Hans Skott-Myhre is a Professor of Human Services at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Georgia. Over the last 50 years, he has worked within a wide variety of human service settings, including residential homes, community health centers, inpatient psychiatric units, homeless youth shelters, transitional living programs, and prisons. About two decades ago, he transitioned into academia, where he now does research at the intersections of human services, psychology, cultural theory, and literature.
His recently published book titled “Post-Capitalist Subjectivity in Literature and Anti-Psychiatry: Reconceptualizing the Self Beyond Capitalism” explored how we might be different types of people if we didn’t live in a capitalist society. The book draws on Marxist and post-Marxist theory and presents a nuanced analysis of antipsychiatrists’ professional writings, including Franco Basaglia and R. D. Laing, as well as the work of fiction writers, including Franz Kafka and Gabriel García Márquez. Through this analysis, Skott-Myhre identifies alternative conceptualizations of self and community that take us beyond capitalist subjectivity.
The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the audio of the interview here.
Tim Beck: To get started, I want to acknowledge what a rich and diverse collection of experiences you’ve had over your life. I imagine this must be a continual source of inspiration in the research that you do. So can you unpack this history a little bit for us and explain how it is that you found your way into academia after working in all these different contexts?
Hans Skott-Myhre: It’s always, as with the book, an interesting process to think through a certain kind of lineage, a certain kind of trajectory, to see where your attention is drawn in different contexts.
In 1971, when I was still in high school, I volunteered at a place called (and this will tell you how long ago it was) Fircrest Mental Retardation Center. So that language in and of itself is extremely interesting. I spent a year there volunteering, working with young people who had difficulty physically moving about and had difficulty with being able to speak in conventional kinds of ways. We were certainly available for relational care, building relationships that go beyond the normal parameters of the way we normally interact physically and verbally.
Even though I was very young, I learned something very important that stayed with me for the rest of my career. The lesson was that a great deal could be learned in the spaces that are created relationally between people that are not necessarily reliant upon conventional ways of seeing bodies, interacting with bodies, verbally conveying information. The most important things are not, in fact, things that we can consciously pay attention to.
A considerable amount of the most important work that we can do with one another takes place at levels that are, to some degree, ineffable and very, very difficult for us to get to in conventional ways of being physical and conventional ways of being verbal and in conventional ways of thinking. That was in 1971, and then I stepped out of that world and went and got a degree in literature.
When I stepped out of that, I stepped into a world of doing street poetry. I was involved with the Dogtown Poetry Theatre group in Seattle, which later became pretty well known. Jesse Bernstein is a punk poet who became pretty well known out of that group, among other people. I was not one of the people who became well known out of that group. But I did street poetry.
In any case, then I went to Alaska and worked on some fishing boats in the canneries, and so I had a lot of money because back then, you could work in the unions and have a ton of money. So I had a bunch of money stashed away, and I thought, well, I’ll just use this money, and I’ll go do some good in the world. As it turned out, there was a mental health center that had just opened up the street in the rather impoverished neighborhood where I lived. It was one of the very first sites for deinstitutionalization.
I showed up with my degree in comparative literature, never having taken a psychology course or anything related to working with people. But I had experiences, of course, in the late 60s, with various forms of psychotic process, chemically induced and otherwise. I felt like I could maybe relate to folks who were having some difficulties in the interface between society and how they were neurologically organized. So I showed up, and they hired me.
I decided pretty quickly that the issue was one of being able to be bicultural. So I started talking with folks about, well, how do you manage to sustain who you are? What’s important to you? What you’re thinking about? What’s bothering you? How are you managing the world without getting tossed into the hospital again? So that became the focus of my work. I wasn’t particularly interested in having them be much different than they were, other than being able to be bilingual, as Carl Whitaker, the great family therapist, used to say, “that schizophrenia is a disease of pathological integrity, you just don’t know how to lie as well as the rest of us.”
I took that to heart and really tried to work with folks in terms of how do you manage society in such a way as they don’t continue to incarcerate you? Simultaneously working as an advocate with the system to try to work with psychiatrists to lower dosages of medications and, if possible, take people off them because they seem pretty nasty. Haldol was around at that time, and it’s a nasty, nasty drug.
It was very interesting working in an institution where they didn’t really know what they were doing. So we got to do some pretty interesting stuff. Because they didn’t have any real money to pay us, they decided to make that up with training.
