, which can be linked closely to the idea that there is ‘meaning in madness’.

In fact, this should really be described as a phenomenological return, because the idea that the psychotic has something meaningful to tell us can be traced back to the beginning of the twentieth century, before psychiatry began its ‘biological turn’. Laing, for example, was essentially resurrecting the ideas of psychiatric thinkers such as Jaspers and Binswanger.   One of Laing’s key arguments, which has been taken up by the therapies highlighted above, was that the apparently bizarre ideas and actions of psychotic people made perfect sense if one took the time and effort to understand their history and the life-situation of the psychotic individual.  This was in contrast to clinical approaches which dismissed such thoughts and behaviours as simply ‘symptoms’ of the person’s illness.

The problem with this approach is not that we shouldn’t listen very carefully to what ‘mad’ people are telling us; rather, the problem is when this is taken at face value.  Consider, for example, if you were a psychotherapist and one of your clients told you that they were Jesus Christ.  You might just acknowledge that this is what they believe, that it’s absolutely OK to hold such beliefs, and let them get on with it.  But what if they went on to tell you that they had come to cleanse the world of all its evil and were going to make a start by killing all the prostitutes and drug dealers in the local area?

At this point you might make some excuse to leave the room and call the police or the local psychiatric team.  On the other hand, you might want to explore these ideas with the individual a bit more, and to try and discover how he or she arrived at this particular belief system, what function such a belief system serves in their life,and perhaps even to suggest that another course of action than the one they were proposing might be more expedient.  Of course, you might still eventually decide that this individual was a risk both to themselves and others, and take appropriate action.  However, the point I’m getting at here is that the moment a therapist or analyst starts to engage with the person’s belief system and starts exploring it a bit more, they have moved beyond phenomenology, beyond simply listening to what the person has to say.

However, I think there is a more fundamental issue here, and this is the idea (or perhaps one might even say ideology) that things should be taken at face value; that we should just accept whatever anyone tells us, however much we might think there is something rather peculiar about it, and perhaps even that they might be about to act upon such ideas or beliefs with potentially disastrous consequences.

This is not to suggest for one minute that ideas and beliefs that seem alien or strange to us should be rubbished, dismissed out of hand as the ramblings of a mad man or woman.  On the other hand, there is no reason why such ideas and beliefs shouldn’t be explored, questioned, worked through. In order to do this, however, there needs to be some form of theoretical framework within which such an exploration, such a questioning, such a working through, can be carried out.  It’s at this point, however, that the phenomenological position (or rather, the therapeutic (mis)appropriation of phenomenology) runs into trouble.

But there is more at stake here, I would argue, than simply a particular therapeutic approach; and one which, I think it’s fair to say, has a lot more to offer than other approaches that focus on simply medicating away a person’s experience.  What’s at stake, as I’ve already hinted at, is a whole ideology; an ideology which has now permeated the culture.  And this ideology is linked closely to, or is in fact a manifestation of, what might be best described as the hegemony of meaning; or, to put it another way, to the triumph of the Imaginary.

Ours is the age of the Imaginary.  This does not just refer to the dominance of the image, although this is of crucial importance.  In Lacanian terms, the Imaginary is on the side of the signified, as opposed to the signifier.  In other words the Imaginary refers to the domain of meaning, the concept attached to the signifier.  The significance of this only becomes apparent when we consider the other two Lacanian registers: the Real and the Symbolic.  The Symbolic refers to the network of signifiers that structure our lives. Although the Symbolic is often equated with language, it should be borne in mind that in this context ‘language’ refers to any structuring of signs, which includes the architecture of buildings as much as it includes the structure of a written or spoken text.

The Real is often portrayed as being extra-discursive, as being outside of language, although I think there is also a good case for arguing that the Real is an effect or even a function of the Symbolic. In semiotic terms the Real could also be thought of in terms of being the referent, what the sign (constituted by the signifier and signified) refers to, although the advent of post-structuralism called the whole notion of the referent, the extra- discursive, into question.

In Lacanian theory, the Real, Symbolic and the Imaginary (often abbreviated to the acronym RSI) are viewed as three distinct ‘registers’, but which, for the ‘normal’ (that is, neurotic) subject are ‘knotted’  together.  In Lacan’s later teachings, this knotting function is attributed to the sinthome, which is a development of Lacan’s concept of the symptom. There is some debate within Lacanian circles as to whether neurosis itself, in terms of the repression of the signifier of the Name-of-the-Father, is a form of sinthome.  The key point in the current discussion, however, is the question of what happens when this knotting function fails, what happens when the Real, Symbolic and Imaginary become ‘detached’ from one another.

There are two ways to address this question.  The first is from a clinical point of view; the second is to look at the question from the point of view of culture.  Starting with the clinic, the failure of the knotting together of the Real, Symbolic and Imaginary is the basis of psychosis.  And Lacan was very clear that the mechanism of such an ‘unknotting’ was the foreclosure of the signifier of the Name-of-the- Father, which serves as an ‘anchoring point’ for the subject.

