Mental Health, Madness, and Psychiatry: a study guide and annotated bibliography


General Introduction to the Study Guide

This reader is a study guide and a work book for those who are familiar with some ideas, images, or theories of madness or “mental illness” (and perhaps also psychiatry), but feel a lingering skepticism and doubt about what they mean. What are the first images that come to your mind when you think of the word “madness?” If it’s more familiar, go ahead and substitute the word “insanity” or “craziness” for “madness”. What about “mental health,” “mental disorders”, “chemical imbalances”, and “delusions”? Can you think of any other words that seem related to these, but are missing?

It is more important than ever that we all talk about what “mental health” is and how we relate to it. Let’s look at some basic facts. The number of people who are diagnosed with a mental disorder is steadily growing every year, especially when looked at globally. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 450 million adults have a diagnosable mental disorder worldwide. They also report that the number of suicides increased by 60% over the last 45 years. Mental disorders apparently account for “8.8% and 16.6% of the total burden of disease due to health conditions in low- and middle-income countries“. So, something must be done, right? We need “more mental health services”, as many activists and others are apt to say. But what does that mean? Medication? Yoga classes? More hospital beds? Free or affordable therapy?

Calling for “more mental health services” starts to look somewhat questionable when one looks at a number of other facts. In the 1970s, WHO found that those diagnosed with schizophrenia —often called the most debilitating of all mental disorders— fared better in developing countries than in the U.S. In a repeat of this study, they found the same results. A number of follow-up studies found that patients who had weaned themselves off the antipsychotics, which were supposed to “fix their brains” had fared much better than those who continued to take them. When faced with these facts, simply calling for “more mental health” starts to look unsatisfactory.

We also live in a time when patient-centered groups, and groups of those who identify with unusual experiences typically seen as “crazy” (hearing voices, extreme mood expressions, seeing things, having “strange beliefs”) organize themselves in social groups, study groups, support networks, and antipsychiatry activist groups. The mere existence of such groups already wears upon the more extreme claims made by psychiatry that, for instance, “psychotic” patients will flounder in their undertakings and live solitary lives trapped in a world of fantasy. This uneasy feeling deepens when we see that some such groups have publicly accused psychiatric treatment to be unhelpful, unnecessary, and, in some cases, torturous. Others have argued that psychiatry is operating as nothing more than a police force, incarcerating the unwanted or unsightly from the streets to sedate them or simply hold them in hospitals or asylums out of sight, and, for their less unsightly patients, providing simple drug fixes to the complex problems wrought by political and economic systems.

This is a very personal document for me. I have heard talk about this thing “madness” for as long as I can remember. Multiple members of my family have undergone interventions for their “madness.” Sometimes that meant taking pills; sometimes it meant getting taken away to a hospital or treatment center against their will; other times it meant going to those places willingly; but it always meant that the person diagnosed and the people closest to them had to rethink their life, their personality, and relationships. I too have undergone psychiatric intervention in my life, unwillingly and willingly. The effect these treatments have had on my life is immense. I have also had a number of bizarre or extreme experiences, which, up until recently, I had always been afraid or felt unqualified to talk about, in large part due to my feeling threatened and delegitimized in my experiences with psychiatry and clinical psychology.

This study guide is for those who feel similarly doubtful, uncertain, or uneasy about the way we talk about “madness” or “mental disorders.” It’s for those who have been diagnosed, hospitalized, and drugged and feel like their psychiatrist doesn’t know best, but they aren’t sure how to express that; it’s for those who have seen a family member or friend “treated” for mental illness and were confused or dissatisfied by the process; it’s for those who have never had interface with psychiatry, but feel like madness or mental illness has touched them, and they don’t know what to make of that feeling; it’s also for those who feel like they know enough about mental health, and what to do about it. They won’t find any easy answers here. This guide is not structured so that the reader will walk away with a cohesive ideology or belief; it was made to initiate and facilitate a process of questioning and doubt, and hopefully of discovery.

My hope is that people use this guide either for self study or for aiding in the formation of critical mental health reading groups or film groups. The reader is organized into 10 units. One could either decide to study a little bit from each unit, focus entirely on a unit of particular importance to you or your group, or do the entire thing. At the beginning of each unit, you will find a summary of the themes and questions explored, and, at the end, a couple questions you are invited to use as a note-taking device. Most will have a primary text to introduce the themes and ideas in a general way. This will be followed by a few optional texts, podcast episodes, films, or other media that go deeper into the themes. There will be hyperlinks for all the texts, podcasts, and more on the pdf (with the exception of the films, which you will have to find on your own). As a rule, the main text and materials will be shorter and more like a survey of the problem/question of that unit. The optional texts will either be primary documents or somewhat denser secondary texts illuminating one or two aspect of the general theme. In many cases, the primary texts are interviews or surveys of a theme.

The units and the optional texts within them are merely suggestions, and, if excluding something, mixing-and-matching, skipping units, or changing the order would help facilitate your understanding, please do it. The LISTEN, SEE and WATCH sections offer podcast, song, art, and film recommendations for opportunities for learners of different types to use what they feel most comfortable with to approach the questions at hand. A general warning for what is to come: we have not excluded texts which discuss many unpleasant and challenging topics including child abuse, suicide, self-harming, and rape. Please use your own discretion as you continue.

Every section will feature at least one text or work by a person who feels they have passed through/live with “madness” or has had a psychiatric label forced upon them. This is necessarily a difficult category to pin down, as you shall see. I let the writers themselves define what it means to them to be mad, and did not use any diagnostic system or nosological schema (classification system for defining and organizing diseases) to decide who warranted inclusion or not. I see such people as primary authors and thinkers on the pathway to understanding and not as case studies for one to examine at a distance (as if there are the works by the “normal” authors about madness and then ones by crazy people for one to check their ideas against).

I’ve designed the guide in three parts with a particular narrative structure in mind, even though the parts as I’ve conceived them will blur into one-another. The first part is largely negative, in that it is meant to challenge dominant beliefs about mental health. Sometimes this is done through critique, other times it is done through illuminating alternatives to the normal, accepted ideas. The world seems over-saturated with ideas and facts about mental health. This “ever more facts” model serves above all to bury the essential problems related to madness under a mountain of detail. So first, this guide will challenge beliefs already held by most people in American society, and since most of these beliefs come from psychiatry (directly or indirectly), the first half will largely be about psychiatry and the process of labeling and treating someone as “mad” (roughly units 1-5); the second cluster of units (units 6-7) will then offer up unique perspectives on “madness,” will outline some reform and harm reduction efforts of the past and present within psychiatry, and potential alternatives to our practices of “mental health;” the last part (units 8-10), will focus on the experiences of those who have experienced something they’ve called madness, and will look outwards, to try to draw connections and remove the question of madness from its imposed isolation in medicine and draw new lessons from it. The entire guide is permeated through and through with the voices and experiences of the “mad”. Through their voices, I hope that readers will experience a guided, soft, break down, because it is only by breaking down that we can open up space to hear those voices that are desperately calling out for us to listen.


Below, I will include books and texts that were either too long, or cost money so that they didn’t make it into the final copy of the bibliography. I will continue to add to this list. The “units” correspond to those in the bibliography, to make it easier for anyone who wanted to follow up on a particular idea or interest.

Suggested Further Reading

Unit 1
  1. Escher, Sandra; Hage, Patsy; and Romme, Marius, “VOICE HEARING: A QUESTIONNAIRE”,
  2. Leudar, Ivan and Thomas, Phillip, Voices of Reason, Voices of Insanity: Studies of Verbal Hallucinations, London, Routledge, June 22, 2000.
  3. Luhrmann, T. M.; Padmavati, R.; H. Tharoor and A. Osei “Differences in voice-hearing experiences of people with psychosis in the USA, India and Ghana: interview-based study”,, April 3 2014,
  4. Morin, Roc. “Learning to Live With the Voices in Your Head”, The Atlantic, Nov 5, 2014,
  5. Scull, Andrew. Madness in Civilization: a Cultural History of Insanity, from the Bible to Freud, from the Madhouse to Modern Medicine. Princeton University Press, 2015.
  6. Thiher, Allen. Revels in Madness: Insanity in Medicine and Literature. University of Michigan Press, 1999.
Unit 2
  1. Conrad, Peter. Medicalization of Society: On the Transformation of Human Conditions Into Treatable Disorders. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007.
  2. Greenberg, Gary. The Book of Woe: the DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry. Plume, 2014.