They brought in Salvador Minuchin, the family therapist out of Philadelphia, and they brought in the Mental Research Institute guys who were doing brief therapy and Ericksonian hypnotherapy. They brought in Virginia Satir. And they brought in Frank Farrelly, who used to do something called Provocative Therapy in the asylums in Wisconsin. All of these folks who were doing these, at the time, fringey things.
I like to say that I was never properly trained because I was never trained in the mainstream psychiatric discourses about working with people who were experiencing themselves at odds with the general society regarding how they process things or express themselves.
But when I finished that, I decided I wanted to dig deeper into some of the cybernetics research and some of the stuff coming out of Ericksonian hypnotherapy. So I sold my house, took that money, went to California, and did an internship at the Mental Research Institute with John Weakland.
John was my mentor for a decade or more, but I spent intensive time there for a couple of months and then picked up a gig in San Francisco, working at Schrader House, an alternative to the hospitalization program.
I was very happy at Schrader House; I was not happy in the inpatient unit. Then, finally, I really had to resign because they were about to fire me for—what was a serious ethical lapse in one sense and an ethical statement in another—messing with the charting of a patient who was about to get an electric shock. In hopes of diverting him from getting electroshock, I went into the chart and changed some things around. They found out, of course, and he did get electroshock, which I thought was really sad because I don’t think that was what was necessary for him. But I was a low man in the system, so they didn’t take me very seriously. So I moved on from there after having a tussle with them about that.
After that, I spent a number of years working in the foster care system. Then, from there, I ended up working in Runaway and Homeless Youth Services, where I spent the bulk of my career. That was what I did for the last 10-12 years of my work in the field.
I never did any of this on purpose. It wasn’t as though I said, “I want to work in mental health,” or, “I think I want to work with this population of people,” or “I want to become an expert in these theories.” Instead, things appeared and became opportunities and looked interesting.
I pretty much went from one thing to the other, based on what looked interesting. There was very little intentionality about it. Almost all of it was accidental, stumbling across things that looked like, “Wow, that looks like it could be an interesting thing to do.” That was my career. I mean, there’s much more I can say about that. But I’ll stop there.
Tim Beck: All of these were themes that stood out when I was reading your book. One is the importance of language in how we talk about ourselves and how we talk about our work. Two, the idea that there’s something about relationships with other people that can’t always be put into words, but that’s still important to acknowledge and pay attention to. As you talk about in your book, there is a sort of indeterminacy when people get together, and they start living together and working together. Things start to open up.
Could you talk a little bit about the academic research that you do? Do you consider yourself part of any particular academic discipline, or do you have a particular way of talking about the research that you do? If you do, why? If not, why might you avoid putting yourself in a box?
Hans Skott-Myhre: Okay, so I got into academia when I ran out of the belief that what I was doing with young people made any sense. Looking around at the work that was being done with young people, it struck me that the basic fundamental concepts being applied were simply inadequate, and in many cases, just damaging.
When I got to the end of my last job, I just said, “okay, I can’t do this. I need to walk off here.” I threw myself into a space where I was literally a single father with a teenage son at home, throwing boxes into airplanes for UPS, and playing with a rock band at night to make the rent and trying to figure out where do I go from here. After spending 25 years working in the field, I knew that that was no longer a possibility.
I’d been doing some adjunct teaching as a community faculty member at the University of Minnesota. So I decided to go back and get a Ph.D. and be a professor. I went to the MSW program where I’d been teaching and to the guy who was my mentor there and shared that with him. He said, “here’s the problem, you teach really radical stuff in these classes, and I’ve been hiding that from the rest of the faculty. I think that if you came in as a student, they would never let you graduate. But there’s this other program over here, just down the road, and I have some friends over there who don’t really know what they’re doing. I think you could do what you needed to do with these radical ideas of yours, and they wouldn’t bother you too much, and you can get a Ph.D. without anyone really messing with you.”
I went over there and did my first dissertation on skinheads and punks and used subcultures as a creative force, trying to think through some of these ideas about working with young people. Specifically, if we were to teach about working with young people, what would we teach? In that process, I discovered that the department I was in really didn’t have any theoretical apparatus other than phenomenology, which certainly is a strong one, but not the one I needed. I wanted to think about skinheads being post-colonial in terms of being remnants of working-class culture. In terms of not being racist, which they’re actually not, the majority certainly are not.
