A monthly note from our editors with some thoughts on theory, dilemma, and the next big thing.
Past Letters Entries
The Downward Spiral
To The Swamp
Make It Through
Too Close to Call
This Is Make-Believe
Must Have Slipped My Mind
Fire to the Prisons
Take Us to Your Leader
Letters by Hanna Hurr
We’re Going Mental
If we are to move past the sad girl trope, we need to become less averse to feeling uncomfortable; we need to become more resilient.
On January 16, 2007, Britney Spears made headlines after walking into a hair salon, grabbing a buzzer and shaving her head. Eager to catch her mental breakdown on camera, paparazzi began tormenting her even more than usual, pushing her into a fit of rage. Soon, images of Britney, the “princess of pop,” attacking a car with an umbrella flooded the internet.
While many indulged in schadenfreude, my friends and I celebrated it as an example of society turning on itself. Because the “Britney” revealed during this time was so different than the cookie-cutter child star I had grown up with. It all “made sense,” or whatever – she’d just had a divorce, was losing custody over her children, was seen partying with Paris Hilton, checked in and out of rehab, and broke into tears on national TV – all of it caught on camera and scrutinized in the tabloids. Notably, this was the time of reality TV’s initial ascendency. As if to give herself space and distance judgmental eyes from her private space, she fired several of her staff, only escalating the media campaign to exploit her breakdown.
It’s never been more acceptable to say that you’re depressed or suffering from mental illness. Perhaps this is to be expected. Over the last century, the “madman” ascended at least in metaphor to the status of moral compass of society. In books, on stage, and on screen, the emotionally troubled have been represented as a little freer than everybody else, a little smarter. Literature explained human consciousness and society through the eyes and minds of the “crazy,” showing both the dystopian reality of modern society, and the close connection between genius and a mad mind. Orwell, Kafka, and Dostoyevsky showed the paranoid and hopeless citizen as a symptom of a totalitarian and all-encompassing bureaucracy. Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and Doris Lessing revealed the close connection between feeling trapped in patriarchy and madness. Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, and Saidiya Hartman helped reimagine black women’s understanding of their depression and despair as inseparable from slavery’s afterlife and the persistence of racism. Jean Rhys and Djuna Barnes demonstrated the abject and promiscuity as possible ways to cope with a suffocating existence.
We who grew up with Prozac Nation, Trainspotting, American Psycho, Fight Club, Requiem for a Dream, and The Virgin Suicides know that it’s ok to feel and be called crazy – it just means you’re the protagonist of the story that is your life. Unlike the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and the Magical Negro, the Mad Genius protagonist of many of these movies doesn’t exist to prop up and fill others with meaning. They’re on their own quest, berating themselves but scornfully mocking others foremost. Through their eyes, the whole world looks dumb, dreary, and meaningless. Crucially, what these movies and cultural tropes imply is that you can be on top only if you tap into the crazy as a source of wisdom and special insight; succumbing to mania, depression, or addiction amounts to failure. (In some cases, by failing you can still be a special kind of antihero and messiah – like Daniel Johnston and Kurt Cobain. But the insane girl can only succeed if she manages to bottle up her frustrations and write about it, like in Girl, Interrupted and Prozac Nation, or, if she fails, seduce the neighborhood boys to tell her story, like The Virgin Suicides. If she doesn’t, it’s a horror movie, like Carrie.)
We’re living through the most overpowering and absolute stage of capitalism thus far, where all aspects of our lives become increasingly integrated into and determined by markets, followed by a rapidly diminishing sense of agency and self-determination. The era of big data has introduced a whole new attention economy, where the market no longer needs us as full-time workers, but prospers through merely fragments of our attention: clicks and shares and likes and views and posts. (We, on the other hand, are in desperate need of capital.)
In his latest book Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide, Franco Berardi outlines the connections between mental health and capitalism. Tracing the surge in mental illness to a psychotic market, Berardi argues that the epidemic of depression and over-diagnosing of mental illnesses is not the ‘waking up to terrible conditions’ one may imagine, but a come-down from decades of cultural and economic euphoria.
“Economic phenomena have long been described in psychopathological terms (euphoria, depression, slump, up and downs ...), but when the production process involves the brain as the primary unit of production, psychopathology ceases to be a mere metaphor and becomes instead a crucial element of economic cycles. Throughout the 1990s the overall economy expanded literally euphorically. Prozac culture became an integral part of the social landscape of the internet economy, which was expected to unfold in the manner of infinite growth.”
