November 25, 2020


Manifesto for Empathy

Screencap from the film „Us against Us” (d. Andra Tarara, 2020)

Film director Andra Tarara’s most recent documentary Us Against Us tackles a sensitive topic, an unknown that is often oversimplified in Romania (and beyond): mental health. Unlike most of the topics tackled in political art or local activism, which have meanwhile morphed into cool neoliberal consumer niches, “neurodiversity” is still a taboo that is deeply rooted in old stereotypes about “madness.” Us Against Us proposes a sincere, vulnerable, direct dive into a different perspective: the illness that is part of life, that can be looked at, listened to, understood, and rethought. Perceiving the illness with kindness, tenderness, and empathy, outside of the normal/pathologic binary that structures the thought around this topic, invites the viewer to reflect. What is “madness”? Who invented it? Who does it benefit? What is normal? Who’s afraid of madness? What are the strategies of shaming? How do we talk about “madness”? Who benefits from keeping “neurodiversity” within the scope of pathology? What discursive and imaginative possibilities do we have to build a complex understanding of the cultural constructs that place the biology of difference within the sphere of the “abnormal”? What is the relation between neoliberalism and neurodiversity?

The asylum and the prison are the two repressive institutions invented to protect the “normal,” understood from the beginning as healthy, productive, reproductive, and, of course, docile. Individuals organized in nuclear families are the basis of the nation-state, and “the collective organism, because of its greater degree of complexity, has problems more serious, varied, and frequent than those of the individual organism.”[1]

Michel Foucault, in his work the History of Madness, distinguishes three essential periods in the separation of madness and reason, a polarization that still represents the basis of contemporary thought:

  • The Renaissance, where medieval discussions of madness are transformed into a discourse around wisdom; the artist’s madness becomes socially accepted;
  • The Classical Age, where madness is placed in opposition to reason. In the 17th and 18th centuries the need arises to isolate the mad from society. As a consequence, psychiatric institutions are invented;
  • The Modern age, when madness becomes the object of science, is pathologized as a disease of the mind.

Tracing the process of separating “the mad” from “normal” society, Foucault states that: “if in the classic form of madness there is an element that speaks of an elsewhere, of something else, it is not because the mad do come from a different heaven, that of the meaningless, still bearing its signs, it is simply that they have crossed the frontiers of the bourgeois order, and become alien to the sacred limits of its ethics.”[2]

The madness that needs to be isolated from society is the result of white western reason. The individual’s obligation to work or live in a certain order was imposed gradually, through violent coercion: the history of madness, just like the history of witchcraft and homosexuality, reveals the basis, exclusions, and perhaps also the flaws of the capitalist order. The main accusations against “the mad” are the inability to work and to integrate into a social group.

Screencap from the film „Us against Us” (d. Andra Tarara, 2020)

In his study The Normal and the Pathological, French philosopher Georges Canguilhem notes how pathology is better understood as a political instrument used to create behavioral “norms,” being at the same time far from a supposed absolute scientific truth. Canguilhem concludes that “it seems legitimate to us to be able to refuse this kind of definition without being charged with anarchism. If societies are badly unified sets of means, they can be denied the right to define normality in terms of attitude of instrumental subordination which they valorize under the name of adaptation.”[3]

In 1922, two so-called eminent German professors, psychiatrist Alfred Hoche and lawyer Karl Binding, published the infamous Die Freigabe der Vernichtung lebensunwerten Lebens (Allowing the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life). Once introduced, this idea of exterminating the undesirable would soon be put into practice, as Nazism was responsible for the murder of people in psychiatric institutions in Germany and (occupied) Poland. Some years later, communist regimes (China, Russia, Romania) began to use psychiatry as a weapon to silence anyone critical of the regime. Psychiatry as disciplinary weapon is far from being confined to history. As recently as 2017, director Alexandru Solomon was apprehended by officers after an art protest in front of the Palace of the Patriarchate and then taken (with the intention of being committed overnight) to the Alexandru Obregia Psychiatric Hospital.

Up to a point, psychiatry is a pseudoscience that serves power, not individuals. The study of the human mind is still in its infancy. The in-depth research into behavioral biology and cognitive processes starts from the intention to differentiate the pathological from the normal and to isolate the abnormal for the good functioning of society. Until recently, nonreproductive sexualities were classified as mental illnesses, demanding treatment (conversion therapy was only recently banned in a few states). Last year, the World Health Organization removed gender dysphoria from their list of mental illnesses. But is this an honest intervention aiming to depathologize trans people or just a neoliberal initiative which, under the guise of destigmatizing, turns transition into a costly process not covered by health insurance?

I believe that any discussion around depathologization must begin in society, through culture and education, without cutting the safety nets (which are lacking as is) for people in mental distress. Mental health is not just another diversity ready to be commodified into the next target market.

A complex understanding of human psychology is quasi-absent from culture. Current thinking about neurodiversity is determined by western medicine’s lack of knowledge, as it excludes by default any possibility of the irrational, offers the same treatment for similar (but different) reactions, without seeing systemic inequalities as a cause for the degradation of one’s mental state. Psychiatry is more than ever in need of revolutionary reform.

