The Unexceptional Schizophrenic: A Post-Postmodern Introduction

By Prendergast, Catherine | Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies, May 2008 | Go to article overview

The Unexceptional Schizophrenic: A Post-Postmodern Introduction


Prendergast, Catherine, Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies


Postmodern theory has been indispensable to disability studies because it has challenged normativity and destabilized narratives of national progress, social order, and identity. The essay nevertheless contends that crucial texts of postmodern theory have only achieved such destabilizations by holding one identity stable: that of the schizophrenic. These texts base their understanding of schizophrenia (and, by extension, the postmodern condition) on the writing of a few, distinctly exceptional, schizophrenics. An explosion of civic writing in the mid-1990s by writers who mark themselves specifically as non-exceptional schizophrenics, however, interrogates the desire for the stable schizophrenic, easy to recognize and therefore incarcerate, or celebrate, as the occasion demands. Attention to such writing reveals schizophrenics to be an active and growing constituency arguing for their rights in the public sphere. The essay concludes that recognition of this constituency and the multitude of voices it represents could greatly inform future theoretical programs that invoke "the schizophrenic."

Wasn't it because they didn't go far enough in listening to the insane that the great observers who drew up the first classifications impoverished the material they were given -to such an extent it appeared problematic and fragmentary to them?

Jacques Lacan

Postmodern theory owes a great debt to schizophrenics-and to cyborgs, border-crossers, and other figures culturally designated as hybrid. But most belatedly, and most significantly to disability studies, the debt is owed to schizophrenics, those people who bear the diagnosis of schizophrenia, along with its legal, social, and rhetorical consequences. Without schizophrenics, postmodernity would struggle to limn its boundaries, for the schizophrenic in postmodern theory marks the point of departure from the modern, the Oedipal, the referential, the old. Postmodern theory has been indispensable to disability studies because it has allowed not only for a challenge to normativity, but also for the destabilizing of narratives of national progress, social order, and identity (Corker and Shakespeare). However crucial texts of postmodern theory have only achieved these destabilizations by holding one identity stable: that of the schizophrenic.

"Someone asked us if we had seen a schizophrenic-no, no, we have never seen one," Deleuze and Guattari assert in the final pages of Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (380). While this claim, on its face, is somewhat unlikely for at least Guattari, the more immediate question is, how do they know? The schizophrenic is imagined here to be immediately recognizable with a disorder visible, and yet, because not seen, at the same time invisible and outside the social order. So distanced from the public domain, the schizophrenic is ripe for appropriation by Deleuze and Guattari who find in this figure their anti-Oedipus. It's a peculiarly honorary position the schizophrenic seems to hold: "The schizophrenic is closest to the beating heart of reality," (87), "the possessor of the most touchingly meager capital" (12). Rosi Braidotti, writing for The Deleuze Dictionary, aptly summarizes the importance of the schizophrenic to the anti-Oedipal project: "[T]he image of thought implied by liberal individualism and classical humanism is disrupted in favour of a multi-layered dynamic subject. On this level schizophrenia acts as an alternative to how the art of thinking can be practiced" (239). And yet this dynamic subject, always seemingly in motion, ever demonstrating this new mode of thinking, is nonetheless in Deleuze and Guattari's work to be sharply differentiated from "the schizo," reduced by hospitalization, "deaf, dumb and blind," cut off from reality, "occupying the void" (88). By One Thousand Plateaus, the schizophrenic has disappeared almost entirely, metaphorically consumed by the rhizome.

It is probable, that when Deleuze and Guattari proclaimed that "no, no," they had never seen a schizophrenic, they were not expecting to be taken literally. …

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