Our work on this project has been guided by three main areas of inquiry.
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For our purposes, the term “mad” derives from a growing movement of mental health consumers, survivors, and ex-patients who invoke madness as a positive descriptor, re-appropriating the slur to contest constructed concepts of in/sanity, ir/rationality, and dis/ability. This formulation challenges the biological determinism of psychiatric models, asserting that madness is a minoritarian political identity shaped, in part, by social environs.
As theatre studies scholar Anna Harpin notes, madness is often described through spatial metaphors: one goes mad. Harpin writes, “Firstly, there is the recurrent sense of journeying that attends madness. […] Secondly, the dominant notion of place renders ‘mad’ experience an inherently geographical encounter. Madness, then, is figured as a location, as site.” Building on Harpin’s definition, what, then, might we learn from mapping a journey through madness? Where might this journey take us? What geographies might we encounter, and how might these geographies shape our thinking?
In other words, rather than asking what is madness, might we instead ask: where is madness?
“The grocery store” may seem a strange response to this question, however, in the context of late capitalism, commercial spaces routinely commodify identity, using product packaging to condense abstract concepts into material shorthand. For mental health consumers, survivors, and ex-patients, these quotidian sites can be highly-charged, evoking feelings of isolation, empowerment, shame, kinship, and (dis)identification, among others. While psychiatric diagnoses are often framed as abstract ideas, when presented with products like “Manic Mellon Snapple Tea,” we are suddenly able to touch a concept and ask: What about the tea is manic? Or, conversely: What about the person experiencing mania is…tea? How do these ideas–person, food, psychiatric term–triangulate and animate each other? Walking through the grocery store, then, is no simple act. Here, we become students of each aisle, theorizing madness from the objects we encounter therein.
Accordingly, we can define the grocery store as an archive of material objects; a site for the collection, organization, and presentation of complex cultural ideologies.
If the grocery store is an archive, then it is certainly an intimate archive, a curated space designed to direct our desire towards objects we hope to consume. Our embodied responses to these objects–from watering mouths, to scrunched noses, to growling stomachs–form the contours of the relationships we inhabit with each. These imagined relationships constellate objects into what queer theorist Ann Cvetkovich terms an archive of feelings. Writing on gay and lesbian archives, Cvetkovich describes the archive of feelings as both, “material and immaterial, at once incorporating objects that might not ordinarily be considered archival and at the same time resisting documentation because sex and feelings are too personal or too ephemeral to leave records. For this reason and others, the archive of feelings lives not just in museums, libraries, and other institutions, but in more personal and intimate spaces.” To be clear, there are important differences between queer experiences and mad experiences, though they often collide. When applied here, Cvetkovich’s archive of feelings can help us notice how we are directed, sensuously, and to ask how these subtle choreographic acts impress upon us through the ordinary, the unremarkable, the everyday.
In keeping with Cvetkovich’s work, an interest in the grocery-store-as-archive-of-feelings does not privilege the objects therein; rather, it privileges the embodied affective memories (feelings, sensations) each object inspires within us, what Bill Bissel and Linda Caruso Haviland term our sentient archive. For example, when you encounter the Manic Mellon Snapple Tea, how does your body respond? Do you move towards it or away from it, from tea, from mania? Does your movement draw your thoughts inward or outward? Where might you end up–what times, places, memories, and/or histories might you inhabit–if you follow the movement of those thoughts? These movements map our personal and collective histories of madness, histories that are too often saturated with ableism.
And yet, as we engage objects within the grocery store, we can also use our artistry to creatively reauthor their discourse, manipulating physical objects to challenge “common sense” understandings of mental health, mental illness, and/or mental disability. Disability studies scholar Mel Chen writes, “As many scholars of illness have remarked, ‘living through illness’ seems, at least at first, to confound the narrativized, temporalized, imaginary of ‘one’s human life,’ for it can constitute an undesired stopping point […] But for those with the privileges of food, care, and physical support, this pain can also become a meditation (if forced) on the conditions that underlie both illness and wellness, that is, the biopoliticized animacies that foretell what may become of a changing body, human or not, living or nonliving.” How true this is in the time of COVID-19, when we have all been met with an undesired stopping point; and yet, we seem unable to stop, disallowed. Chen’s observations offer an excellent method for navigating our present work: tenderly, as an act of care. Located in the microcosm of the grocery store, we can (re)learn to move through feeling, greeting each object as a meditative partner and asking, gently, what concepts, memories, and sensations emerge. We can begin to become alive to the world.
Taken together, these acts create mad maps: sensate, choreographic scores tracing a genealogy that migrates, madly, across time and space, memory and history, body and object, clinic and commons. This is a small revolution. For mental health consumers, survivors, and ex-patients, moving and feeling are routinely pathologized, narrated as irrational, inappropriate, or inscrutable. Creating mad maps affirms the insight of our bodyminds, reframing them not as potential sources of disorder, but rather as profound sources of wisdom.