diogenes and the power of the disadvantaged
this is very important. i’m reposting it minus its notes but otherwise whole. the dispossessed can have no stronghold, there is only winning thru theater.
By Ine Gevers
The DeCenter, Center for Neurologically Diverse Cultures,founded in 1999, aims to de-marginalize the positions of autistics (and people with related “disorders”) and to support the self-representation of these and other cultures of people who are “differently brained.”
Even though mental disorders such as autism, schizophrenia and learning disabilities are far from comparable from a medical point of view, such disorders suggest a united opposition against normative culture that the DeCenter seeks to promulgate. There is little chance for self-advocacy and self-representation of people with such disorders if autistics and their many correlatives accept the extensive labelling with which the medical discourse attempts to distinguish one disorder from an other. There are certainly appropriate reasons to differentiate between Autistic Disorder, Asperger’s Syndrome, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, Rett’s Disorder, Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDDNOS)—all of which are DSM-III terms referring to differentiated autistic conditions. But when issues emerge like how to acquire an identity, how to meet sisters or brothers with similar modes of perception and ways of thinking, how to integrate in a community to guide you in developing empowering strategies, this labelling can seem an endless fragmentation of useless nomenclature.
Inspired by a number of philosophical and artistic positions, the DeCenter is interested in researching and representing alternative modes of viewing, of interpreting and interacting with the world. Many of these alternative systems of signification may have started out purely as individuals’ tactical maneuvers for survival in a dominant order or culture. Some people, sharing similar disadvantaged positions, have managed to celebrate these methods as alternative modes of consciousness and as interfaces from which to relate to the world. The DeCenter pursues the possibility that more than one symbolic order—the order of language and symbolic representation—will allow for other ways of meaningfully engaging with reality than those prescribed by the dominant culture. The DeCenter initiates and guides projects and cultural interventions which try to place these different “languages” on the map. The projects of the DeCenter aim at “transcultural” communication between so-called neurologically typical (a term autistics tend to use in reference to “normal” people) and neurologically diverse cultures whose (extra)symbolic order is based on alternative operating tools with which to engage the world.
The writings of the French historian and ethnologist Michel de Certeau enable us to evaluate the strength of counteractions launched by those whose brains are differently organized. De Certeau’s celebration of “the Other,” in its most pluralistic sense, is an important source of inspiration for the DeCenter. The tactics used by these “Others” in resisting and surviving the normative order are described in his book, The Practice of Everyday Life. De Certeau writes of these tactics as diversionary practices, which he compares with “la perruque’” (a French term for engaging in personal activities on company time).
De Certeau distinguishes between strategies and tactics: contrary to strategies employed by those in power, who “postulate their proper place from which to manage and dominate the world around,” those without power must calculate their actions using subversive tactics in a space which is not their own. De Certeau describes these alternative operating tactics as forms of “bricolage” (like building a house from bottom to top without any plan).
The interaction between Spanish colonizers and indigenous Indian populations resulted in an attendant cultural ambiguity characteristic of bricolage: indigenous Indians subverted Spanish colonizers’ “success” in imposing their culture by dismantling it from within. Submitting, and even consenting to their subjection under the Spanish regime, the Indians nonetheless made use of the rituals, representations, and laws that were imposed on them in ways completely different from those which their conquerors intended. They subverted the colonizer’s practices not so much by rejecting or altering them, but by using them to their own ends and purposes. De Certeau writes:
They were other within the very colonization that outwardly assimilated them; their use of the dominant social order deflected its power, which they lacked the means to challenge; they escaped it without leaving it. The strength of their difference lay in procedures of ‘consumption.’
Whether it is in walking, cooking or speaking, users of such a “productive consumption” make innumerable and infinitesimal transformations within the dominant cultural economy, altering and adapting it to their own interests, their own rules. This kind of subversion is viable for even the most disadvantaged and victimized groups in our society. De Certeau for instance compares the “signifying practices” of consumers within their jungle of functionalist rationality with the “wandering lines’” (lignes d’erre) drawn by autistic children as studied by the French pedagogue Francois Deligny:
These children trace “indeterminate trajectories” that are apparently meaningless, since they do not cohere with the constructed, written and prefabricated space through which they move. These (trajectories IG) are sentences that remain unpredictable within the space ordered by the organizing of techniques and systems. Although they use as their material the vocabularies of established languages (those of television, newspapers, the supermarket or city planning), although they remain within the framework of prescribed syntaxes (the temporal modes of schedules, paradigmatic organizations of places), these “traverses” remain heterogeneous to the systems they infiltrate and in which they sketch out the guileful rules of different interests and desires.
