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  • Mad Data:Between Symptom and Experience
  • Zahari Richter (bio)

This essay attempts to reverse the privileging of the physical body in disability theory by considering what I describe as the intermediate, presymptomatic experience of madness as a form of "data." This account of what I call "mad data" might help shatter long-debated oppositions between social/discursive and biologically determinative approaches to understanding madness and mental illness, as well as the overly dualistic argument between "sensation"- and "feeling"-based approaches to theorizing affect. In a groundbreaking article, "Humanities Approaches to Graphical Display," Johanna Drucker offers a definition of the term data (here in the context of a discussion of the digital humanities) as capta, a French word that is the third-person, past historical singular of the term for both "capture" and "sense."1 Drucker is not suggesting that data be abandoned as a scholarly term, but she does ask how humanists might begin to conceive of data as being "constituted relationally, between observer and observed phenomena."2 Drucker makes an important point about data in terms of their inextricability from associational interpretation and additionally highlights the intra- and extrarelational nature of data. How might such an understanding of data as a relational concept be used to rethink how the medical or "psychiatric" symptoms associated with madness, mental illness, and psychiatric disability are inseparable from pathologizing theories of the body?

Drucker's account of data as relational recalls the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty's discussion of "sense-data," those phenomenal qualities of the world experienced prior to being incorporated into an associational matrix of meaning and thus becoming an object intervening into the field ruled over by common sense. In Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception, data are the form that sensation takes prior to being sorted into a specific meaning.3 Drucker and Merleau-Ponty approach the same concept of the datum and suggest how data might be understood as an unfinished sensory/emotive unit of meaning whose description always stems from overinterpretation and the failure to grant data autonomy as an object relationally located between multiple particular perceptions. [End Page 327]

Within disability studies, the literary theorist Tobin Siebers similarly asserts that embodiment is not autonomous from either the realm of phenomena or the realm of discursive determination.4 Siebers's formulation of the body as interdependently transforming and transformed by social language is strikingly similar to Drucker's account of data. Yet like many prominent disability theorists, Siebers falls short by representing disability primarily as "physical impairment." I add to Siebers's work the importance of recognizing such bodily realisms as transcending the physical corporeality of physical impairment but also being located within and through unusual uses of the flesh for expression.

To theorize mad data as an intermediary, presymptomatic, and "compressed" form of emotion and sensation suggests possibilities for getting past a longstanding stalemate in mad politics. I am referring to the separation between people who understand themselves as "patients" and "users" of mental health treatment, and those who define themselves as psychiatric survivors of an oppressive system and dispute whether the "symptoms" of madness always need medical intervention or whether patient choice should have a greater role. To recognize madness as data is to regard it as in danger of becoming split by the binarisms that govern the intelligibility of madness.

While the existentialist psychiatrist R. D. Laing's Divided Self remains one of the most far-reaching phenomenological treatments of madness, the book explicitly avoids describing mad experience itself and performs his phenomenological "bracketing" on the therapeutic process.5 From another angle, the psychiatrist Joseph Schildkraut was the first to propose the "chemical imbalance" theory of mental illness, in his 1965 paper "The Catecholamine Hypothesis of Affective Disorders."6 Schildkraut proposed that certain experimentally induced mental states that modeled "affect disorders" could be alleviated through specific chemical treatments. Arguably these two portrayals of psychiatric disability—one social, discursive, and external, the other chemical and internal—are resolved in the work of the consumer/survivor/ex-patient (c/s/x) movement's critiques of managed care and affirmation of peer-run services. The social work scholar Athena McLean notes that "reductive biomedical approaches … try to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6490
Print ISSN
0003-0678
Pages
pp. 327-331
Launched on MUSE
2017-06-26
Open Access
No
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