Madness and American Civilization

(Panel)


American / Cultural Studies and Media Studies

Korine Powers (Boston University)

The American literary canon—and American popular culture more broadly—is peopled by the mad, from Edgar Allan Poe’s unreliable narrators in “Berenice” (1835) and “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843) to more contemporary iterations like Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000) and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (2012). In his preface to Madness and Civilization, Foucault claims that “madness fascinates because it is knowledge” (32), and America’s mad characters often have a great deal to teach us. Sometimes these mad characters reflect American sensibility (or insensibility) on race, as we see in Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno (1855) and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952). In Robert Bloch’s Psycho (1959), Norman Bates comments on the violent constraints of masculinity, and Patrick Bateman finds “No Exit” from 1980s consumerism in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991). Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1899) and Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) discuss the intersection of gender and institutional healthcare. Indeed, some mad narratives have permeated popular language; Catch-22 (1961), and Gaslight (1944) have become shorthand for discussing difficult situations and relationships. Mad narratives’ “lessons” blur into the everyday.

This panel will explore the power of “madness” within American culture. It will consider questions such as: What does “madness” look like across different genres, time periods, locations, and bodies? How does “madness” transform between novels, films, comic books, podcasts, and/or video games? How has our understanding of “madness” (and mental illness) changed in American culture? What is the relationship between “mad” as disability and “mad” as emotion? Are there versions of madness that are especially American, and might “madness” be a condition of American identity and culture? How do narratives about madness reflect or subvert assumptions/expectations about identity, power, and belonging?

American popular culture is peopled by the mad, from unreliable narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843) to more contemporary iterations like Gone Girl (2012). In Madness and Civilization, Foucault claims that “madness fascinates because it is knowledge,” and America’s mad characters often have a great deal to teach us. This panel will explore the power of “madness” within American culture. It will consider questions such as: Has “madness” become a condition of American identity? What does “madness” look like across different genres and bodies? How do narratives about madness reflect or subvert assumptions about identity, power, and belonging?