Illness as metaphor II: Ear for eye

Lashana Lynch in ear for eye. Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey.

I ended last month by suggesting that we need works of art which strip illness bare of its metaphors and give truth value to both its social conditions and the testimonies of those affected. A couple of weeks later at the Royal Court, I stumbled upon a new which sort of did just that.

I say ‘stumbled upon’ because debbie tucker green’s new production for the Royal Court ear for eye  is not about illness. It is about race. More specifically it is about blackness and whiteness, and the ways in which the lives and voices of black people in the UK and the US are threatened and silenced by structural racism.

The play is in three parts. Part one is made up of vignettes performed as monologues and dialogues around the theme of racism and police brutality. The vignettes alternate between UK and US settings, and debbie tucker green’s rhythmic prose seems to overspill from one story into the next. By the end of part one, UK and US speakers are sharing words and phrases, drawing parallels between supposedly geographically specific experiences. Part two stages a number of conversations between what we assume is an older white male university professor, and a young black woman who I took to be his graduate student on the theme of mass shootings in the US. Sharing a round, rotating platform the conversation is circular to the point of absurdity and the white professor refuses to let his student explain her perspective or see the links between mass shootings and white supremacy. Part three was a piece of video art, in which white speakers were recorded reading out historic race laws from their US states, and white Brits read out the British slave codes that governed Jamaica. Filmed at oblique angles, focusing sometimes on hands sometimes on facial features, it was a disturbing examination of the whiteness, turning the focus back onto the usually predominantly-white auditorium.

It is in part two that illness showed up. In his repetitive explanations of why white mass shooters ought to be understood apolitically, the white speaker turns again and again to illness. Shooters are misunderstood, traumatised, ‘mentally ill’, and ‘that’s it.’ Through these dialogues debbie tucker green expertly reveals how the illness metaphor can be weaponised for political gain, in a manner that often slips our notice in histories of the mental illness category.

Classic studies of discourses of mental illness from Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation to Elaine Showalter’s The Female Malady focus on the use of ‘madness’ as a means of silencing and controlling unruly behaviour. For Showalter in particular, mental illness became means of controlling female sexuality and desires for independence from the 1800s through to the 1980s. In this argument, mental illness is weaponised as a pretext for controlling a specific part of society – initially by locking them up in asylums, and later through compulsory prescriptions of ECT and psychotropic drugs. Those deemed ill are contained, their autonomy refused, the politics of their protest silenced.

Ear for eye revealed a contemporary weaponization of the category of mental illness which to some extent reverses this logic. The white killer, who the professor actually refers to as a ‘lone wolf’, gains access to the category of mental illness by virtue of his whiteness (and implicitly his maleness). As Foucault notes madness has historically been a silent zone, a silence which is intensified through modern psychiatry. Through his metaphoric relationship with madness, the white killer is permitted the silence of exceptionalism and is an abnormality to be treated rather than punished. By contrast, as the student repeatedly tries to point out, black bodies are constantly made to speak for others. The same logic which allows the white killer to be mentally ill interprets any violent crime committed by a black person as symptomatic of broader social ills: the black person is cast as a terrorist, or their crime a sign of corrupt neighbourhoods or racial degeneracy.

The real skill of the writing of this scene is that even as the professor depoliticises and redeems the white killer on the grounds of his ‘mental illness’, he simultaneously uses ‘mental illness’ as a way of silencing his black student. At one point in response to the professor’s statement ‘he was depressed’, she exasperatedly shouts ‘I’m depressed!’ The implication of her statement ought to be clear: lots of people are depressed, most of them don’t become mass killers. There is something else going on. But knowledge of her depression simply becomes another string to the professor’s bow, and any further legitimate feelings of frustration or anger on her part are pathologized.

debbie tucker green’s play reveals how, as a zone of silence, mental illness is used as a form of discursive gatekeeping which can simultaneously protect and excuse whiteness even as it eliminates black speech. Illness metaphors are tricky precisely for this reason – they can be manipulated in different directions. Ear for eye starkly stages the mechanisms and social and political consequences of this manipulation.

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