- Bad Souls: Madness and Responsibility in Modern Greece by Elizabeth Anne Davis
Bad Souls is a captivating analysis of institutional reform in Greece of the early 2000s, as the country was undergoing rapid Europeanization of its structures and institutions. In this ethnography, Davis focuses on changes in the (largely EU-funded) organization of mental institutions and the conceptual frames within which mental illness was being re-thought, at least until the financial crisis manifested itself. In choosing this focus, Davis points out the paradoxes that arise from inconsistencies between ethical approaches to psychiatric care and the many ways in which ideal paradigms fail to materialize in peoples’ real lives. The author approaches such inconsistencies as a structural component of the neoliberal ideological apparatus that displaces responsibility from the state to the person. In making the shift from the institution to the person, the new approaches to mental illness envision recovery within the community as good and confinement as bad. Yet in practice, the results are quite different, with chains and [End Page 444] padlocks on doors in mental institution buildings that were originally designed to enhance patients’ freedom of movement in them; or the return of patients to abusive and impoverished homes under the rubric of de-institutionalizing care.
They also re-categorize illness along axes of lying, deceit, and submission. These are categories that arise from this revised discourse of “responsibility” as this discourse is propped up with views of the person as a cultural subject. Under this insightful anthropological lens, Davis shows the effect of this discursive coupling of responsibility and culture, which is to bracket out structural violence and the responsibility of the state in the production of economic, ethnic, and gendered forms of discrimination.
Post-crisis, the broad lines of Davis’s argument about neoliberal reforms have been sketched by a number of social theorists (especially though not exclusively those working on concepts of governmentality) with respect to Greece. This makes Bad Souls extremely topical. As an analysis that began a decade ago, however, its impact should be of a different order. It is an incisive, particularly perceptive, and highly astute work centered on the problems of neoliberalism in its most benign forms, long before the rude awakening of the financial crisis. It is also an invaluable contribution to the discussion of culture, arising chiefly out of Davis’s critical analysis of how psychiatric discourse in the specific region produces the “cultural subject” mentioned above. This discussion is particularly invaluable within anthropology and beyond, because it shows how culture is re-inscribed in the political. The added interest here is that the context of this political is one where the nation-state ideology is held to have been superseded by an international order that goes beyond the nation-state and a cultural postmodern order where singular truths (such as the nation-state ideology) have crumbled. Davis’s ethnography puts this conceptual premise into question.
This last point is poignantly brought forth in the author’s careful consideration of the complex multicultural microcosm in the border region that she studies, near the Turkish and Bulgarian borders. Both institutions at the center of this study offer psychiatric care in the Greek town of Alexandroupolis. The setting filters the otherness of mental illness through the prism of linguistic and “culturalized” othernesses: of Pontic, Pomak, Turkish, Roma, and migrant patients. Racialism sits at the juncture of the differences represented by these groups. It is produced by specific discourses that moralize “culture.” Such moralization is evident in staff’s perceptions about “their” rules of behavior, for example (where “their” refers to patients who belong to these “other” groups). It is a moralization that also implies an ethical basis for the behavior of the self (in the sense of how proper subjects of care are expected to behave), such that those “other” behaviors are classified as both pathologically and culturally problematic. Davis analyzes these complexities in illuminating depth, all the while maintaining a focus on the question of the patients’ agency. Throughout the...