I. Psychosis — paradigmatic abdication of responsibility

What appears below is a first draft of the first section of a three-part essay tentatively entitled “Psychosis, Paranoia, Politics.” Revised drafts of this section, subsequent sections, and a final cumulative version of the essay will be posted in upcoming months.


I – Psychosis

paradigmatic abdication of responsibility

Don’t blame me!



William James puzzles through contradictions in the dark



There is a paradox in the idea of transformation. If a transformation is deep-seated enough, it might also transform the very criteria by which we could identify it, thus making it unintelligible to us. But if it is intelligible, it might be because the transformation was not radical enough. If we can talk about the change then it is not full-blooded enough; but if it is full-blooded enough, it threatens to fall outside our comprehension.


—Terry Eagleton


One asks the psychotic, who, like each of us, makes commitments of varying degrees of severity and emotional weight to other individuals, but who, unlike most of us, is dangerously inured to breaking those commitments, “Why are you not doing that thing you have committed do [for me]?”—let’s call this thing “x”—and the psychotic answers unironically (as sincere irony is too conspicuously insincere a conceptual space for psychotics; inhabiting it overtly would be tantamount to advertising psychosis): “Well, to my credit, friend, you know, I’ve never failed to do x except when I was doing things other than x.”

Such a response is not an answer, for it speaks not at all to the question of why the psychotic has not fulfilled his obligation to do x, but instead functions to reinforce the legitimacy of whatever the speaker was doing instead (emailing, smiling a lot, lying, fucking around, stealing, etc.), relative to x or to other, more trivial things he could have been doing, such as, say, watching the Power Rangers kick bad guy butt (“All right, so maybe I wasn’t x-ing,” says the psychotic, “but at least I wasn’t doing something lame like watching Power Rangers!”)—and reinforce it in a way that allows the speaker’s statement, a value-claim, to masquerade as an argument: “This thing other than x was important to me,” the psychotic says, “and because I’m a freethinking post-Enlightenment multiculturalist subject, endowed with ‘sovereignty’ and ‘rights’ and all that, you must except my response! To refuse it would be to insult me as a fellow subject, a fellow player in our egalitarian societal project of engendering perfunctory, unprincipled respect for cultural and individual diversity—so that soon we might be entirely at ease around people of other creeds or colors or sexes or sexual practices)!” Now this—to reinforce particular mindless axioms of contemporary liberal democracy, those of blind employment, of misapplication, of Enlightenment ideals (“equality!” “rationality!”) and identity politics (“As a black/Filipino/Québécois Kansan/lesbian/man, I…”)—is not the aim of the psychotic. His aim is merely to convince that us his actions are justifiable, to get off for not having done x. But clearly, our psychotic’s value-claim, or his employing it in lieu of an argument—the fall back onto himself and his subjective moral sense disguised as an appeal to the universal (“Well it’s not just me…anyone wouldn’t have done x if Power Rangers were on…)—is nothing more than a lark. The psychotic’s psychosis consists precisely in his being unable to recognize this lark for a lark—or, should he recognize it rightly, in his suppressing the prick of conscience he feels at that recognition, in the paralysis created as the psychotic perpetually works to suppress his prick. Psychosis is thus a state of either perpetual ignorance or perpetual disingenuousness; or, rather, it is a slide from ignorance into disingenuousness. And because this disingenuousness has developed in concert with the psychotic individual, because its evolution from ignorance coincides with his evolution from innocence, the psychotic has no recourse to escape.

And so the psychotic’s response here, that he has failed to do x only because there were more important things to do, is a blatant sidestepping of the question—it is a statement about the importance of those “other things” made as though that importance were somehow in dispute. Yet that importance—whether or not watching Power Rangers is an “important” thing to do—is, regardless of whether or not that importance is in dispute, besides the point. Whether we agree that what he was doing other than x is valuable is irrelevant to the question of whether he has done x. In this way an issue that is only tangentially related to the question of what-has-been-done becomes controversial and thereby relevant in a way that consistently relieves the speaker of having to take responsibility for anything. A flashy non-issue (the relative importance of some thing other than x) distracts us from our primary concern: the psychotic’s failure to fulfill his commitment to do x. We have here in the psychotic the psychological equivalent of the small child who, having broken an expensive bottle of wine and stained his mother’s white carpet, points frantically out the window to his licentious older brother, whose fortuitously nonchalant skinnydipping in the neighborhood’s manufactured lake with his latest “homework buddy,” the child hopes, will make his lusty brother, and not himself, the focus of their mother’s ire. The question, to extend this analogy, is not whether the older brother is canoodling with the neighbor, but whether the younger brother has broken the bottle and ruined the carpet. Like the worthwhileness of watching Power Rangers, older boy’s sexcapades, though potentially captivating, are not germane: they are argumentatively immaterial. So our problem with the psychotic is not the obvious one defined in the fable of the boy who cries wolf—in which the lonely boy calls for help in fending off a nonexistent wolf so many times that when a real wolf comes along it is able to gobble him up, for no one now will heed his liar’s cries. Our problem is not that the boy lies. Our problem is rather an inversion of the fairytale’s result: that the psychotic, after “crying wolf” for so long despite there being no wolves, begins himself to believe in the reality of the imagined wolves. Our carpet-staining young child really does see his brother out the window. The psychotic’s bathing-brother equivalent is, in contrast, entirely illusory—and that is precisely psychosis: a mistaking of illusion for reality.