Unit 3
  1. Littlewood, Roland, and Maurice Lipsedge. Aliens and Alienists: Ethnic Minorities and Psychiatry. Routledge, 2014.
  2. Metzl, Jonathan. The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease. Beacon, 2011.
  3. Warren, Carol A. B. Madwives: Schizophrenic Women in the 1950s. Rutgers University Press, 1991.
Unit 4
  1. Biehl João. Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment. Univ. of California Press, 2008.
  2. Foucault, Michel. History of Madness. Edited by Jean Khalfa. Translated by Jonathan Paul Murphy, Routledge, 2009.
  3. Foucault, Michel, Psychiatric Power: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1973–1974, Picador; June 24, 2008. Retrieved from:
  4. Whitaker, Robert. Mad in America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine, and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill. Basic Books, 2010.
Unit 5
  1. Gilman, Sander L. Disease and Representation: Images of Illness from Madness to AIDS. Cornell University Press, 1994.
  2. Mills, China. Decolonizing Global Mental Health: the Psychiatrization of the Majority World. Routledge, 2014.
  3. Mirowsky, John, “Subjective Boundaries and Combinations in Psychiatric Diagnoses”, The Journal of Mind and Behavior, Summer and Autumn 1990, Volume 11, Numbers 3 and 4,
Unit 6
  1. Cooper, David. Psychiatry and Anti-Psychiatry. Routledge, 2013.

  2. Hornstein, Gail. To Redeem One Person Is to Redeem the World: the Life of Frieda Fromm-Reichmann. Other Press, 2005.
  3. Laing, R. D. The Divided Self: an Existential Study in Sanity and Madness. Penguin Books, 1969.

Unit 7
  1. Romme, Marrius A. J., et al., editors. Living with Voices: 50 Stories of Recovery. PCCS Books in Association with Birmingham City University, 2013.
Unit 8
  1. Cvetkovich, Ann. Depression: a Public Feeling. Duke University Press, 2012.
  2. Frame, Janet. Faces in the Water. Women’s Press, 2000.
  3. Gotkin, Janet, and Paul Gotkin. Too Much Anger, Too Many Tears: a Personal Triumph over Psychiatry. HarperPerennial, 1992.
Unit 9
  1. Burstow, Bonnie, et al., editors. Psychiatry Disrupted. Theorizing Resistance and Crafting the (r)Evolution. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014.
  2. Hall, Will. Outside Mental Health: Voices and Visions of Madness. Madness Radio, 2016.
  3. LeFrançois, Brenda, et al., editors. Mad Matters: A Critical Reader in Canadian Mad Studies. Brown Bear Press, 2013.
  4. Shimrat, Irit. Call Me Crazy: Stories from the Mad Movement. Press Gang Publishers, 1997.

Unit 10
  1. Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. University of Minnesota Press, 2008.
  2. Sass, Louis. Madness and Modernism: Insanity in the Light of Modern Art, Literature, and Thought. Harvard University Press, 1994.

*Image is of Agnes Richter’s jacket in the Hans Prinzhorn Collection in Heidelberg of art works created by past and present psychiatric patients.

Global Uncivil War

Whether or not you think of historical struggle through the lens of civil war, democratization, or revolution affects in large part the way in which you conceive of the functioning and politico-juridical foundation of international and civil institutions; it alters or problematizes political claims of legitimacy of the police and even the state itself; and, on a more local/interpersonal level, it affects our libidinal and psychical investments in the activity of politics and the subjects involved therein. What follows here are a number of thoughts, problems, concerns, and complications that we’ve seen or picked up on since we accepted these theses and tried to use civil war as a paradigm to organize our thoughts and actions.

Civil war has never been pinned down legally, despite frequent attempts by jurists, sovereign powers, and political theorists since Rome’s Republican era over 2000 years ago. These actors have primarily tried and failed at codifying the following problems seen to be internal to civil war: whether it is a problem of the city or of the home, or a mixture of the two; whether it needs to involve some amount of physical coercion or force, or if it can also occur through language or in the minds of citizens; whether it concerns two or more parties, and, related to this, whether these parties must be attempting to take over the government; whether it only concerns those contained within specific sovereign limits or the whole of “humanity;” and whether it pertains solely to those already considered citizens, or those who, through violence or other means, could become citizens, or at least political subjects. Indeed, in our view, it is precisely because the concept is a paradox and has always been one that we find it useful. The combination of historical centrality and structural lack of definability opens up the supposedly autonomous domain of law to broader problems of citizenship, domesticity, war, (and later) risk management and policing, and it does so from within the paradigmatic forms of our political history itself — the citizen, the city, the home, and even humanity itself are, through the lens of civil war, seen as structurally inconsistent and contested forms.


Given that we still stand by that thesis, what’s questionable about the term? We decided to write this addendum after a number of experiences challenged our ideas of the language of civil war, or at least the effects of the language, and the ways in which one might try to explicitly utilize it. In the Summer of 2017, we, along with the other two current members of the Belli Research Institute, were invited to speak at two events, one in Chicago and one near Seattle about the concept of civil war. We attempted to formally structure these talks, which we called “Civil War as a Political Paradigm,” to allow for as much disagreement and debate about even our most basic statements by encouraging the audience to interrupt us in various ways. We wanted the format of the talk to highlight the part of the civil war concept we found most interesting and immediately comprehensible, namely the fact that irresolvable conflicts exist in various groups, and the different ways we deal with them (ignoring, accepting, discussing, burying, denying). In this, we failed. At least part of that failure arose out of the various understandings — and, in our view, misunderstandings — of what we were trying to problematize with this word. Yet we see such misunderstandings as interesting problems in themselves.

We choose to make use the word first and foremost due to its structural connection with some of the most basic terms of the Western political imagination: civility, citizen, civilization, and civil society, as well as war. In opposition to these terms —as we indicated above and will deal with at greater length in later sections— civil war is essentially problematic, by which we mean that it has always been contested. One could certainly make the case that “citizen” or any of the others above is also a contested term (and we certainly agree with this), but “civil war” is a preferable gateway into those problems, since it is both unambiguously a problem for Western political theory, and also central to its operations. These concerns all belong to what one might call the political and juridical aspects of civil war. Going into the talks, we assumed that the audience would not be uniformly interested in questioning the legal categories of citizenship nor the history of Western political theory. Instead of offering a dry and sterile account of the evolution of the Greek stasis into bellum civile and what it means for a political paradigm, we wanted to offer as little information about what concretely we would talk about as possible, and try to guide people into experiencing some amount of discord among themselves and see how it got handled in the moment. We wrote up a corny and vague description, created a complicated handout with instructions on how to disrupt the talk (it included, among other options: playing a song over us, shouting at us, shooting at us with a slingshot), and hoped a lot of people came and acted in surprising ways.

Instead of beginning by talking about the Greeks or the legal history of “civil war,” we started with a few direct experiences we had previously had wherein one group instrumentalized the language of “democracy” and “unity” to dominate the actions of another group during an intense public event. One example was a group of protesters in St. Paul who chanted “Unity!” over the chants of a smaller faction that had broken off in a move to silence them, thereby utilizing a word implying a collective will to prevent the expression of different perspectives. We referred to these as incidents in a “civil war,” hoping that the language would be heard as dissonant and that this dissonance would provoke thought. We wanted more than anything to ground the concept by encouraging people to think of examples where this management of difference and disagreement occurred and to create a discussion around how we handle these events.

This didn’t happen in the way we intended. In Chicago, quite a few people did show up, certainly more than we expected. Perhaps due to our inexperience with and general anxiety around speaking, we had difficulty not relapsing into the examples we’d thought up previously, and were unable to achieve the results we desired. A lot of the talk ended up looking like primarily a small number of men (including the two in our group) debating the finer points of our “argument,” with two other women occasionally chiming in, and waiting for us Main Speakers to supply answers to questions. It seems to us in retrospect that there was some basic confusion around exactly what we were talking about. Some thought we were only talking about the historical concept of civil war, some thought we were talking about the way “radicals” should imagine conflict, others thought we were solely talking about interpersonal strife and how it gets resolved. This confusion is certainly a part of the concept itself, as it refers to all of these, and more, at once. So we may have had too much on our plate, since, while we did want to focus on the interpersonal or local playing out of conflict, we also didn’t want to reduce it to that, nor convince anyone that that lens is the “correct” interpretation. By the very end, a larger portion of the room had understood what we were going for and had begun to chime in with a number of interesting and ambiguous examples of conflicts and their resolutions. This earlier reticence to speak on the part of those outside the small group of men was, beyond being just the playing out of masculine overconfidence in public spaces, perhaps also a result of the arrangement of the room. We three were seated on a couch facing the rest of the room. This was a limitation of the room itself we had not foreseen, as we intended to sit in a circle to encourage participation.

Yet, at our talk in Seattle, where we were able to sit in a circle, we had similarly disappointing results. If the problem in Chicago was both a lack of participation and the presence of multiple asymmetrical registers, in Seattle, we saw the presence of a conflict so specific that it was opaque to the majority of the audience, and also the expression of a number of ideological positions, which were impossible to discuss on account of their rigidity and circularity. Many voices, no conversation. While more members of this audience seemed to grasp the idea and were ready to discuss specific events, a number of men chastised us for not towing a Marxist line of interpretation, some even charitably “translating” our language into a more palatable Marxist dialect. One man, with the tone of someone who believed they were reconciling two groups of scuffling children, spoke up and stated that it seemed like we were “really talking about the ‘state’” when we spoke about those who use the language of democracy to silence their enemies. Another man, quite irate, grumbled that it seemed like this civil war thing didn’t “have anything to do with the working class revolution.” “No, it doesn’t” we told him, provoking furrowed eyebrows on a number of 30-something-year-old very serious Marxists. Some called us “identitarians,” another said something or other about Hegel and Stalin, which we didn’t understand at all, and yet another accused us of nihilism. Besides all these, there were two in the group who right then and there had a fight about a public space in a nearby city and whether its atmosphere was welcoming or not to certain groups. It was very clear none of this could be resolved in any simple fashion, by simply making one change or another, nor by apologizing to anyone, so we used the opportunity to take a smoke and bathroom break. In an unexpected sort of way, this turn of events did demonstrate the validity of our concept, since, despite everyone being present because they are interested in “radical” ideas of some sort, the presence of hidden conflicts haunted us all, and it was revealed that we were really speaking different languages, and coming to the circle with incompatible presuppositions.