My investments in academia, much like my investments in the field, are rooted in contingency—that is to say, the reason I wrote about skinheads and punks was that my son was a skinhead and then punk. When I wrote that dissertation, I had to go through the whole ethics board to get permission to work with my son and his friends because you’re not supposed to do that.
I was able to do that interview with them and to work with them because I knew them; they were in the house, they were staying overnight, they were hanging out, they run away from home, all that kind of stuff, and so I went to the clubs with them, and would go on the street with them and be in that life for a minute.
I got into writing this book that we’re talking about because I simply didn’t have the theoretical apparatus to be able to write the first book. But once I had the theoretical apparatus, I needed to go back and pick up some pieces I had left behind. But, unfortunately, I had left literature behind some 20 years earlier.
I wanted to go back and pick up that piece and bring in some of the authors that I’d been interested in at that time that I didn’t get to finish thinking about. I wanted to pick up the work that I’d done in the field very early on in day treatment and at Schrader House and think about anti-psychiatry and what implications that might have. In a way, it’s a certain kind of picking up leftovers of little bits and pieces that weren’t finished.
When I presented my dissertation defense for the second dissertation, one of my committee members said, “well, you are now officially disciplinarily unrecognizable,” and that’s been true.
I mean, I have taught in humanities, I’ve taught philosophy, I’ve taught psychology, I’ve taught social work, I’ve taught human services, I’ve taught family therapy, I’ve taught child and youth care, I’ve taught child and youth studies, I’ve taught popular culture. I don’t have a degree in any of those things. Maybe humanities roughly. I do have a master’s in Educational Psychology, but I’m not a psychologist. I’m not a social worker. I don’t have a degree in human services. I’m certainly not a philosopher by any stretch of the imagination. I would never claim to be a philosopher.
I’m not disciplinarily affiliated in any serious way. I work across. The term transdisciplinary is popular now. It wasn’t in existence when I started working this way. But I guess I would say that I’m transdisciplinary.
Tim Beck: Can you say a little bit about how you understand the anti-psychiatry movement? If you had to draw some historical or conceptual boundaries around it, where would you mark them, and why would you put them there?
Hans Skott-Myhre: Well, for me, there are a couple of things to think about there. The most useful way to think of it is not to try to mark it or delineate it or frame it because I think what anti-psychiatry did was open some things up. We look at anti-psychiatry as a project in terms of production, “did it produce certain things?” “did it do certain things?” Well, yes, it did, without a doubt, but that’s not the most interesting thing about it.
Basaglia had all the asylums shut down in Italy and got the law passed, and it was just remarkable. Laing did some rather astonishing things in London. Guattari and his compadres down there in southern France did some very interesting things, as you have written about. They all did stuff we could talk about as products. Then, of course, they all failed; every last one of them—rather spectacularly in some instances.
There were lots of arguments among them. Guattari thought Laing was a familialist. Guattari himself has been accused of being pre-traditional psychiatric in terms of his interventions and his sort of militaristic running of La Borde. Of course, Basaglia was extremely depressed about what happened to his project at the end of the day. He thought that the very centers that I worked in, the day treatment centers, were just re-asyluming the things on the outside. They got rid of the walls, but they kept the asylum, and, of course, they were all pretty discouraged by the intervention of psychiatric medications at the time.
If we think about anti-psychiatry in those ways, they were abject failures. I mean, they didn’t, in fact, anti-psychiatry at all. There was a brief moment, a window, where some interesting things happened, and then—like the rest of the revolutions of the 60s and early 70s—there was an abject failure.
For me, that’s not the most interesting way to talk about it, though. Except in the sense, as Antonio Negri says, that sometimes the most interesting revolutionary projects are those that fail because they have so much unexpended possibility.
It’s not particularly useful to think about whether antipsychiatry was a good thing or a bad thing—critique is so easy. I don’t like doing critique, and I’m not particularly happy when I fall into it. Like most people’s critique, it comes out of my own little resentments or bitterness about things, so I want to whack at something, and so I critique it, but I don’t think it’s particularly useful.
I think what’s more useful is to think about residues, what’s leftover. What can we garner from these movements that weren’t finished, and how can we carry them forward?
I think we can see that in our contemporary scene and in the project you’re involved in here—people picking up bits and pieces and then moving them into the 21st century. In this context, we are beginning to see what openings are there now that there weren’t then.
