The Politics of Madness: Claiming Idiopathy, Or the Ordinariness of Mystery

December 25, 2013 § Leave a comment

The final paper for a graduate course in disability studies, which I took back in 2002 during my first quarter in graduate school. The course was the first time I really thought about my own history of psychological weirdness in a critical way–or even as something I “had” that I could think about. I spent most of my early years desperately trying to appear normal by hiding mood states, anxiety levels, and compulsions that from my earliest years I regarded as too bizarre to even speak about. Only later did I realize how normal it was to not be normal, or that what I experienced many other people did too. I had no idea at all.


Shame and fear are personal burdens, but if these tales are told, we can demonstrate how the personal is indeed the political.

–Simi Linton, Claiming Disability

Winds, writes Shigehisa Kuriyama, “[can] never be truly known” (2002: 269): and in the disparity between the muscular body of the Veslius and the ample-bodied yogic, we see diverging cultural responses to the similar problem that wind presents. According to Kuriyama, both ancient Greek and ancient Chinese medicine viewed wind as the primary cause of illness and bodily disorder; to both cultures, wind represented the ultimately unknowable, elusive nature of the world, its unsettling mystery and unpredictability—and hence the fragility and mystery of the body as well, simultaneously the object of cosmic whimsy and the agent of its own strange and inexorable logic. Wind, Kuriyama writes,

embodied contingency and chance, the obstinate halo of uncertainty that made all science mere approximation. Because they arose unexpectedly, spontaneously, irregularity, because they made harsh, abrupt shifts, winds became associated especially with the most, dramatic, sudden afflictions—with strokes, epilepsy, madness. (258)

The response of both Chinese and Greek medicine to the problem of uncertainty—easily associated with corporeal existence—was to cultivate an understanding of the body as impervious to the reality of impermanence, mutability, and sudden change: the Greeks through the creation of the muscular body, the body as sinewy instrument of the will; the Chinese through the full and rounded body, the body at harmony with its surroundings and hence untouched by both internal desire and external chaos.

To the ancient mind as well as to our own, the body kept itself secret, and both Chinese and Greek medicine sought to divulge this hidden truth by speaking the language of medicine, the delineating language of order imposed.


I begin with Kuriyama because of the shape of my madness: because I recognize myself in the mind of antiquity, with its worries about instability and abrupt change, the ever-potential threat of mutiny and reversal of fortune. The shape of my madness, then, takes the shape of ancient Chinese and Greek science: like ancient medicine, my madness is a desperate attempt to seal myself off from chance and contingency, to impose the silencer of my own will upon the unruly truth of my body. I will return to this idea—the particular shape of my madness—later in the essay, though I will touch upon it throughout.

I want to begin, however, by prefacing such discussion with a few preliminary remarks about what I aim to do in this essay. In addressing what I have learned this term as a scholar of disability, I find that I cannot do so without speaking about the difference that I have always both recognized within me and tried strenuously to disavow. It was, in fact, the knowledge of my own long-unspoken strangeness that originally drew me to the subject of disability studies, with its prospect of a liberatory politics of the weird, a revolution of the physically and mentally variant: the “gangly, pudgy, lumpy, and bumpy” (1998: 3)—as Linton puts it—but also the crazy, unstable, unable, and unfit. My secret identification with this project drew me in, and it has been my referent throughout the term, my continual point of comparison and contact (to borrow from Susan Crutchfield and Marcy Epstein). I cannot talk about disability studies, then, without talking about this strangeness, this difference. « Read the rest of this entry »

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