Sunday, 9 February 2014

More on responsibility

With the author's permission, I am posting a long excerpt - her description of a discussion on responsibility. I am ingridjoanne*:

PhebeAnn Wolframe, page 157 -159:

I picked up this sense of a coexisting individuality and collectivity again in a conversation generated by ingridjoanne’s post about the impact of science fiction author David Gerrold’s work on their life. Like Anne, ingridjoanne explains their use of terminology: “this series [Gerrold’s “War Against the Chtorr” novels] works as self-help literature for people with societal damage (my way of saying ‘dysfunction’ or ‘personality disorder’).” By connecting the commonly understood language of psychiatry (dysfunction, disorder) to their own way of understanding their experiences, ingridjoanne borrows the legitimacy of psychiatric discourse in order to make their own perceptions intelligible. The juxtaposition of their own terminology with the language of disease positions their terminology as equal to but different from psychiatric language, and in doing so, maddens psychiatric discourse, calling into question its primacy. Furthermore, their use of the first person (“my way of saying”) makes clear that their perspective is their own, and exists alongside others, including, but not necessarily limited to, the medical model. Their perspective––the idea that madness is a sign of having been damaged by society––while proclaimed as an individual standpoint, opens up a space for thinking about madness collectively, rather than as an individual problem. This interplay of individuality and collectivity continues in the comment thread for the entry. Several of the participants who followed the link that ingridjoanne posted to a sample of David Gerrold’s work went on to read it, and, like  ingridjoanne, a number of them identified strongly with what he had to say. In Gerrold’s linked chapter, which belongs to his novel A Matter for Men, a teacher, Whitlaw, asks a group of students to define responsibility. He rejects various definitions that tie responsibility to accountability, blame, shame, burden and guilt (Gerrold 404). Eventually one student suggests, borrowing from the dictionary, that “being responsible is being the source” or cause of something (405). As Whitlaw elaborates:

It’s not just source we’re talking about here, Jim. We’re talking about ownership. The word source sometimes confuses people; because source isn’t something you do—it’s something you are. So, the way we ease people into the concept and the experience of source is to talk about ownership. Not ownership as in property, but ownership as in command—as in, ‘When I teach this class, I own this room.’…

You are the source for your life, for everything that happens in it, for the effect you have on the people around you. You can create it for yourself, or you can pass that responsibility on to someone else—say, like the universe at large—and then you can pretend to be satisfied with the results, a life out of control. (406)

After considering this take on responsibility, I felt somewhat sceptical, particularly when reading it through the context of the treatment of mad people, who are often told (for example, by family members) that their problems would go away if they simply “took charge” of their lives, that is, if they were to make better decisions instead of “hiding from responsibility” behind their “symptoms” and/or their diagnoses. Calling upon the mad person to “take responsibility” can, furthermore, be a way of deflecting responsibility onto the mad person (the “failure”) and away from family, institutions, and broader social issues.  I wrote about my concerns in a comment on ingridjoanne’s entry: “I do like the idea of being ‘the source’ for your life – but I also wonder where community and social support fit into this equation? To what extent does society (or should it) also have responsibility? I think that this is an important question when we think about how mad people are treated.” Ingridjoanne responded to my comment with their reading of Gerrold’s notion of responsibility, which differed from my own. They explain:

For me, responsibility has been a key to healing: GIVING responsibility to those who have harmed me, and TAKING responsibility for my own actions. And it was this chapter of Gerrold’s that pointed me in the direction of ‘who owns what?’ I discovered that it was easier to TAKE responsibility after I had GIVEN what didn’t belong to me. (Not ‘given’ in a confrontational sense, just knowing in myself that this was not mine, this was X’s) And that leads to a reply to your question about society, I think: We cannot demand that society accept responsibility for its harmful actions, but we can refuse to carry it, and place it where it belongs. (emphasis in original)

This idea of a necessarily dual giving and taking of responsibility was a crucial distinction, one that read beyond the surface of Gerrold’s text, maddening it through experience. *** Ingridjoanne’s reading of Gerrold was one with which several blog participants identified. For example, winningpaththinking commented that it resonated with their own understanding:

This short piece was one of comfort and pain and great insight for me.

Over the numerous years of tyranny and injustice done to me, my family and others in many forms as we are seeing and hearing here I come to this belief I am the source...

Being responsible gives me integrity, reliability and ownership, thus reinforcing my right to be treated and seen as [a] unique individual who is one and all a part of society. This truth empowers me giving me the inner courage, strength and perseverance to take action, giving me the privilege and my God-given right to demand accountability from those I feel have been a part in any way of these perceived injustices. This will allow the seeds of willingness and interest to blossom as stated in the article... I will definitely read more of his works

For winningpaththinking, Gerrold’s idea of being the source is empowering because it speaks to their experiences (“over the numerous years... I come to this belief”) and provides them with an imperative to take charge of their life. It also, however, provokes them to make others accountable for the harm they have done, and for their impact on winningpaththinking’s ability to be the source, to “allow the seeds of willingness and interest to blossom” in their life. This moment of connection between ingridjoanne and winningpaththinking through Gerrold’s idea of the source is one of the relatively rare moments where a strong sense of community seemed to be present in MadArtReview.

Link to the first post on responsibility:

* I wanted to use my full name, but that was not allowed: 
The ethics advisor explained that people who have experience of the mental health system are a “vulnerable population” and that, as a researcher, I am ethically obligated to protect “their” identities. This framing of people who have mental health system experience as a group that needs to be pinned down to an identity (“vulnerable”) and regulated (via consent forms, discouragements about “outing” oneself, and management on the part of the reasoned researcher: ironically, me) reveals the university’s institutional and epistemological investment in fixing identity according to a liberal humanist framework, for the purposes of biopolitical governance. 

** PhebeAnn Wolframe on "madding": 

In the research blog, participants continually challenged the fixing of mad experience as either mental illness or a reified mad identity. Drawing on McRuer’s concept of cripping–– transforming “the substantive, material uses to which queer/disabled existence has been put by a system of compulsory able-bodiedness”––I propose the term maddening for the way in which mad communities make visible and redefine the ways in which bodies deemed mad are used discursively and materially.
*** I'm glad PhebeAnn pointed out this, as the context of the novel is post-cataclysmic: The problems facing the protagonists come from outside forces, so there is nothing to give responsibility to. Everyone knows that "X caused Y". 

In my context of societal harm, "everyone" knows that people are mentally ill or just need to to pull themselves together. 

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