It’s amazing anyone wanted to talk to us at all after this. Needless to say, there were certainly some who really did not want to, but we welcomed the paradox nonetheless, and invited those who wanted to come to a smaller talk the next day. This talk was a pleasant break from the previous two. The smaller size meant we were able to clarify some of the misgivings and misunderstandings people had the day before. We found out that a group had come the year before to give a talk on a similar theme and were rude and aggressive. One criticism we heard was that it seemed like speaking about “civil war” left no room for talking about patriarchal and white supremacist violence, and, at its worst, could even be used to cover up these powers, performing the exact gesture of forgetting/denying we were trying to highlight in our talk. The book most people there were familiar with on the theme of civil war, Intro to Civil War by Tiqqun, is virtually silent on these topics [1]. Further, our talk was scheduled at the same time as another that focused on “care,” which, because it temporally competed with ours, created a war/care binary and made our theme appear by contrast as if it were about “violence” or “aggression,” given the presence of the word “war.” Not being aware of these previous understandings, we were quite baffled by some of the responses we received the day before. This smaller talk allowed us to clarify that it is precisely conflicts around gender, race, and concrete, lived, local issues that we wished to discuss under the umbrella of “civil war.” Some assumed because of the term, and the problems listed above, that we would be interested in discussing the tired idea of “class war,” that we would be defending an “attack by any means necessary” approach, or that we were either attempting to avoid or sacralize identity and its relation to struggle. These associations and presumptions are real, and ought to be taken seriously.

Our talks, while failures, did reveal something important to us: despite the commonalities of groups that come together to create something or talk with one another, we speak in radically different registers, and gather with radically different understandings of the world, and we can’t understate these differences. We can’t assume they are merely the inessential and sweep them aside in broad strokes. We have to face them head on, even if that entails the feeling of loss or failure.

The diagram we presented at the talk.


Some of the tendencies and problems we encountered at the talks came into focus in distilled form in David Armitage’s new book Civil Wars: A History in Ideas and Patricia Owens’ response and addition to it “Decolonizing Civil War.” Armitage’s book is the longest and most sustained attempt at a genealogy of civil war in the academic anglophone world we are aware of, and worth engaging with for its coherent narrative, to point out its shortcomings, and for its wealth of citations.

Armitage begins his book by countering and qualifying the optimism of those who pronounce that global warfare is on the decline by interjecting that, while this is true for war between states, intra-state warfare, or civil war, is on the increase. Although there are quantitatively less incidences of violence on the global scale, the increase in cases of civil war also means that we are seeing a more heart-wrenching, long-lasting, disorienting, and emotionally damaging kind of violence. In Armitage’s words, civil war represents “the most destructive” [2] form of war. To this end, he fondly quotes Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman who famously said that “war is hell,” but adds that “surely the only thing worse is civil war.” [3]

Homer calvary.jpg
The heroic ideal of bellum civile: two sides engaged in a contest of might that ends in tragedy. The Calvary Charge by Winslow Homer.

Much of his research reaffirms the central thesis: civil war has been both extraordinarily generative for the Western political tradition, but simultaneously a source of constant problems it has never been able to work through. It functions like a cipher. It cannot consistently hold onto any political meaning, yet we require it to make sense of politics, to differentiate between other political categories. Civil war has always been in the paradoxical position of naming the war between citizens while also being the lens through which one can establish political legitimacy at all. Armitage successfully demonstrates that the problem of civil war has in no way receded from its political importance in his two last, and most profound, sections “Worlds of Civil War,” and “Civil Wars of Words.” He argues there that the concept of civil war, despite still being contested and indefinable, continues to haunt global politics in two major ways. First, it is used by states to avoid conflicts they do not want to be involved in, and also, paradoxically, to intervene in crises when they have no legitimate legal grounds to do so. Civil war in the first sense is named to exempt oneself or one’s political constituency from guilt or involvement. Inversely, civil war can be used affectively to proclaim that because such-and-such a political situation is so dire and chaotic, our state is justified in intervening. Western states continue to mobilize this discourse at strategic moments to either avoid taking or as an excuse to take a decided, public, stance (or deliver aid) in myriad conflicts in the Middle East and Africa (most recently in Syria, but also continually in Somalia, for instance), despite the long and well-documented role of Western intervention in the formation of those conflicts. “Civil war,” in these examples is a strategic cipher capable of imparting the opposite meanings: “that’s a civil war, and thus their problem,” and “we must, on humanitarian grounds, intervene because it is a civil war.”

Second, civil war is a decisive concept of international governance agencies and humanitarian organizations, because its application or non-application to a specific crisis can determine the legitimacy of an uprising and thus whether or not these international agents will get involved in aid, or allocate resources and funds. On this international level, it can — Armitage cites Libya in 2011-12 as an example — grant political status and legitimacy to forms of conflict that otherwise might be seen as a mere rebellion or insurrection, and not qualified for the international protections of combatants, and the penalties for those who violate the laws of war.

There is little to disagree with in this account of civil war’s continued importance for international relations and laws of war. It’s in how Armitage begins his book (and how this beginning affects his overall outlook) that troubles us. Armitage, after considering the differences between the Greek concept of internal war, stasis, and the Roman one, bellum civile (civil war), ultimately chooses the latter as his foundation, claiming that stasis belongs to an altogether different tradition. What he attempts by doing so is, in our view, an act of “civilizing civil war,” a process he himself ironically critiques in his chapter on the American Civil War. His stated reason for doing so is that we borrow the term directly from the Romans, along with the primary way in which we imagine the words that make it up (Civil and War). The Greek term seems too foreign, and too bound to its time and place. Stasis, in Armitage’s account, refers solely to a world in which wealthy male Greek householders would gather in a public place to do politics; stasis was what happened when that particular relation was destabilized and subjected to war or at least disruption. We, on the other hand, like the Latins, see ourselves as citizens bound to a polity, who, in civil war, take up arms against each other. Later translations of stasis into bellum civile are anachronisms, in Armitage’s account. [4]

Political theorists deal heavily in images. More exactly, they deal in images that represent or perform the very acts of politics itself. The spatial boundaries of sovereignty were seen for millennia in the paradigmatic image of Romulus erecting walls around the city of Rome; while Remus’ leap over that wall was the basic act of transgressing sovereignty. Armitage ignores a whole tradition (largely going by the name of stasis) that saw “civil war” in images of women rising up against colonial rulership, of slaves picking up stones and speaking in public, and of the moral decay of the slaveowners and their civilization that came out of these riotous events. [5] Instead, Armitage sees “civil war” in the Strong Man and Dutiful Citizen Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon, military regalia all around, armed and ready to kill opposing armies for his claims of rightful rulership. By beginning with this closed notion of politics and citizenship, and a militaristic notion of war, Armitage prioritizes a Eurocentric formulation of politics that cannot take into account how profoundly civil war destabilizes our sense of belonging. While the Greek term effectively destabilized the relation between who qualifies as a citizen — or even a human — and who was mere property, the Latin term ideally implies that we already unproblematically can see who is a citizen and who isn’t, who belongs and who doesn’t. All conflicts that occur are thus strictly between the men.


Patricia Owens’ solution, in her friendly critique of Armitage’s book, “Decolonizing Civil War,” is only partly satisfactory. She first succinctly identifies the problem with Armitage’s “civil war:” civil war has been called the worst, most gut-wrenching, form of war because it is represented as a war between brothers. “Brothers,” for the West connotes not just that the conflict occurs in close proximity to the household, but specifically, that it occurs between people who are already considered worthy: male, and already qualified as citizens. She writes: “Class, civilizational and gendered hierarchies were foundational to the very concept. Hence to fully understand civil war’s generative powers we must account for the constitutive exclusions and inclusions of those whose struggles elite Europeans refused to recognize as co-belligerents or eligible for ‘civilian’ protection.” [6] David Armitage offers, in short, a pre-civilized version of “civil war,” one where the civilizing process is already internally complete and unrelated to this horrifying thing called “civil war,” and which says little about its supposed “outside.”

Arendt begins her book On Revolution by immediately differentiating it from civil war and stasis. On this distinction, Owens and Armitage are in agreement. But Arendt’s account goes on to discuss and center the American and French revolutions, thus silently circumscribing the bounds within which revolution can occur strictly as relations between those already qualified as citizens/civilized. Armitage was greatly indebted to Arendt for making his distinction between revolution and civil war. He claims that revolutionaries are those who merely present themselves as the founders of something new within a civil war, hence the latter term is the foundational one, and destabilizes the first.

