My Semester With the Icarus Project by Neil Gong


Neil Gong
Icarus Project Internship
Brad Lewis/ Sascha Scatter
December 18, 2006
My Semester With the Icarus Project

 A key interest of mine in working with the Icarus Project has been to locate the place of theory in Mad Pride activism.  While radical mental health was somewhat new to me at the beginning of this semester, postmodern conceptualizations of identity and politics have been a long standing concern.  In doing this internship in conjunction with Brad Lewis’ Mad Science/Mad Pride I’ve been able to see where theoretical contributions have both enabled new modes of thinking about madness as well as bogged down the discussion.  Through the various events we’ve put on I’ve gained a better understanding of where theory needs to take a backseat, and when a session of academic jargon is appropriate.  There has been a constant tension in Icarus’ pursuit of academic and institutional legitimacy because the project itself is a “radical” approach to mental health support.  The desire to be effective on a larger level means working with the Wellness Exchange and with people who might not necessarily understand where we are coming from.  Another major hurdle I’ve been trying to jump (with mixed results) is to connect with psych majors and pre-med students, who are often turned off by the Icarus Project’s basic tenants, but are precisely the people we need to have on our side.  The first section of this paper will deal with general thoughts throughout the semester, and the latter half will be something like an essay/lecture/workshop I’ve been trying to use on psych and pre-med friends.  (It’s a bit academic and dry, but that’s just how I organize thoughts better. I’m working on making it more audience friendly in a presentation format.)
    I think first of our opening event, “Get Your Freak On.”  Here we had a fine assemblage of alternative healers, including animal trauma specialists, a shaman, yoga instructors, acupuncturists, and more.  Certainly in Brad Lewis’ view of post-psychiatry, this is an aspect of the decentering and democratization of psychiatric practice that the mental health world needs.  The previous day’s theoretical discussion “Open Minds” had shown the defensiveness of psychiatry, as one psychiatrist openly scoffed at social scientists examining it as a discourse and culture.  If he wouldn’t even consider the opinion of academics that hold PhD’s, what would he have to say about shamanism?  The discursive split between the new psychiatry and critical theory, ie the science wars, is big enough, but the split between DSM IV psychiatry and alternative medicine is perhaps even larger.  This is also what Icarus has to contend with in bringing people to our events.  While alternative healers might be appealing to some anarchists, hippies, and postmodern intellectuals, the average college student tends to be dismissive.  This is especially true of psych, and pre-med students, who might not appear to be our target audience (cause honestly, they aren’t nearly hip enough to hang out with us) but are actually people we both need and can help.  To assume that these folks can’t be a part of the movement is to forget that everyone exists in some realm of psychic difference and psychic suffering.  Getting their support and attendance is very tricky but important.   
    An area where I think LGBT has had real success is in allowing people to identify as allies.  This is a very positive way in which people can join the cause without “outing” themselves as queer identified.  Similarly, a language of allies would help the Icarus Project enlist the aid of many students in future positions of power that would not normally want to be associated with the anarchist crazies.  It is the future psychologists and doctors that we need to reach in this capacity, because the further they go in advanced study the more clearly the binary of Dr./Patient is drawn.  If we get ‘em young we have a better chance of creating a new generation of professionals sensitive to differing constructions of madness.  Also, they could all benefit in their personal lives from exposure to Icarus. 
Many of the issues we will need to address mimic the theoretical concerns of LGBT.  For instance, the postmodern argument complicating this “ally designation” is that it allows people to further reinforce and reify binaries of sane/crazy, straight/gay, male/female, normative/queer, instead of forcing us all to recognize how unstable and under erasure these categories are.  For one to be a straight identified queer ally without questioning where any of the gender and sexual normative categorizations have been problematic in one’s own life is in bad faith.  To be a Mad ally without understanding one’s own relationship to madness is to arguably miss the point.  The Icarus view of psychic experience on a spectrum is helpful.  We are all on it somewhere and we change from day to day.  Not only do we change, but the consensus “reality” is ever shifting as well. To take it a step further, madness might be best addressed not as a polarized spectrum, with the two legitimate sides of sanity and madness opposing each other and the various gradations in-between defined in their relation to the “real.”  Instead the language of “psychic difference” seems to best capture the play of madness, where each space along the spectrum is taken on its own terms as legitimate.  (An ever-rotating wheel of psychic experience?)