Psychiatry is failing, and it’s trying desperately to recoup, but there are cracks, fissures, and places to sneak in and do more interesting things again. I think that’s the legacy for me. Like all revolutionary movements, the legacy is not whether they succeeded or failed but what did they point to, what did they say for us.
You might want to look at that, or we didn’t get that done, or this could be more interesting. Of course, it has to be reframed in the contemporary vernacular. It has to be reframed within global post-modern capitalism. Some people say because it’s in full bloom, it’s coming to its zenith, which means it’s getting ready to fall apart. Other people are saying maybe not so much. What is interesting about such moments is that it is precisely at the moment where a system is at its full extension that there are more opportunities for other things to happen because the system can’t monitor all of what it has produced.
There are huge spaces of unmonitored thinking, and they are trying desperately to monitor all, and, to some degree, they’re doing a good job, but they can’t capture the most interesting stuff. They can’t capture relational work; they can’t capture shifts in subjectivity; they can’t capture the things happening underground. They can only capture the most obvious sorts of stuff, and they can only control our neurology in the most obvious kinds of ways.
The struggle for liberation under systems of really pernicious oppression is life-affirming in and of itself. You don’t have to get to the end of it for it to be life-affirming. The mistake people make with burnout is that they burn out because they’re constantly expecting it to get better. They don’t understand that what’s getting better is your ability to affirm your life, affirm your living self, affirm your relationships, love, and care.
Even when it seems to be just spinning your wheels, it’s not. It’s actually creating small spaces where really great things are happening. We typically want these big-picture things because that’s what the system teaches us. But what’s really stunning is creating these small spaces where really cool stuff is happening for whatever duration.
Tim Beck: This book is largely based on your dissertation, so much of it was written decades ago. But as I was reading it, so much of it seemed relevant to what is going on today. We live in a time in history where these major world powers, including China and America, are openly detaining large numbers of innocent people based on criteria ranging from ethnic and religious backgrounds to immigration status.
It makes so much sense to me why it’s useful to compare these forms of physical containment with the mechanisms underpinning the traditional psychiatric asylum. It seems like so much of why people end up there is completely outside of their control, similar to how the asylums work.
Can you define what you mean in your book by the logic of the asylum? Why was that so important for you then, and why do you see its relationship to capitalism as so important now?
Hans Skott-Myhre: I think that one of the things that I talked about in the book is the metastasizing of the asylum. If we use the metaphor of cancer, a rather contained tumor, for example, that contains things, when it metastasizes, it spreads throughout the entire system and is no longer contained as a tumor. It’s not to say that the people contained inside the asylum are cancerous, but the other way around.
In fact, if we think of capitalism as a virus, one of the things that capitalism does is that it invades the society’s cellular structure and reconfigures its social DNA so that it replicates itself in the same way that a virus does. Then it gradually spreads itself throughout the system. Initially, for that to happen, there needs to be an initial spot of containment where the body is entered and the disease is centered.
Deleuze and Guattari use the term vacuole, and they use it in an affirmative sense. They talk about vacuoles of non-communication because the vacuole is a cell within a disease structure that actually sustains its health and then gradually spreads itself through the system through antibodies.
Capitalism is an asylum in several respects. First, the asylum was a space to contain misery, poverty, neurological difference, sadness, rage. It was a space to take people who express these things in disturbing ways to the dominant society that wanted to put these folks in a space where they were removed. Initially, these were spaces of containment, but that was the modernist way of doing such things.
They were removed from society, but it wasn’t the bodies that were removed. Those bodies needed to be removed because they were the symptoms, the obvious symptoms of society. Certainly, one way to manage the appearance of a society is to remove those bodies that express difference and agony and misery.
Similarly, as we have opened the asylum, we just created spaces everywhere to do that. So we now use medications, for example, to do the same thing the asylum used to do: to create smooth spaces where people no longer express misery or depression.
We create programs through social media to give people the impression that they need to manage their misery, sadness, and anger so as not to be problematic to their work or their families. We manage people’s sense of difference by identifying them as diseased if they express emotions that indicate they’re unhappy with things.
Certainly, if people have ways of perceiving reality that are at odds with the message that capitalism wants to give of being a purely rational system, when in fact it’s an utterly psychotic system and utterly delusional, then certainly you don’t want bodies around that give the impression that it is delusional. People are manifesting the delusional. They’re picking up on an element and manifesting it through their neurology.
