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Max Muller

Max Muller THE BODY AS A PRISON - November 2018

Bodily Switches In Film

Written by Max Muller

From the profusion of books, films, and television episodes about body swaps it seems that we often perceive our own body as a constraint. By conducting an analysis of such transfers in various media, we might gain a deeper understanding of the way we feel corporeally entrapped. In this piece, I will examine exactly in what ways people long to escape their corporeal prisons, and reflect on why different types of bodily transfers are so captivating to people.

Mary Shelley’s book “Transformation,” published in 1830, can be considered the first story written about a person experiencing the world through the eyes of another person. Since then, many other artists have put themselves to the task of conveying the idea of a body switch in various forms. Just in film, starting with Turnabout in 1940, at least 50 movies on body switches have been made.

This high number of films (approximately 1.35 per year) indicates that this is a popular theme that captivates people’s imaginations. As these movies were made relatively recently, an examination of body switches in this medium is perhaps the most suitable way to find out why and in what sense people in the modern age are particularly enchanted with this idea. Therefore, I’ve focused exclusively on cinematic versions of this age-old story to gain a deeper understanding of the fascination with the “body switch”.

Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus

Some of these films involved bodily exchanges with multiple people. Others included animals and other entities. Ignoring these instances and focusing exclusively on switches with two people, we are left with 42 films.

First, it is worthwhile to investigate the gender of those involved in the switch. For instance, 18 Again! (1988) tells the story of David and his millionaire playboy grandfather Jack Watson trading places. This is an example of a male-male switch. Others depict the exchange of perspectives between two women, or between a man and a woman.

Body Switches By Gender

We can see that the male / female switch is clearly the most popular one. This is probably an instance of the ancient fascination with the (perceived) dichotomy between men and women. In this case, it is human gender and the limited worldview that it inevitably creates that constitutes the desire to switch. The switch movies provide men with a sneak peek of Venus, and women with a day-tour around Mars. People are often excited about the idea of looking at the world through the eyes of someone with “the other” gender. In movies, the switch usually leads to hilarious situations.

It’s not just excitement and humor that propels people to watch this type of movie. These films by and large have great educational value. By following along with the main characters, the audience learns how those with a different gender think and what their struggles are.

Exchange of Status

An enlargement of understanding “the other” seems to be the overarching theme of not just the gender switch, but of the body-switching concept as a whole. The switch allows for a quick and direct exploration of other people’s daily lives, their responsibilities, and their interests.

Therefore, the switch can serve to enlarge people’s understanding of not just other genders, but also other types of differences. Differences that are also of societal importance are parent/child relationships (8 movies), occupational distinctions (7 movies), and the discrepancy between husband and wife, or boyfriend and girlfriend (5 movies).

In each of these types of switches, it is important that the dichotomy between the exchangers is large. Otherwise, the perspective change is not extreme enough for a person to actually learn something from the experience. With regards to the occupational differences, for instance, it is not interesting enough to depict the switch between a highly paid lawyer and a senior banker. Both of these occupations are demanding, corporate, traditional jobs.

In David Dobkin’s The Change-Up (2011), on the other hand, a lawyer with a family (Dave) and a single adult movie actor (Mitch) make the switch. In this case, the trade is clearly large enough to merit attention. While Dave learns to loosen up by spending less time on his job and more time with his family, Mitch is taught the value of commitment and taking responsibility for his actions.    


Thus we have dissected the body switch. Our investigation has revealed it’s an effective instrument to explore differences between individuals that are not like-minded. During the switch, those involved will perceive matters literally from the other’s point of view. At the same time, the swap allows them to discover and improve themselves.

No wonder this is such a popular genre.

FILTERED RECOLLECTIONS - October 2018 Max Muller

In Memoriam Ourselves

Written by Max Muller

You may think our disposition towards having a good reputation and being remembered fondly is the foundation upon which we base our actions. In this article, however, I will argue that this is not necessarily the case. I aim to show that it is not so much the idea of being remembered well that guides us through life, but that we are in actuality more concerned with being remembered. Period.

This can be inferred, in my opinion, by examining the lives and opinions of various historical figures and certain current cultural phenomena. I will try to unravel why being etched into our collective memory is so important to people.

A Lasting Legacy

First, let’s focus on the idea that everyone aims to leave behind a positive legacy. It can be illustrated well with the story of Alfred Nobel. As a precocious chemist and engineer, he invented dynamite in 1867. He patented his invention and made a fortune out of it.

When Alfred was 55 years old, his brother Ludvig Nobel passed away. Due to a misunderstanding, some writers for a French newspaper came to believe it was Alfred Nobel himself who had deceased. Thus they wrote an obituary of him, entitled “The Merchant of Death is Dead.” When he read it, he was appalled by the idea that he would be remembered as an opportunistic salesman of deadly weapons.

