Dis-labeling madness

What if, like queerness, we began to preface disability less as an identity than an intensely generative methodology—a form of relation…an exchange embodied in the very crevices of breakage, the borderlines between abled-bodied and disabled worlds?

Clare Mullaney, “Brandy Snaps and Battlefields”

Like gay and lesbian liberation movements, which appropriated the once-abjected term “queer” for a new, proud self-identification, “mad pride” is a growing civil rights movement that aims at showcasing difference by re-signifying the term “mad,” which has long been saturated in stigma. Efforts to gain justice for “madness” have since spread throughout the world. “International Mad Pride Day” is now scheduled yearly on July 14, because, in the storming of the Bastille, prisoners detained for being “mad” were freed.1

Multiple groups celebrate “mad pride.” The Icarus Project challenges the distinct psychiatric divisions between “sane” and “insane” by commemorating the unusual and “spectacular” ways in which “information and emotion” are processed by those bearing the “dangerous gifts” of “mental illness.”2 MindFreedom also queries the social framing of difference, by using “sanism”—discrimination against those labeled as having a mental illness—as a new point of analysis. Replacing “disabled” with “dis-labeled,” this group refuses to medicalize what they describe as “symptoms of life.” The organization’s president, David Oaks, points out that the term “mad” derives from the roots “mei,” meaning “to change,” and “mutuus,” “done in exchange.” Because these are also the roots for “motion,”3 this etymological derivation helps celebrants of “mad pride” to mobilize madness: rather than a fixed, stable category, it signifies a state of variability.

Our work follows the trajectory laid out by MindFreedom. It draws as well on Bethany Stevens’ interrogations of “transability,” and on Judith Halberstam’s use of the term “transgendered” to move beyond both “uniqueness” and “unilateral oppression, and beyond the binary division of flexibility or rigidity.”4 We offer here the kindred term “transminded” to suggest ways in which “mad” and “sane,” long trapped in polarized mind states, might better be understood as related, variable, and productive mental activities. “Transminded” encompasses the inherent stretchiness of mental dis/ability, and suggests the ways in which its shape willfully molds both to and against others. We hope that this new term—not situated in psychiatry, more pliable than “neurodiversity”—works to queer the trope of madness: “transminded” is defined by expansion, rather than lack or impairment. It evokes multiplicity and diversity, as in Kate Millett’s description of living with manic-depressive disorder:

We do not lose our minds, even “mad” we are neither insane nor sick. Reason gives way to fantasy—both are mental activities, both productive. The mind goes on working, speaking a different language, making its own perceptions, designs, symmetrical or asymmetrical; it works….Why not hear voices? So what?5

Those voices are not always tolerable, of course, and the experience of hearing them not always productive. We hope to alter the conventional valuing of “productivity,” however, in our call for “transmindedness,” a hybrid state that yields novel connections and perspectives. Building on the history in feminist disability studies of an ever-complexifying identity-based politics,6 we nudge the field towards a methodology (choose here your favored term to embody the act of querying normative assumptions) for “queering,” “cripping,” or “maddening” what it means to be an intellectual woman in the early twenty-first century. In doing so, we move from nouns and their modifiers—“queer womyn,” “disabled activist,” “madwoman,” “smart lady”—to verbs, from bounded identities to conditioned, and ever-conditional, actions.

Multiple scholars in disability studies have prepared the way for us here, by unsettling fixed identity categories. Robert McRuer’s “crippin,’” which replaces “cultures of upward redistribution” with “an accessible world,”7 has been helpful to our thinking about replacing current conceptions of women’s academic achievement, which are measured against the failures of those who do not conform. Lennard Davis’s call for “The End of Identity Politics” has also been particularly productive for, and clarifying of, the feminist disability work we have been doing at Bryn Mawr. The states of “dependency and interdependence” Davis describes8 accord well with our sense of “maddening” as moving, fragmenting and splintering; we draw on his de-stabilizing project as a way of thinking differently about—queering, cripping, maddening—what it means to “identify.”

Leaking beyond conventional patterns and schemas of being, “madness” forges a non-linear trajectory, an un-straight path.Leaking beyond conventional patterns and schemas of being, “madness” forges a non-linear trajectory, an un-straight path. We turn now to describe how re-thinking madness within a more flexible frame has helped us to refigure, and reimagine, achievement and disablement at Bryn Mawr.

  1. Mad Pride –since when?Toronto Mad Pride, n.d, accessed August 11, 2012.
  2. The Icarus Project,” accessed August 16, 2012; Alison Jost, “Mad Pride and the Medical Model,” Hastings Center Report 39, 4 (July-August 2009), accessed August 25, 2012.
  3. David Oaks, “Let’s Stop Saying ‘Mental Illness,’” MindFreedom International, April 26, 2012, accessed August 13, 2012.
  4. Bethany Stevens, “Interrogating Transability: A Catalyst to View Disability as Body Art,” Disability Studies Quarterly 31, 4 (2011); Judith Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (New York: New York University Press, 2005), 21.
  5. Kate Millett, The Looney-Bin Trip (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois, 2000), 315.
  6. Cf. Garland-Thomson, “Integrating Disability,” 3-47; Kim Q. Hall,  “Reimagining Disability and Gender through Feminist Disability Studies: An Introduction,” Feminist Disability Studies, ed. Kim Q. Hall (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011), 1-10; Susan Wendell, “Toward a Feminist Ethics of Disability” (1989, rpt. in The Disability Studies Reader, ed. Lennard J. Davis. Second Edition. New York: Routledge, 2006), 243-256.
  7. Robert McRuer, Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability (New York: New York University Press, 2005), 71
  8. Lennard Davis, “The End of Identity Politics and the Beginning of Dismodernism: On Disability as an Unstable Category,” The Disability Studies Reader, ed. Lennard J. Davis, second edition (New York: Routledge, 2006), 241.