But there were agents with little to no legitimacy fighting at the same time and for drastically different aims than the revolutionaries proper: slaves, housewives, natives. Armitage, like Arendt, doesn’t go that far, still favoring his “already-included” subjects. Owens holds both Armitage and Arendt accountable for this Eurocentric prejudice, and offers a novel solution: what if, instead of the French and American revolutions, we use the Haitian Revolution as a paradigm? She offers the new image of the slave-revolt-turned-revolution. Would this not also characterize the political capacity of the non-included (non-civilized, non-citizen, or non-human) to transform themselves? In her eyes, this “successful slave revolt would undermine Armitage’s central claim” [7] that revolution is just a repackaged civil war. She peremptorily excludes the possibility that the Haitian Revolution could be seen as a civil war appropriated and narrativized as a revolution by reminding us that “if we are to adopt Roman categories at all, then Haitian’s were engaged in a servile war,” which is qualitatively different from a civil war and presents fewer difficulties in their eyes.

While this solution satisfactorily brings to the fore the humanizing/dehumanizing or politicizing/depoliticizing relation that lies at the empty core of Western politics, it still doesn’t escape the other problem associated with the revolutionary tradition: the fact that it absorbs the asymmetrical parties — the various différends — and gradients of a conflict and represents them in a simple binary (revolutionaries vs. the old order). While we can’t speak about the intricacies of the Haitian Revolution, it seems clear to us, even on the surface, that the events were not as simple as the term “revolution” tends to imply. This is largely a problem of the function of words: it is simply too easy for us to imagine that the “revolution” represented all those whom we see now in hindsight as “revolutionaries” and, in this way, to lose sight of the asymmetries and conflicts that existed among them. In the process, we lose valuable lessons and tend to oversimplify our present circumstances, overstating the binary conflicts we can extract from situations.


Armitage’s arguments hinge on the theses that the Greek and Roman concepts are fundamentally different, and, further, that we stand firmly in the Roman tradition. He justifies his distinction in four tightly interrelated points: 1. The question of forms of belonging. Stasis represented those conflicts that occurred between those considered “Greek,” and thus concerns a hereditary or even ethnic form of conflict, whereas bellum civile concerned war between citizens in the political sense. 2. The question of the “space” of civil war. The Greeks organized politics according to a fundamental division between the household, oikos — where the house-holding men organized their property (including slaves, wives, and children) in the most economical way possible — and the city, polis — where the worthy, economical men would meet and decide on the shape and future of their union. Stasis was a “war between households” in Armitage’s eyes and thus not a political war, while the Romans imagined it as two actually political groups vying for control of the state. This also includes the problem of scale. The Greek city-states were simply too small, and their notion of citizenship too limited, to imagine the kind of macro conflicts we associate with a civil war. 3. The question of militarization. The Greek stasis represented in large part a “state-of-mind” as opposed to an actual war between armed parties. He cites Thucydides here who emphasizes the moral decay of intracity conflict over any actual fighting. Calling the Greek “stasis” a “civil war” seems misguided in this light, because it remains a question whether it was a “war” at all if it did not require that military standards be raised and arms be leveled against the enemy. 4. The question of its entrenchment in politics/history. This is the most subtle point of distinction. The Greeks imagined their forms of politics and belonging as a body, with many of the biological metaphors that come with that representation. Stasis, for them, was like a disease in the body, and one that they could structurally not do away with. The Romans, on the other hand, tended to view bellum civile as a curse haunting history.

His first point that stasis is “hereditary” while civil war is “political” is contradicted by the most historically well-known passage on stasis, and one which Armitage himself quotes from: Thucydides’ third book in The History of the Peloponnesian War. The stasis he describes there is one in which a colonized people, the people of Corcyra, exploit the chaotic circumstances of the war between the two great colonial powers Athens and Sparta. In this section, women and slaves throw stones, and the women speak for the first and only time in Thucydides’ entire history. In the West, to be capable of speech is historically the prerequisite to being a political subject. The Greek paradigm of civil war, stasis, occurs along political lines, and concerns the question “who is capable of living a political life?”

This undermines Armitage’s first two lines of distinction at once: not only does the image of the woman or slave becoming political agent through effective action not concern who is Greek and who isn’t, it also clearly demonstrates that the Greek version of civil war is not merely between householders, but complicates the distinction between who runs the house (and is thus “political”) and who gets ruled  (or is merely “domestic”). This relation is part of all the civil wars Armitage later describes as paradigmatic of his Latinized concept, but most clearly for us in the American Revolution and American Civil War, when, as Mill put it, what was at stake was millions of enslaved people who were “human beings, entitled to human rights.” [8] Armitage quoted Mill there without grasping the fact that it was within civil war that these peoples’ humanity was at stake, and that it was through the conflicts themselves (slaves joining the British or rebelling during the American Revolution; slaves fighting for their freedom or escaping during the Civil War; or native tribes using the war as an opportunity to rebel on their own terms), and not on account of a legitimate legal process, that their status as people would be decided. Instead, he sees all this as a “by-product” of the real content of civil war: civilized men fighting with weapons.

Armitage seems to think that civil war must include “real” fighting, i.e. bloodshed, death, guns, and military regalia. Appian and Lucan are his poets of choice when it comes to the images that accompany civil war. Appian, like Armitage, makes the distinction between civil disturbance and civil war, writing that a civil war took place when “Open revolts took place against the republic and large armies were led with violence against their native land. . . They attacked it as if it were an enemy city.” [9] Appian’s influence on later war theoreticians is indisputable, but, this choice similarly betrays his prejudice. Armitage only looks for his imagery in the sphere he already proclaimed to be the special terrain of civil war: bloodshed, and binary acts of violence committed by militarized bodies. He only looks for his evidence in authors who write about military conflicts.

He maintains this false distinction for the period between the Roman Republic and the late 20th century, when he suddenly admits of a “civil war of words,” wherein it could be said that the words one chooses to use to describe a conflict could be said to be part of the conflict itself (e.g. with Libya and the UN above). He even calls to mind multiple other forms of civil or internal conflict that don’t necessarily include violence, namely, in addition to stasis, the Chinese nei zhan, and the Arabic fitna, saying nothing about the former, but adding that the latter can mean discord, temptation, anarchy, civil strife, or division, before excluding any further consideration of either due to their “obscurity.” Armitage is not ignorant to the fact that war or strife need not be the internecine catastrophe marked by physical force, swords, guns, or killing. If he had chosen a broader, less militaristic notion, perhaps he would have included passages using war language in novels of the infidelity of wives (the civil war of the family and lovers), in memoirs of mental illness (the civil war of the mind set against parts of itself), in histories of religious heresies (the civil wars of Christianity, Judaism, Islam), in fearful letters written between slaveowners worried about an uprising (the civil war concerning the humanity of slaves). For Armitage, these can only be metaphors derived from Caesars heroic battles, but, if civil war originally means conflict, strife, division, or discord, then we can unproblematically proclaim that these are civil wars in the original sense, and the armies duking it out in the city are in this light an appropriation of civil war, merely one possibility among many. But the colonial, civilized mindset is lacking creativity; because the colonizer achieved his goals through spilling blood and enslaving his enemies, he cannot see that his generalized aggression and hostility towards living things represents one way of living in the world and handling conflict among others.

Otto dix war.jpg
Otto Dix. The War. 1929-32. The poverty of the colonial/civilized imagination sees all conflict as essentially reducible to murder or a metaphor for murder.

Finally, there is the question of whether civil war is a disease or a curse. Stasis was very clearly thought of as a “disease,” while bellum civile was, at least in the Roman literature, referred to as the “curse” of civilization. In fact, stasis was another word for disease, and still persists in medical terminology to this day meaning “a stoppage of circulation” in phrases like “stasis of the blood” or in classifications like “stasis ulcer.” Stasis was thought of as an internal, inherent process to politics where elements (slaves, for example) cease to operate correctly and the circulation of power is blocked. And there was no cure for this disease, only medication and management. The curse, on the other hand, can return and strike at any moment, disrupting the day-by-day routine and setting brother against brother. They likened this curse to a natural disaster as in the poems of Tacitus (“The history on which I am entering is full of disasters”) or Florus (“The rage of Caesar and Pompey, like a flood or a fire, overran the city”). This moves the event outside and represents it as a force that strikes the otherwise perfect city; it reproduces a strong City/Nature or Civilized/Non-civilized binary. This is clear in the descriptions by Horace, who bemoans the fact that “harsh Fate . . . drives the Romans, and the crime of fratricide since Remus’s blameless lifeblood poured upon the ground— a curse to generations yet unborn.” It is Fate, that cruel god, who enters from the divine Supernatural Realm to set us against our brothers.