After he recovered from the shock of this discovery, he devised a plan to change his reputation. Alfred decided he would donate the majority of his wealth to the Nobel Prize (including, ironically, the peace prize). His legacy is nowadays largely viewed in positive light because of this generous decision.

A Higher Calling

Alfred Nobel was not alone in his aim to leave a positive legacy. Whole religions (with billions of followers) are centered around the idea of behaving well and reaping the benefits after death. In Christianity, for instance, sinners may redeem themselves to be allowed to go to heaven. Likewise, Hindus try to obtain good karma during their current lives in order to reincarnate as a better person in their next lives.

Thus, many people indeed wish to be remembered well, and will try to behave accordingly. They cherish the wish to have had a positive impact on the world. However, not everyone shares this kind of moral compass. Some are driven by other motives.

A Poète Maudit from Leeuwarden

Jan Jacob Slauerhoff (1898 — 1936) was arguably one of the most important Dutch poets of the 20th century. In addition to his literary qualities, he was also a notoriously difficult person. Tragedies and quarrels marked his life. Additionally, he was a womanizer of both married and unmarried women, and was chronically sick.

Towards the end of his life, he wrote his famous poem “In Memoriam Mijzelf” (“in Memoriam Myself”). The last two stanzas are worth quoting at length.


Ik laat geen gaven na,

Verniel wat ik volbracht;

Ik vraag om geen gena,

Vloek voor- en nageslacht;

Zij liggen waar ik sta,

Lachend den dood verwacht.

Ik deins niet voor de grens,

Nam afscheid van geen mensch,

Toch heb ik nog een wensch,

Dat men mij na zal geven:

‘Het goede deed hij slecht,

Beleed het kwaad oprecht,

Hij stierf in het gevecht,

Hij leidde recht en slecht

Een onverdraagzaam leven.’

I leave no last bequest,

Smash life’s work at a stroke;

No mercy I request,

Curse past and future folk;

Stand tall where they now rest,

And treat death as a joke.

I look fate in the eye,

Have said not one goodbye,

But want men when I die

To say just this of me:

‘He did good very ill,

Served bad with honest will,

Succumbed while battling still,

Undaunted, lived his fill,

Intolerant and free.’

Slauerhoff had come to the realization that he would probably be remembered as an insufferable person after death. What is interesting in this regard is that he did not seek forgiveness: “No mercy I request.” He did not strive to make one last attempt to redeem himself. He simply admitted he was essentially a villain throughout his life who “served bad with honest will.”

So in Slauerhoff we have found a person who wasn’t driven by the idea of leaving behind a positive legacy. And yet, the man was driven, and left behind a considerable body of literary work.

If he was not interested in leaving behind a good legacy, we could wonder what else drove him in life. In my estimation, the answer is embodied by the poem itself. Although he states that he leaves “no last bequest,” Slauerhoff is lying. The poem does not represent the idea of being remembered well, but of simply being remembered.

Slauerhoff aimed to solidify his legacy by means of his writings. In a sense, his malevolent ways endure through this poem.

Achieving Immortality

“Don’t forget me, I beg.” — Adele (Someone Like You, 2011)

We seek to extend ourselves to the future. As one of the few species that is aware of its own immortality, we aim to combat death by all means necessary. One of those means is having children. Our DNA is thereby passed on to the next generation, allowing us to, in a sense, continue to live on through a new body. Although we all die eventually, our genes are safeguarded this way.

However, the biological continuation of our being is not the only method through which we can “survive.” There are other ways to live on after we die. One of those is continuing on in the minds of others.

Ever since the invention of writing, human beings have had the unique capacity to precisely transmit vast amounts of complex information to future generations. Our values, fantasies, and even identities can be recorded efficiently for posteriority. Every writer seeks to endure through his or her literary creations. They extend and preserve a part of themselves through their writings.

Photo: Jonas Guigonnat

A Common Desire

It’s not just writers who seek to be remembered. The desire for endurance is arguably the most primal drive of all creative endeavors. Scientists hope their theories replace the old ones and that they are forever acknowledged for their discoveries. Rulers demand the erection of statues and other monuments as a solidified sign of their dominance. Graffiti artists leave their mark on walls to pay an enduring homage to themselves and their ideas.

The will to be remembered is not even restricted to those with creative or coercive powers. Everyone seeks to endure in the minds of others to a certain degree…most of us shiver at the prospect of being forgotten.

In Hannah Arendt’s treatment “On the Nature of Totalitarianism: An Essay in Understanding” she mentions that some tyrants acknowledged the terror of being discarded by history, and utilized it themselves. For instance, prisons under despotic rulers were often called places of oblivion and at times forbid the family and friends of a convict from even mentioning his or her name – to the extent that they could even be punished for breaking this rule.