The space of the disadvantaged is always the space of the Other. The disadvantaged must use alternative tactics within a terrain imposed and organized by laws and rules they did not create. “It operates in isolated actions, blow by blow, takes advantage of ‘opportunities’ and depends on them, being without any base where it could stockpile its winnings, build up its position, and plan raids. What it wins it cannot keep. This nowhere gives a tactic mobility, to be sure, but a mobility that must accept the chance offerings of the moment, and seize on the wing the possibilities that offer themselves at any given moment.” These “nowhere” or “non-places,” as de Certeau refers to them in The Mystic Fable, are of tremendous strategic value. A non-place is, on the one hand, the necessary precondition for those in power to create their own community (to create their sense of place at the expense of those who are excluded), while on the other hand, such a non-place suggests the only possible place from which to critique and undermine normative culture, language and the meanings we tend to take for granted when embedded in a particular place.
De Certeau’s concept of “non-place” or “nowhere” is not his invention. For centuries, artists and thinkers have been seeking and finding (or creating) places from which to attain power through subtle acts of manipulation and play—non-places where they could withdraw, hide, and from which they could raise voices against normative order by employing guises, by appropriating the media and creating cultural interruptions. The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk uses a whole set of alternative tools but his work covers familiar territory and reaches some strikingly similar conclusions.
In his book, Critique of Cynical Reason — a careful play with Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason — Sloterdijk attempts to explain the difference between “cynical reason” and “kynical irony.’” Cynical reason is, in his opinion, “enlightened false consciousness.” The cynic knows his beliefs to be false or ideological, but holds to them nonetheless for the sake of self-protection, as a way to negotiate the contradictory demands placed upon him. In other words, a cynic is a person who recognizes the reality of aesthetic conflict or political contradiction, but who disavows this contradiction nonetheless. Actually, the cynic just ignores this reality, and hence is almost impervious to ideology critique. Already demystified, already enlightened about his ideological relation to the world, the cynic believes himself beyond the need for self reflection and feels superior to ideology critics. Ideological and enlightened at the same time, the cynic is, to quote Sloterdijk, “reflexively buffered”: his very splitting armors him, his very ambivalence renders him immune.
Opposed to cynical reason is what Sloterdijk names “kynical irony,” the bold resistance of truth laid bare. The two are not always distinct. In fact, the one follows from the other (both cynicism and kynicism are constants in history) and, according to Sloterdijk, only within a balanced situation between these two states of mind (perceptions of things) can a third version of the notion of cynicism evolve to become a “phenomenology of polemic states of awareness.”
So what is this kynicism? Where cynicism embodies repression, kynicism shows resistance, where cynicism comes near to a splitting of the self, kynicism becomes the embodiment of such a resistance. For instance, the boldness of the famous Greek philosopher Diogenes is a good example. According to Sloterdijk, Diogenes’ so-called embodied philosophy contains a method and a manner of argumentation — kynismos — to which any serious thinking has no reply. Through the fundamental philosophic practice of kynismos, there is no division between agent and cause, between theory and practice. In fact, the embodiment of a certain conviction here implies making yourself the medium of that message (which is the opposite of demanding a certain behavior according to a certain set of moral ideals). And so, Diogenes picks his nose when Socrates conjures the oracle of Daimon to speak about the divine soul; Diogenes reacts to Plato’s doctrine of Ideas by farting, and masturbates in public to mock Plato’s theory of Eros. Diogenes despises fame, has no consideration for architecture, refuses to show respect, parodies the narrations of Gods and heroes, jokes with prostitutes, and tells Alexander the Great to move out of his sunlight. These are just a few examples from a life full of provocative behavior. Such behavior can be read as so many subversive variations of a burlesque “low theory” that pushes to the extreme a practical embodiment of philosophy through a grotesque pantomime. As such, Diogenes’ philosophic practice contrasts with the “elevated theory” that ever since Plato, has cut off ties to material embodiment.
One can say that Diogenes started the resistance against the propped-up discourse of European philosophy. His, is a straightforward assault upon the swindling of idealistic abstractions and the silliness of an abstract thinking. In fact Diogenes replies to the languages of abstract philosophers with that of a fool; he makes use of the same tools, first by turning idealistic truths into their materialistic opposite, second by doing so publicly.