Though it seems small, there is a world of difference between the representation of strife as an outside curse and as an internal disease. The first performs a closing off of the boundaries of civilization by announcing that the only thing that can threaten its identity comes from outside. The curse reinforces the solidity of the political union being cursed, because it assumes that the union is real, and internally peaceful, i.e. operational. The incurable disease, however, posits the imperfection of the body in question, and points to the process of its own establishing as the cause of its recurring trauma. The disease places the body in question, opens it up to the outside, and denies any possibility of total health or prevention. Normative politics, in this light, is the permanent medicalization of the diseased body. The Romans did in fact think of civil war as a curse, but Armitage is incorrect in assuming that this representation won out over the idea of the internal disease, and it suffices to point to a number of quotations he himself included to demonstrate this. In every section of his book past the beginning on the Romans, he quoted political theoreticians referring to civil war as a “disease:” in the 17th century, Whitney calls civil war an “intestine strife,” and Hobbes similarly refers to them as “Intestine Broils,” while De Mably, nearly 200 years later, assures the reader that “civil war is sometimes a great good” because it can provide the impetus to remove the diseased limbs of the body politic as a surgeon would remove the diseased limbs of the individual’s body.

A 1940 poster warning of the danger of syphilis and gonorrhea, especially from those “risky” (female) bodies of sex workers. Keeping the social body clean is directly equated with ensuring a healthy stock of soldiers to fight the country’s wars and defend from the enemy. This linkage goes both ways: we must fight (political sphere) to defend our healthy citizens; we must be healthy (medical sphere) so that we may continue fighting wars. One is not a metaphor for the other. From the U.S. National Library of Medicine/Wikimedia Commons.

Given that Armitage’s Latinized “civil war” cannot be so cleanly distinguished from the more complicated stasis, one must conclude that his preference was an attempt to “civilize” the term, to reel it in away from the dark borders of civilization and settle it as an accidental conflict between brothers. He says as much himself in the most revealing sentence of his book: “Alas, the treatment of non-European peoples became quite another matter; a toxic by-product of this effort was the opening gap between those who were to be dealt with humanely and those who were not, the latter not even considered human.” [10] What for him is merely a “toxic by-product” of the effort to “civilize” conflict is for us the whole core of the problem of “civil war.” It is precisely his militaristic, civilized, presentation that allows him to exclude the horrifying possibility that perhaps the mechanism with which Western civilization establishes its own authority and legitimacy is broken, and never actually worked; that, in fact, the West has only violence, forgetting, lies, and negativity at its disposal for convincing itself it truly is “civilized” and its outside “barbarous;” that “civilized” stands for nothing other than a deep emptiness and a hopeless struggle to climb out of it, all the while naively believing in one’s own eternal superiority.


There are and will be those who have questioned why one would spend so much time with Greek and Roman concepts to begin with, and seemingly arguing for one’s conceptual priority over the other. Why look to these slaveowners for anything at all, especially tools for understanding our world? One response would be to point out that we who borrow from the Western political lineage uncritically appropriate concepts from that tradition without paying much attention to where the concepts came from and how they’ve been used. The most common term, in our experience, is “democracy,” which has undergone many ironic twists and metamorphosed from a favorite term of slaveowners to being a core concept in the political lexicon of the marginalized. The same has happened with “humanity,” “citizenship,” “rights” and others. More importantly, “civil war” has a special status in that it has always been a problem at a much deeper level than any of the others. It’s fair to say it’s among the most contested term in our political lexicon. Possibilities lie dormant in this fact. If there is something that the West wants to avoid in the term, maybe that’s because there is something dangerous in it. We could ask activists, radicals, and dissidents at this point: why do you give such credence to those concepts the preeminent political theorists of the West have happily fostered, and dismiss those they clearly perceive as unruly and threatening?

A second response could be that paradoxical formulations are necessary for a non-totalizing politics. Because a paradoxical formulation cannot be satisfactorily completed, it can prevent its user from elevating one or another subjectivity as the paradigmatic political or revolutionary subject. It forces its user to stay firmly situated in the process of politicization and its effects. We found “civil war” to be one such formulation. However, we did not fully account for the power of psychic investment in the representations of seemingly familiar words. This is the only thing that can explain the fact that, even after giving an account of the tumultuous history of the word, and clearly indicating that it does not essentially concern physical force, one could still hold onto simple images of bloodshed, guns, and infighting. We don’t have a satisfactory answer to this problem. One could, as we tried to, intentionally apply the term to situations where it sounds dissonant and ill-fitted. In our talk in Washington, we talked primarily about small, interpersonal conflicts as a paradigm of civil war. The risk here is that this usage can be interpreted as a metaphor or allegory, as opposed to the primary concept itself, so that one hears merely “our conflict with each other is like a civil war, but without all the guns and bloodshed.” One person present at our talk later said that one of their greatest fears was the possibility of “civil war.” The danger of a militarization of the representation of struggle or an aggressive understanding of conflict —of the prioritization of physical damage over the usage of words or the construction of space— looms large here.

attica riot.jpg
“Uncivil war” describes a political nexus in which people can change from being considered voiceless, non-political, even non-human objects of management to political actors through some form of disruptive action. In the case of the Attica Prison uprising of 1971 pictured above, the prisoners went from being depoliticized micro-managed objects of the prison staff’s gaze with mostly individual relations to the outside to being self-organized political actors with strong connections to outside activist groups, media, and lawyers through non-military, but still fierce, actions.

Alternatively, one could adopt a foreign word like stasis. Very few people have the same psychic or libidinal investments in stasis, which on the surface makes this solution attractive, but, on the other hand, even if one were to explain the structural connection to words like “state” or its continued use in medical formulations like “stasis of the blood,” one would still have a hard time demonstrating the stakes involved in the concept. The solution we — at the time of this writing — propose is simply to add a prefix to the already familiar term “civil war” making it simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar: “uncivil war.” [11] Uncivil war centers the decentering mechanism of civil war, making the inessential marginalia the problematic essence of the civilizing process.

What does civil war, or uncivil war, still have to offer us? The whole purpose of the book, and of discussing shared political concepts, is to problematize the way we think with our concepts, in a passive way. One doesn’t bring up the term “democracy” every time they decide to undertake a political project with others, but it informs the way they go about acting within that project. In the back of their mind, they see and act out the classic images of democracy, whether in its direct or representative form, and measure their activities against these primordial ideas. It’s the tendency to produce collective safety nets and existential securities we intended to challenge. It seems we are incapable of eradicating these images completely, so instead we tried to construct a tripping machine. Just as the political images form and begin to run along, our machine trips them so that they land on their faces.

Uncivil war is not a thing, not resolvable, and has no existence. It is enough for us to attack ourselves at the foundation, to take our leave, and begin. But begin what?


[1] As opposed to the one we used to think about civil war, The Divided City by Nicole Loraux, which more or less centers on this gesture.

[2] Armitage, David. Civil Wars: A History in Ideas. Pg. 8.

[3] Ibid. Pg. 8

[4] Ibid. Pg. 44

[5] This is from the account of Thucydides, who recorded in a few pages the events of the riots in Corcyra in Book 3 of The History of the Peloponnesian War. 

[6] Owens, Patricia. “Decolonizing Civil War.” Pg. 3

[7] Ibid Pg. 5

[8] Armitage, David. Civil Wars. A History in Ideas. Pg. 174

[9] Ibid. Pg. 49

[10] Ibid. Pg. 171

[11] We borrow this term from St. Augustine who referred to civil war as “civil, or uncivil, war” in City of God.

Why We Need Mass Shooters to be Crazy

Saying the Unsayable Every Time

When the unspeakable occurs, where do we turn for answers?

Whenever a politician or pundit — the two rusty gears of the great national blah-blah-chatter-machine — informs us that a shooting is an inarticulable tragedy — an unspeakable event — one can be sure this statement will be followed by excessive explanation.

In the wake of yet another mass shooting event in the US, journalists struggle to find answers as to how or why these keep occurring. Perhaps too many people have guns, or America is too violent, or maybe we’ve just lost our faith in God.

Through all this chatter, one answer is consistently appealing to all sides: the killers are crazy, psychos, lunatics, deranged, deluded, psychotic, mentally ill, Mad. Trump only said what everyone was thinking: Devin Patrick Kelley is another symbol of a national mental health crisis.

CNN reporters Emanuella Grinberg and Eliott C. McLaughlin believe that “the warning signs were there.” [1] Which warning signs? “Domestic violence. Sexual assault accusations. Animal cruelty. Escape from a mental health facility. Threatening text messages. An obsession with guns and mass shootings” they tell us.

This continued obsession in the biographical, the subjective, or the personal, means that the systemic and the historical will once again be swept aside. Hegemonic normative systems can only reproduce themselves if they can prove that the incident of extremity and ultra-violence are explainable solely by reference to the particular and not an expression of the system itself, even if it is an extreme one.

With this in mind, there is something profoundly disturbing about that list from CNN above. Each characteristic is listed as if we the readers ought to register them as Other, as abnormal and incorrect.

Their statement contains two dangerous errors in this regard: 1. none of these forms of ultra-aggression and terror are “outside” to Western values, rather, they are integral to them; and 2. escaping from a mental hospital does not belong on a list of assaults. Wrong first because they fail to see how these forms of aggression and hostility towards perceived weakness grew out of his experience as a normal, white, straight male, and not as some bizarre abnormality. Wrong also because they lump these forms of aggression in with the drive to escape from the controlling environment of the mental hospital.

