Insanity is Healthy

Once leprosy had gone, and the figure of the leper was no more than a distant memory, these structures still remained. The game of exclusion would be played again, often in these same places, in an oddly similar fashion two or three centuries later. The role of the leper was to be played by the poor and by the vagrant, by prisoners and by the ‘alienated’, and the sort of salvation at stake for both parties in this game of exclusion is the matter of this study.

—— Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization

What does it mean to lose one’s mind? Immediately we have to interrogate this statement because it relies on a relativity. Yes, we lose our minds, but in relation to what? In relation to a definition of a sane mind by the power structure. Simple enough, let’s go further.

If the sane mind is defined by its submission to the powers that be, then this sane mind is a suffering mind, an unfree mind. Does this make an insane mind revolutionary? Not necessarily, for reordering society through revolution also implies some form of

organization, even if it is dynamic and non-hierarchical.

I am more interested in how insanity develops as a defense against the assumptions of society. Modern society is controlled by invisible market forces. These infect our socials relations, our relation to nature, and our material survival. In order to exist with sanity in such a society one must accept these rules, learn to master them, and be lucky enough to be able to apply these rules in some form that determines your destiny.

However if one, for whatever reason, has enough free will to want anything else besides the arbitrary rules thrown upon her, then she either most consciously defeat her real self or risk being diagnosed as insane. The purpose of this diagnosis is to reinforce the invisible laws that no one knows why they are following.

The diagnosis itself has a disciplinary function, but I’m more interested in the behavior. Recall in the TV series Breaking Bad, Walter White, the chemistry teacher, turned meth cooker, pretends to be insane, as he strips off his clothes in a grocery store. It turns out this was all an elaborate way of avoiding people finding about his true behavior (cooking meth). The insanity of walking into the grocery store naked in this context would be treated as something that wasn’t the “real Walter” while Walter would be held socially responsible for his meth cooking because he did this without losing his mind, so to speak.

The lines are more blurry here though. We have to assume that many people cannot help their actions of walking into grocery stores naked, and the degree that society would choose to reform this behavior would only be in the context of it not making the person money, or even more broadly, that this person was doing it against their own will, although the further capitalism develops, the more these two things become indistinguishable. So everyone should have the right to have free health care.

This is not the question we are addressing here. We are asking, following Michel Foucault, what is the basis for the discipline upon the person. The basis for the discipline is creating a norm and punishing anything outside of this behavior. The question of free will determines the degree to which this person can be reformed back into the norm.

From the viewpoint of the structure, it hardly matters if an individual person can be reformed. For the person on the outside, any hope of life relies upon being seen in the light of someone who can be reformed. For those on the inside, it’s all politics. If they like the person or think they can control them, this person will be accepted back into the fold, on a shorter leash.

It becomes hard to tell what is genuine behavior. The idea today is that we are free to be whoever we want to be. If this is not good enough, you almost have to be insane in the eyes of the system. The loneliness of rebellion is that while you are doing it, you are judged as insane because there is seen to be many rebels within the system. If such symbolic rebellion rings hallow to you, you are an outsider, robbed out of the agency of rebellion.

You are told that you are evil if you rebel. It is an attack on the way of life. Rebellion is always seen as irrational and as selfish. They wonder: how could a person not want to be accepted by society? But what is society being led by? What forces, alienated from any particular authentic human desire, are driving us?

The most lonely place in society often is right in the middle of it. When the world is most accepting of you, you are the most lost. Are we left to fluctuate, without direction, between two states of loneliness, one in which we are alone within an alienated society and one in which we are alone outside of it?

How else can we be heard within society besides articulating something other than the motives baked into it? If we are simply machines, doing the bidding of our masters, how will anyone ever know who we are, including ourselves? Truth leaks out of the margins of the system, for a moment, before it is banished from sight. Eventually what is left on the inside? Only lies? Could such a system sustain itself, or are we eating ourselves from the inside?

Foucault writes: “madness is the false punishment of a false solution, but by its own virtue it brings to light the real problem, which can then be truly resolved.” Many of us are going mad now. Many days I am. I see it with friends and family too. The coming climate apocalypse leaves us with anxiety about the future. Each passing day is merely another day we haven’t died yet, and someone else has.

Madness on its own is not liberating. It overtakes us, it makes us paranoid, we can’t tell friends from foe, we can’t organize our own minds structurally, let alone organize others in a meaningful way. We become wrapped up in a specific tortuous problem in a world filled with countless treasures and limited time.

And yet in our madness we find truth. We realize the life we have to submit to is a lie. We

realize, when we go mad, how few friends we have. In many ways our paranoia is confirmed. We realize the cost of a coercive society, the limitations of bourgeois freedom, the horrors of a society withering away. We are left with a piece of truth. In spite of how they spat on us on the way out, we wonder if others have other pieces. We hope they do.

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at