‘The intellectual’ is often an archetypal ‘outsider.’ This is a cliché – and, as another cliché would have it, there is truth in clichés. The intellectual doesn’t partake in popular culture. He is critical of trends; he lives in an Ivory Tower. This leads the intellectual to rail against ‘power’ and, another yucky word, ‘imperialism.’ He will assiduously rail against all of its manifestations. Power covertly manifests itself in everything – it is, to a degree, ‘pan-power.’ However, the intellectual instinctively identifies himself with the person who stands out from the herd. This is often the madman, who is institutionalised by agents of power and henceforth labelled and repressed. Hence, French intellectuals will relativise and say there’s no such thing as madness. Or they will say that the entirety of the western canon is imperialistic, that both Bach and Kant are imperialists.
These intellectuals identify with mad people and racial minorities. They are ‘the voice of the voiceless.’ What I find is that this is completely disrespectful to those demographics. It is nothing more than self-aggrandisement and empty posturing. By reading the entire canon of western though as being ‘imperialistic,’ it does not seem like an honest assessment. It’s a cheap way of overlooking a complex body of knowledge. Viewing mad people as poetic outsiders who defy society is disrespectful to those people. So is being a ‘voice’ to ‘voiceless’ third-world people. By using obfuscatory labels such ‘globalisation’ and ‘neo-liberalism,’ you are hardly empathising with their plight. You are simply putting yourself on a pedestal.
As someone who has had issues with a mental illness in the past, I do find it troubling to hear that madness isn’t ‘real.’ I had an episode and it was a disgusting, frightening and horrifying experience. I find that both psychiatry and psychotherapy both have their uses. But when psychotherapists use that rhetoric, it just becomes political. It employs that relativistic trick beloved of those French relativists – psychiatrists wield power and hence must be bad. Foucault even goes on to speak of madness as being a ‘choice.’ This is a way of rallying against the Enlightenment and ‘reason.’ Madness isn’t a way of rallying against the Enlightenment, reason and agents of power. For largely chemical reasons, it happens. Literature – especially the Romantic movement – romanticises it. Anyone who has lived through it – and relatives of people who experience it also live through it – realise that it is anything but romantic. It is often mundane, painful and burdensome.
Institutions are needed to taxonomise madness. Psychiatric medications are not always the solution, but they do work. It is great that we have institutions like the NHS – free at the point of use – that are able to intervene in such incidents. This kind of intellectualising and relativising becomes sinister when it profits from people who go through hell.