Schizophrenia: The Future of Our Fascination

I’m currently finishing a paper in preparation for a seminar at the University of Sydney in early July. The title of the talk is “Schizophrenia: The Future of Our Fascination?” and the invitation to elaborate on some of the ideas raised in my book has come from our close medical humanities colleagues at the Centre for Values Ethics and the Law in Medicine. Here is the abstract:

Schizophrenia has been psychiatry’s most consistently and perhaps most passionately contested diagnostic category. One hundred years after Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler proposed ‘schizophrenia’ as a replacement for the cumbersome ‘dementia praecox,’ there is still no consensus over whether it is best seen as a ‘disabling and baffling brain disease’, a ‘multidimensional psychotic syndrome’, or a scientific fiction and stigmatising label. The launch in the last ten months of not one but two independent investigations – The Schizophrenia Commission and The Inquiry into the ‘Schizophrenia’ Label – show that these debates, at least in the UK, show no signs of disappearing.

The aim of my talk is neither to inflame nor to resolve the many controversies surrounding schizophrenia, but to shed some light on how and why they developed. As well as naming some extreme forms of human suffering, schizophrenia, I will argue, was positioned over the course of the twentieth century as an object of growing clinical, scientific, political and cultural fascination. What was it that so compelled ‘our’ attention? And what, if anything, has changed?

As the question of this fascination is itself fascinating, I am really interested in your views on ‘schizophrenia’ and its future. 100 years from now, will it still be the case that schizophrenia’s origins are ‘wrapped in impenetrable darkness’, as Emil Kraepelin suggested at the turn of last century, or will the term itself be a historical relic?

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