One of the consequences of foreclosure is that the psychotic subject becomes prey to both the Real and the Imaginary, with no mediation by the Symbolic. I shall explore the Real dimension of psychosis later on, but for the time being I want to focus on its Imaginary aspect.  As I mentioned earlier, the Imaginary is the domain of the signified, of meaning.  In a universe where the three registers are knotted together, meaning is structured, and in practical terms (relatively) fixed.  However, in a universe where such a (Symbolic) structuring is absent, meaning is effectively ‘adrift’, unanchored.

At the same time, the image itself becomes prevalent.  In this sense the Imaginary is very much the domain of the image.  The image is what gives the human subject a sense of wholeness, of completeness; this can be best exemplified through Lacan’s idea of the mirror stage, where the infant child is held up in front of the mirror and sees him or herself as a ‘complete’ image rather than a fragmented body1.  And it is also worth noting that in Saussure’s semiotic theory, the image is the signified, the idea represented by the acoustic sound (the signifier)2.  So we can see that there is a very close association between the Imaginary, meaning and the image.

The psychotic’s universe is essentially an Imaginary one.  At the same time, however, it is an extremely precarious universe, which is in constant danger of collapsing into the Real. This is because there is no Symbolic structuring of the Imaginary, and consequently no ‘fixing’ of meaning or identity.  The psychotic is constantly haunted by an omnipresence of meaning – and yet constantly struggles to know what to do with it.

The strange thing is, though, this also sounds rather like a description of contemporary  culture This is the world of 24/7 news, continual information overload, a world so saturated with meaning that it becomes meaningless.  A world where everything is out-dated the moment it comes into being; and yet, at the same time, a world of the eternal present.  This brings us to the second dimension of the Imaginary universe: the cultural, and poses the following question: if the Imaginary universe is a pretty good description of contemporary culture, does that mean we leave in a psychotic culture?

Perhaps the best way to explore this idea is to contrast it with another type of culture; one which we might describe as ‘neurotic’.  It is often proclaimed that psychoanalysis was born and grew up in such culture, but that at some (undefined) point in recent history, things changed.  Stephen Frosh, for example argues that we now live in some form of schizo-borderline culture, which he correlates with the rise of post- modernism3.  Others have made similar arguments.  The problem here is that it’s sometimes a little too easy to jump from what is essentially a clinical structure of a human subject to applying the same concepts to a culture or social formation.  In other words, does it make sense to talk about a ‘neurotic’ or ‘psychotic’ culture?  This raises all kinds of theoretical problems regarding the ontological status of cultures and societies4.

Putting such problems to one side for a moment, perhaps it might be more fruitful to ask what it means to live in a culture dominated by the Imaginary. This is not to say that the Symbolic (and certainly not the Real) is not still there in the background, but what if we do now all live in some Baudrillardian simulacrum, where ‘reality’ is purely appearances?  In many ways, of course, this could be a Lacanian definition of ‘reality’ (as opposed to the Real).  Perhaps one way to look at this is to ask a simple question: can a particular kind of culture make people mad?  In other words, does living in a culture dominated by the Imaginary ‘make’ people psychotic?

This is a very difficult question to answer.  From a ‘classical’ Lacanian position the answer is likely to be ‘no’, because, according to the theory, people do not ‘become’ psychotic later in life: they either have or do not have a psychotic structure; the signifier of the Name-of-the-Father is either foreclosed or it is not.  This immediately raises another question: how would someone with a psychotic structure respond to a culture dominated by the Imaginary?

Bearing in mind that the psychotic’s world is already dominated by the Imaginary, one could conjecture that they would feel perfectly at home in such a culture.  Furthermore, in many ways such a culture could be beneficial to them clinically, because, unlike their own ‘universe’, in this one the Symbolic is still functioning.  In other words, there is a Symbolic structure operating ‘behind’ the simulacrum. 5 Such a structural underpinning could work nicely for the psychotic because it effectively provides them with a ‘prosthetic symbolic’, which is otherwise lacking.  Furthermore, such a ‘prosthetic symbolic’ is ‘repressed’, hidden, just as the Symbolic is repressed in the neurotic subject.  Perhaps we could go even further and argue that such a culture constitutes a ‘neurotic simulacrum’ for the psychotic subject.

The point I’m getting at here is that although contemporary culture may appear to be dominated by the image, by the Imaginary, appearances can be deceptive.  The Symbolic register is still operating, albeit in a ‘repressed’ (hidden) form.  Therefore it makes little sense to talk about a ‘psychotic culture’: unless, of course, we are referring to the possibility that the majority of people today are psychotic, which is another question altogether……..

  1. Lacan, J. 1949. The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience In: Écrits: Translated by Bruce Fink, 2006. New York: W.W.Norton and Company, pp. 93–81. []
  2. de Saussure, F. 1983. Course in General Linguistics. London: Duckworth & Co. []
  3. Frosh, S. 1991. Identity Crisis: Modernity, Psychoanalysis and the Self. London: Macmillan Education Ltd. []
  4. Although it has to be said that these same problems exist when talking about ‘individuals’ []
  5. The best analogy that I can think of is to think about a modern computer operating system with its graphical user interface (GUI), for example Windows, Android or Apple. Although the user (normally) only every encounters and engages with the interface with it images and apps, there is a complex layering of computer code lying ‘behind’ the GUI that keeps the whole thing functioning (the computer geeks are indeed inheriting the earth…..) []