ULTRASANITY. ON MADNESS, SANITATION, ANTIPSYCHIATRY AND RESISTANCE. Installation by Larisa Crunțeanu. Exhibition at SAVVY Contemporary, Berlin

The contemporary art Savvy Contemporary in Berlin recently started a long-term research project focusing on “ultrasanity.” What is ultrasanity? Ultrasanity is a manifesto for accepting the reason of unreason, for validating different cognitive processes. It is a fiction that proposes distancing oneself from psychiatric narratives and instead articulating an inclusive language open to the creativity of irrational voices, spirituality, and individuals’ need for pleasure. The exhibition Ultrasanity. On Madness, Sanitation, Antipsychiatry and Resistance “interrogates the grammars of violence inscribed in universal therapeutic models and the pharmacologisation of care still practised today. Beyond a romanticisation of madness, the project seeks to address the heuristic and generative potential of certain forms of delirium. Beyond that we are interested in the fundamental significance of community engagement and of spiritual, systemic, intra-generational histories in formulating healing strategies.” The exhibition at Savvy is set in a utopia of healing by valuing the creativity of madness and building systems of care tailored to the needs of the individual, in full awareness of the oppressive history constituting us. A desirable ideal. In order to destigmatize illness, deconstructing pathology is essential. Ultrasanity. On Madness, Sanitation, Antipsychiatry and Resistance offers a toolbox of creative models and medical practices that reveal the complexity of the topic, the multitude of alternative possibilities that already exist in the world.

Ioana Nemeș – The Wall –

In the Romanian space, madness is completely misunderstood and, of course, deeply stigmatized. Its absence in culture is the result of the system of stereotypes that contemporary thought is based on. A visit to a psychiatrist can deprive a mother of the right to raise her children in the case of a divorce. The principles of local intersectionality are derived exclusively from identity politics, from which madness is completely absent. Most of the knowledge at our disposal is inevitably tied to the terrible fear of pathology. Ioana Nemeș (1972-2011) left behind one of the most powerful and at the same time sensitive art projects that tackles the fear of genetic schizophrenia: Monthly Evaluations. The project tracked her own performance following a system in five parameters: physical, emotional, intellectual, financial, and the luck factor. In a 2004 self-interview, Ioana noted: “I grew up in an unstable environment, both physically and psychologically, given that my mother suffered from a mental illness – schizophrenia… and now my twin brother Bob has it too… perhaps due to the context we grew up in, but also heredity.”[4] Ioana Nemeș opened new doors through this poetic conceptualization of personal experience.

Katja Lee Eliad – Perform – Calina Foundation

Inspired by Ioana Nemeș, artist Katja Lee Eliad proposes an artistic investigation into mental health, starting from a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Perform tackles physical, mental, and artistic performance from a personal point of view that offers a complex problematization of mental distress. In this same direction, but (I hope) more accessible to a wide audience by virtue of medium is Andra Tarara’s documentary, released online a few weeks ago, Us Against Us.

The movie follows two parallel stories that show how the father-daughter relationship is impacted by mental suffering. The father had been diagnosed with schizophrenia in his youth. The daughter grew up with an absent father, bedridden due to antipsychotic treatment. The father is a creative individual. He is passionate about film. He seems like a talented man that never had the support to express himself creatively. He was forced to conform. The daughter is a film director, and she notes how her passion for film was most likely inherited. The father seems very lucid, and the way he narrates his story shows us the complexity of the illness. The daughter tells us about her own fear of inheriting the illness. Is schizophrenia genetic? It was under this pretext that the Nazis murdered schizophrenic patients in Germany. Even so, a few decades after the war, the rate of schizophrenia in postwar Germany is large, perhaps greater than in other places. Medical research is insufficient: it is quite clear what we do not know and less clear what the truth of the symptoms that make up our current knowledge is.

Us Against Us is a document. Its non-categorical thinking, kind acceptance, compassionate outlook, absence of judgment, and, especially, lack of a stated position for or against psychiatry make this film an exceptional document. The vulnerable personal becomes deeply political: for me the film is undoubtedly a profoundly necessary manifesto in our culture.

“Neurodiversity” is a fragile territory in a neurotypical society. In an absurdly neoliberal society, the games of diversity place the responsibilities of the state into the hands of individuals. What consequences would result from making mental distress into a diversity like any other? What is the cost of ultrasanity? How do we stop the constant violence against the mad? How do we challenge stereotypes without further destabilizing vulnerable groups? How do we break the silence without slipping into dogmatic activism that cancel any topic?


[1] Georges Canguilhem, The Normal and the Pathological, Zone Books, NY, 1991, p. 49.

[2] Michel Foucault, History of Madness, Routledge, London and NY, 2009, p. 72.

[3] George Canguilhem, Op. Cit. p. 283

[4] Ioana Nemeș, “The Wall Project,” self-interview, 2004, published in Ioana Nemeșș/ carte de artist, ed. Alina Șerban, Asociația pepluspatru, Spector Books, Bucharest, 2014.


Translated by Rareș Grozea


Valentina Iancu

Valentina Iancu (b. 1985) is a writer with studies in art history and image theory. Her practice is hybrid, research-based, divided between editorial, educational, curatorial or management activities ...

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