To cope with this reality, people took drugs to have energy for intimacy, stimulants to stay alert, sleeping pills to induce rest, and anti-depressants to shut out a growing awareness of the meaningless of it all. Our ways of coping worked in the short term, but left us broken in the long term, requiring more short-term fixes to stay afloat.
“Inevitably, as with a patient affected by bipolar disorder, the financial euphoria of the 1990s gave way to a spectacular depression. After years of irrational exuberance (as Alan Greenspan described them) the social organism was unable to sustain any longer the chemical euphoria that had fueled its enthusiastic competitiveness and economic fanaticism. The hyper-saturation of the collective attention culminated in a social and economic collapse.”
At the same time as the economy ballooned, and the capacity of workers was medically induced to follow suit, the construction of individuality expanded in all directions, providing thrilling fantasies for energetic teens to strive for. At large, society coped with diminishing possibilities and growing precariousness by creating Transformer-like children who think they can be anything they want. Inadvertently, this has created a situation where one has to be overly overambitious and stand out against the crowd to get anywhere, or to feel any meaning in life. But unfulfilled promises of ecstatic success may lead to a similarly spectacular depression or collapse. Case in point: school shooters.
Berardi posits the school shooters and suicidal murders of the last two decades as a consequence of these circumstances: James Eagan Holmes, Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, Pekka-Eric Auvinen, Matti Juhani Saari, Elliot Rodger, Adam Lanza, and Seung-Hui Cho. Going out with a bang, sometimes after publishing humanity-condemning manifestos and videos, these depressed, narcissistic, egomaniac, fed-up men explode the clash between self-image and the world in a spectacular act of vengeance that leaves all the clueless participants horrified and traumatized.
I have often resisted the pathologization of school shooters and suicide murderers, the rendering of them as disturbed individuals and exceptions. I’ve preferred to see such incidents as cultural symptoms, characters our generation can relate to in some twisted way. To so many people, school is where dreams and futures shatter, where adults and peers put you down, where depression or other mental ailments emerge, where the path to incarceration begins. School can be terrifying, least stressful and anxiety-inducing. School is the miniature representation of society, and when depression is a “public feeling,” murderous aggression against all of society via your school makes sense, somehow, as a cultural symptom and not just some perverted, irreconcilable anomaly. Those who have breakdowns, lash out against society, or give up, seem to affirm our discordant experience of the world, like they could be on our side.
School shooters and suicidal killers may be one way societal suffering crystallizes. And yet, making a series of young, narcissistic, almost exclusively white men into a metaphor for our post-political, post-human condition seems gratuitous, if not completely incorrect. Not to shame suicide – it’s the only freedom we have. And not to condemn violence. But these specific acts are clearly patriarchal and racist. These killers are born into society being promised the world, to be kings and rulers. Growing up, it becomes clear that this is just a childish fantasy, an empty promise, filling them with disappointment, anger, revengefulness. In their manifestos and videos, their language resembles the attitudes manifested in “men’s rights activists,” #GamerGate, and Elliot Rodger.
I’m used to thinking of depression as painful because it’s devoid of illusions, a position that most closely resembles “truth,” whatever that is. But Berardi points to depression as just one end of a perpetual cycle of extreme, propped-up euphoria inevitably followed by collapse. I find this helpful, because not every form of madness is a kind of genius, not every materialization of societal suffering an illuminating metaphor. Too often, our conversations about mental illness focus on its most spectacular manifestations: saving the world (inventors and scientists), destroying life (school shooters), destroying virtue (celebrity breakdowns) and rarely as the silent epidemic spreading across society. But most forms of suffering are neither poetic enough to become a movie nor spectacular enough to make the news. The daily experience of mental illness is often boring, lonely, and fraught with self-hatred.
Preparing for my interview with Hannah Black for this issue, I reread her essay “Crazy in Love,” which tells the story of her relationship with her brother who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Not surprisingly, Hannah Black is skeptical of the trend to use schizophrenia as a metaphor. When everyone identifies metaphorically as mad, the concept becomes meaningless. On some level, of course, all diagnoses of mental illness are prescriptive labels that produce and solidify conditions by institutional categorization, medication, and all the ways structural pathologization materialize over time. But there are also significant if not indisputable differences between certain conditions. As Hannah Black writes,
“What is crazy? In practice, madness is defined functionally rather than with reference to some absolute cognitive distinction. You can be as unhappy as you like if you can still make rent. You can be convinced that every streetlight is an angel as long as you walk past them and to your own door. If you have a lot of money, you can go on being crazy without consequence for longer than if you have only a little.”
