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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Field

Schizophrenic Tradition and the Need to Find Our Own Language

I have schizoaffective disorder, and I often have the distinct sensation, when describing my symptoms with terms from the psychiatric establishment, like "hallucination," or "delusion," that I am slapping a label onto something far more qualitatively strange, weird, and impossible than the term "hallucination" or "delusion" does justice to. It is like believing that a map does justice to the terrain - a map that was not even developed by the people living inside that terrain.

A recent article, by Clara S. Humpston - "Isolated by Oneself: Ontologically Impossible Experiences in Schizophrenia" - draws attention to the complexity of that terrain through the phrase "ontologically impossible experiences," for how else does one account for an experience of telepathy, or the sense that one's thoughts control the world? But why are there not more terms like this?

Therefore I think to myself, wouldn't it be interesting if the schizophrenic-spectrum community came up with their own terms for these maladies, experiences, symptoms? I do not mean some superficial and trivial neologizing for the purpose of neologizing, but I do mean finding our own language to describe the ineffable. I also wonder if doing so would lend traction to movements like Mad Pride or the Hearing Voices Network, both of which seem to have lost steam. There is no Schizophrenic Tradition, though there is Deaf Pride, for example, and this seems sad to me. There is a way to honor the tragedy of schizophrenia-spectrum illnesses but also to celebrate the differences.

When I talk about coming up with a new language, a new vocabulary, for thinking and talking about schizophrenia (and the term "schizophrenia" itself could use some updating, like "manic depression" to "bipolar"), I am thinking of this quote from Richard Rorty, from his book Contingency, irony, and solidarity:

Interesting philosophy is rarely an examination of the pros and cons of a thesis. Usually it is, implicitly or explicitly, a contest between an entrenched vocabulary which has become a nuisance and a half-formed new vocabulary which vaguely promises great things.

The latter "method" of philosophy is the same as the "method" of utopian politics or revolutionary science (as opposed to parliamentary politics, or normal science). The method is to redescribe lots and lots of things in new ways, until you have created a pattern of linguistic behavior which will tempt the rising generation to adopt it, thereby causing them to look for appropriate new forms of nonlinguistic behavior, for example, the adoption of new scientific equipment or new social institutions. (Rorty, 9, my italics)

What Rorty makes clear is that we in the schizophrenic-spectrum community see ourselves in a glass that is not of our own making. The very language that we use to describe our experiences is not the language that we came up with, but is the language of the psychiatric establishment. This is not to claim that the DSM isn't helpful, but rather to acknowledge that it is intended to classify and contain. Doing so is helpful in one context, the context of medication, but in the context of self-determination it is less.

If we as a community were to come up with terms instead of "hallucinations," or "delusions," or "schizophrenia," what would we come up with? For example, last year, when I was psychotic, (notice the violence and fear in the valences of "psychotic"), I was convinced that there was a shamaness behind my eyes who would show me things from the astral plane throughout the day. When I would sit in the bathroom, looking at the titles on the floor, I would see images, like etchings by the Old Masters, in the various corners and wrinkles and sides of the tile, and I felt these images were being shown to me by the shamaness through a kind of telepathic remote viewing. More than this, this telepathic remote viewing was an example of the shamaness giving me access to the deepest levels of my unconscious, from which these images sprang.

How to find words that do justice to the complexity, the impossibility, of these experiences?

"Hallucination," for example, derives from Sir Thomas Browne, who used the Latin word "alucinari" to mean "wandering in the mind." There is something a bit wonderful about this word, in both its sound and meaning, but is this what hallucination is like? For visual hallucinations are more spatial than temporal, and involve a kind of instantaneous flashing more than a temporal wandering. It seems to involve more of a slippage of the mind than a wandering. Or what about "schizophrenia" itself? The roots mean "split mind," but is this how we would describe ourselves? Is schizophrenia a disease of the mind, or a disease of the self? If a disease of the self, which I think gets closer to the malady, why not call it something like "disipseity?" "Dis" meaning "asunder" or "apart" or " away" or "utterly," and "ipseity" meaning "individual identity" or "selfhood." Or, why when discussing "disipseity" do we not have a more robust vocabulary of imagination to speak about it, like the notion of apophany, or fantasy, or solipsism, or pareidolia?

The language that we use, as Rorty knew, is the language of our self-image; in that sense, when we do not use our own vocabulary, but the labels used by those who diagnose us, we are by and large speaking a script that was made by people who do not have the illness. We speak the language of a certain kind of mapmaker, but not of the people dwelling in the terrain. I wonder if, in finding words that do justice to our experiences, we could develop more Mad Pride, and also start to form a more robust schizophrenic tradition.

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