I have a bad habit of keeping tabs open for months as a guilty index of all my undeveloped thoughts – current count at time of writing = 44 tabs. “Must think about that further – keep tab open” is CPU intensive procrastination. Eventually my browser crashes, I load them all again and cull a few to keep the system happy. If a tab avoids being weeded for long enough it creeps towards the left and comes to sit not far under my webmail in the attention hierarchy. While this may itself qualify as a mad logic, it is also by way of introduction to a persistently recalcitrant tab from The Guardian entitled ‘Anders Behring Breivik and the logic of madness‘ (29th of July would you believe – yes I’ve had it open for 5 months!!)
Now other than the evocative title, what exactly was it about this article that kept it from being filtered? The quiet between Christmas and New Year lends me time to have another look…
Written by psychoanalyst Darian Leader, it describes the ‘discreet psychosis’ of the paranoiac as being one that engages “a rigid system of beliefs with explanatory power, according the subject a fixed place in the world”. What is ‘wrong with the world’ – that which is the object of paranoid focus – is always outside of the subject. In this sense, it seems that what Leader is saying is that the boundary conditions of the paranoid person are co-defined with boundary between right and wrong; ‘I am right – the world (or some aspect of it) is wrong’.
The most noble and charitable of pursuits thus often share something with the most tyrannical and murderous: to remove an evil presence from the world…. The madness lies not in the content of the beliefs here but in the person’s relation to the belief. If certainty about the belief replaces doubt, we are in the realm of psychosis.
So does that make all religious people psychotic? There is definitely certainty about belief, but interestingly, or at least in the Judeo-Christian tradition with which I am familiar, that belief is one which holds the individual to be inherently ‘wrong’ or ‘evil’. The ‘rightness’ is in a transcendent figure with which the believing subject cannot ever fully equate themselves. Perhaps this assumption of transcendence is what makes someone psychotically paranoid (as opposed to ‘normally paranoid’) and leads in turn to the magnetic, cult inspiring, quality of the psychotic:
This certainty will often spawn enthusiasm, forming groups or movements. Neurotic people are unsure of their aim in life, and sex, death and existence are open questions. Encountering someone who actually knows the answer to these questions will exert a gravitational effect. Breivik, like many others, will probably attract his followers.
This nuances the old-fashioned idea that the subject is only responsible for a crime if he “knew the difference between right and wrong”, since the central feature of paranoia is precisely that the person does know the difference. That, indeed, is why they are psychotic: they harbour not doubt but utter conviction that what they are doing is the right thing.
So I guess my question, and the reason why this article has persisted for so long in my index of incomplete thoughts, is: is madness abnormal? Clearly it is not as there are a lot of mad people in the world. In fact one could even go so far as to suggest that without madness of this nature – individual assumption of transcendence, action without doubt, the phenomenon of psychotically charismatic leaders with mass followings – politics as we understand it (national, public, corporate) would cease to exist. Perhaps more to the point would be the question: if madness is not abnormal then how is it useful as a category? Madness, as it has been psychoanalytically and psychiatrically constructed over the last 150 years, is deeply connected to a juridical framing of the citizen subject, of the relationship between individual rights and responsibility, right and wrong. Madness provides the loophole, the give in the system, so that we can continue to believe in the national-juridical absolutes of right and wrong in the face of human mess.
If someone deviates from the collective and acts to kill without the backing of the State they are evil or mad. In collective form they may be terrorists. With the backing of the State it is war. Could we say then that the boundary conditions of the nation state are co-defined with ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and if so is the nation state as we have known it a psychotically paranoid entity?
I know I am skipping around on well worn theoretical territory here without the slightest bit of background – Foucault perhaps, didn’t he have something to say about madness? (Insert jokey parenthesis). I guess thats what gets me reading though. Follow your thoughts long enough and you’ll always end up at someone else’s book, or at least a few more tabs (current count = 47), and perhaps even realise something about the book you have already been reading: The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil – an amazing meditation on the modern subject and its relationship to nationhood in the early 20th Century. I just realised why one of the main characters, who thus far seems to be somewhat unintegrated with the other narrative threads, is a madman on trial for a murder – because of the constitutive relationship between madness and law when it comes to the definition of the citizen subject, and because power over life and death is a defining factor in the relationship between citizen subject and State (Foucault again), and of course because its a novel not a theory text so the character is a central mechanism of thematic exploration.
Now enough meanderings. I’m off to close some tabs and get to work on the next chapter.