The smooth integration of this supposed proof of mental instability and abnormality in  their list is a sly trick and one which serves a specific purpose: if they can point a finger at the psychos, they can continue to ignore the violence we all let fester within and around us.

More Than Just Normal

We find ourselves incapable of reading Devin Patrick Kelley’s “warning signs” as exactly that, as warning signs. Rather, they seem like the normal objects of our collective psychic environment. We see it like this: the nice, pleasant, normal, environs we live in, and the nice, pleasant, normal young men who most confidently move around in them were produced through acts of terror and aggression; they maintain themselves through these, and the act of locating the source of these hostile tendencies in the “mad” is a part of this structure.

White identity was/is produced through both legal and discursive acts of separation on the one hand and acts of performative domination and actual terror and destruction on the other. It was constructed in the Plantation era to separate the low, the nonhuman or partly human, from the high, the Whites. When whiteness came under threat — whether from slave insurrections, mixed race revolts in the pre-revolutionary era, or black organizing in the 60s — it was reconstituted with acts of extreme violence: mass executions, bombings in the South, re-enslavement and public torture. These events clearly had a performative and demonstrative element: they demonstrated that whiteness was untouchable and perceived encroachments would not be tolerated.

Silvia Federici, in Caliban and the Witch, wrote extensively on the physical and psychical violence committed against women in the construction of what might be called the “modern” form of Western Patriarchy. [4] Patriarchy for her isn’t some wisp or spook, nor a spectral abstraction used only for pointing out the meanness of men. Federici shows that it’s a real material process of degradation and terror leveled against the autonomy and abnormal behavior of women. This process didn’t occur merely through forms of discourse, but also through the physical destruction of medicines, degrading representations of women, the burning of “witches.” In other words, through systemic  terror and aggression.

Terror — the severing of limbs, the wanton violation and destruction of bodies, the performance of absolute domination and control — is more than just a normal part of our normal value systems (what many call White Supremacy and Patriarchy), it is the ritual element required for their continued existence. It may be extreme to hurt animals, to beat your wife, or to obsess about tools of murder, but it isn’t abnormal, not here, not in the West.

The designation of a class of “mentally ill” is part of this structure itself. As Erma VIP did in her critique of Susan Du’s City Pages article on strippers, we must ask ourselves who benefits from the further stigmatization of the mad? Who will suffer on account of Kelley’s portrayal as “mentally ill?” Probably not us (Sasha), at least not directly. Because we look the way we do (i.e. white and male), our abnormalities are not often read in public (although not never) as “dangerous schizoid behavior” but more often as drunkenness, or just weird. Certainly, we could suffer on account of this perception. It all depends on how we are seen in the moment, and Kelley’s portrayal as “crazy” won’t help.

Of course, that doesn’t yet take into account how these public accusations fit into a psychic economy. The self-representation of our differences as illness and the self-doubt around our own “threat potential” are not nothing. Concern over our “condition” (at this point of cognition, the condition is already separate and no longer simply a part of who we are) and whether or not we are perhaps actually a danger, or will be perceived as one, means that we, and others in our position, will be less likely to want to reach out and either share experience or seek care when needed. As some begin to publicly argue that increasing the rate of forced commitment is necessary to solve the “mental health crisis,” suicide suddenly becomes, in the moment of distress, a more tenable and attractive option.

But “madness” and “mental illness” themselves are constructed and traversed by contradictory lines of race and gender. The further stigmatization of the umbrella group  “the mentally ill” will only foster the mentality of fear, which makes a life-or-death situation out of the encounter with a “schizo” or “psycho.”

Whiteness, in the context of the insecurities it itself has reproduced through its exclusions, lives in perpetual fear of retribution for its history. The darker the skin, the more likely the White Man will feel himself existentially threatened, and the more likely he is to call the police, who, as protectors of white society and its values, themselves perceive danger at every turn.

Even though Kelley himself was white, the “mentally ill” appellation cascades hierarchically downward, increasing the chance for others — those who are already primarily under threat — of being even more heavily policed or murdered.

Calling someone “mentally ill” is also a favorite weapon of misogynists, who see difference or vulnerability in expression as further proof of feminine weakness. Men like Devin Patrick Kelley think difference is a sign of inferiority and justify their own acts of terror with this fact.

Unfortunately, it isn’t as easy as saying “we all must love each other” or “why can’t we just accept everyone for how they are?” We can’t take refuge in beloved universals. “Civilized” is a word-weapon we Westerners have used to elevate ourselves above and separate us out from those we see as beneath us: the savages, the primitive, the diseased and pathological. [2] “Humanity,” as Achille Mbembe has shown in his Critique of Black Reason, despite its seeming universality and biological foundation, was historically never supposed to represent all living things who talked and lived in communities. “Modern ideas of liberty, equality, and democracy are . . . historically inseparable from the reality of slavery” he writes [3]. This has been true since the Ancient Greeks established the form of government we still claim to practice today. Democracy for all! Except, of course, for women, slaves, children, the insane, foreigners.

The understandable anger of those who ask why white men are never labelled terrorist quickly turns into a demand that they be seen as such. In this way, they perform the same universalizing gesture but in reverse: we are united in seeing his behavior as so abhorrent and inexplicable that we cast him out from humanity. But in the West, terror is all too human, and the more we search for “terrorists,” the less we search around and within for the foundational source of that terror.

The radical acceptance of difference means being capable of being silent, of listening, of not over-hastily subsuming the other in your ideas about them. It means valuing receptivity above performance and communicability. Those excluded from the beloved universals have been forced to learn this skill. The so-called crazy people must do it, lest they get locked up again.

It’s time the ones doing the excluding do so as well.

Why We Love Throwing Lunatics to the Dogs

Sometimes a “progressive” journalist will meekly question the dominant belief that the schizo will kill you, flay you, eat your face off, or whatever. He or she will surely cite statistical reports from the Annals of Epidemiology or the US Department of Health and Human Services that show that only a tiny percentage of violent crime is attributable to those with a mental illness diagnosis.

We refuse to play this game. The mad, the “mentally ill,” as we are now called, do not exist as a permanent, stable group.

The mad have been women who wanted to escape what had become a boring, domestic hell. Maybe they wanted to sleep with other women. Maybe they didn’t want kids. Maybe they hated their husbands. Maybe they altered or even refused the gender assigned to them at birth.

The mad have been children who found it impossible to sit still in school. Maybe their teacher was unbearable. Maybe she found his lessons degrading, insensitive, and pointless. Maybe he didn’t want to hear about the accomplishments of Europe any longer.

The mad have been black and native men and women who decided to resist unlivable or unacceptable conditions whether in 1960s urban centers in America [2], or in New Zealand [3]. This is a global phenomenon. Maybe they were too loud, too black, too scary, or too strange to be understood by the white doctors who ultimately decided who was mad and who wasn’t.

The mad have been those experiencing extreme mental or physical distress who require care. Not the expert care that originates in the minds of those who pathologize them, but situated care, deeply aligned with their world and their desired place in that world. The exact same kind of care we all need.

Yes, we need to talk about specific intersections of mental health and care, but not uncritically. By automatically assuming the existence of “the mentally ill,” the criteria for identifying them, and the need for “treatment,” and by not asking any questions about who gets to decide who is mad, about the effects of stigma, about the various labels’ historical functions, about the power relations within which they exist, about the structure and formation of the medical knowledge that make up their foundations, or about the diverse experiences of those who receive these labels, even the most progressive calls for “care” can unthinkingly reproduce power relations of domination, scientific racism, gender policing, and the isolation of the suffering.

The crisis is not insanity, nor mental illness. The crisis is our normal way of thinking and acting itself; its hegemony and our inability to admit the legitimacy of another way of thinking and living. The mad have been those who think differently, who have organized their thoughts in their own way. This act of insolence must be punished in the eyes of the normal, hence they are a natural scapegoat for society’s most extreme perversions.

The mad, whether as insolent housewife, as rebellious subject, as “bad kid”, as sufferer, or as abnormal freak are not essentially the unreasonable, the nonspeaking, the abnormal. We represent another kind of reason, another way of speaking, a different norm, and for that reason we must be represented as the truly Outside, as unpredictable violent brutes capable of random violence.

We are a threat, true, but not because of a heightened physical capacity for murder or violation of consent — that belongs more so to Jeff and John down the street — but because we live according to other standards, whatever they may be.



[2] Elias, Norbert. The Civilizing Process.

[3] Mbembe, Achille. Critique of Black Reason.

[4] Federici, Silvia. Caliban and the Witch.

[5] Metzl, Jonathan. The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease.

[6] Cohen, Bruce. “Passive-Aggressive: Māori Resistance and the Continuance of Colonial Psychiatry in Aotearoa New Zealand.”

