Article Highlight: Vol. 41, Issue 1, “‘I Don’t Have Time for an Emotional Life’: Marginalization, Dependency and Melancholic Suspension in Disability”

This week on the blog we are highlighting Brian Watermeyer’s article “I Don’t Have Time for an Emotional Life”: Marginalization, Dependency and Melancholic Suspension in Disability. Watermeyer provides an introduction to key aspects of the social and economic marginalization of the disability minority experienced globally. He then explores and compares the complex debates surrounding materialist and psychological approaches and accounts of racism and disablism, particularly with reference to the place of grief and loss in disability discourse. Finally, Watermeyer considers how Cheng’s engagement with racial melancholia may help illuminate how disability inequality, like that of race, may remain a stubborn reality.

Watermeyer begins by discussing some theoretical orientations of social inequality. In the discipline of disability studies, it is a historical materialist (Marxian) approach which has dominated, with particular attention to psychological aspects of disability oppression. Disablism can be defined as discrimination based on physical, sensory, cognitive, or psychiatric impairment. Combined with critical and liberatory theory of racial inequalities, Watermeyer states it is reasonable to assume that living in the face of discrimination and marginalization will create feelings of grief, withdrawal, and suffering, as harms are sustained at both the physical and psychological levels.

In her book, The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation and Hidden Grief, Ann Cheng (2000) presents a psychological model of racial inequality with loss at its center. For Cheng, racial inequality persists within the United States because it forbids grief. The larger, societal demand for every individual to strive for an ideal cultural whiteness continually pulls individuals away from an emotional center, creating ambivalence, a lack of self-empathy, and distortions of ideology.

Building off of Cheng’s argument, Watermeyer discusses the shared characteristics of racism and disablism. Prejudice and stigma are the ever-present companions of structural inequalities for both forms of disparity. Disabled people, especially those in low income countries, are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable, as most societies are designed with only the needs of the non-disabled majority in mind. There are formidable barriers to housing, transportation, and freedom of movement, as well as exclusion or segregation in education and other public accommodations.

Additionally, Watermeyer states the cultural embeddedness of making sense of disability via a “medical model” has reinforced the marginal position of disabled people. In this institutional view, social disadvantage is understood as a simple consequence of bodily difference or dysfunction, portraying disabled people as “damaged invalids” who are unable to contribute in community life. This view negates any consideration of discrimination’s role in inequality.

While the historical materialist view recognizes the role of biomedicine in justifying the marginalization of disabled people, it is the quantifiable, visible reality of exclusion from the workplace, and other “barriers to participation,” as its primary focus. Yet Watermeyer recognizes the analysis of oppression should not just be in the public, institutional spheres, but should also include private domains. Social exhaustion and scarcity have a psychological component, and it is important to understand the ways in which ongoing assaults on identity limit the imaging of different social organization.

For Watermeyer, there are several problems with describing feelings of damage and tragedy as arising from both congenital and adventitious impairment, with little or no attention to structural or contextual factors. This viewpoint positions impairment of the body as the central disadvantage faced by disabled people, ignoring injustices such as discrimination and rejection. Further, attaching narratives of tragedy to disabled people has been loudly rejected by the international disability movement. According to Kleinman, Das, and Lock (1997), if there is loss or grief in the lives of disabled people, it has to do with social suffering, not bodily “flaws.”

While discussing oppression and melancholia, Watermeyer describes an encounter with “J,” a male psychotherapy client living with tetraplegia (paralysis of the lower limbs and partial paralysis of the upper). A South African man in his mid-twenties, J lived a life of profound structural exclusion, unemployment, physical dependency, a poor social network, and imprisonment in his mother’s residence by poverty and poor public transportation. In his limited engagements with the world, indications that he was “broken” were commonplace.