Right now in the US, mental health is something only a small, privileged minority of people can afford or have time to think about. The most extreme example of this is, of course, prisons as the largest provider of mental health services in the US. Deinstitutionalization in the US has become mass-incarceration and abandonment of the mentally ill. American prisons hold ten times as many mentally ill than do psychiatric hospitals. But rarely do mentally ill patients actually receive adequate psychiatric care – or any at all. According to a report last year, many are sent to solitary confinement, are raped or further victimized, frequently attempt suicide, and often leave incarceration in worse condition than they entered it. Mentally ill inmates are also twice as likely to be homeless both before and after incarceration compared to other inmates.
Me: “Oh shit, we should make @mask_mag branded Kleenex" Isabelle: “But Sad Girl is over!” Hanna: “—We’re not going to stop crying though."— Tyler Reinhard (@abolishme) April 11, 2015
Mental illness is real, and we obviously shouldn’t shame each other for talking about all the ways we’re broken. Even though we know all these diagnoses to be bullshit, it’s the only way we understand the world, and those drugs do help a lot sometimes. (As do our various addictions.) But there’s something so bourgeois and indulgent about the way we talk about sadness and depression, using madness and mental illness as metaphors for our condition. God, I feel all we do is check in about how each other are feeling, always responding with “meh,” and “I want to kill myself.” Yes, many of us are depressed and schizophrenic by this world, but by self-pathologizing in this way, aren’t we just taking an easy way out, making a meme out of our weaknesses?
There’s a Hungarian psychologist whose controversial but pop science famous theories of addiction claim that we should trace our addictions, mental health issues to childhood trauma. He also says that the experience of a specific kind of trauma early on makes you incapable of having an emotional response to it later. The unexpected and inconvenient truth implied in this is that my occasional fits of being overwhelmed with sadness and dark thoughts only reveal what a pleasant childhood I had. And why people who’ve experienced severe trauma growing up are sometimes the most stoic, stable individuals, often being the rocks others rely on on for emotional support, rarely expecting the same in return.
We should talk about mental illness, but we shouldn’t indulge in affective depression and aesthetic sadness. Because when we do, we are admitting that we are helpless, that we value our own life more than resisting, that we have no agency. No, society hasn’t wronged us, we don’t deserve anything from society. Not because there’s anything wrong with us, but because we shouldn’t acknowledge “society” as the limit to our desires and our imagination. We know society is killing the possibility of a life we could want, so why is it strange that we feel dead? Oh God, I can’t think of a worse thing to quote in this context than Rick Grimes in The Walking Dead, but: “this is how we survive: We tell ourselves that we are the walking dead.”
But who am I to say any of these things. I should be ashamed of myself. I am.
“Most people know that financial dictatorship is destroying their life; the problem is knowing what to do about it.”
As capital becomes increasingly deterritorialized, unbound from the law, from time and space, all of society becomes subordinated to the accumulation of profit. The reason this is so often described as a situation of perpetual crisis, Berardi explains, is because crisis is “a situation in which the traditional norms loosen their grasp on reality, while new norms have yet to become established.” Acting outside of the law, the movement of capital thus seems more “criminal” than “lawful”. And if capital is the only agency, and we don’t have access to capital, acting outside of the law, on the level of crime or crisis, makes more and more sense as the path to agency and freedom.
In acting outside of the law, on the level of crisis, knowing that anything but this is “impossible,” what can we do? There must be other options than defying the imperative to be productive and happy by crying/eating pizza in bed or going on a rampage. Surely these options aren’t the only ones we can imagine.
In rejecting capitalism as well as the corny “happiness” you’re rewarded when you succeed at capitalism, we’ve left ourselves with nothing but our FMLs and hyper-identification with pathologies. If we are to move past the sad girl trope, we need to become less averse to feeling uncomfortable; we need to become more resilient. Let’s not fall into the trap of buying into diagnoses of our sickness. Let’s not assimilate by letting the psychopharmacological industrial complex make us weak and insecure. And let’s act autonomously in defining ways to cope with shit. We don’t need to hold ourselves down by compassionate suffering.
“Remember that despair and joy are not incompatible. Despair is the consequence of understanding. Joy is a condition of the emotional mind. Despair is to acknowledge the truth of the present situation, but the skeptical mind knows that the only truth is a shared imagination and shared projection. So do not be frightened by despair. It does not delimit the potential for joy. And joy is a condition of proving intellectual despair wrong.”
This is the Madness Issue, in which we try to find a trustworthy therapist, share stories of institutionalization, interview Hannah Black, practice looking fly while feeling like shit, take a day off to be hungover in the park, look for style inspiration in Uptown, find solace in the stars, and much more.