Continental Philosophy of Psychiatry: The Lure of Madness Book Review

Lorna Collins reviews Continental Philosophy of Psychiatry: The Lure of Madness by Alastair Morgan (Springer, 2022).

Alastair Morgan’s Continental Philosophy of Psychiatry: The Lure of Madness is a fascinating scrutiny of highly complex ideas about madness and the mind, in their murky socio-political and clinical bearings. The central field in this book, continental philosophy of psychiatry, refers to post-1970s thinkers, predominately from France and Germany, including Michel Foucault. Franz Fanon, Jacques Lacan and Herbert Marcuse. The majority of these thinkers took a post-structuralist account, producing the basis of anti-psychiatry and reactive political movements.

Cover of 'Continental Philosophy of Psychiatry: The Lure of Madness' by Alastair Morgan
Continental Philosophy of Psychiatry book cover. Credit: Springer.

Morgan is trained as both a philosopher and a mental health professional, giving him the perfect background to write this book. The conceptual foundation of Morgan’s primary research lies with German philosopher and critical theorist Theodor Adorno, whose Negative Dialectics provides a dense, underlying platform to the ideas we read about in The Lure of Madness. As I have written about elsewhere, in Negative Dialectics, Adorno presents a way of thinking about identity based on its apparent opposite, “non-identity”, the “alien other” or the “indissoluble something” which cannot fit inside a binary mode of thinking or categorisation that is based on contradictions. (Adorno, 1973). Morgan draws heavily on Adorno’s structure of thought in his continual posing of the reason/madness dialectic, which frames this book review.

Morgan calls madness a “lure” for philosophy, meaning both a trap and a provocation. He says that the construction of madness as “another world” is a trap for thought because “if madness is so other to reason, then there is nothing that we can say about it, it is beyond the limits of reason” (9). Concurrently, the idea of madness is tempting, a provocation for thought, because “in the interrogation of madness as another world, philosophical concepts of madness and reason […] produce spaces for a different way of thinking, and a different psychiatric practice” (9). In my reading of this book, however alluring madness might be, it remains a trap, because ultimately it silences philosophy, which can, at best, reach either unreachable radical otherness, or a tautology. What is lacking in a philosophy which only intellectualises from a comfortable distance is any visceral sense of creativity to express or evoke something which (definitively) evades reason. This is missing in the discussion of madness in Morgan’s book here and in the broader field, which is dominated by male, intellectualising philosophers.

Despite this, read on its own terms, Morgan’s book is an engaging, educational experience. Morgan embraces an ambitious task with his thorough examination of continental philosophy (via such influential figures as Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Martin Heidegger, and Jacques Derrida), which he does with panache. The reader swallows and savours a minefield of demanding, discerning concepts which are introduced and contextualised. Highlights include Morgan’s deliberation of ipseity, alienation, the ineffable, the mirror stage, dialectics and schizoanalysis. These challenging terms are continually juxtaposed with the ultimately unresolvable dialectic between reason and madness.

Reading Through Visionary Perspectives

I am not necessarily reading this book (only) to inform my own knowledge. I am reading it as someone who has experienced madness, from the perspective of being diagnosed or mis-diagnosed – depending on your perspective – as psychotic or schizophrenic, currently given the label of ‘organic hallucinosis’.

A pencil drawing of the back of a person's head who has shoulder length brown hair and is wearing a bright yellow top. Around their head are brightly coloured bubbles resembling cartoon speech bubbles or perhaps balloons. Each contains a different word or phrase, for example, 'schizoanalysis', 'lure', 'unknown' and 'pain'. The image has been mirrored to make the writing appear backwords.
Figure 1: Reading The Lure of Madness (pencil drawing on the inside front cover of Morgan’s book). Credit: Lorna Collins

As I am reading about the philosophy of psychiatry in Morgan’s book, I find myself (my hallucinations) reacting violently.  I do not usually include my visionary perspectives in an academic review. I tend to do a very good job of seeming ‘normal’. But these experiences seem to show something valid about the field defined in this book, if not the book itself. This is a compliment to Morgan because I only have these vivid reactions because he presents the key issues in such a clear and stimulating manner. I see words floating and trembling in front of me, becoming physical. They are separated from my mind, separated from sense, hanging in helium balloons, suspended, mid-air, in front of me. They are whirring, verbalised part-objects, perhaps.

The words take on their own being. They seem to be saying things about being called ‘mad’ (with all its connotations), a situation which the philosophers Morgan engages in his book seem to enjoy using as a thought experiment – as a counter to “reason”. I can hear torrents of voices yelling so loudly that their words become pure gibberish, perhaps in revolt, as minor literature, or concrete poetry (cf. Deleuze & Guattari, 1972a; Apollinaire, 2004). This is the lure.

The Lure of Madness and Ethics of Care

However, despite its potential to liberate new ideas about madness, the concept of lure raises several ethical problems. Is Morgan (or all the philosophers he examines) guilty of voyeurism? Where is the duty of care? Should a philosopher commit to this medical, ethical standpoint, as well as a clinician? Since Morgan is both a philosopher and a clinician, it would be interesting to hear his position about how one informs the other, although this is unexplored in his book. Surely we need to consider duty of care for people who have been labelled and ‘put away’ from society, as mad? Is madness a lure to seduce philosophers? Or is the lure to be mad, posed by a party (philosopher or otherwise) who simply does not (and cannot) know what this is like?

Morgan exposes the dialectic between madness as pain and suffering versus madness as an intellectual thought experiment, but the consequences and ethical considerations of simply ‘feeling’, or in effect ‘using’ madness are left out. This may be beyond the scope for this book, but it remains a pressing question for those who experience madness which is not a thought experiment. It has vast and agonising consequences.

