The irrational in civil society

"... in attempting to set out a theory of sociality, what we need, at least at the beginning of our enterprise, is a poetics of relationships, a way of talking which leaves their precise nature open." - Shotter, Cultural politics of everyday life

Madness as a social relation

We address the social ground of rationality - or, what way it is that we understand the role of the irrational in civil society. Modern social science, in the spirit of Descartes, attempts to explain irrationality from first principles, in effect, to rationalize it starting from some canonical undefined terms. Since we can't expect to configure - and bury - all that is irrational within our models, even if they are unassailably logical models, we must make an accounting for the 'spill'. Strategies for accessing the irrational have included suppression, avoidance, simple neglect, toleration, isolation, privatization, and mysticism.

We should, however, invest ourselves responsibly in that access problem - for, after all, we have created it, in that it is us who have insisted that we explain civil society from first principles. This implies that we can re-think our urge to a science of society by reconsidering the way we conceptualize the social science question. And so, it is people who have created society, with whatever wisdom they could muster, whose lives have been forged in its creation, whose wisdom has been thus tutored. Making ourselves students of the wisdom deriving from such involvement, we may re-cast our objective as that of refining it, clarifying it, and embracing its natural texture and complexity.

In what sense should we say that the enlightened individual is one who is 'fully rational', who can completely 'manage' his/her irrationality? Numerous authors have shown how this is a fictive silhouette of the person, for whom social being really makes sense only in relation to diverse interactions and traditions. The rationalist model involves forcing a dialectic of first principles onto a fundamentally irrational situation, involves abstracting away (or, reducing) the complexity of social being. The alternative to such a head- strong rationality is to identify the 'clearing' around the usual modality that a person is involved with his/her being, to articulate anew his/her way of knowing in tandem with participating.

Indeed, the foregoing discussion announces the social awareness we should adopt for reason-influenced behavior, the thing we must do to perform the 'cultural politics of everyday life'. The role of the individual who would be wise - in the face of irrationality - calls for a strategy and tactics of personal behavior, calls for appropriate rationality. To perform such analysis anticipates identifying the 'carrying capacity' of the process of civil society, how much rational 'load' it can take and where it may break or transform itself. The issue of the effect of rationality is what kind of dialogue does folly entertain, what kind, in its extreme, madness provokes 1 whether we are looking at individual expression or social act.

Clinical madness and the chilling of invention

Of course, we are begging the question of 'mental illness', presently supposed to be the most complete rational account of dysfunctional being. Rather than fall back on the rational purity of an originary organic explanation for madness, we consider the role of social relations, biologically mediated like all life to be sure - as they are socially framed by the behavior of people and institutions. Today the conventional, 'psychiatric' approach to madness is to classify dysfunctions of individual-society relations, by such means as the Diagnostic and statistical manual (D.S.M.). The excessively irrational is then subjected to a process of rationality and managed by means of some technique, commonly applying duress and, to some extent, persuasion and example.

To a radical and catastrophic breakdown in the relations of individual and civil society corresponds an irrational situation that compels the modification of ongoing dialogue. A rational procedure of managing madness, in attempting to address this, rearranges the person's self and restructures his/her habits and everyday life to harmonize with that procedure. The individual must get in touch with not only his/her being but also activity in the world; the society must respond to the disturbance of customary discourses. This dialogue shift requires new topics and new argumentation, so that a discipline of rhetorical invention would have to be cultivated in order for persons and society to make themselves (Vico) anew.

One remedy that might be envisioned for such an intrinsic, structurally imposed conflict of rationality with being-in-touch would be a compromise procedure. We could plan to impose order on individual irrationality to satisfy psychiatry while simultaneously embracing the widest possible affordance for it. A diagnosis like "mystical experience with psychotic features," however, begs the question of the readjustments by society and by the individual that the change of rhetorical ground impels. The convenient feature of such an approach is that it avoids challenging directly the process of rationality itself, so that the D.S.M. framework remains operative and there is also a degree of tolerance for non-rational forms.

Then, too, we should consider the effect of policies of rational, systematic intervention on the fabric of social life itself, on the chilling of invention. For 'crazy' becomes an epithet, while the subjects of the rationalizing process find their everyday ways of being and knowing rendered different, their inventiveness marginalized or incapacitated. Even in the optimal case where each individual by him/herself is improved relative to before the madness episode, the net effect scrambles the dialogics of society. The social activity of the institution of psychiatry thus results in the production of irrationality at the social level, in a degrading of the social process.