When questioned about his emotional experience of these circumstances, J’s reply was, “I don’t have time for an emotional life.” At the subjective level, being trapped in an immovable system of structural exclusion meant being equally controlled by an “emotional economy,” with its own rules on what could be felt, loved, hated, or hoped for. In J’s life, these constraints appeared to limit emotional freedom as definitively as unreachable buses limited his movement. Emotional care, guilt, and limited space were the constant followers of his physical dependency, transferring feelings of sadness, frustration, or rage to unconsciousness. Simply, “not having time for an emotional life” meant not having the resources to overcome prohibitions on feelings and expressions of grief.

Melancholic systems deal with difference by maintaining existing racialized and discriminatory structures. This disjuncture produces a detrimental position involving both alienation from one’s emotional self, and experiences in the social world which repeatedly point to one’s failure to assume the ideals which secure real belonging. Watermeyer states that dominant culture presents disabled people with a paradox: while reaffirming the message that the disabled figure is dismal and broken, the world demands that he or she not grieve, as this would be a submission to the passivity, pessimism, and invalid status that pervade the disabled stereotype. As in the case of race, the ruling is “prove to me that you are not what I know you to be.”

Watermeyer’s perspective reframes lives of disabled people as basic to the universal human condition. The stereotype which attaches loss simplistically to impairment is rejected, and replaced by a more nuanced picture of struggle relating to discrimination, structural exclusion, pain, fatigue, and the host of everyday miseries that punctuate any human life.


References Cited:

Cheng, Ann A. (2000) The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief. Berkley: Oxford University Press.

Kleinman, A., V. Das, and M. Lock. (1997) Social Suffering. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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Issue Highlight: Vol 39 Issue 3, Depression & Psychiatry in Iran

With each new issue of Culture, Medicine & Psychiatry, we feature a series of blog posts that highlight the latest publications in our journal. This September’s issue features articles that address psychiatric conditions and the experiences of people with mental illness across cultures. The articles span studies in India, the United States, East Africa, Iran, and Belize. Readers may access the full issue at Springer here: http://link.springer.com/journal/11013/39/3/page/1. In this issue highlight, we will explore the emergence of public discourse about mental illness, suffering, and political struggle in Iran.


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Writing Prozak Diaries in Tehran: Generational Anomie and Psychiatric Subjectivities

Orkideh Behrouzan – Pages 399-426

http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11013-014-9425-4

Behrouzan’s study began upon noticing young Iranians discussing mental illness in blogs and in public forums in the early 2000s. At the same time, the author examined unpublished public health records maintained by the state, and noticed that there was a sharp rise in the prescription rate of antidepressants in the mid to late 1990s. This pattern correlated with a shift in the understanding of suffering: during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, PTSD and anxiety disorders were considered the most pressing mental health concerns, but these illnesses became supplanted by a shared culture of loss and hopelessness amongst young Iranians in the period following the war.

Unlike the narrative of depression in other places, however, Behrouzan found that the Iranian category of depreshen held deep political meanings. The illness category reflected the condition of those unable to publicly mourn for friends and family who may have been executed as political prisoners, or to process grief about continued political unrest that seemed to have no resolution, or to understand the loss of a parent during wartime as a young child. As one Iranian blogger described, “our delights were small: cheap plastic footballs, cartoons and game cards… But our fears were big: what if a bomb targets our house?” Thus depreshen becomes an experience of suffering that reverberates throughout a generation.

However, Iranian psychiatry responds to this condition outside of its cultural context, and continues to treat depreshen as an individual patient pathology that can be understood in biological terms. By biomedicalizing depreshen in this way without understanding its connection to political struggle, Iranian psychiatry minimizes suffering and “takes away subjects’ abilities to interpret and/or draw on their pain as a political resource.” When we interpret depreshen from the perspective of patients, therefore, we gain a nuanced view of suffering that is at once culturally specific and politically powerful.