Now that the possibility of materializing memories of oneself has become democratized, the fear of being forgotten has become more visible. Many immortalize even the most remotely interesting events of their lives with pictures on Instagram or bite-sized stories on Twitter. Furthermore, in the early 1990s, the memoirs written by “ordinary” people experienced an upsurge. Even more recently, people have started frantically tracing their heritage with DNA ancestry tests, such as 23andme. People wish to pass down their own heritage and legacy due to a fear of being forgotten amid a society filled with technological advances and increasingly rapid development. At the same time, these tools aid people in finding their place in a confusing, fast-changing world.

Thus it seems there is a one-to-one correspondence between our desire to be remembered, and the preservation and extension of ourselves in various forms. It is connected to the idea of making an impact on the world. We wish to to make a dent in the universe, a mark that will forever be connected to ourselves. It’s not just a dent, it’s our dent.

FILTERED RECOLLECTIONS - October 2018 Max Muller

Remembering Your Identity

Written by Max Muller:

Some imagine our memory merely as a tool to retrieve past events or thoughts. That it operates as a purely mechanistic, objective tool that passively stores information. As such, it enables us to learn things and allows people to function properly in their daily lives.

However, this conception of human memory is rather limited. Although it does perform the above-mentioned tasks, it is not confined to purely practical matters. A person’s memory is not merely concerned with what he or she does or can do – it also determines who and what the person is.

Human beings are necessarily finite, both in terms of space and in terms of time. We live within a particular time frame and grow up under some set of historical particularities. Thus, to a large extent, our circumstances and experiences determine who we are.

In order to understand ourselves, we look back upon past events. We aim to come to an understanding of our role within them. In doing so, we continuously re-visit our memories to re-interpret them, casting light on the way we are situated in the present.

By selectively choosing to focus on certain memories and at the same time discarding others, people actively and subjectively construct themselves by means of narratives. Human beings are therefore not mere processors of information, they invent and re-work it as stories. Memory comes alive in the act of narration, allowing individuals to form a coherent identity. Human life has, therefore, both biological and biographical origins.

In that sense, it is not surprising that psychologists sometimes encourage their patients to share their life story with them. It allows patients to understand themselves. Their confusion is healed when the re-visitation of their memories results in a more thorough understanding of the way they acted in (perceived) past events. This enables them to act with deeper understanding during the present. Concurrently, their sense of identity is emboldened throughout the process, allowing them to be more at ease with who they are.

Crowdsourcing therapy

Therapists are expensive. In addition, the whole therapeutic process is quite time-consuming, cumbersome and confrontational. Why not engage you, our readers, with my past?

At the risk of seeming exceedingly self-centered, I will take this opportunity to describe some memories of my own. During the writing process, I aim to gain a more thorough understanding of myself. In addition, I am curious as to what you think about my experiences. What do they tell you about me? Do you have any insights as to how I ought to interpret these events? Let us make sense of my life together.

One memory that sometimes resurfaces dates back from more than 17 years ago. At the time, my family and I would visit a place called Cap-d’Agde in the South of France every summer. We would stay in a resort filled with bungalows and spent our carefree days at the beach or near the pools.

Sometimes, however, something out of the ordinary would happen. The owners of the resort would invite a potter to teach kids (and, occasionally, adults too) how to make pots the traditional way. He put a wet blob of clay on a horizontally spinning wheel. With his hands, he would manipulate its shape in a clever way, slowly but steadily creating a pot.

To me, being an eight-year-old, the whole process must have seemed like magic. He barely moved his hands at all, yet sure enough, the spinning clot would always turn into a pot. His precisely applied, manual pressure ensured it.

Another day, the potter maker would take us to his home outside the resort. Upon arriving there, I realized that pottery making represented just a fraction of his artistic inclinations. He had made his whole home himself. Some walls were riddled with minutely illustrated paintings. Others were littered with spontaneously arranged tiles, forming splendid mosaics.

Nothing in the house had sharp hooks or rigid lines. It was a fluid arrangement with bows and curved lines. Looking back on it now, it seemed like an artistic, Mediterranean version of a hobbit home. His house was a Gaudi-esque constellation of furious creativity. The potter had shown a level of dedication that could only be matched by Ryan Gosling in The Notebook. It was a unique anachronism, both temporally as well as spatially.

Its uniqueness was punctuated by the banality of Cap-d’Agde in general. It was a beach town past its former glory, overflowed by foreign tourists who were bored of their mundane lives back home. They were in search of a red-tanned chest and hedonistic escape. The town’s most famous nightclub was aptly called Amnesia. The nudist beaches and swingers clubs were phenomena – famously described by Michel Houellebecq in his book Les Particules Elementaires – that embodied the town’s indulgence.  

Photo by Oscar Nord


So what does this memory tell about me? What does the fact that it resurfaces every now and again mean? What insights can it give me with regards to my current phase in life?

