Postmodern schizophrenia

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

Postmodern schizophrenia

Show Summary Details


Postmodern cultural theory of the late twentieth century has used the term schizophrenia to ends far removed from the clinical diagnosis of individual suffering. By the early 1980s, Anti-Oedipus and the antipsychiatry movement had introduced new and politically charged models of schizophrenia to the academic establishment, greatly extending its symbolic capacities and potential. Since then, virtually every aspect of late twentieth-century aesthetic and cultural production—including visual art, literature, television, cinema, architecture, and music—as well as the generalized subjective experience of postmodernity, has been understood through its lens. This chapter is specifically concerned with the major theoretical works identifying the figure of ‘the schizophrenic’ as representative or typical of the postmodern subject. Although this argument is advanced in an array of different contexts, across a range of disciplines, my analysis concentrates on key texts by Jean Baudrillard, Fredric Jameson, David Harvey, Mark Currie, John Johnston, and Steven Frosh. If, as Robert Barrett suggests, ‘People categorized as “schizophrenic” have long been entrusted with this duty of symbolizing society, its structural elements, its definition of personhood, its contradictions [and] its paradoxes’ (1998c, p. 484), what is distinctive about these theorists’ claim that schizophrenia can be used, however (il)legitimately, to interpret specific aspects of postmodernity? And how can this be understood within the context of the accounts of schizophrenia discussed so far in this book?

We saw in the previous chapter that Louis Sass’s phenomenological approach to schizophrenia situated it outside the logic of the sublime that I have argued underscores psychiatric, psychoanalytic, antipsychiatric, and even anti-Oedipal accounts of the disorder. Attentive throughout to phenomenological detail, Sass discusses specific alterations in the schizophrenic experience of self and world, drawing on clinical and cultural examples to show that schizophrenia both is and is not within the realms of empathetic understanding. By contrast, in mobilizing a comparatively two-dimensional model of schizophrenia to stand for a general mode of Western late twentieth-century subjectivity, postmodern cultural theorists return to the sublime, inaugurating a fourth mode of schizophrenic sublimity I call the paradoxical sublime. The idea of the paradoxical sublime is inspired by literary theorist Linda Hutcheon’s analysis of paradoxical postmodernism, which she describes as a ‘postmodernism of complicity and critique, of reflexivity and historicity, that at once inscribes and subverts the conventions and ideologies of the dominant cultural and social forces of the twentieth-century western world’ (Hutcheon, 1989, p. 11). To operate paradoxically is, according to Hutcheon, to exploit and undermine, ‘to install and then subvert’. It is this propensity to ‘use and abuse’ critical and aesthetic concepts and strategies which is for Hutcheon the most prominent feature of postmodern cultural productions (Hutcheon, 1988, p. 101). My suggestion here is that the schizophrenic sublime is similarly ‘used and abused’ by postmodern cultural theorists. As I will argue, the efficacy of the topos of schizophrenia in postmodern cultural theory depends upon its sublime status in psychiatric, psychoanalytic, and especially antipsychiatric discourse. However, using schizophrenia so capaciously redefines the disorder as quotidian—that is, as no longer pathological, because it is illustrative of contemporary subjectivity per se. This renders the term virtually empty, (over)inflates its symbolic capacity at the expense of its phenomenological and psychological specificity, and consequently conceals some of its more troubling implications. Postmodern theorists therefore do not challenge or deconstruct schizophrenia’s sublime status; theirs is not the repudiation but the inflation and subsequent deliquescence of the schizophrenic sublime.

Chapter.  9020 words. 

Subjects: Psychiatry

Full text: subscription required

How to subscribe Recommend to my Librarian

Buy this work at Oxford University Press »

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content.