Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

De-Regulating Disorder: On the Rise of the Spectrum as a Neoliberal Metric of Human Value

Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

De-Regulating Disorder: On the Rise of the Spectrum as a Neoliberal Metric of Human Value

Article excerpt


This article examines the cultural significance of the spectrum approach to organizing categories of mental health and illness and positions it against a backdrop of neoliberal economic and social policies. Over the course of the past three decades, the idea of spectrum has become an increasingly popular way of arranging, classifying, and thus making sense of myriad behavioral, mental, and emotional states. I chart the rise of the spectrum in the twentyfirst century to gain a better sense of the ways "spectral thinking" (i.e., the understanding that our bodies and minds exist on sliding scales anchored by oppositional poles of health and illness, normalcy and abnormalcy) is structuring expert knowledge as well as everyday popular understandings of how we live and who we are.

Within the field of psychiatry, there have been subtle, yet significant shifts in the organization and conceptualization of psychiatric diagnostic criteria. The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (American Psychiatric Association) is moving away from a strict categorical approach to diagnosis (where disorder is found to be either present or absent) and toward a multivariate dimensional approach (where disorder is measured by degree). Neurological, behavioral, and/or psychological disorders or syndromes that were once understood as singular and static pathologies are, increasingly, being re-configured into graded pathological ranges: spectrums of severity. These shifts in psychiatry are throwing long-held cultural conceptions of normalcy into flux: the concept of spectrum is working to blur traditional distinctions between normal and not normal. Refuting the ascendant belief that we have somehow reached the end of normal, however, I read psychiatry's shift toward dimensionality as a neoliberal move to "deregulate" disorder. As with other forms of deregulation, spectrum approaches to mental health and illness are at once destabilizing the conventional borders of normativity while, at the same time, producing new and equally normative forms of surveillance and control.

Spectrum: History and Metaphor

I begin my analysis of the shifting grounds of psychiatric conceptions of normalcy by attending first to the history of the usage of the spectrum metaphor more generally. My aim, here, is not to treat the spectrum as a pre-given thing-in-the-world, nor is it to determine whether this approach is the most accurate or best way of narrating human variation. Adopting a cultural studies approach to the study of (mental) health and vitality, I attend to the spectrum as, at once, a metaphor and an historically-specific interpretive device: an organizational tool that is being used as a way to make sense of a wide variety of bodies and minds, and one that might teach us something about the social context in which we are living.

The term spectrum is derived from the Latin word specere, "to look." Etymologically, spectrum denotes "image," "projection," or "apparition" (as in spectre). Its usage dates back to the field of optics in the early eighteenth century when Sir Isaac Newton described the colorful outcome of white light refracting through a prism. For Newton, the spectrum was not an object, but an effect: a projection of blended hues. In modern-day optics, the spectrum is defined more precisely as a continuum of wavelengths. It is gradations of intensity, a sliding scale of color or frequency. Representationally speaking, the spectrum is a convergence of infinitesimal differences, separated by degree.

The term is now in wide circulation outside of the realm of physics, used as a metaphoric device designating a bounded continuum of phenomena anchored by oppositional extremes. Common applications of the spectrum metaphor include notions of political spectrums, queer spectrums, and of course spectrum disorders. Indeed, the specter of spectrum began haunting psychiatric discourse (at least explicitly) a little over four decades ago. …

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