The asylum has been spread everywhere, but it does the same things. Capitalism is now the administrator of the global asylum. But it’s also an iatrogenic system, which is to say that it produces madness.
We do put them in psychiatric hospitals for brief periods of time. More and more, we put them in refugee camps; we put them in prisons, quite literally; in the United States, the prison industry is where we put a hell of a lot of people who express misery, anger, and sadness in ways that are unacceptable within the dominant society. They contravene the dominant narrative, which is that things can get better, you can always get better, you can always be happier, etc. You have bodies that contravene that message and say, no, you can’t; the system is not functional that way. You really can’t get happier.
I mean, if everyone’s depressed and everyone’s anxious, then how can that be an individual problem? There has to be a social problem, and it’s a social problem that capitalism can’t admit because it means it’s not doing what it claims to do, which is to provide a society with enough capital so that everyone can strive and do better and be happier and healthier, right?
Tim Beck: In your book, you mentioned Marx’s term, the lumpenproletariat, and you say that this is where he refers to people who are disabled or severely distressed or without a home. He really struggles to figure out how they fit within his model of the revolution. They don’t quite work because they’re not workers. They’re not the working class. It seems like you’re saying that this group fills this void within a system that he never really figures out what to do with it. But it also seems like you’re trying to reframe that group in a different way than Marx.
At the beginning of your book, you have this really great phrase, “who are we to become if we’re not this?” I like this idea of reframing that group, not necessarily in a more productive way, in the sense of producing something for capitalism, but in a way that creates some value for that group.
Can you elaborate a little bit on what role that plays for you in your thinking through a radical form of politics?
Hans Skott-Myhre: I think there’s, of course, a fine and dangerous line here that some would say that you are romanticizing the folks who are suffering and saying they’re the revolutionary vanguard, they’re the ones to lead us forward—isn’t that great? No, I’m not saying that. I am saying that they point to symptoms. They point to both possibilities: alternate neurology, alternate ways of thinking about things, alternate ways of managing emotion. There are lots of ways in which they point to something other than the conventional capitalist subject because, as I say in the book, they’re constitutively incapable of belonging.
I think being constitutively unable to belong to a system because of how you are configured physically, neurologically, emotionally, or psychically puts you in a unique position to offer something different. It also places you in a really dangerous, difficult position because you can’t fake it very well. The system doesn’t care for that very much because capitalism is built on faking it, right? I mean, that’s the name of the game. Fake it till you make it, quite literally.
The idea is that we should somehow pretend that we’re okay. We get on Facebook, and we present this profile that isn’t us at all, and then we try to carry that through in our work life and go to work and be somebody that we really aren’t at all. And you can’t collapse, you can’t fall apart, but of course, if you do, then we give you medications to prove that we can make you okay.
The majority of us are the proletariat because we all work in the intellectual labor market. We’re all producing all of the time through social media. We’re producing all the time through our consumption because capitalism has shifted its mode of production.
The lumpenproletariat is constitutively incapable of belonging. For some of those folks, that really leads to being severely marginalized in really dangerous ways that can be life-threatening, most certainly. But it also leads to groups of people who find refuge in certain institutions and society. Universities are full of people who are constitutively incapable of belonging, both students and professors. I think this is one of the reasons that they’re under such assault right now because they’re one of the last places where you can find refuge and be and create and think outside of the dominant logic.
Those spaces are a little bit more bourgeois; they’re a little safer places to be than for folks, for example, who are living on the streets or in the prisons, because they can’t constitutively belong. But those bodies also indicate something other, something else, something that we could be that is frustrated, that is made miserable. If you manage things differently with people, there are other possibilities and ways of being in the world that create alternative ways of thinking.
Tim Beck: I’m thinking about your use of literature. In particular, Kafka is coming to mind as you’re talking about this idea of having to fake it until you make it. To me, that is exactly what he had in mind with the concept of the law. It’s never made explicit, but you have to act as if you understand it just so that everyone else doesn’t scrutinize what you’re doing too closely. As soon as you start questioning it, that’s when everyone around you turns on you.
Why was Kafka such an important figure for you in that book, and how do you see that connecting to the relationship between capitalism and subjectivity?
