III Balvant Parekh Memorial Lecture by Prof. W .J .T. Mitchell and Symposium
2-4 February 2015
“Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence — whether much that is glorious—whether all that is profound—does not spring from disease of thought—from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect.”
-- Edgar Allan Poe.
“Seeing Madness: Insanity, Media, and Visual Culture”
In recent years, visual culture has emerged as a growing and crucially important interdisciplinary field of study, foregrounding the idea of images as central to the representation of meaning in the world. The contemporary academic interest in the visual studies has been markedly influenced by the concept of “picture theory” outlined by Prof. W. J. T. Mitchell (Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor of English and Art History, University of Chicago) in his book, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation, published in 1994. Mitchell’s seminal claims of a “pictorial turn” in contemporary culture and the need to raise “visual literacy,” i.e. a new aptitude in understanding and/or approaching images (chiefly away from the dominance of linguistic models of interpretation) are decisive ones. His leanings towards establishing a “picture theory” in which specific pictures are invoked as sovereign agents of conceptualization has proven to be highly instrumental in defining a field that has often resisted clear definition.
Prof. W. J. T. Mitchell
Prof. Mitchell's talk on “Seeing Madness: Insanity, Media, and Visual Culture” delivered at the Balvant Parekh Memorial Lecture Series in Baroda on February 2, 2015 drew on his previous research and had as its centre of enquiry a strong historical background of madness as an object of visual display and multimedia representation with a special focus on representations of insanity in cinema. What do the movies bring to madness? and what does madness bring to the movies? what motivates our desire to capture its variable manifestations in moving images? and, is it possible to "see madness" or to represent it visually with any kind of certainty? Mitchell asked. Ultimately, Mitchell treated the images of madness as signifying entities with the potential to explode signification and finally open up the realm of randomness and anarchy. One of Mitchell’s pervasive themes throughout the lecture was simply that movies make it possible to see and hear madness “from within” by allowing viewers to be moved by the one who is portrayed as mad on screen. As the experience of madness gets more and more mediated and accessible, the rigid and ultimately spurious distinction between the “sane” and the “insane” turns fluid even to an extent where, to cite Foucault, “we no longer know what madness is.”
The talk, which was dedicated to the memory of Edward Said and to Mitchell’s filmmaker son Gabriel revolves around a film seminar, that Mitchell has been part of teaching at the University of Chicago with literary scholar Francoise Meltzer in 2011. In Mitchell's words, his course was primarily inspired by his first-hand experiences with the twenty-year struggle of his son, Gabriel Mitchell (1973-2012), with schizophrenia, both the symptoms and the stigma of diagnosis. An ambitious artist, Gabriel had written a graphic novel, three screenplays, numerous songs and poems along with making abstract drawings and geometric sculptures. He also made several student films at Columbia College, University of Chicago, and New York University and was growing exponentially as a visionary filmmaker. But, in a tragic twist of fate, he fell from the west tower in Chicago on June 24, 2012 tormented by “auditory hallucinations” in which passing thoughts “are amplified into a cacophony of sneering, self-destructive voices” (Mitchell). Gabriel's ten minute pilot film, Crazy Talk: What is Mental Illness? (2011, Philmworx.com ) was screened during the lecture.
Crazy Talk was created in response to "Murdered: De-Framing the Frame " contest which encourages the development of experimental, single author, new media films in the US. It is a multimedia mash-up that presents a multifaceted and multi-layered view of mental illness through commentary from and interviews with psychiatrists, the mentally ill, homeless and common people juxtaposed with moving images and sound clips. “It is also an attempt to recreate the experience of mental illness from the inside with all the tools of cinematic sounds and sights – the worlds of visual and auditory hallucination that are so characteristic of schizophrenia, and so suited to the specific medium of film” (Mitchell). The movie follows a cyclical pattern, with establishing the main character and the camera focused on himself and its sudden turning towards the world outside. It ultimately re-turns to the individual's mindscape, as the haunting choral setting in the background (written by Janice Misurell-Mitchell) hums William Blake's poem “Mad Song.”