One theme of the memory seems to be the contrast between sloth and sacrifice, between laziness and dedication. The potter had gone to great lengths to build a perfect house for himself. Viewed from this point of view, the memory perhaps tells me I have a choice: put in the effort and succeed, or be idle and fail.

By extension, the story reveals the importance of a goal worth fighting for. It is not possible to put in a lot of effort into something that’s not worthwhile. Whatever the potter’s motives were, they were important enough to him to put up a Herculean effort. Maybe it was indeed a romantic act, akin to Gosling’s efforts. Whatever the case may have been, it reminds me of seeking purpose in the things that I do.

The potter’s dedication had an almost ascetic quality. His efforts stood out amid the lazy tourists. Viewed from this perspective, his architectural work represented a kind of purity amid a degenerated desert. Maybe this represents my childhood innocence, which can be contrasted with adulthood.

Another aspect of importance is the dichotomy between the ordinary and the extraordinary. Although I liked spending time at the beach or playing games on my Gameboy Color, the experiences with the potter were something else entirely. They fueled my sense of wonder and stimulated my imagination.

I guess nowadays I look back upon these events with a sense of nostalgia, perhaps even melancholy. I’m not as easily impressed as I was back then. Even so, I currently probably miss having such experiences. Maybe my life has become as mundane as all of those other adults who aimed to escape their lives in the French coastal town.

Your Turn

Anyhow, I am an amateur psychologist at best, and a self-deluding charlatan at worst. You may have a much deeper understanding of this memory in particular. You possibly know how to put my experiences within a Freudian framework, or recall how the potter’s activities relate to Jung’s theory of psychosocial archetypes.

Please tell me! I’m eager to find out more about myself.

However, this isn’t just about me. You have just seen a glimpse of my past. Hopefully, it has inspired you to probe into the depths of your own mind, too. What are your most important memories? What do they signify to you? I invite you to take a step back and analyze your past. I suspect that — in the end — it could prove to be highly rewarding.

FOOD POLITICS - September 2018 Max Muller

Food Solidarity in the Basque Country

Written by Max Muller

In this piece, we will show how the Basque Country’s former struggle for political independence is nowadays tied to the notion of food sovereignty. We will trace the historical origins of the Basque’s passion for autonomy and relate it to its contemporary reincarnation in the form of a reappreciation of the traditional peasant lifestyle and its accompanying vision of social-economic transformation towards a more just society.

Although strictly speaking it is not a state, the Basque Country sure seems like one. Straddling along the border between Spain and France, this region is home to a culture distinct from either. Akin to the case for Catalan, their language, Euskera, has acted as a catalyst for Basque nationalism, and thus, after a long struggle, they have gained many rights for self-governance. In Spain, the Basques currently dwell mainly in the Autonomous Regions of the (somewhat confusingly called) Basque Country and Navarre.

Today’s Basque Country (Euskal Herria) is home to the rich city of San Sebastián. Or, as the Basques themselves call it: Donostia. In terms of food, this coastal town has a lot to offer.  It has the second-highest amount of Michelin Stars awarded to restaurants per square meter of all the cities in the world. In addition, it features many private establishments that are an idiosyncratic feature of Basque culture called txokos. In these gastronomic societies, people from all social strata of Basque society come together to wine, dine, and cook on a regular basis.

Basque Country has a highly industrialized economy and some provinces like Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa are very urban. However, for many inhabitants, the rural areas are the more familiar territory. This is due to the fact that there is a horticultural and agricultural tradition in the region that is practiced by people who have small farms or gardens on the edges of small towns.

A history lesson

In order to discuss the notions of food sovereignty and re-peasantisation, however, we must leave these gastro-sociological rarities aside for a moment and delve a bit deeper into Basque history. As we remarked before, the people from Euskal Herria in times past are marked by struggle. Sometimes, as in the case of the separatist group ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, which means “Basque Homeland and Liberty”), the struggle was violent. At other moments these clashes did not involve any bullets, only symbolic action.

During the 19th century, there were a number of wars between the Basques, their allies, and their opponents. The Basques and Catalans sided with the so-called Carlists, who were supporters of Carlos V, a reactionary who claimed the throne. He was angry about the onset of Liberalism in Spain and the waning influence of Catholicism and nationalism on the Iberian Peninsula. These differences in political opinion split the whole country into two factions: the Carlists and the Liberals.

The Carlists always lost.

After their third war in 1876, the government abolished the Fueros, laws unique to the Basques that ensured them a certain degree of autonomy. Coupled with excessive industrialization and fast-paced immigration of Spanish-speaking people, the Basques quickly lost much of their cherished culture and their traditional way of life. This put them on the defensive and provided fuel for an ongoing sense of nationalism.

In 1895, Sabino de Arana established the Partido Nacionalista Vasco (Basque Nationalist Party). He was determined to re-establish Euskera as the sole language in the region and to reassert its declining culture. To that end, he created a flag, an ideology, and a myth to reinvigorate the Basque lands, which he named Euskadi.

The Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939 can be interpreted as the Fourth Carlist War, as this conflict erupted between the Republicans (which incorporated the former Liberal faction) and the Nationalists (which included the Carlists). The Nationalists won and one of their generals Francisco Franco became the autocratic ruler of Spain.

Although this time victory was on the Carlists’ side, Francisco Franco did not grant the Basques many favors. The Euskadi government was ousted and General Franco instated a Catholic dictatorship throughout Spain. He was particularly harsh on the Basques: he outlawed their language and tried to get rid of all forms of Basque nationalism. Furthermore, he was responsible for thousands of Basque deaths and imprisonments. Most notably, he supported the German-led bombing of the Basque town of Guernica. Picasso famously depicted this brutal slaughter of civilians in a painting that bears the town’s name.

Photo by stephane333/ CC BY

Guernica held a lot of symbolic significance. It was the place where the Basques once held the ceremony of the royal oath in which the kings of Castille had to swear to follow the Fueros. In doing so, they granted the Basques their autonomy. The bombing of this historical town fueled much anger and Arana’s fervent nationalism. It also later justified, in the eyes of many Basque people, ETA’s violence towards the Spanish state.  

ETA was established in 1959 and originated in the action-oriented efforts of a group of students from the Jesuit Deusto University in Bilbao. In Sabino de Arana’s spirit, it sought for the reinvigoration of Basque nationalism. The organization was committed to a re-establishment of the Basque language and the cultural ideals of its people. Often, it did so violently. During, but mostly after, the end of Franco’s regime — he died in 1975 — they killed more than 800 people through terrorist attacks.

Eventually, the ETA got what it sought: a reasonable degree of autonomy for the Basque provinces within the Spanish Kingdom and the recognition and affirmation of Euskera as an official language in the Autonomous Communities. Nowadays, ETA’s armed struggle is over. It agreed to a cease-fire in 2011 and disarmament in 2017.  

Back to Food

What the history lesson has hopefully shown is that the idea of a struggle for identity and political self-determination is of immense importance to the Basque people. While not violent anymore, the fighting continues symbolically and culturally through the efforts of the ikastolas (Basque language schools) and a commitment to self-governance. The Basque people are unusually engaged with political activities and are committed to taking part in public meetings of local municipalities to let their voices be heard.

Recently, however, the struggle has manifested itself in quite a different way. The Basque agrarian sector has suffered severe economic blows during the 2008 recession. In addition, the concurrent processes of industrialization, mechanization, and a subsequent rural exodus have intensified the malaise. Between 1999 and 2009, the number of farms in the Autonomous Basque Community fell by more than 33%.

In order to counteract this trend, there has been an explosion of processes and activities centered on the notion of food sovereignty. This concept is linked to political sovereignty that emerged as part of a struggle of baserritarras (small peasant farmers) to protect their traditional way of life. Furthermore, it takes a stand against the propagation of agrarian modernization and the imposition of neoliberal policies of the Basque Government, who favored large-scale food industry projects over the baserritarras, which operated on a much smaller scale. As such, it is also connected with the desire for a more equal society.

It is not a coincidence these efforts are focused on the baserritarras. The language survived Franco’s dictatorship largely thanks to the small farmers in the countryside, who usually hardly spoke any Spanish at all.

Food as a way of life  

It is in this socio-cultural environment that the food sovereignty movement has emerged, gaining momentum after the financial crisis. As mentioned above, it is especially geared towards baserritarras. The organization EHNE-Bizkaia aims to preserve and support their traditional lifestyle. It is a member of the worldwide overarching peasant organization called La Vía Campesina and has 800 paying members. They determine its politics, elect its board, and receive technical services. In 2007, EHNE-Bizkaia launched a community-supported agriculture scheme called Red Nekasarea.

Red Nekasarea strategically connects 80 baserritarras to 700 households. The households are divided into consumer groups of no more than 30 households. Each peasant is linked to one consumer group. The peasants provide these groups with food baskets that usually include vegetables, meat, milk, eggs, and pasta.

Photo by Elaine Casap

Before the initiation of this project, the peasants were in a predicament. The baserritarras would sell their products as faceless producers in the globalized market. In addition, they were forced to lower their prices substantially, understandably leading to much discontent. Through Red Nekasarea, they are always able to sell their vegetables for a fair price. In addition, they know their customers personally and are told how tasty and good their products are. Whereas being a baserritarra used to be seen as something derogatory, the project brings back a sense of pride among the peasants. This feeling is reinforced because people feel that they are participating in a project for social change.

Not only does EHNE-Bizkaia engage in helping existing farmers, it also actively seeks to recruit new ones. Currently, only 10% of farmers are under 40 years of age. As such, youth are a critical part of the food sovereignty movement in the Basque Country.