Hans Skott-Myhre: Yeah, I mean, the book that I chose was Amerika, and I chose it very intentionally because the figure of Karl Rossmann in Amerika is entering America at the beginning of the American capitalist project. He’s entering that America right there at the beginning of industrialization and capitalization. All of the systems that he encounters are the beginnings of what we now see as 21st-century post-modern capital.
What’s interesting is, no matter how hard he tries, and he tries, and he tries, and he tries to fit in, and he tries to find his place here, and he tries to find his place there, and he tries to build relationships with these people and those people, he can’t. He simply is constitutively incapable. Even though he really wants to fit in, he really wants to be a good citizen, and he simply cannot. He fails time and time and time again until we get to the nature theater at the end.
Then this world opens so that he can enter into it, and it’s a very interesting political moment in Kafka—it’s ridiculously hopeful for a Kafka novel. But, at the same time, it has all these little dark edges around it. It’s utopic, but it’s not. It’s a struggle.
That’s Kafka, for me, for a couple of reasons. One is that to be a failure is very important. If one wants to be a revolutionary, one can’t be truly successful in the system in which one is embedded. There has to be some element of you that repeatedly fails within the system if you’re going to do anything interesting.
Failure is important because failure always has more residue. It doesn’t complete. You don’t get there because once you get there, you’re done. There’s not much more to do then. We can see this with so many people, particularly when they get to my age. They get older, and when they’re done, they’re unsure—now what do I do?
One of the ways I would characterize my life is that it’s been a series of profound failures throughout. As a result, it’s been way more interesting. I’ve never done what I wanted because I can never quite figure it out. I can never quite get there. I can never quite get into it. Now I guess I’m more successful, but certainly, the failures have been very interesting and pushed me in different directions, much like Karl in America.
Tim Beck: What about Laing’s critique of the traditional family structure do you see as relevant to Kafka and the law?
Hans Skott-Myhre: The law in Laing is the law of the unconscious acceptance of the family dictates. To a certain degree, he talks about how the family trance and the norms of family life—and I would say the norms of society, particularly post-modern capitalist society—put you to sleep. So you go through life in a dream that the family manufactures. We could think in much broader parameters about the constructions of the neurological and quite literally neurological interventions of post-modern capital.
The ways that they’re thinking about are intervening in our unconscious and our neurology. There’s a very much an induction process into a certain kind of trance where you’re not really fully awake; you’re just kind of going through, like a sleepwalker, in your own life.
Laing says that if you challenge that in the family and try to wake up, you’ll be severely punished. I think that’s also true within the dominant society as well. But there’s another way to think about hypnosis, and that’s through the work of Milton Erickson. Milton Erickson thinks about the unconscious as also having the capacity to be generative.
Our unconscious is full of pretty much everything we’ve ever experienced, and it has the capacity to combine those things in a myriad and interesting ways. But to do that, we don’t need to wake into our conscious minds. We need to wake into our true unconscious because, for us, in a sense, the unconscious is produced by capital. And certainly, in the way Laing was talking about it, the family is a faux unconscious; it’s not an actual unconscious.
Tim Beck: This makes me think of how you use Gabriel García Márquez at the end of the book, and I like this quote of his from 100 Years of Solitude that you use: he says, “The family is a turning wheel that would have gone on spilling into eternity.” How would it be possible to break free from this?
But I think now you’re starting to kind of point to that with this interest in a different type of trance. Fantasy and trance are often associated with what isn’t real, with fantasy, and it’s often pathologized when it’s experienced, especially outside of a clinical context, and it happens spontaneously. We tend to pathologize these other states of consciousness.
Is there something about the genre of magical realism in particular that you feel highlights this sort of consciousness, or this sort of trance unconscious, better than psychology? What might a post-capitalist subjectivity look like, and what is it about magical realism that gave you the tools to think through that in ways that you might not have been able to find in psychology or maybe another academic discipline?
Hans Skott-Myhre: I’m also interested to see what that would look like, I don’t know. In the book, I discuss this distinction between what happened to the unconscious in Europe and what didn’t happen in the Southern Hemisphere.
In Europe, we bifurcated when we got reason and rationality. We bifurcated and created an unconscious. We separated that aspect of unreason’s imagination, and we did a tremendous disservice to it. We treated it as not serious. Intuition is not serious, and fantasy is not serious, imagination is not serious, unreason is not serious except when it’s pathological. But we don’t take it seriously as a resource, and we dump it all into the unconscious, and then we give great preference to reason.