The Savage Peace: An Essay on Civil War and the Amnesia of Democracy

This post contains a link to the book called The Savage Peace: An Essay on Civil War and the Amnesia of Democracy, the entirety of which has previously been published to this website in segments. The book is an attempt to think about politics and history from a perspective of organizing along lines of difference rather than identity. This resulted in a number of paradoxes, which I view as irresolvable, and necessarily so. I like to think of the concept of civil war as a kind of engine or motor that can be applied at the macro or micro level. I believe it is just as useful for thinking about international politics as it is for interpersonal conflict. It is, at once, a “real” legal and political fact, as well as an outlook and a sensitivity to the ways in which we encounter difference in the world. I remain in eternal debt to Nicole Loraux, who, in contradistinction with Tiqqun in Introduction to Civil War, and Agamben in Stasis (still the two most common reference points for a political theory of civil war), consistently maintains the unstable macro/micro and legal/ethical play of civil war without attempting to resolve one in the other.

Previous Readers Take Note… I have spent a few months making some huge changes to the copy of The Savage Peace I originally uploaded here. I no longer feel positive about having the entirety of that text on the site available as posts. No worries if you enjoyed it, because it will remain available in the download section of our website. I was long dissatisfied with having left out any citation of the first edition and with the unruly length of the piece, and honestly the sloppiness of the piece. I cut it down by nearly 100 pages to just the core of the piece (even with the addition of an addendum), and have added citations. I have also struggled through the years to spread word, especially as I found it harder to stand behind some of these missteps and shortsightedness. I am in the process of figuring out what I will do with the new manuscript, but it likely won’t appear here for the reasons already stated. I still have a limited amount of physical copies of this first edition I had printed to sell at cost, 5$ (plus 3$ shipping). Email me at if you want one. The whole book is available to download as a PDF for free. You can also download an imposed copy to print and bootleg. Enjoy —Sasha Durakov

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Addendum—Political Paradigms Diagram

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Don’t Just Follow Along: Some Critical Notes on Tactics and Discourse

We are all here to get our voices heard.

This may be true for some, but we question whether this applies generally to a crowd in a protest scenario. Did the various native tribes and individuals at Standing Rock set up camp to “get their voices heard,” or were they gathered to directly defend that which sustains them and allows them to live? Similarly, we believe some may go to a Black Lives Matter protest to “get their voice heard,” but we also know some go because they do not want to be shot or arrested by the police, in other words, because their life depends on it. There is no unqualified “we” at a demonstration nor anywhere else. To uncritically use “we” without thinking about how different the people present truly are is to level or flatten the real differences that exist between “us,” and produce a group that can only be unified on the basis of its most common features (being human, being present at that demonstration). This erases experiences and over-simplifies the problems that brought people out in the first place. This “we” is not a concrete or already existing group, it is an operation performed each time it is said that erases our differences to give the impression of unity in a group. 

It’s essential that we protect everyone’s freedom of speech.

The subtext of this statement reads: “even if they are a neo-nazi,” or “even if they support policies or forms of speech that put me in danger.” The individuals in the far-right, or the “alt-right”, also cite their right to free speech when they claim that the West is fighting a war against Islam (as Steve Bannon has), or that we need to rid America of all the foreigners (as Richard Spencer has), or that date rape and rape culture are non-existent (as Milo Yiannopoulos and Mike Cernovich have). If it becomes normal enough to say that Islam is trying to destroy the West, then why should we be upset when someone attacks a Muslim person praying in public? If it is normal and acceptable to discuss the white man’s claim to this country, then why should we be upset when our neighborhood association creates housing restrictions for immigrants from Mexico or China, or when ICE shows up to take them to a detention center? If we accept the denial of different forms of rape and sexual assault as legitimate positions, then who’s to judge whether anyone can be culpable for assault, or whether it was just “boys being boys”? Or consider the less obvious implications of the common insults of these alt-right figures. Paul Joseph Watson, for one, frequently refers to demonstrators as “autistic children” and “retards,” while Gavin McInnes refers to the left as “mentally ill perverts.” What does this say about people who are physically or mentally different? That they are less than human. These contain implicit declarations that people with these differences have no platform to speak or be seen, that they ought to be excluded and put away. Speech is not neutral. It exists in a historical context of violence. Discourse shapes the way we frame problems. It influences the way we act in the world we share together. Are deportation, exclusion, and sexual assault forms of violence? It depends on the discourse that frames them, be they legal or social. Just as the rules of a card game change the way you use the same cards, the way you speak and conceive of things changes the way you live your life. Speaking and acting are irreversibly intertwined and cannot be isolated from one-another.

Using violence only makes us as bad as those we oppose.

What this statement always takes for granted is the meaning of violence itself. What is violence, concretely? And more importantly, who defines and decides what it is? Debates around violence quickly descend into the infantile territory of quoting the dictionary to prove a point, as if the dictionary weren’t written with human hands and made by real people with their own presuppositions. We are doomed to circular arguments if we uncritically accept any of the vague definitions widely accepted. The question of who or what is violent always conceals the more important question: who has obtained a position from which they can denounce and punish violence as they define it? Today, the police and the far-right undoubtedly occupy this position. For this reason, forced deportation is not violence but law, while blocking roads is violent; breaking windows at a building where Milo is speaking is violent, while Milo leaking personal information of transgendered students to be harassed by alt-right trolls and students with illegal residence status to be targeted by ICE is lawful free speech; someone punching the proud white supremacist Richard Spencer is violent, while Spencer hosting articles about ethnic genocide on his website in a country built on slavery and colonialism is just “free speech.” Violence, in the end, is nothing. It’s indefinable because it shifts according to who has the power to define it. It nearly always operates downwards: those who hold the most power and control the most means of force will define anything that appears as a threat as “violent.” This is why the men who shot five people at a Black Lives Matter protest in North Minneapolis could claim self defense against “violence” from unarmed protestors, and why the man who shot an unarmed protestor outside Seattle’s UW during a protest against Milo could say the same. You can disagree about the usefulness or kindness of a tactic, but the question of violence is, in the final analysis, nothing other than the question of who gets to decide what it is.

Don’t do anything illegal! Let’s keep this space safe!

This statement is especially absurd, since it’s often shouted by those already engaged in illegal behavior. Depending on the permit the organizers were able to get from the city, blocking streets, having a certain amount of people, and remaining in a space past a designated time may all be illegal. At the demonstration against the Muslim Ban at the MSP airport, demonstrators were often unaware that their presence in the airport had violated the terms of the permit. Similarly, when demonstrators moved onto I-94 to protest the election of Donald Trump in November, they chanted “this is a legal protest” while they engaged in decidedly illegal behavior. Whether an action is legal or illegal should never guide our conduct. Much of what we collectively consider tragedy in our history was carried out legally, like slavery, for example. Much of what we consider heroic was illegal, like helping slaves escape their plantations. At the same time, laws can change quickly and drastically as we’ve learned in the first few weeks of a Donald Trump presidency. Those who have opposed Trump on the basis of his “illegal” or “unconstitutional” behavior will have to come to terms with the fact that he will accomplish his deportations, his bans, his strengthening of white supremacist elements, and weakening of marginalized communities through primarily legal means, and with the infrastructure built by Obama. ICE and drone technology were drastically expanded under Obama’s eight years, for instance. Perhaps those who unconditionally supported Obama will only now be worried that he was able to remotely kill a U.S. citizen (Anwar al-Awlaki) without a trial using a drone. The over-reliance on legal discourse betrays a faith in a system of law that has been used to justify murder, genocide, slavery, and imperialism. Those who have managed to escape being affected by these processes will now have to decide whether law is more important than defending their neighbors, their friends, or themselves. Who among them would be willing to hide a refugee whose return home could mean death? Who would lie to the police who come to take them away? Who would fight the police? It may be the case that by not participating in illegal behavior, those who demand we follow the law are condemning everyone else to misery or death.

But when people antagonize the police, it puts everyone in danger.

We can’t help but think that people who say this haven’t had much experience dealing with the police. The actions of the police in Standing Rock provide a good example. The anti-DAPL protests have been largely within the tradition of nonviolent civil disobedience and yet the resisters there have been brutally attacked with pepper spray, rubber bullets, concussion grenades, tear gas and batons. They’ve been encircled by drones, investigated by police, and tracked on social media. Clearly, the police weren’t waiting for so-called “violence” to erupt before attacking. On the other hand, the demonstrators at UC Berkeley who shut down Milo’s speech threw barricades, used mace against white supremacists, shot fireworks and threw stones at the police and the building where Milo was speaking, and lit fires in the street. The police response was to hide in the building and then stay to defend campus as the crowd was able to march largely unaccompanied by police for hours. What these examples highlight is not the superiority of one tactic or kind of tactic over another, but rather the importance of understanding the particulars of each situation, the goals, and what it makes sense to do. If you are truly worried about police violence, in a situation where the police have relatively few numbers, running towards them to make them flee is a greater guarantee of preventing police violence than sitting down and waiting for them to amass their weapons. Those who most often make the above claim are ideological pacifists, who push the doctrine of civil disobedience in every scenario, even when it is strategically dangerous; protest organizers and their marshals who have a vested interest in keeping their grant money and being allowed to obtain more permits; and the police themselves, who obviously don’t want to be strategically out-maneuvered. 