In order to rejuvenate the agricultural sector, EHNE-Bizkaia offers training courses in agroecology. These courses especially attract young people, as agroecology is advantageous for its low dependency on investment, technology, and external inputs. Furthermore, they aim to foster the urban youngsters’ resurgent enthusiasm regarding the way of life as a farmer by organizing gatherings and sharing information.

You may wonder why there’s such a renewed interest for agricultural living among these young people. In most cases, they aren’t born into the peasant lifestyle. They are usually brought up in affluent families, are socially well-integrated, and have a university degree. Although the economic crisis did lead to job loss, labor instability, and a lack of opportunities — conditions that may have motivated some to migrate to the countryside — the crisis does not seem to be the deciding factor.

To many, food production and agriculture are linked with a larger goal of social transformation. Their ideal is autonomy. It is linked to self-realization and the satisfaction that comes from control over one’s own life. Their choice represents a craving for self-sufficiency and a move away from large industries. They feel that by producing food themselves, control is taken away from multinationals. The re-peasantization process is intimately tied to a desire for social change in the overall socio-economic system.

As such, the Basque peoples’ fight for autonomy has changed to yet another front. It has moved successively from actual warfare to linguistics, and now to peasant food struggles. This last endeavor is tied to important questions: how do we reconcile local values and customs with an ever-spreading economic system that favors efficiency and uniformity? How can control be regained by people in a world dominated by an increasingly small set of conglomerates aiming solely at making more profits?

Thus, the Basque food movement is emblematic of the current socio-economic tensions between the local and the global, autonomy and dependency, and finally between heterogeneity and homogeneity. Whereas the Basques used to rebel against some Castilian King or Roman Emperor, by now they protest against economic rule. Although its efforts may have marginal effects, it offers guidance and prospects to those seeking to grow a different world.

MADNESS - July & August 2018 Max Muller

Transient Madness

Written by Max Muller

According to the philosopher – and former sufferer of psychosis – Wouter Kusters, wisdom lies behind madness. There are multiple ways by means of which useful knowledge can be gained from mental illnesses. For instance, one may be able to formulate deep insights about oneself from the talks about one’s own personal road to insanity.

In addition, mental illnesses can teach us important lessons about our own society. According to this doctrine, madness is not so much a signal of individual mental health problems. Instead, it signifies problems on a societal level. Like canaries in a coal mine, those with psychotic disorders alert us of a society in which interpersonal relationships are suffocating. According to this view, psychosis is more of a vision than a confused malfunction of the brain. It is a healthy reaction to a sickening environment (such a conception of mental illness was also advanced in Jurek’s article for this month’s issue).

From this point of view, it follows that we can unravel certain negative and debilitating aspects of our society if we can adequately describe what ails those who have gone mad. In a sense, those with mental problems can pinpoint the weaknesses and evils of the society in which they live.

Let us consider, for instance, the case of a mental illness that has, by and large, disappeared by now. An illness that has prevailed within a certain time frame and geographical area is called a transient mental illness. Such a type of madness is not some mental malfunction that comes and goes in this or that patient. It is a type of madness that exists only at certain times and places.

In Mad Travellers, the philosopher of science Ian Hacking chronicles the story of the transient mental illness called fugue. It began one morning in July 1887, when a young man arrived crying in a ward in the ancient Bordeaux hospital of Saint-André. His name was Albert Dadas. He was 26 years old, and the first fugueur. Albert became notorious for his extraordinary expeditions to Algeria, Moscow, Constantinople and other places.

While those expeditions are interesting in their own right, there was something else remarkable about them; they were made, in a certain sense, unconsciously. Albert traveled obsessively, as if under a spell. While he traveled, he often did not carry identity papers. Indeed, he did not know who he was or why he traveled, and he only knew where he was going next. When he arrived at a certain location, he had little recollection of where he had been. It was only under hypnosis that Albert could recall lost weekends or even years.

As word about his travels spread, Albert initiated a small epidemic of compulsive, mad voyagers. At first, hysterical fugue was diagnosed only in Bordeaux. Soon, however, it spread to Paris. Later, people all around France were found who supposedly suffered from this mental disease. It subsequently spread to Germany, too.

It is interesting to note, however, that people have been making strange and unexpected trips – often in states of obscured consciousness – for a long time. Only in 1887, when the young medical student Philippe Tissié described it in his thesis, did it arise as a specific, diagnosable type of insanity. Why did the identification of this type of mental illness happen to take place specifically during the end of the 19th century in France? Why did it spread so rapidly? And, perhaps equally important: why did the phenomenon fade away after a while? The last conference on fugue took place in Nantes, 1909. Between 1887 and 1909 fugue was a significant, if transient, mental illness. And then it was no more.

