Criticism of “The Unexceptional Schizophrenic: A Post-Postmodern Introduction”

Disability theory is a complicated spanning subject that in my opinion requires direct experience with a wide variety of disabilities far beyond clinical or academic experience to truly appreciate, and requires direct and constant interaction with demographics to offer accurate representation. I express concern for an essay titled “The Unexceptional Schizophrenic: A Post-Postmodern Introduction” by Catherine Prendergast written regarding schizophrenia and post modernism, which I feel not only is historically inaccurate, but it erases disabilities of those who you are criticizing, and has serious implications for how we interact with schizophrenia in the context of disability. Specifically I want to focus on the critique of Deleuze and Guattari since I focus on Guattari in my own disability work.

For example, in the essay, it completely neglects to point out that Gilles Deleuze had a severe lung disability. He had chronic lung infections his whole life, had one of his lungs removed in 1968 and the compounded disability caused by this lead to his eventual suicide in 1995. Is it not possible that Gilles was frightened by schizophrenic people not just because of his socially embedded ableism but because of his own vulnerabilities?

The claim that postmodernism wouldn’t exist without schizophrenia is very misleading and presents an essentialist presentation of schizophrenia. First, “postmodernism” is a broad and difficult to define term, so I’ll refer instead to “post structuralism” since it directly refers to Deleuze and Guattari. Guattari’s criticism of Lacan comes not from schizophrenia specifically but rather Lacan’s thesis about how language is the formation of the subconscious. As such, this view is challenged by schizophrenia because schizophrenia dissolves coherent language production - hence, post-structural. However, as Deligny pointed out, this problem also arises in autism as well. In fact, as Guattari was pointing out throughout Anti-Oedipus, the problem is not because of an essential “schizophrenic” trait but rather the disconnect that certain kinds of disabled experience because of lack of communication with capitalist apparatus. This effect can be partially observed in blind people as well, which is likely related to their higher rates of autism diagnosis. If anything, Guattari’s theory is revolutionary for disabled people because it presents a model for how disability interacts with labor with the special case of schizophrenia, a major lacking feature in much disability discussion, and is entirely workable into a modern description of disability based on what we’ve learned in the last 50 years. Similar observations with communication issues can be observed with, for example, blind people, which results in higher autism diagnosis rates.

Deleuze and Guattari distanced themselves from schizophrenia in their later texts for a few reasons. First, Deleuze was not particularly concerned about the politics surrounding mental illness and disability in general and refused to participate in Guattari’s political work - which can be seen in how Guattari’s solo work is focused heavily still on schizophrenia. More importantly though - the contemporary response to Capitalism and Schizophrenia was riddled with ableism. People reduced a very complex work commenting on schizophrenia’s interaction with labor into “are schizophrenic people revolutionary praxis?”. As Guattari explains in an interview in the collection “Machinic Eros: Writings on Japan”, he states that he was trying to describe a process that focuses on schizophrenic people and this was interpreted disingenuously and they had to distance themselves from the language as a result. This is not a result of Deleuze and Guattari but rather a result of their attempt interacting with an ableist audience:

"Critics were then quick to tell us: “Ah great, so you argue that schizophrenics
are revolutionaries.” We have never said that! Schizophrenics are poor, unfortunate
people who are imprisoned in psychiatric hospitals. What we did say is that there
exists a schizo process that one can find sometimes in schizophrenia, sometimes in
childhood, sometimes in invention, and sometimes everywhere. That’s it. But this
expression has generated so much misunderstanding that I think it’s better right
now to just forget it."

-Félix Guattari

Throughout the paper, you reference schizophrenia as if it were an essential condition of a person. This is a highly problematic view of schizophrenia, because of schizophrenia’s complex interactions with clinical practice. In America, schizophrenia is arguably a “wastebin” diagnosis because it is usually the last attempt to identify severe mental illness, which can be reflected in how DSM changes have moved away from catatonia as a symptom due to overdiagnosis of highly depressed people, as well as the development of dissociative disorders within diagnosis. Additionally, you seem to imply that Deleuze and Guattari are asserting how individual schizophrenic people work, when they are presenting a model for how schizophrenia as a subject interacts with capitalism on a social level. Indeed, schizoanalysis is heavily based on the fact that it is impossible to truly know how a “schizophrenic person works”. This is better understood when engaging with Guattari directly. While I agree that the individual experiences of schizophrenic people should be expressed, I think that the value we place on their opinions as “schizophrenic” as opposed to a possible expression of human interaction in an oppressive system is alienating and further reinforces the social structures that generated them.