This is not to say that I am against the idea of “allies.” It has only been within this semester that I have begun to understand the complexity of postmodern identity/identification politics, and their real life limitations.  I am definitely aware of the fact that most folks will scoff at my last paragraph.  I think the concept of the ally is something that will be very helpful for the Icarus Project, even if it is problematic ideologically. During our meeting with Todd Smith from NYU LGBT I was really impressed with the way safe zone training is set up on different campuses across the nation, and how it has become a training that is required in some jobs.  Perhaps our version would become the kind of thing pre-med and psych students would list on their grad school apps and resumes.  (That’s how we lure them in, and then we get educate them.) 
During our last event, a screening of the film The Devil and Daniel Johnston, I was really impressed with the level of discussion we had afterwards.  During our intro to the film we brought up both dangerous gifts and the idea of the schizophrenics as shaman, and it seemed that a number of people understood the idea of multiple truths coinciding.  Even on a simpler level it was clear that people saw the impact an informed, caring community would have had on Daniel Johnston’s life.  Though this is certainly an accomplishment, I have to remind myself that this is a roomful of mostly Gallatin kids.  They are much more amenable to things like multiple truths and accepting difference in general.  Reaching mainstream future doctors and psychologist means dealing with scientists who believe that there is one, stable world that they can view through a microscope.  This is their world, and the world of the sane.  I think that LGBT has a much easier time finding kids to be their peer ed leaders because gender and sexuality studies students are taught to question normative categorizations right off the bat.  The history of queer studies is one of progressive politics and refusal.  The kids in CAS psychology, however, are about as establishment as they come.  (Ok, I’m stereotyping, but this has been my experience, even with friends.)  They are the future movers and shakers of the mainstream mental health world, and we need them on our side.
How we accomplish this, and what concessions we make, is a complicated issue.  To some degree it will be nearly impossible to convince a physician or psychologist that they are part of the problem.  Years of investment, both time and monetary, leave little room for taking down the system.  Way too much cognitive dissonance.  I think at best we can convince medical health professionals to be more sensitive to the experience of those in their care.  It is unlikely that we will get them to make a wholesale turn away from their profession.  Students who are currently dropping $40,000 a year in order to become doctors are very much in the system.  Bringing them to our events is probably not the hardest part.  We do need to start advertising in non-Gallatin venues, but gaining access to CAS psych networks is just a matter of legwork when we are ready for it.  The difficulty will be convincing people that we are, ahem, not crazy.      
I was recently debating with my friend Mike, a premed junior, about the “truth” behind a person’s psychic experience.  When I introduced the idea of the shaman and the schizophrenic, he agreed that it is ethnocentric for the western doctor to go and pathologize what he or she does not understand in an unfamiliar cultural context.  This is certainly a progressive reading, but Mike consistently returned to a master narrative explanation: the person may appear to be a shaman, but science will provide the real truth of whether or not the shaman is schizophrenic.  Perhaps we misinterpret at a given time, but there is undoubtedly a stable truth to the situation.  With enough scientific inquiry we will reach the conclusion.  Even if it’s good for the person to think they are a shaman, it is wishful thinking and inevitably a lie.  This was pretty much what I expected, so when we hit this point it seemed we had to scale back to a more ontological discussion and we turned to the old zen koan about the tree falling in the woods.  I argued that there may be something that happens when that tree falls, but without human interpretation it need not be sound.  Indeed, the thing falling need not be a “tree,” and it may not be “falling.”  I then tried to explain that his concept of language assumed that there is a referent to which “tree” refers, a stable thing that is “tree.”  Instead I asked him to consider that the amorphous blob of matter making up the tree has no essential truth to it outside our meaning assignments, and that tree only gains resonance through linguistic relations and classifications.  He got frustrated, and so did I.
So maybe my approach here needs work.  One suggestion Brad Lewis has made is to focus more on the relation of disability activism to mad pride.  For disability activists it is important to move away from individualizing and medicalizing approaches that seek to “cure” the abnormal body.  Instead a social model should be adopted that adjusts societal environments for different bodies.  As Brad writes, “…much of the suffering of different bodies comes from social exclusion, isolation, and lack of opportunity, along with the pernicious side effects of a medical industry bent on aggressive intervention to achieve “normal” bodies.”  Similarly, much of the suffering of psychic difference might come from social exclusion, isolation, and lack of opportunity, along with the side effects of a psychiatric industry bent on achieving mental “health.”  Perhaps through this lens doctors could become more sensitive and start to relax on the normalizing processes.  I believe that this might be a space for doctors to work in that doesn’t call their deepest held beliefs into question, while still highlighting the negative effects they have.  It is certainly a start in the move from the scientific desire to “know,” to the sometimes more important desire to “care.”