Philippe Tissié hypnotizes his patient Albert Dadas under the watchful eye of Étienne Eugène Azam, another doctor from Bordeaux

To be able to grapple with these questions, we must delve into Hacking’s notion of the so-called ecological niche. It is a metaphor for a framework that allows us to understand why certain types of mental illness and some arrangements of symptoms proliferate at some times and places, while they are absent in others. The ecological niche is a concatenation of a large number of diverse types of elements – including social factors, biological origins of the patient, and medical viewpoints – in which some particular types of illness can thrive. We call these components vectors.

Please note that just because a mental disease is transient, it does not mean it is not “real.” It is never merely a social construct. These people genuinely suffered. There are two possibilities for the transient aspect of the disease. First, it could merely mean that the symptoms of the disease are later subsumed within other mental illnesses, rendering the diagnosis of the old disease impossible. On a related note, our ideas about what constitutes a mental illness change over time. Homosexuality used to be typified as a mental disease, but not anymore.

Second, it could mean that the vectors supporting the niche within which it thrives at some point erode or even disappear. This makes the disease possibly less prevalent, or its symptoms less severe. Societal influences can amplify or diminish the severity of mental diseases that have biological origins, or even account for their existence.  

In the case of fugue, its ecological niche consists of four principal vectors: cultural polarity, release, observability, and medical taxonomy. Let us examine the first two of these vectors. By cultural polarity, Hacking means that fugue fitted between two important social phenomena in fin de siècle France: romantic tourism and criminal vagrancy. The second half of the 19th century was, among other things, the era of popular tourism. It was not limited anymore to the highly affluent aristocrats. With the advent of a widespread railway network across Europe, travel agencies, and efficient, steam-powered trains, tourism became available to the masses.

However, Albert and most other fuguers were not part of the middle class. They were members of the working poor. As such, they were not able to take part in touristic activities like their wealthier contemporaries. Fugue literally provided a way out. It allowed relatively poor men (for they were almost always male) to escape and see the world.

While tourism was the virtuous side of travel, its polar cultural opposite was vagrancy. Vagrancy was seen through the lens of France’s degeneracy program. This was the set of beliefs that identified the decline of France compared to Britain and Germany, and it was exacerbated by France’s loss of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and massive unemployment during the Belle Époque. It was connected with low birth rates, suicide, prostitution, homosexuality, and insanity.

Dr. Jekyll and his dual, the degenerate Mr. Hyde, capture the European obsession with decline and degeneracy towards the close of the 19th century (picture from 1895)

To the French people in the 1880s, the vagrant signified racial degeneracy, no reproduction, or reproduction of those very features that the French race ought to get rid of. Thus, tramps came to be seen as a critical social problem. In 1885, a fierce set of anti-vagrancy laws was passed. Vagrants were degenerates and should be medicalized.

In this regard, it is easy to see that many fugueurs came to be seen as vagrants. They were often seized by the police, who claimed they had found yet another antisocial vagabond. However, psychotherapists insisted fugueurs were afflicted by a very real mental affliction and should be treated as such. Thus fugue became part of a power struggle between medical men on the one hand and police on the other. The doctors relieved those with fugue from their individual responsibilities, for their behavior resulted from mental illness.

Therefore, fugue thrived between two cultural opposites. On the one hand, fugue became a pathological variant of tourism for those who could not afford more customary ways of travel. It provided men with a kind of release from their duties and boring lives back home. On the other, fugue hovered just above crime. Those afflicted escaped harsh penalties for vagrancy, for a type of insanity they could not control that caused their behavior. Those in the medical establishment protected the status of fugue as a form of madness, thereby ensuring its legitimacy.

One of the reasons fugue did not continue to be a significant mental disease was the gradual disappearance of the vagrancy scare and its corresponding overarching degeneracy program. Furthermore, tourism itself became more and more entrenched in French society. Its novelty had worn off. Thus, two important vectors of the ecological niche for fugue disappeared. Finally, the definition and the symptoms of hysterical fugue were subsumed within a new framework of mental illnesses. By 1990s criteria, some of those old fugueurs probably suffered from head injuries, some from temporal lobe epilepsy, and some from a new disease called dissociative fugue.

We will not go into the details of the process by means of which fugue gradually died out. For our discussion of the topic, it suffices to note that a certain ecological niche allowed fugue to thrive in a certain time and place. When the niche disappeared, so did the transitory mental illness as a species within it. We might wonder what kind of ecological niche(s) we can observe nowadays, allowing contemporary types of insanity to flourish in our society.

The cultural polarity vector of the ecological niche for fugue represents the basic premise of psychoanalysis:; mental illness concerns the collision of desire and its prohibition. The working poor in 19th century France longed for fantastic journeys, but they were inhibited by the duties they had to fulfill for their families, and by limited financial means. They found their release in quasi-criminal, mad travel.