Humanism challenges the authority of scholasticism

The shotgun wedding of the experience of 'humanistic' irrationality with its explanation by 'scholastic' psychiatric labeling, turns us to alienate that irrationality. Our knowing starts from the wonder at creativity which elicits a sympathetic feeling from the other senses, not from a philosophy where reason, where the syllogism reigns supreme. Starting from the contention that humanism is a philosophy of knowing, we question the application of rational process to determine the meaning of the madness event. While the attitude of rationality is that it 'disposes of' the irrational, humanism can argue back that there is a problematic of 'wonder' whose expression has been forcibly cut off.

Humanism in the Renaissance saw itself as a philosophy of human wisdom, based on the knowledges of being-in-touch, of justification, such as rhetoric, philology, jurisprudence, and history. But the technology of the print medium disconnected people from the oral traditions, producing a new rationality of the word. By the 16th century, it became commonplace that if a notion couldn't be reduced to a syllogism, it was of no account (Ramus). The discipline of rhetorical invention, which to the humanists was what made irrationality productive, reverted under this scheme to a unimportant exercise in designing syllogisms.

And the humanists were not invested in the Aristotelian or Platonic philosophies of their era, rather they were adversarial to them and posed an alternative philosophical system. They argued for an originary philosophical position of concrete communication, based on the relationship of the word (verbum) and thing (res). Valla (15th cent.) advanced the 'ontological difference', that the concept of beings inherent in the 'maze' (as he called the categorical system at the foundation of scholasticism) is contradictory to rhetoric, as the philosophy of communication of being. The detente between universal categories and tolerated irrationality is rendered unstable when the irrationality reflects a creative challenge to the rational procedure that manages madness itself.

The alternative policy to employing rationality as a tool for managing irrationality is to embrace folly, to make melodrama of the presentation of reason. This frenzy of dramatic investment exhibits the phenomenon of 'inauthentic being' - whose true irrationality is that hitherto unaware aspects of being, disconnected from our systematic understanding, will occasionally and unpredictably appear. A scaffolding of rationality lies over a structure of folly in a queasy environment - a rationality of social being advocated, for example, by Nietzsche by way of his notion of the 'over-man'. In tempering this approach, however, the supreme question becomes the nature of the 'clearing' in reality we find, as the qualities of individual beings do not sui generis delimit the nature of being; it becomes the meaning of facing the 'abyss'.

Madness and the individual

When we challenge the wisdom of policing the expression of irrationality by rational procedures, it seems we dare the floodgates of madness open. We fear that a license for behavior will produce not only chaos but destructive and regressive social conditions and, moreover, we know that it may do so. On the other hand, life is after all uncertain and, besides, a certain degree of rationality might be applied, short of systematizing it in procedures based on first principles. We will attempt to develop in the following discussion an outline perspective for the utility and relevance of eclectic rationality in the operations of everyday life.

Involvement in an uncertain social activity replete with irrationality recommends an understanding of knowing that is quite different than the rational procedures of observation (knowing that) and technique (knowing how). Knowing by being-in-touch (knowing from) uses instrumentation or prostheses for contact, consists in communicable descriptions of contact, and employs the mind to puzzle out from contact relatively invariant characteristics. To understand the experience of madness for an individual, we need to identify in the first place his/her way of being in touch, and its disturbance. And then, too, we need to understand how the social impact of his/her behavior inspires a response from (some aspect of) society, a response that feeds back on that disturbance.

The simplest kind of response by society to a disturbing or irrational condition is to do nothing in particular, except perhaps to attend to some nurturing needs. But what if the intensity of the disturbance becomes so pronounced that some people believe it is dangerous to the individual or to the society? As against applying a process of rationality to control the individual's irrationality, we pose the problematic of taking responsibility by getting involved in the irrationality. And as against applying a process of rationality to manage the society's irrationality, we pose the reverse problematic of not taking responsibility for conformity to that irrationality.

Holding to the spirit of 'knowing from', we attempt to describe some of the principal characteristics involved in appreciating and getting involved with the business of madness. In this capacity, social relations become disarrayed or disrupted, connected with, or leading to the danger of violence to the ways of being of the individual or society. The pressing need is to invent, to articulate new possibilities to working these ways of being, that is, for a discipline of rhetoric. To do this, we need a metaphor that is friendly to irrationality, that is sympathetic to involvement, like the Russian usage 'soul- suffering', to replace the metaphor of rationality, 'mental illness'.

The organization of folly