Plenary Abstract: WJT Mitchell

The Rule of Madness

Prof WJT Mitchell, Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor of English and Art History, University of Chicago

This lecture will explore the relation between the ‘rule of law’ in the extended sense of sovereignty, governmentality, and socio-political norms in relation to forms of individual and collective insanity. The basic argument is that the rule of law is predicated on a counter-regime of mental disorder—what I call ‘the rule of madness’. Nietzsche’s remark, ‘Insanity in individuals is somewhat rare, but in groups, parties, nations, and epochs, it is the rule’, provides the inspiration for this talk, which will focus on the way structures of governmentality respond to background assumptions about collective tendencies to madness and disorder. Of particular interest will be the problem of democracy and popular self-rule. The American Constitution, in particular, will be read as a ‘mental health document’ that translates the principles of individual faculty psychology into a structure of governmentality. Monarchy, anarchism, and authoritarianism will also be considered.

Prof WJT Mitchell is the Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor of English and Art History at the University of Chicago. He has been editor of the interdisciplinary journal Critical Inquiry since 1978, a quarterly devoted to critical theory in the arts and human sciences. A scholar and theorist of media, visual art, and literature, Mitchell is associated with the emergent fields of visual culture and iconology (the study of images across the media). He is known especially for his work on the relations of visual and verbal representations in the context of social and political issues.

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