Sunday, November 6, 2011

Politics, Arts of the Self, and Mental Illness

Something's been bothering me lately. Something niggling at the back of my mind about a theoretical premise called the arts of the self. I generally take the concept to mean that in order to create more generous politics, every person should do things to open the mind. These arts of the self include anything from meditation to drugs and provide for a more expansive and generous politics.

But what has been bothering me is that the arts of the self come accross as a little sanctimonious and take a privileged position toward mental illness.

Two things I've read recently have brought up this concern. The first is a lovely piece on Tiger Beatdown about World Mental Health Day and depression. Emily Manuel notes that there are certain groups of people more likely to be depressed and that these groups align with marginalized categories: women, people of color, the unemployed, and so on. Manuel remarks:
The personal is the political has been a truism of feminism since the second wave, but we often forget what that truly means. All too frequently we create a false dichotomy between body and mind, forgetting that we are bodies and minds in space, bodies and minds in culture, bodies and minds constrained and disciplined by capitalism and the nation-state.
In other words, the fact that women and other groups are more depressed may have something to do with their position within that nation state. If their position were somehow modified or corrected or made more equal, depression rates in that group may decline. Of course, there is always biology, but the point is that there may be a percentage of people with mental illness who could be helped if the systems that marginalize them were changed.

The arts of the self never really account for this.When William Connolly talks about cinema in his book Neuropolitcs he mentions Vertigo and the various techniques that point to layered thinking and the argument for troubling our thinking by pointing out the many misconceptions precented in the film. If only, Connolly asks, we could have the benefit of Scottie's confusion, then we could all think more creatively (page 16).

Here's the elephant in the room about Vertigo: Scottie is mentally ill. The movie opens describing the terror of vertigo and his fear of heights. He suffers from a disease that freezes him. Even Connolly can admit this part, but only partially, "He [Hitchcock] infects us with a touch of vertigo. A little vertigo is indespensable to creative thinking, while a lot can freeze you into a zombie...(16)"

A little mental illness is great, a lot is bad. As someone who suffers from depression, that is a heck of a lot of bunk. Even a little depression makes working difficult and it does not improve how I see the world or make me think more creatively. Of course what does make me think more creatively is overcoming that illness. I feel it is disingenuous to call what I have to do to not be depressed the arts of the self because it relies on the diagnosis of the disease and on treatment. It relies on a necessity to be better. What comes after - having the energy to learn to run or the wherewithal to blog - those are my arts of the self. Everything before is an attempt to not be ill and Connolly would to well to differentiate between these two different concepts.

And there is another aspect of mental illness that the arts of the self ignores but that Manuel accurately recognizes (maybe it takes the mentally ill to recognize this?), and that is the political systems that cause illness.

Manuel's discription of our minds and bodies at play in the nation state is important because it acknowledges that which we cannot work on through ourselves. Not everyone can afford a pill. Not everyone can afford therapy. Not everyone has opportunities to break through the mental states that are created by marginzalition or shitty jobs or crappy pay, or the many opportunities to change our moods for the worse.

Of course, Connolly is thinking from within a sphere apart of the percentages of people with mental illness and the fact that they happen to come from marginalized groups. Instead, he is thinking in this sphere:
You can think of micropolitics, in the Deleuzian sense, as a cultural collectivization and politicization of arts of the self. Micropolitics applies tactics to multiple layers of intersubjective being. Because it is often practiced in competitive settings, it contains an agonistic element. The assemblage to which such micropolitical tactics are aplied might be a small group, a large constituency, or an interdependent constellation of people holding divergent positions on issues in need of general resolution (108). 
So if we all work on ourselves and get a little vertigo and then come together, politics will work on a micro scale that will be more expansive. I like this idea. I love it, in fact, because it acknowledges that we all come from different places and have things to contribute. It's highly democratic.

But it still does not conquer that thought I have that not everyone can work on themselves in the way that Conolly imagines because some of us are trapped. Manuel's closing to her article suggests to me that perhaps we could mix the macro, policy-centered politics with the expansive micro. She concludes:
"But it does mean that there are political answers (treatments, if you will) as well as medication and therapy, and I think there’s something worthwhile about naming an enemy you can fight, too."

The enemy is within, but it is also outside of ourselves. No amount of working on ourselves is really going to acknowledge that system that leads to illness and allows the arts of the self that Connolly wants to see. Something has to be done by way of acknolwedging that system and saying that sometimes the arts of the self aren't about expansive politics at all, they aren't even arts of the self, they are overcoming the system that has ground you down just enough to make you sick and being sick is not an opportunity, it is a symptom of a larger, macro, systemic illness.

Perhaps what I am trying to say is that the arts of the self are not open to everyone. It's a great idea, but how do we remove the privilege evident in a statement that sees illness as an opportunity. How do we acknowledge that not everyone gets to enjoy expansive politics and how do we allow everyone to participate? How do we make the arts of the self democratic?

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