Throughout history the threat of this kind of kynical cultural revolution (laying bare the low, the distinct and the particular; showing the opposite of abstract ideas and moral convictions) has been picked up again and again. Art, as Sloterdijk points out, is the ultimate region that has repeatedly revived this neo-kynical undercurrent. Through art, kynicism teaches us the maneuverability, the decisiveness, and the ability to adapt to the possibilities of the moment. The same qualities are mentioned by de Certeau. Whenever the time is right, these bold “Others” are the ones capable of inverting, transforming, and making changes that produce new meanings.
Mental states of artists and philosophers are of course not necessarily “different” in any medically or pathologically established way. Although sometimes it is indeed a thin line that divides the officially diagnosed neurological difference from the eccentric mind of a genius (Albert Einstein is said to have had Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Ludwig Wittgenstein probably had Asperger Syndrome), in general the possibility of choice remains for the latter and a more or less permanent position of disadvantage for the former. Nonetheless, it is probably for reasons of empathy and recognition that artists have made so many serious attempts to side with the idiot or “mad Other.” Often these moments of collaboration and support did not achieve the effect the artists wished for. Mostly, these incommensurate worlds remain separate. Even within an artistic or philosophical context it is deemed utterly impossible to represent the “mad Other’,” whether by imitating insanity or any other way of translating it to a dominant discourse. Stuck in a dualistic worldview that presupposing sameness, it has proven extremely difficult to see beyond external signs of difference. These variations are repeatedly viewed as deviations in language, self organization and/or social behavior.
Some poststructuralist philosophers have made major attempts to resolve this binary reductivism, but unfortunately, they tend to rely on situations highly abstracted from everyday life. In the course of life, it may be an almost impossible task to escape the system of signs through which each of us is compared and measured—on a scale from fully identical (conformist) to absolutely different (deviant). This classificatory symbolic order persists, even though Homi Bhaba, Judith Butler and many other “Others” have shown that Otherness is not measurable in this way. Any attempt to assimilate the Other to the terms of the selfsame necessarily robs it of the very “difference” that makes the other “Other”; falling back onto the scale of sameness unavoidably leads to misrecognition. We are necessarily limited in approaching the neurologically different unless we are willing to examine our own limits, our own idiocy, our own imprisonment in language and the culture of the norm.
There are exceptions. At the turn of the 20th century there were artists who took it upon themselves to reveal something of this inner madness. In some instances, they pointed to the incarceration within the operations of language and writing, in other cases, they highlighted society’s entrapment in its own mechanistic and unifying instrumentalism (Marcel Duchamp, Franz Kafka, Antonin Artaud). One of their formal tactics in undermining the supremacy of a means-and-end society that idolizes and celebrates its own techniques, its own administration, and its own rationality, is of course to pinpoint exactly those characteristics and then invert them. This is how the assemblage-principle, a practice of both Dadaist and Surrealist artists, can be understood. These interventions became essential to their “anti-aesthetical” practices for which they became famous.
The assemblage-principle enabled Dadaist artists to invert the system in which they were captured from within, and in doing so, they were able to show its ugliness, its abjectness, its wounds. In fact they laid bare the violence that was necessary to achieve the (dominant) symbolic order, even as it was sublimated to fully abstracted heights. According to Adorno the montage is: “the expression of a subject who, because he can no longer speak, must speak through things, through their alienated and injured form.”11 Along these same lines, it is also possible to interpret the intentionally incoherent conjunction of cries, noises, carnavalesque gatherings and absurd buffoonery of Dadaist artists like Arthur Cravan and Jacques Vache. Surrealism eventually resolutely sided itself with insanity. Disconnected from the conscious, well-adjusted and civilized individual in a kind of mimetic regression, its “other” side was exposed, as it were: the speechless chaos, the bloody tracks, and the abject remains to which rationality owes its success in attempting to achieve total control.
Another artistic attempt to reveal the madness of society’s means-and-end logic has been the turn to non-production. By becoming “the in-famous hero” artists laid bare the many exchange values of cultural economy. Non-production, or production only for the one who produces (living your life only for yourself), and madness go hand-in-hand in a joint attempt to challenge society’s neuroses called capitalism. Probably for much the same reason, French philosopher Michel Foucault gave one of his papers on madness the title: “Madness, the Absence of Work.” But there is a mirroring aspect to this insistence on non-production or production for oneself as well.