Gabriel plays with two distinct forms - the grid (the most prominent visual structure and organizing principle in Western culture, signifying rationality, order, therapy) and the vortex (suggesting delirium, loss of control and hallucination) to clarify his subject positions and interpretations of mental illness. The last scene which shows tiny , distorted human forms in the spinning miasma of beings reflected in the omphalos of the Chicago Cloud Gate (an indentation whose smooth, silvery mirrored surface provides multiple reflections of any subject situated beneath it) takes a disorienting spin finally culminating in an abrupt, pitch darkness. This is perhaps Mitchell's distinctive vision of what mental illness looks, sounds, and, especially, feels like. In Crazy Talk, while the assorted audio visual clips demonstrate how newsbytes and moving images shape our perceptions of mental illness, they also serve as a pictorial history of how the blanketed views of clinical discourse of medicine and psychiatry have often misjudged atypical behaviours.
Gabriel's film aims to explore a subtle and humanized reflection of schizophrenia "as an intensified form of normal mental activity, or the work of reason, memory, and imagination spinning out of control." His vision, as Mitchell attests, stands sharply against any reductive and homogenizing tendency of portraying the disease as simply “a biochemical brain disorder, a symptom of dysfunctional social order, of demon possession or a product of confused, delusional thinking.” Much appreciated for its visionary treatment of mental illness, Crazy Talk has contributed to many discussions on representations of mental illness and was shown in special tribute at Facets Cinematique in Chicago on August 28th, 2012.
“Movies and Madness”
For Mitchell, the arc of madness is broad and profound; from prophetic madness of Cassandra in Agamemnon to Freud's authoritative survey of the Historie de la Folie; from photographs of Charcot's hysterical women, and Le Brun's pathos formulae to the psychopathology of colonialism as diagnosed by Frantz Fanon and the intensity of surrealist cinema like Manchurian Candidate. In presenting his argument that madness can be "seen," Mitchell cited Hamlet's melancholia, hyper-visible lunacy in King Lear and figures of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and William Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar and Urizen as prime examples before moving into the second part of the talk, where he engaged his inquiry towards the culture of moving images.
Mitchell mostly used film noir to make strong comments on the institutionalization of madness in Shutter Island, The Snake Pit, Sunset Boulevard, Now, Voyager, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, A Beautiful Mind, Marat/Sade, Spellbound, Shock Corridor and Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. In looking at cinematic representations of madness, he investigated cinema's strategy to confine madness in narrative and reinforcing the asylum discourse by trying to exorcise it from the collective consciousness. Also, most of Mitchell's choice of films featured psychiatrists, turning the gaze towards the “whole structure of confinement and treatment that puts insanity on display.”
Later, in a rather exploratory part of his lecture, Mitchell established the use of cigarettes as a prop and tool in literally rendering the normally invisible dark spaces between the projector and the screen hyper visible (since it was once possible to smoke at the movies) and also tracking the clues of the trauma in cinematic discourses of madness. In describing how sharing a cigarette in noir classics created a “bridge” or connection between characters which enabled a genuine meeting of minds, he drew examples from films like Now, Voyager in which Paul Henreid lights two cigarettes at the same time and gives one to Bette Davis showing sympathetic care by the “normal” or “sane” person for the emotionally distressed one. For Mitchell, "what cigarettes seem to do in the movies about madness is provide a moment of levelling and normalization, across the boundary between sanity and insanity” “... as the therapist offers the patient a smoke to calm them down ... it manifests the same world, breathing the same air, and speaking the same language.”
Mitchell concluded his talk by opening up the field in questioning the role of newly evolving forms of self representations in post-cinematic mediums in embodying madness. In today's world, multiple player games like Second Life can lead a player through a labyrinth towards suicide; video cameras help the insane to document their own experiences and the mentally ill can easily construct their own archives on websites. “Perhaps as these emergent forms of self representation mature,” Mitchell felt, “we will learn not to know what madness was, and finally put it to work for human emancipation.”
P.C. Kar & N.K. Parekh with the Mitchells
By taking its cue from Mitchell's lecture on the 2nd, a National symposium organized around the lecture during 3rd and 4th February explored depictions of “insanity” and “madness” in art, literature and cinema alongside discussions on Mitchell's former research on the relations of visual and verbal representations in the context of social and political issues. Student researchers and professors from Baroda, Gandhinagar, Jaipur and Hyderabad working in the field of Literature, Cultural Studies, Political Science, Archaeology, Fine Arts and Sociology participated in the symposium and raised sensitive and nuanced questions on issues of theoretical and practical relevance. The nine individual presentations made during the two days of the symposium helped in disseminating exciting ideas and received supportive feedback from Prof. Mitchell.