What happens then with our psychotic? Wolves must appear everywhere to corroborate his belief in them, and so he romanticizes the wolves, tells all of us they’re beautiful and in distress and worth saving (for now they’re being attacked! save the wolves!), that saving them is an excellent reason to not do x. He spends such energy in creating and defining his fantastic wolves, on pointing frantically to his fake fires and muggings and kitties-up-trees and skinnydipping siblings, that his focus has become the very distractions he has manufactured. His delusions occupy more and more of his time and his mind, and because each delusion is enmeshed with a real-world situation—i.e., the breaking of the wine bottle—they intertwine with memories and impressions to create a set of disingenuous but seemingly accurate recollections for each given situation, recollections that the psychotic sincerely calls upon and relates to interlocutors when challenged. He insists on the integrity of his recollections—just as anyone else would insist on the integrity of his own. The simulated diversions he creates in excusing his not having done x have become his material reality. For the psychotic, apparitions replace human beings to whom he has committed himself and become his moral reference points.

I am developing an appreciation for the subtlety of psychosis’s proliferation and maintenance. When the psychotic comes upon evidence that he’s operating poorly in the world, he already has a ready-made set of associations to look to for support; and while it may be somewhat clear that relying on them for support is a “bad idea,” in whatever sense, it is a far better idea, or seems so at that time, than completely and forcefully, through an act of will, dismantling that comfortable, supportive network bit by bit. If I were him, confronted with the choice of using a teleportation device to reach the other side of a mountain or, alternately, climbing over it, I would choose the teleportation device, too. For the psychotic, now, the question is no longer whether something is true, but rather how well it fits into his answer to the question “How things are in the world in relation to me?” That is the right question to ask, I think, but the problem is that he doesn’t understand that’s what he’s doing; he doesn’t understand that what he’s doing is building a narrative about how he relates to everything that needs constant reassessment and revision. He has recognized the utility of denying Reality when necessary and constructing one’s own operating-narrative as a pragmatic “replacement,” but he has convinced himself that his operating-narrative is Reality—because he has convinced himself that to admit simulation would be to efface his identity. Insofar as identity has replaced income as the primary marker of difference among groups—insofar as “identity” has maneuvered itself into synonymity with “reality”—in a perverse way, in his eyes, he is being more faithful to reality than anyone else. Remember, his simulations have taken on the weight of the material for him, so that for him, to deny them under pressure would be to do precisely what we accuse him of doing as a psychotic: mistaking/lying about How Things Really Are. In other terms, the psychotic’s postmodern rearing provides him with the tools to tear Reality apart, but the weight of the Enlightenment, of newly-radical Christianity, and, hugely, of Platonism, prevent him from seeing what he’s doing as such, recognizing its moral dubiousness, the adopting a worldview that allows him to be both confident and wrong and pushing forward as a healthier individual. This is the trap from which the psychotic cannot escape. (Just as in politics, literal non-entities like “flip-flopper” take on materiality in effect, they are given the weight of issues actually based in the material—like “healthcare,” which while unquestionably abstract as an “issue,” can be crystallized easily: say, as, a baby dead of a bacterial infection that his parents, for want of insurance, didn’t even try to treat.) The psychotic is a liar who won’t admit himself a liar—not because believes himself to be truthful, but because his spin machine is always already at work in his brain. He lacks the cognitive capacity to recognize the dishonesty and disingenuousness at the center of his thought because that recognition would necessarily need to spring from a thought process defined by the very dishonesty and disingenuousness it ostensibly denounces.

To operate in the world, and especially to speak about it, we must find a middle ground between fidelity to reality and saying something about reality (asking someone to hand you a predominately-blue coat from off the back of a chair, for instance, you likely ask for “the blue coat” rather than “the predominately blue coat,” if not just “the coat”—in short, one can never be faithful to reality because all representations are necessarily distortions). The psychotic employs this sort of postmodern pragmatism just as the rest of us do, but he will not, or if asked to would not, admit to himself that it is a “pragmatism” he is employing. In the name of getting things right, the psychotic has like William James (in Holmes’s words), “turned down the lights so as to give miracles a chance.” The psychotic has done, without irony or reservation, with self-righteousness rather than self-consciousness, something that can only be done responsibly by one whose self-scrutiny reaches paralyzing, Jamesian heights. The psychotic is incapable of sincere (or sincerely severe) self-scrutiny, and is thus incapable of thinking of himself as both a pragmatist and as one who is faithful to “the Real” without feeling uncomfortable about the apparent contradictions. This is another way of putting the primary delusion of the psychotic: that he, as subject, is really the sole object. In his eyes he cannot be merely pragmatic, he cannot see everyone and everything as just so much stuff to be “used,” for that would be too trivial, too “pomo,” too little rooted in his particular Reality—which is to say, too little rooted in the simulacra that have, for the psychotic, usurped concomitantly upon his material reality and his interpersonal commitments. To deny his Reality would mean for the psychotic an ontological seismic shift of the sort suggested by Terry Eagleton: a perniciously subtle rewriting of the very criteria by which the psychotic evaluates his Reality. This transformation would be by definition so radical that were it to occur, the psychotic would not have even noticed his progression from psychosis to the default mode of the subject, the mode occasioned, in a way we will subsequently explore, by universalized psychosis: the paranoid mode.


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