In Le Réel, traité de l’idiotie, Clement Rosset introduces his writing on Duchamps’ non-production by making an interesting comparison with what he explains to be the actual meaning of the term “idiot.” Apart from describing idiotic behavior as “simple, particular, unique,” Rosset states that, in fact, all persons are equally idiotic in the sense of “existing for themselves only.” The second definition of the idiot is more widely known: that of the irrational reaching towards pathology, of immaturity that approaches folly. To this Rosset adds: “somebody who is deprived from his intelligence, who has lost his reason.”
Here is another trajectory where the notion of the idiot fluently engages the tactic of the fool. Some historians have even gone so far as to state that the whole of modernity can be characterized by the invention of laughter (Marcel Duchamp, Samuel Beckett). It is through laughter and irony that art and idiocy come close enough to both become “strangers” within dominant culture, intruders in a society full of norms and rules. Of course such a mutually supporting context only works at those very moments in which both the cultural and the natural fool manage to merge so that clear distinctions can no longer be made between them. Or, to follow the words of Gilles Deleuze in analyzing the possibilities of a true politics of anti-psychiatry: “Here, madness would no longer exist as madness, not because it would have been transformed into ‘mental illness’, but on the contrary because it would receive the support of all the other flows, including science and art.”
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, as well as Michel Foucault have made serious attempts to approach madness from a critical cultural perspective rather then blindly following the still dominant medical/psychoanalytical view. Instead, they question the idiocy which characterizes normative societies. Foucault does so by declaring that humanity takes as its starting point limitation rather than freedom — with language as its largest organizer of prohibitions. He states that with the future elimination of the visible face of madness (through pharmacological control, genetic engineering and other methods of neutralization) something extremely valuable will be lost to humankind forever. In that near future, madness — almost “naturally” transgressive of the limits of language and therefore equated with forbidden language — might prove to have been the only unlocked door through which culture could have gotten to know itself.
Deleuze and Guattari more or less place the neurotic (who is accepted as normal within contemporary society) on the same plane as the idiot (who is not). According to Deleuze and Guattari, the neurotic is trapped within the residual or artificial territorialities of current capitalist and oedipalized society, only to be freed by flows of what they call deterritorialization, introduced by celebratory schizoid breakthroughs. Fruitful as these theoretical detours may be, the romanticising tendency in their celebration of the “mad Other” worries me. Deleuze’s Schizo for instance has been popularised to such an extent that the whole term has become hollow and meaningless. Aren’t we all schizos in postmodern society? Indeed, we all have split minds. The problem is that, whereas “normally brained” people do not seem to have any problem living such lives, people who have been diagnosed as schizophrenic are somehow unable to make necessary transitions.
Without falling into the trap of implying that one signifying practice would be better than another, I think the first step in coming to understand neurologically diverse cultures is to acknowledge the limitations of the “neurologically typical.” Most people have not considered that there might be other ways to participate meaningfully in life besides taking refuge in the symbolic order, in abstracted language, in adapting to the norm, subjecting to the illusion that this will protect us from being devoured by reality. Preoccupied with its own system of management and control, the dominant order does not acknowledge, indeed, may not even be able to recognize, the importance of the atypically brained. Yet, it is this diversity in mental states that provides us with the pluralism of meaning that may well be essential to the survival of humanity at large.
With biotechnological and digital revolutions promising us ever new territories of freedom, we easily forget about those very constraints by which we still are captured. Take the invention of cyberspace: informed by gen-technology, globalization and virtual reality, we are seduced by the promise of the disappearance of old schemata. No longer are we tied to our own physical contexts.
Geographical restraints or cultural frameworks have become interchangeable too. We just zap or mouse from one context to the next, like eternal nomads. Perceptions, processes of thought, and new neurological networks develop in less then no time. Generations evolve more and more quickly and have increasing difficulties with cross-generational communication. Like machines that have rapidly become obsolete, today’s generations are no longer compatible with each other. In some areas, intelligence is no longer measured as a static potential, but instead is measured in terms of adaptability.
