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
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