What a paper like this really does is reinforce the schizophrenic’s role in the liberal narrative that so excludes them. It establishes the schizophrenic as a political object for absorbtion into a larger narrative that exists not so much to voice their existence but absorb those voices into a larger black hole narrative of disability identifiers, reinforcing the DSM quantifiers that put them in the separated institution in the first place. But the schizophrenic has always been alien to identity, to the very concept of organization. Indeed, many disabled people are alienated from this sense of identity, often being the result of horrifying accidents and loss of critical function - something that has been a major point of criticism for purely social disability models. In the essay you say that we should focus on the works of individual schizophrenic people, but I think the individualization of disability activism serves more to alienate people than it does to express individual struggle. It captures these unique struggles into a box that are later distributed as commodified packages. While case studies are extremely important and deserve more representation in the literature, the individual stories of disabled people are forged into a helpless cycle of repeating a narrative where we fight for ourselves and desperately seek representation. A more comprehensive theory, written by schizophrenic people and others collaborating together, like how Guattari crudely attempted in the early 70s, which integrates these experiences, is a better approach.

If you are not directly schizophrenic or schizo-affective yourself (I speak as the latter), how does the essay not count as that same kind of exploitation? I have several schizophrenic friends who are interested in theory and none of them agree with this claim of exploitation. At least Felix Guattari was likely functionally disabled himself (read the anti-oedipus papers; he frequently mentions issues with language, memory ect). and directly interacted with subjects on an everyday basis. This is quite concerning because academia for schizophrenics is very inaccessible, and disability theory representation in academics is likely skewed towards physical disability because of the very nature of academic accessibility. Furthermore, I find that many people within disability theory are afraid to engage with schizophrenia directly, instead relying on institutions such as publications and organizations. Is this not the same thing? What is the author’s experience with schizophrenic people beyond someone in their family?

While I can understand criticizing Deleuze in this manner, I believe it requires a lot more research to actually formulate properly, and neglecting to mention Deleuze’s own disability is frustrating. I think its fair to argue that Deleuze exploited Guattari. However, the critiques of Guattari feel weak, unfounded and historically inaccurate. Guattari certainly made mistakes which he has been criticized for by other writers, but overall I think claims of exploitation come largely from not understanding his method. I think this largely is caused by an academic focus on Deleuze and neglecting the historical context of both people. Worth pointing out as well is that most interpretations of Capitalism and Schizophrenia alienate the two subjects from each other to neutralize schizophrenics. Schizophrenia is labeled as an abstraction, the interactions are transformed into a pacified narrative that can be observed in the relative safety of a university class or academic paper than the streets from where it came. Perhaps more worth criticizing is this relationship that many of us have with interpreting the literature and how we generate a sanitized understanding of the material and then impose those ideas on schizophrenics - a serious problem within many online Deleuze reading communities that I actively fight to try to stop. Very few people directly engage with Guattari’s activism and clinical work and this reflects well in the perpetuation of the myth of “metaphorical schizophrenia” in Anti-Oedipus.

Worth noting and particularly frustrating in this piece is that the writing is difficult to understand without heavy academic context. I believe that in order to truly conceive sociological models of disability, we should not try to alienate the reader through thick academic text. I needed help reading certain sections of the paper. This kind of alienation makes it difficult for people to understand disability and how it relates to them.

Disability is a very complicated, diverse subject that cannot be understood from one perspective. Many conflicting perspectives emerge in disability due to a lack of exposure and understanding. Indeed, not even basic accessibility solutions can be uniformalized and this marks an important division within disability. Therefore, it’s important to not be part of the problem and listen to the voices of disabled people beyond that of an abstracted political subject.

Special thanks to my friends in my private server for helping provide ideas for this criticism.

posted on 12:39:05 PM, 02/21/21 filed under: needs [top] [newer] | [older]