When the Europeans in the middle of the 20th century really got interested in trying to break the hold of reason because being strictly reasonable and rational had not led where people thought it would lead (e.g., to genocide and the atom bomb and all kinds of problems), to being too scientific, too reasonable, too rational.
You can see it with psychiatric medications, and you can see it with psychiatry in general. I think psychiatry is one of the few systems that has not responded to critique in any meaningful way. It’s still pretty much its own game, and it’s pretty much not interested in what other people have to tell it. It’s going to operate on its own terms. Psychology is a little bit more responsive in some sectors, but psychiatry is pretty much locked in as a colonial system. It’s going to colonize you if it gets the opportunity to.
But the creation of the unconscious meant that when you try to step away from reason and rationality, you can only do it through the creation of real dreams, the slippages of the unconscious into the conscious. So the surrealists start using dreams, but they have to make this transit between the conscious and the unconscious mind in European art, literature, and so forth.
Kafka makes this huge point of saying, “I don’t want you to think these things are metaphorical. These are not metaphors.” Gabriel García Márquez says, “These are not imaginative events. These are actual. I want you to see them as actual events.” Of course, Gabriel García Márquez has gone back and showed how a number of these things in the book and considered fantastical are actually things that really happened. But that’s not really the point.
The point is that there was no split between the unconscious and the conscious in the Southern Hemisphere. The peoples of Central and South America didn’t do the European split. So there was no unconscious, fantasy, unreason, magic, intuition. All these things are valorized alongside reason and rationality, so it becomes intersectional in the sense of these entanglements of reason, rationality, unreason, intuition.
The events in Gabriel García Márquez are blends of our consciousness as actual, which I think is far closer to how we are as subjects when we don’t bifurcate ourselves and then cause ourselves to have to wrestle with these transits between our perceptions. This is where Deleuze and Guattari talk about ethics as a transit. When you have a very powerful emotion, or you have a very powerful experience, it’s a transit, it’s a movement, it’s not what we tend to think of it as a state. It’s not a state; it’s a motion.
I think when you bifurcate your unconscious, then you get states, and you get distinctions. We have to raise our fantasies into reality and then analyze them psychoanalytically to understand them. Gilles Deleuze has a great critique of psychoanalysis insofar as it lays a preexisting template on your experiences and then tells you how you can understand it. You have to raise it out of the unconscious into reason, and then we can explain it and help you to come to understand it.
Gabriel García Márquez and Kafka say, no, absolutely not. The world is far more complicated and messy than that, and we’re creating a lack of reality when we claim to be emphasizing reality.
Tim Beck: I like that you said you’d like to see what the post-capitalist subjectivity would look like because it is something by its very nature that we can’t create a model for. We can’t figure it out before it exists because we live in capitalism.
As you say in the book, there is no outside to capitalism, at least not under these current conditions that we’re living in. We can’t just imagine this fantasy outside of our conditions. Still, there’s actually enough fantasy within our living conditions to keep us busy, and that’s maybe a more useful place to start.
Do you see any groups or social movements in today’s world that are picking up these threads and pushing back on the same type of mechanisms that anti-psychiatrists were pushing back on?
Hans Skott-Myhre: Absolutely. I mean, there are groups worldwide now working towards neurodiversity that are interested in challenging psychiatry, interested in alternative modes of accessing fantasy, unconscious, intuitive processes. I mean, there are so many.
Now, of course, capitalism is as quickly as it possibly can appropriating them, trying to turn them into capitalized systems where you can go and purchase them. You can go online and have a therapy interview with somebody who will help you with your neurodiversity.
As soon as these openings are created, capitalism is really good at appropriating them and capitalizing them. I think that people are starting to say no. This is one of the things I think post-modernism gave us. As a system as a whole, it was also a failure. But I think one of the residues that post-modernity has left for us is the idea that minority knowledges are meaningful and have value and can be asserted. One opening of the possibility of minoritarian knowledges being valuable has opened up a wealth of an infinitude of micro entanglements that make it impossible for capital to catch it all.
I think that this podcast, this movement, the journals, the hearing voices network, the folks who are doing the work all over the world. For example, in Japan, people are doing really interesting things based on the idea that we will no longer accept psychiatric colonization.