Symposium in progres
On day one, E. V. Ramakrishnan, Professor Emeritus at the Central University of Gujarat gave an introduction on two short stories by popular Malayalam writer C. Ayyappan (1949-2011), titled - Spectral Speech and Madness. His presentation explored, how, as narratives of ghostly inhabitations (authors as ghosts or fantastical characters), these stories use elements from religious and spiritual practices of Dalit communities in Kerala to make strong articulations on issues of gender and caste. Shipra Upadhyay, academic fellow at Balvant Parekh Centre looked at the "desire" of the image in the "click of a camera” and the exciting ways one can deliberate on the photographic promises of "what the picture really wants?” Neeti Singh, from the Department English at MS University, Baroda worked on the trauma of partition and the link between creativity and mental illness as presented in Saadat Hasan Manto's (1912-1955) short story, “Toba Tek Singh.” Manto’s story is based on inmates of lunatic asylums being split in the wake of Partition; with Hindu and Sikh inmates being transferred to India and Muslim inmates going to Pakistan. Prof. Deeptha Achar's talk (Department of English, MS University) analyzed The Sackcloth Man, a short story for children developed by the education initiative of Anveshi, Hyderabad and written by Jayasree Kalathil. The slowly growing, unlikely and heart-warming friendship between Anu, a little girl and the village madman is at the heart of this story. During the last session for the day, Shaista Anwar of University of Hyderabad (Fine Arts) discussed the first person, aesthetic voice of the tree in Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red, (chapter 10) while Vasvi Oza of EFL University (Film Studies and Visual Culture) presented her doctoral work in progress: reading Gujarati textbooks for children with images through Mitchell’s “picture theory.”
On day two, Bini B.S discussed the subtexts of representation in (mostly visual) art from late 18th to early 21st century inspired by Ophelia's (a fictional character in the play Hamlet by William Shakespeare ) madness and death. She worked closely with the conspicuous "bird" and "flower" imageries that work their way as leitmotifs in the paintings and photographs. Ananya Ghoshal of EFL University (Literature) studied the image-text relations in William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience including Blake's use of experimental calligraphy that according to Mitchell, "pushes the alphabetic writing toward the realm of pictorial values" (Picture Theory). Prof. Sudha Rai, senior ICSSR fellow concluded the session by exploring the representations of madness in Indian cinema. She used films like Khilona (1970), Park Avenue (2006) and A Drop of Sunshine (2011), a docu-feature on Reshma Valliappan, an artist-activist for issues related to mental health and her true story of recovery and living with schizophrenia, as prime examples.
To sum up, in "seeing" madness as represented in graphic or performative modes, Prof. Mitchell's lecture and the symposium offered innovative strategies in helping us recognize how the different mediums represent /challenge our preconceptions of madness and how gathering a sense of "visibility" of madness can work as an imperative tool for rethinking "insanity" outside its limited confinement within the clinical discourse of medicine and psychiatry.
PhD Scholar, The English and Foreign Languages University
Former Fulbright Nehru Pre Doctoral Fellow, UC Berkeley
Impressions of My India Visit
On January 31, 2015, I presented a lecture and video, “After the History: Poem, Politics, Performance” at Balvant Parekh Centre. Written in 1991 for flute/voice and percussion, the piece, based on a poem by former Chicago poet, John Shreffler, is “a meditation on the end of the Cold War.” I discussed the relationships of the imagery in the poem to the imagery in the music, using several short video clips to give the audience an idea of the music and cultural elements that went into the composition and performance of my piece. The response, particularly among the students, who came from the University of Baroda, was very enthusiastic.
After the History was “inspired” by the United States’ involvement in the Persian Gulf, in a war waged by the first President Bush in 1991. Some of the imagery came from the patriotic videos shown during halftime at the Super Bowl (American football) game in January of that year, while other imagery came from the composer’s experience in marching bands at high school football games and later, with composing and performing using Sprechstimme and wordplay.
I attended most of the presentations the following week that were part of the National Symposium held at Balvant Parekh Centre. It was very striking to me to hear how scholars from India used the work of my spouse, WJT Mitchell, in ways that gave them a new understanding of work that they had been involved in, pertaining to representations of madness in literature and the visual arts. And for me, the whole experience was very enlightening.