Antipsychiatry: schizophrenic experience and the sublime

Angela Woods

in The Sublime Object of Psychiatry

Published on behalf of Oxford University Press

Published in print August 2011 | ISBN: 9780199583959
Published online February 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191754692 | DOI:

Series: International Perspectives in Philosophy & Psychiatry

  Antipsychiatry: schizophrenic experience and the sublime

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The antipsychiatry movement of the 1960s and 1970s marked a decisive turning point in the history of representing schizophrenia: it reconceptualized in subjective terms psychiatry’s sublime object. With varying degrees of subtlety and sophistication, antipsychiatric thinkers challenged the clinical pictures of psychosis offered by psychiatrists and psychoanalysts, suggesting that schizophrenic symptomatology is not baffling, bizarre, or otherwise unfathomable, but on the contrary rich in meaning. Instead of approaching schizophrenia as the expression of a disease process, genetic aberration, neurological abnormality, libidinal upsurge, or psychic structure, antipsychiatric thinkers focussed on the person as an embodied subject bound by history, geography, and social class; a person whose ‘madness’ was fundamentally social in character, and therefore had to be understood in the context of the family, the welfare state, the total institution or patriarchal Western culture at large. ‘Rescuing’, as it were, the schizophrenic patient from the relatively closed world of the clinic or the asylum, antipsychiatric discourse re-framed ‘the schizophrenic’ as a figure now capable of sustaining multiple and sometimes contradictory symbolic roles. And in opening up schizophrenia to associations and functions far beyond those circumscribed by psychiatry, antipsychiatry also called in to question schizophrenia’s status as sublime.

This chapter analyses the way schizophrenia is represented, mobilized, and politicized in an antipsychiatry movement characterized by diversity and disavowal. For the purposes of this analysis, and although none of its many theoretically divergent practitioners embrace the label, I use the term ‘antipsychiatry movement’ to refer to the work of Erving Goffman (1973), Michel Foucault (1993), Thomas Szasz (1972; 1976), and R.D. Laing (1990), as well as to the various countercultural movements across Europe and America which protested against the institutions of psychiatry and psychoanalysis.1 I will argue that while framing schizophrenia in social and subjective terms appears antithetical to psychiatry’s construction of schizophrenia as sublime, the divergent discourses loosely assembled under the rubric of antipsychiatry enact a more complex critique of the psychiatric model of schizophrenia than one of simple opposition.

Chapter.  8769 words. 

Subjects: Psychiatry

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