Nevertheless, Morgan’s book presents fascinating thoughts about madness and language, which will attract critical interest. From my own lived experience, mad data comes before or beyond language, but it is simultaneously and intrinsically linked to language (see Figure 1 above). When I have been unwell with psychosis, I have hypographia at the same time. This means being addicted to language, producing unstoppable writing. I have hundreds of journals from these times, jam-packed full of unreadable writing (backwards, in numerous languages). These are material remnants of madness, qua pure suffering.

Ultimately, Morgan’s book is all about power, showing the history of the ways that madness is used to critique society. It is important to also consider the effect of these theory games on the people used/abused as ‘mad’. When I first read about Deleuze and Guattari’s advocation of the ‘schizo’ world (and schizoanalysis), for instance, I felt both validated and petrified. They seemed to be advocating that my illness, my suffering, was a higher truth – and this was how it should be. At the time, when I read philosophers playing with ‘schizo’ nomenclature, they validated and upheld something which was – in effect – killing me (Deleuze & Guattari, 1972; 1980). I used (and still use) art to respond to this problem, both for the sake of my own mental health, and to make a new philosophical position (Buchanan & Collins, 2014: 103-124). Although Morgan refers to Artaud and Bataille, there is not enough of a call to an aesthetic experience in this book (or in the field). In my view, the only way we can understand madness (or being human) is to evoke, rather than theorise, our experiences. Here, I may be raising a tension between the arts evoking or expressing madness and theories that (perhaps only) categorise it. But we need both: creativity to help express and theory to help explain the lure of madness.

‘The lure of madness’ seduces and builds a whole field of study (continental philosophy of psychiatry, examined in this book) whilst leaving problems for itself. The lure is a trap. Without outlets from art and creativity, the field shakes and turns back on itself, negated, or in tautology. This happens particularly when madness is conceptualised as a radically othering experience, which silences the experience of madness, so all the field is describing (and annulling) is itself.

Morgan examines this, dispersing tempting words like ‘pathos’ throughout the text (273). The chapters on Fanon, Basaglia and Laing try to think about care and violence in institutions. But we also need empathy (despite or beyond Laing’s sense of ‘wild empathy’) and pragmatic steps – how can we live, being mad (355-381)? Not as someone else’s thought experiment, but in a world where, as crip theorist Kelly Fritsch (drawing from Adorno) says, “In taking the differences and similarities of our sufferings seriously, critically, and reflectively, we open up spaces, cracks, and possibilities for the difference of uncomfortable crip communities to come” Fritsch, 2013).

This work goes beyond the remit of this book and perhaps beyond the field the book examines, but I suggest it is an important provocation.

Future Poetics of Madness

When Adorno said that ‘it has become impossible to write poetry’ after Auschwitz, he meant that rational thought (dialectics) had fissured creativity, leaving only ‘barbarism’ (Adorno, 1967). In Adorno, the truth of reality is in the ‘alien’ other, the non-identity, those who are ‘mad’; these are the people who don’t fit, and who can deconstruct or disintegrate systems of power (Adorno, 1973: 145). For this reason, after Auschwitz, after the use and abuse of the label of ‘madness’, we must have poetry. As Marcuse writes, ‘Art cannot change the world, but it can contribute to changing the consciousness and drives of the men and women who could change the world’ (Marcuse, 1978: 32-33). Perhaps future directions for the field of philosophy of psychiatry, then, must involve aesthetics or creative approaches to health.

I have scribbled a very rough, basic picture of the helium balloon word objects, which appeared to me as I read The Lure of Madness (see Figure 1). The experience of drawing is soothing; it allows me to try and make some sort of sense of this beguiling experience. As I draw, the hallucinations dissipate; I can see through them more clearly. The sounds become quieter. I return to the book and am moved by the final sentence. This is our task:

If there is to be a reconcilement between madness and reason it can only lie in an acknowledgement of difference without exclusion, one that is open to the voices of madness without dissolving those experiences or neglecting to pay attention to the suffering and violence that engenders them. (414)

References

Adorno, T. W. (1967) (trans. Samuel & Shierry Weber) ‘Cultural Criticism and Society’ in Prisms Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Adorno, T. W. (1973) (trans. E. B. Ashton) Negative Dialectics, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.

Appollinaire, G. (2004). Calligrammes: Poems of Peace and War (1913-1916), California: UP.

Buchanan, I. & L. Collins (Ed.). (2014) Deleuze and the Schizoanalysis of Visual Art, London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Deleuze, G., & F. Guattari (1972) Capitalisme et Schizophrénie 1; L’Anti-OEdipe. Paris : Les Éditions de Minuit.

______________________(1972) Kafka: pour une littérature mineure, Paris: Minuit.

______________________(1980) Capitalisme et Schizophrénie 2; Mille Plateaux. Paris : Les Éditions de Minuit.

Fritsch, K. (2013). On the Negative Possibility of Suffering: Adorno, Feminist Philosophy, and the Transfigured Crip To Come, Disability Studies Quarterly, 33(4). doi:10.18061/dsq.v33i4.3869

Marcuse, H. (1978) The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward A Critique Of Marxist Aesthetic, Boston: Beacon Press.

About the Author

Dr. Lorna Collins (FHEA, FRSPH) is an artist, filmmaker, writer and arts educator. Amongst other books, Lorna is the author of Making Sense: Art Practice and Transformative Therapeutics (Bloomsbury) and a series of children’s fiction, beginning with Squawk: A Book of Bird Adventures (Pegasus). She has written articles about mental health, the NHS, creativity and art in The Independent, The Guardian and The British Medical Journal. She spoke about her life story and research in a TEDx Talk (‘How Creativity Revived Me’) and is contactable on Twitter @sensinglorna.

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