We’re going to decolonize psychiatry from a neurological point of view and physical point of view and begin to reclaim our minoritarian knowings about who we are and what we’re capable of. Decolonizing processes, indigenous reclamation of land, de-settling, and ontologizing ourselves as settlers against the ongoing colonial projects include psychiatry and psychology as colonial projects.
Yes, I think anti-psychiatry was in that historical moment when decolonization processes were in movement. But, like so many of them, they ended up having neocolonial structures at the end of the day. In other words, we get day treatment centers instead of asylums, therapists working in private practice with medications, and now general practitioners giving people medications. The colonial project becomes a neocolonial project. The aims structures are still in place. It’s just different modes of distribution of power.
But it opened up the possibility of the decolonization of psychiatry. One of the threads that have been picked up now is that we don’t have to accept the colonial force of psychiatry. We can create other things.
When people start experimenting with psychedelics, immediately capital comes along and says, oh, psychedelics, well, that’ll make you work brighter, smarter, you just microdose, and you feel better. You’ll be able to be a more productive capitalist subject. Big pharma is chomping at the bit to get hold of psilocybin as something they can market.
I think the whole possibility of psychedelics is not just remediating misery but actually opening up more possibilities for capacities for liberation and different relational structures. All of that is what capitalists don’t want. They’re really trying to set up neocolonial structures to manage the slippages.
One of the ways that we can be distracted in anti-psychiatry is to think about the main figures and critique them. You know, Laing had this problem, Basaglia had this problem, Guattari was depressed, and so forth and critique what Deleuze would call persona.
But that’s missing the point. It wasn’t them. It was the hundreds of thousands of people that took those possibilities of decolonization and began to play them out on the ground. Even though it looked like psychiatry was still winning for 20 years, when we hit the turn of the century, all of a sudden, they started erupting all over the place, and we’ve got them erupting all over the place right now.
Capitalism in psychiatry has to play catch up again, and when they do, we have to realize there will still be things going underground that will erupt somewhere else. It will surface somewhere else.
Tim Beck: Lately, I’ve come across a lot of different literature related to neurodiversity, with some critiquing it for just repurposing neoliberal identities (e.g., neurodivergent versus neurotypical) and creating this sort of binary between these two groups, whereas other members of the movement, who are working within that movement, are saying, no, that’s not what we mean at all. We’re not trying to create this essential identity that’s different than other people. We’re just pointing to the fact that the way we talk about our bodies matters, and then we can actually learn to relate to our bodies and each other differently by changing how we speak.
I want to give you the opportunity to talk about any work that you’re currently doing. Are there any projects you’re currently working on that you’d like to share some information about, or any new books on the horizon?
Hans Skott-Myhre: I am constantly scribbling things. We’ve been doing a lot of work recently on the idea of de-settling, which is looking at the subjective and ontological formation of settler subjects. I think that decolonization, the repatriation of the land, is constantly stalling as it bumps into really core subject formations in terms of settlers—things like the belief in private property.
We’re in the process of putting the book together where we’re trying to rethink ourselves as settler subjects. But we’re trying to do it differently from what some other folks in the decolonization, settler-colonial projects have done, which is to rely heavily on indigenous literature and thought, which we think is immensely valuable for decolonization.
I’m not sure that, as settlers, that is not just more of us taking advantage. So we’re really trying to go back to the European minor traditions in philosophy and thought and practice to try to undo ourselves from the inside out on our own terms. I think there are traditions in European thought that could do that—because, of course, Europeans were colonized as well.
We lost a lot of those fights in the 1400s to the 1600s. How might we think about ourselves in ways that would not have resulted in the colonial project? We’re in the process of working on that.
I’m continuing to work on psychological colonization. My partner, Kathy, and I just did an article or book chapter that will be out, I think, reasonably shortly. The idea is that if you’re going to be an ally to Black men who are struggling with mental health issues, then probably psychology is not a great framework for that sort of work. The recent apology from the APA just came forward about it being fundamentally racist.
If you’re not going to be a psychologist, and you’re going to be helpful to these folks, what does that mean? How attached are you to colonial identity? How important is it to you that you have this colonial identity? And if it is something you want to let go of, how do you go about doing that so that you can be a useful ally to people who are struggling with really broad contextual racism, disenfranchisement, marginalization, and concomitantly health issues?
MIA Reports are supported, in part, by a grant from the Open Society Foundations