Trump will divide America.

Such a belief presupposes the idea that we were ever united. The truth is: we aren’t some big happy family being threatened by a tyrant, nor were we in the past. Some Americans’ ancestors were slave-owners, while others were slaves. Some Americans’ ancestors put natives in camps, while others killed Europeans. Some Americans’ parents or grandparents were arrested and jailed for having drugs, while others got rich off of free prison labor. Some Americans laughed at Obama’s jokes and cried when he got a Nobel peace prize, others lost siblings and fled from his bombing campaigns to a country that still largely despises them. There are no “Americans.” There are those with power, and those without it. The slogan “Trump will divide America” is born from the same well-intended historical ignorance as “we are all immigrants.” Native Americans were not immigrants, they were the victims of genocide and social cleansing. Africans were not immigrants, they were kidnapped and enslaved. Even many Irish and Europeans were hardly immigrants, but were trapped into indefinite involuntary servitude contracts. The only victors of a “united America” would be white, wealthy Americans in an ethno-state with colonial subjects. America was never great. More than that, America has never been anything except a parade of servitude and death, and the persistent image of American unity that always accompanies it.

*This content of this text was originally intended for the “Protest Marshal” piece published here, but these parts didn’t really fit. I decided to fill them out and release them as a separate text. Consider it an addendum or a companion to the “marshal” piece.

A Field Guide to Protests: The Protest Marshal

I. The protest marshal wears a neon vest and has a walkie-talkie.
The protest marshal sets themself apart in the protest by wearing a high-visibility vest, making their position look like one of expertise and authority. The intention to be seen is paradoxical: even though they stand out visually, the generic safety vest makes them also look like the invisible worker of any urban environment. The walkie-talkie communicates to the crowd that they are included in a secret loop of information, setting them at a professional distance from the protesters. It appears like they are protesting with you but they are instructed to keep their distance. The protest marshal relies on symbolic markers of legitimacy to aid in the control of the protest.

II. The protest marshal is in constant contact with the organizer.
The protest marshal assumes the position of a protest ‘expert’, whose authority is not supposed to be challenged. The authority of the police can be called into question when it is obvious to everyone that they are acting ‘unjustly’—e.g., when the police tear gas a bunch of ‘peaceful protesters’. The authority of the protest marshal, however, with their aura of activist expertise, is not so obviously repressive. They want protesters to see them as helpful, legitimate, knowledgeable; as experts in dealing with the police and in protest ‘safety’. They use this perceived position to control the protest and maintain the same order that the police keep with their tear gas and guns. The control that the protest marshal wields over the protest stems from the perception that they are a leader of the group, or at least ‘one of us’.

III. The protest marshal wants you to express yourself.
The protest marshal thinks it’s your right to carry the craziest sign, chant the loudest chants, and take the most revolutionary selfies, as long as you follow the unspoken rules of obedience and only express yourself symbolically. The protest marshal has already determined for you how best to demonstrate without causing too much disruption. The protest marshal helps guarantee that expressions of rage have no direct effect on anything and that demonstrations remain non-events. Rather than acknowledging the differences that bring people into the streets and respecting the actions people might choose, they only see the enforced, empty unity espoused by the controlling organizations. Any action that might threaten the actual powers you are demonstrating against will attract the attention of the protest marshal, who is there to step in and stop anything that doesn’t abide by their rules. The protest marshal turns the protest into a parade, a perfect selfie opportunity, in which nothing actually happens.

IV. The protest marshal is trained in the art of managing crowds.
The protest marshal exists on the margins of the protest. They move in formation, encircling the crowd, cutting through groups and forming a line between protesters and the police. This modification of the crowd’s spatial form is effective because it doesn’t appear as control at all. The protest marshal appears as a perfectly objective observer, refraining from chanting or carrying signs, simply moving people along the pre-established route. They undergo professional training given by non-profit organizations and are sometimes directly taught by the police. They’re shown the basics of crowd management, risk assessment, and how to profile and single out anyone deemed ‘undesirable’ or ‘uncontrollable’. The protest marshal subtly conducts the protest to ensure an event that is easily manageable and doesn’t threaten to break out of the limits set by the ‘professional’ activists and police.

V. The protest marshal defends oppressed people from the police.
The protest marshal believes they ‘protect’ protesters from the police while they actually assist in carrying out police operations. Like the police, they see themselves as the guarantor of everyone’s safety, but the ‘safety’ they intend to maintain is seldom defined. How safe is it when the normal order of things produces unsafe and unlivable conditions for most people? Deportations, police murder, and ecological destruction are not exceptional occurrences, they are part of the normal operation of modern society. Open businesses, open roads, and a smooth functioning city all facilitate these operations and help make them possible. By prioritizing the normal functioning of the city, the protest marshal ensures that the protest will not actually disrupt the conditions of a society where black life doesn’t matter. Whatever the intentions and personal identity of the protest marshal, they hold a structural position aligned with the police, which can only fortify white supremacy.

VI. The protest marshal allows the police to be virtually invisible at demonstrations.
The protest marshal helps ensure that the police keep a good image. It looks bad when the police are beating (white) people with batons and deploying their arsenal of weapons, so the protest marshal is there to improve police-public relations. The protest marshal, exhibiting their authority, assures everyone that they ‘know’ the police will react only if ‘provoked’ by certain disruptive actions. Whether the protest marshal is explicitly working with the police (like negotiating with them about getting a crowd off a highway) or imagining themself as protecting protesters from the police (by controlling and subduing the crowd), the protest marshal does the work of police so that the police can recede into the background. The protest marshal is deputized to diffuse the power of the police, which has the duel function of blurring the line between citizen and cop and also expanding the reign of the police by creating a mobile, ‘community’-appointed surveillance unit.

VII. The protest marshal is against violence.
The protest marshal is determined to ‘keep the peace’ and promote ‘non-violence’ at events. They assert that ‘violence’ is antithetical to their ‘non-violence’. In doing so, they neglect the reality that the ‘peace’ they are defending is merely the well-ordered violence of those who’ve won—i.e., the violence of the state, going back to Columbus and European slave traders, through rape culture, and carrying on today. This violence is so normalized that it has ceased to register as violence, since it goes into remission once established and only emerges to maintain the status quo. The protest marshal’s insistence on ‘non-violence’ is a grotesque proposition when people’s lives are threatened everyday. They’re willing to betray anyone who would use any means to defend themselves against a world that makes life more and more unlivable. The protest marshal believes that ‘violence’ and ‘non-violence’ are poles on a spectrum, when this spectrum is really only a tool of control to allow for some actions while condemning others that challenge the normal operation of power.

VIII. The protest marshal believes we must respect the free speech of everyone.
The protest marshal advertises tolerance and says we must treat all speech as equal. They believe in protecting everyone’s ‘right’ to ‘free speech’ and think speech is something neutral. In prioritizing ‘free speech’ as a concept above its content, the protest marshal fails to understand that speech comes from a position oriented to history and does not exist in a vacuum of neutrality. Speech from white supremacists perpetuates white supremacy. Despite explicitly advocating for ‘free speech’, the protest marshal implicitly knows that speech is not neutral since they themselves censor speech that is deemed too ‘hostile’. They smile when the crowd chants the harmless love trumps hate but scold those yelling fuck the police‘, insisting on respect because they know where chants like that might lead. The protest marshal speaks as though speech exists in a vacuum but acts in accordance with the reality that speech exists in a war.

IX. The protest marshal is there to prevent outside agitators from hijacking the protest.
The protest marshal propagates the myth that anyone acting according to their own volition (i.e., against the orders of the protest marshal) must be an ‘outside agitator’, there only to hijack the ‘peaceful’ protest and ruin the validity of the message. According to the protest marshal, only tactics imagined to be legal or for ends within the law can be used, even if the means are in fact illegal. They are willing to go to some lengths (such as blocking highways, while deluding themselves that this is legal) but anything past an arbitrary limit is considered ‘harmful’ to the cause since autonomous action eludes the control of the protest marshal. ‘Trouble makers’ who would use any means necessary to oppose oppression are castigated as ‘outsiders’ regardless of what neighborhood they live in. The protest marshal fails to understand that there is no ‘outside’ to police brutality, capitalism, or white supremacy.

X. The protest marshal’s role can be fulfilled by anyone at the event.
The protest marshal exists at every protest, even without the neon vest. No one ever just is a protest marshalthey become one through their actions. People don’t need to undergo specialized training to become a protest marshalall it takes to become one is to reinforce the familiar and normal functioning of things. The protest marshal is anyone who draws upon morality (‘property destruction is wrong’) or perceived privilege (‘you’re only do that cuz you’re [white] [a man] [able-bodied]’) to stop people from doing things. The attempts people make to be ‘helpful’ at events are generally done through actions intended to control and manage, rather than actions that would encourage the fight against those forces destroying our liveslike supporting queers to bash their bashers. Commands such as ‘calm down’ or ‘don’t do that’ only aim to suppress another person’s agency and reflect a fear of genuine expression. Anyone who tries to manage and control the protest becomes a protest marshal.