Of course many of these signs of a rapidly changing society are not negative. The existing symbolic order is about to explode. Some conclusions are, however, drawn too quickly. For instance, on what effect these developments may have on the existing symbolic order. Some assume this order has already come to a full implosion. The symbolic, but at the same time transparent, world order we have shared for centuries is being rapidly replaced by cyberspace. Far from transparent, this new lifeworld is said to be premodern and concrete. It is a world of signs and images that has no need for any reference besides its own blunt existence. No longer requiring any knowledge of the referent behind the screen, this new technology creates full opportunity for escape. The practice of taking things “at their interface value” is criticized by Slovenian cultural critic, Slavoj Zizek. In his opinion, we place too much confidence in the screen. We lose ourselves in the play of appearances.
With a complete implosion of the symbolic as the result of digital revolution, the symbolic representation of reality would be scattered. And, without a thorough evolutionary preparation, we will find ourselves in the midst of an irreparable disintegration of perception and meaning. Having lost the underlying structure, our system of ordering information and making sense of the world, we will have lost our self-evident skills to interpret the world. All shared meaning will disappear. Without a standard frame of reference, people, and even the most familiar objects, will no longer be recognizable. Even words will not come automatically anymore. The necessary illusion of subjectivity and identity will no longer be a given. No longer capable of differentiating between inside and outside, there will be no way we to distinguish ourselves from others. Having lost the screen, which not only translates the world for us but protects us from a devouring reality, we will be hopelessly lost. We can only pray that there might then still be some schizophrenics and autistics around, whose tactics of survival remain untouched, to guide us through an as yet unknown land.
With the DeCenter, we create some distinctive turbulence within (the narrowly defined) symbolic order predicated on the power of language. The DeCenter was founded to give form to research and projects dealing with communication between people who differ profoundly in terms of the functioning of their brains. People who are neurologically different — people with autism, schizophrenia and/or related developmental disorders – are, through the DeCenter, supported in their attempts for self-advocacy and self-representation as distinct cultures. The positions we aim for implies an acceptance of these “other” modes of perception, signification, behavior and communication, even if incompatible with(in) the dominant order. In fact, we try to put into practice Michel de Certeau’s notions of resistance tactics for the disadvantaged by inviting people who are differently brained to actually tell their stories, or display their alternative tactics of survival and modes of communication. By taking a critical stance towards the normative order, often in a humorous and playful way, many contribute to a relatively new discourse: one that investigates the concept of physical and/or mental disability as a social construct. This discourse focuses on why the exclusion of disabled people has seldom been questioned, whereas disability has always existed in any culture, at any historical moment. In part, this is due to the biological/medical view that still dominates the discourse regarding people who are said to be physically and/or mentally disabled. People who have been diagnosed with a developmental disorder, a psychiatric disease or other physical/mental disabilities can either be cured and become like us, or they must settle for life at the periphery of society. The dualistic worldview on which the medical model is still based (operating in terms of normal-abnormal, sane-insane, healthy-ill) has in fact played a major role in the segregation of people with disabilities and in the labeling of them as aberrant, deviant, abnormal. As such, for centuries the medical model has discouraged full citizenship for people with disabilities.
A new, humanities-oriented approach to disability has begun to present alternative perspectives. Disability studies links in with, and borrows from, many fields and movements, including cultural studies, area studies, feminism, race-and-ethnic studies, and gay-and-lesbian studies. New-style disability researchers consider disability as an ordinary human variation, like gender, race or ethnicity, and approach the topic accordingly. Informed by post-structuralist literary and cultural criticism, this new area of critical discourse pulls apart concepts about disability to see what cultural attitudes, antagonisms and insecurities went into shaping them.
A reconsideration of people who are differently brained is partly instigated by this new discourse. Other sources of inspiration include the activist projects of younger generations of people diagnosed as having High Functioning Autism, Asperger Syndrome, or Schizophrenia. By communicating on the Internet, and/or by publishing their personal stories, more and more people who perceive, think, and act differently than what has been accepted as “normal” are coming out. People with autism organize themselves in self-help and self-advocacy groups and they represent themselves as a separate communities. The culture of autism as a mode of being has already become accepted in some medical circles as well as in sociological and cultural research. Autistics, schizophrenics and other people whose brains are differently organized than what is generally accepted as mainstream, will introduce their own symbolic orders into culture at large. Different mental capacities through which to know and experience the world will not only contribute variety to a pluriform society, they may even be welcomed as proffered escape-routes necessary to deal with a crisis of meaning that has haunted us ever since we started to take meaning, mind and self for granted as fixed entities beyond our reach.