This conflict between desire and its prohibition concerns the demands of society that go against the desires of the individual. What kinds of societal demands are nowadays imposed on us? In On the new discontents of civilization, the philosopher and psychoanalyst Paul Verhaeghe observes that we currently live in a so-called neoliberal meritocracy.

Neoliberalism refers to the idea that every market regulates itself, and should, therefore, be steered as little as possible, in order for everyone to get equal opportunities. While this may sound like an admirable arrangement, the model often results in very negative consequences for people in places where it is implemented. In a meritocracy, everyone is responsible for his or her own success, and for his or her own failure. It propels the myth of the self-made man.

The Dutch government adopts this line of reasoning. They even radically extend it to domains vastly beyond the reach of the economic sphere. People are held accountable not only for their own welfare (resulting in enormous economic disparities), but also for the wellbeing of nature, the environment and the dangerous effects of climate change. Interestingly enough, the government often turns a blind eye to polluting companies. People and companies are not held to the same standards.

In the 1990s, the Dutch government’s policies were redolent of neoliberal ideology. Within that context, the governmental organization Postbus 51 formulated the slogan, “Een beter milieu begint bij jezelf” (A better environment starts with yourself). On the surface, it is a rather innocent statement, encouraging people to be more environmentally aware. However, it is an insidious psychological trick, emphasizing our individual responsibilities with regards to climate change.

In the wake of carbon-induced rising temperatures, we are obliged to behave as formidable, responsible model citizens. We must live frugally, emitting as little greenhouse gasses as possible. We must turn off the lights, drive as little as possible, and re-use our plastic bags. We are obliged to insulate our houses, go vegan, and replace our gas stoves with their electrical counterparts.

Yet at the same time, we must behave as frantic consumers, supporting the companies that act as pillars of the neoliberal economy. It is paramount we buy biological eggs, fair-trade chocolate, and recyclable clothes without animal fur. We are encouraged to buy plane tickets, but should also pay a carbon tax for the resulting emissions. Living green should be our number one priority, never mind the prohibitive costs and the difficulties it imposes on our lives.

Both of these contradictory lines of thinking emphasize the same message, if disastrous climatic consequences unfold, you are to blame. We, as individual citizens, are held accountable for the rising sea levels and massive ecological devastation. The government’s slogan capitalizes on our feelings of guilt and shame. As individualized people, we all carry it on our own. Individuality has led to less solidarity. This makes it even harder to bear.

It is perhaps not surprising that in such a social climate, new transient mental illnesses arise. In the Tegenlicht episode “Worsteling van de Groenmens“(Struggle of the Groenmens), people are shown to be struggling with their perceived individual responsibilities to save the world from climate catastrophes. One poignant example is Babette Porcelijn. At one point during the documentary, she confesses that she even had suicidal thoughts. After all, it would be best for the climate if one were not alive anymore. If you kill yourself, you cannot cause the environment and the climate any more harm.

This extreme compulsion to alleviate the harmful consequences of individual emissions on the climate and the environment was coined “ecorexia”. I believe this neologism hits the nail on the head. It is an allusion to the clothing industry that sets unrealistic beauty standards for women around the world. This industry thereby causes widespread insecurity among women, and in severe cases it results in anorexia. Both anorexia and ecorexia are examples of symptoms of greater societal problems.

Akin to the clothing industry, the Dutch government and the neoliberal meritocracy it embraces provide the base for the ecological niche in which ecorexia can proliferate. Oddly enough, psychologists and medical experts have not systematically studied it yet despite multiple cases already being reported (here, here, and here). I think it is only a matter of time before the diagnosis of this mental ailment will become endemic to Western culture.

As we have seen from our discussion of fugue, however, mental illnesses can be transient. Ecorexia, too, could be a case of such a disease. Just as it arrived within a certain ecological niche, it could be one day be eliminated, too. The niche counts the neoliberal meritocracy, government propaganda, and a highly politicized and heated debate about climate change among its vectors.

Babette Porcelijn is our modern-day Albert Dadas. From her we have learned that our current approach to climate change mitigation is harmful to regular people, possibly even lethal. We ought to change our society in such a way that we can remove the vectors supporting the niche for ecorexia. First and foremost, we should replace the neoliberal meritocracy with a more humane societal system. A system in which cooperation, solidarity, and interdependency are stressed. This will allow for the sharing of the burden of responsibility.

Furthermore, the focus of responsibility for climate change should be transferred from citizens to large corporations. People’s behavior is not the main cause of climate change. Between 1751 and 2010, 63% of all global industrial gas emissions came from just 90 companies. In the Netherlands, households pay almost two-thirds of environmental taxes, while they emit only one-fifth of the total amount of carbon dioxide. It is not the people, but the large companies that are largely to blame. The government should hold them responsible and tax them accordingly.

Hopefully, this will alleviate Babette’s symptoms, and minimize the possibility of other people struggling with them in the future.