March 2015: Preview of Books Received

This week, we are featuring previews of five books received for review at Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry. Be sure to check out more articles, reviews, commentaries, and case studies published in the first issue of volume 39 (2015) here: http://link.springer.com/journal/volumesAndIssues/11013

via Westview Press

via Westview Press

Language, Culture, and Society: An Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology

Zdenek Salzmann, James Stanlaw, and Nobuko Adachi, eds.

This textbook was first published in 1993, and this is the book’s sixth edition. The new incarnation of Language, Culture, and Society features has been revised and expanded with further explanation of the sociocultural context of language. It is also complete with class exercises, discussion questions, and other student resources. The book pays special attention to multilingual and transnational linguistic anthropology.

More details from Westview Press here: http://westviewpress.com/books/language-culture-and-society/

Via UC Press

Via UC Press

Haunting Images: A Cultural Account of Selective Reproduction in Vietnam

Tine M. Gammeltoft

This ethnographic account explores the lives of pregnant women in Hanoi, Vietnam whose fetuses were deemed biologically abnormal after ultrasound examinations. Gammeltoft considers the moral dilemmas these women face against the backdrop of their everyday lives and the roles of their family members in reproductive decision-making.

More details from UC Press here: http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520278431

Via UC Press

Via UC Press

Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility

Susan Starr Sered and Maureen Norton-Hawk

This ethnographic work traces Boston women’s experiences of sexual abuse, violence, inadequate social and therapeutic programs, and the impacts of local and federal policies on incarceration and criminal punishment. The authors consider how these women’s struggles are cast aside as the consequences of “bad choices” and “personal flaws,” and how marginalized women make their way in this “unforgiving world.”

More details from UC Press here: http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520282797

Via Duke UP

Via Duke UP

Given to the Goddess: South Indian Devadasis and the Sexuality of Religion

Lucinda Ramberg

Ramberg’s account addresses a unique cultural tradition in South India, where girls and sometimes boys are married to a goddess. They have sex with partner outside of traditional marriage and conduct holy rites outside of the goddess’ temple, and complicate the boundaries between what is male and female. The author argues that goddess marriages challenge existing notions of gender, marriage, and religious practice.

More details from Duke UP here: https://www.dukeupress.edu/Given-to-the-Goddess/index-viewby=subject&categoryid=27&sort=newest.html

Via Johns Hopkins UP

Via Johns Hopkins UP

Generic: The Unbranding of Modern Medicine

Jeremy Greene

This text is a social, political, and cultural history of the rise in generic pharmaceuticals. It tracks the development of modern generic drugs from early 20th century hacks who counterfeited popular medications through the growth in powerful corporations who first produced un-branded drugs. Greene describes generic drugs as a seminal movement towards more equitable, affordable medical care by giving patients quality medicines at a reduced price.

More details from Johns Hopkins UP here: https://jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/content/generic

Upcoming Conferences in Social Studies of Science/Medicine: Fall 2015

If you have an event to add to this list, please contact Julia Balacko at jcb193@case.edu with the name of the event/conference, date(s), location, and a link to the event page or a brief description. This list is for conference in the Fall of 2015 (August-December.) All conferences/events are organized chronologically by date.


 Seventh International Conference on Science in Society: “Educating Science”

October 1-2 2015 – Chicago, Illinois

http://science-society.com/the-conference/call-for-papers

A Critical Moment: Sex/Gender Research at the Intersection of Culture, Brain, & Behavior Conference

October 23-24 2015 – Los Angeles, California

http://www.thefprconference2015.org/

Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) Annual Meeting

November 11-14 2015 – Denver, Colorado

http://www.4sonline.org/meeting

American Anthropological Association 2015 Annual Meeting: “Familiar/Strange”

November 18-22 2015 – Denver, Colorado

http://www.aaanet.org/meetings/

Logo via AAA website

Logo via AAA website

History of Science Society Annual Meeting

November 19-22 – San Francisco, California

http://hssonline.org/meetings/annual-meeting-archive/