Mental Illness in Electronic Literature Tropes

This commentary was originally posted on October 30, 2017, to the Electronic Literature class blog for Digital Studies 220 at Davidson College

The political philosopher Hannah Arendt once stated, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” In fact, she did more than state it. Arendt is most popular for her controversial book, The Banality of Evil, in which she makes the bold claim that evil is not in fact perpetrated by evil individuals, but instead the product of all uncritical individuals not questioning the evils of the systems they are complicit within. (It is also worth noting, she lived as a Jewish woman and Holocaust escapee in the United States. Her writing of this concept becomes most controversial due to its heavily implied suggestion that the cultural leaders of Jewish society at the time were at least partially responsible for the mass genocide committed against their people by their degree of compliance with their oppressors.)

In puzzling over the four categories of dysfunctionality in digital art, I’m most interested in the idea of the experimental dysfunctionality, which Dr. Sample describes in his summary as the idea that the dysfunction is in fact groundwork for a new type of functionality altogether. This seems to fit neatly into a genre of disability studies which argues that society frames what is considered disability by deciding what counts as functioning appropriately, or normally, and holding all else to that standard. In terms of the washing machine, the washing machine is dysfunctional because it cannot perform its function in the forest, on its side, unconnected to the electric grid. The experimentally dysfunctional perhaps then draws parallel to the Arendtian conclusion that it is not the individual that is dysfunctional (or evil, in moral terms) as much as the standard and system behind what is considered functional and normal which needs to change. Glitch art, for example, seems to speak to folks with mental illness across the spectrum because it shouts out a problem, an incongruence, a dysfunction that sits in contrast to what is expected, in an incredibly relatable way.

This contrasts to the, perhaps, alienating feeling produced from a few of the other themes and tropes we’ve discussed. To illustrate, much of our class discussion (and the larger internet discussion outside of the classroom) of Her Story focused on the possibility that either there was an evil twin sister involved, or the main character was just mentally ill. The mental illness we refer to loosely in this situation is known as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), though its name has changed several times with the new editions of the DSM. To what degree does the genre of the gothic and the theme of the uncanny require and depend on this trope of the double as the dissociative, as the mentally ill? I would hope not so much at all. However, even popular representations outside of this course — for example, M. Night Shyamalan’s recent film Split mirror such a depiction of individuals with DID as violent, as threats to society, as the type of unreliable narrator whose autonomy should be consistently undermined in favor of the larger societal welfare. Surely, most of the harm of this trope comes from the viewer’s internalization of the trope as generalizable to the larger population of real (non-fictional) characters living with mental illness, and yet, we still choose to typecast the individual as the dysfunctional villain in most popular representations of mental illness to date.

I feel that we should be cognizant of this problem in our discussions – we should bring it to the forefront – and problematize it – and we should just consider for a moment how people living with this disorder, or others, feel the impacts of being placed into the aggressively pro-social or anti-social serial killer box upon our first encounters. As a person who is regularly diagnosed as having varying forms of mood disorders, I can speak to the experience of being quickly condensed into the good mentally ill (the one that won’t off themselves in front of you, the one that can still have a conversation and perform the part, the closed doors only mentally ill) or the bad mentally ill (stay away from these folks, potentially violent, emotional drain, not worth your time).* Neither one of those boxes feels good. It’s something to work on, and our understanding of those who suffer and those who are not normal as inherently violent and dangerous is perhaps a good place to start our work.

*I am borrowing this framework from a great article by Sam Dylan Finch, available here.

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