Problems with academic writing on the history of survivor/user activism
Reflections on a mental health service users' conference with historians
The meeting was not only enjoyable but also a real eye-opener for me. I guess I was listening with a particular perspective in mind: as an academic who works on the history of user/survivor activism; who thinks academic work in this area is important but worries all the same about its 'credibility', about the issue of whether it can ever 'do justice to' the movement itself etc. My memories relate very specifically to this perspective so apologies if it comes across as a bit self-indulgent.
As I said at the meeting, often academic writing comes from a particular theoretical perspective (Marxism, feminism etc.) and this is used as a way of imposing a certain order upon what can seem to be the infinity of historical facts. But as a part of this process a number of simplifying manoeuvres occur which threaten to do violence to grassroots activism. I do not think this means that we should do away with 'theory'; I think that is neither possible nor desirable. But I do agree that over-simplification has taken place.
An example: one of the most prominent and comprehensive histories of the British movement to have appeared in recent years is Nick Crossley's Contesting Psychiatry (2006). I know this work well. I worked with Nick for many years at the University of Manchester and also know his previous work on the movement which stretches back over a decade now. I do want to defend the quality, the significance of this work. But it seems to me that the discussions that took place at the meeting raise a number of issues about the incompleteness of this work and, consequently, for academic writing in general, which obviously implicates my own work on the self-harm survivor movement between 1986 and 2000. The meeting has stimulated me to specify some of these thoughts.
First, I do not think we should tar all academics with the same brush. Some have only ever been within academia; others come to academia by a circuitous route which may involve all sorts of political activism and social movement participation. Nick would be an example of the former; Helen and I of the latter. Nick is a sociologist in the 'pure' sense of seeing sociology as an important discipline that makes claims that may even be regarded as 'scientific'. This has definite consequences for his work on the movement, which he tends to regard as an 'object' of research rather than something he believes in, cares about, and is a part of. Put it another way: the movement is not part of his 'identity'. His work lacks an obvious political, or ethical, dimension. What he does do is take the movement seriously as an 'object' of research and he provides an intelligible 'story' about its history and its changing patterns of political activism.
I want to move on to my specific memories of the meeting, but first I want to say what I think that 'story' is that Nick presents in his work. I am doing this because one of my abiding memories of the meeting is that it highlighted some of the inadequacies of the academic approach. At the risk of gross over-simplification, I think the 'story' Nick presents of the period 1970 - 2000 (ish) is this:
Political activism in mental health mirrors wider features of society and tracks socio-cultural change. In other words, when you have a political culture that stresses left-wing activism, Marxism, the legitimacy of trade unionism, you will get mental health activism that follows suite. In terms of the history of user/survivor activism in Britain this sets up a series of 'correspondences' of the following kind:
Now, what struck me most at the meeting was the way in which the contributions of Andrew, Frank, Ian, Phil, Peter and Clare exposed the incompleteness of this historical perspective. Andrew's comments on the MPU, its origins and activism, for instance, imply that a revision of this history is an urgent task. I think that Andrew's account implies that the relation of the MPU to later activism contains strong continuities as well as discontinuities, which Nick Crossley's account emphasises. Presumably, the archive that is being collected would support Andrew's perspective. So, I guess the first thought I had as I wended my way back up North was this: a revisionist history of the MPU is urgently needed, one which perhaps takes as its point of departure, not the Paddington Day Hospital-MPU relation (as Helen and Nick do) but, rather, the SUMP-MPU relation, which we know far less about. This 'revisionist history' would also stress the autonomous nature and localised activism of the various MPUs. I do not think this new account of the MPU need necessarily stand in complete opposition to the other accounts but it would show that they are, as they stand, incomplete. I think, for this revisionist account to work, everything turns upon what we can find in the archive, especially regarding SUMP and the autonomous MPUs. One of the problems here is that Nick and Helen have already unearthed material that has been 'hidden from history'; now we face the daunting task of uncovering material that has been even more submerged. Not for nothing did Michel Foucault call historical work 'archaeology'.
The question of 'what we may find submerged in the archive' raises another issue. I want to summarise this in terms of the fascinating exchange which took place between Ian and Andrew who can, of course, correct me if I have misinterpreted them. Briefly: Andrew stressed the objectivity of the attempt by the group to compile its archive, referring to the efforts of keeping boxes, files etc. often over many years. Frank said that the boxes in his flat are piled high. I agree with the essential 'objectivity' of this task. But Ian's response was equally persuasive: we should not devalue the subjective side of the archive in the name of 'objectivity' - it possesses its own value and this is in no sense some kind of 'second-rate' knowledge. This point has to also be correct: medicine and psychiatry have an ignominious history of denigrating the knowledge produced by users/survivors as being 'merely subjective'.
This issue is difficult to disentangle because it does go to the heart of the task of historical writing. Briefly, historians (and historical sociologists of my type) have taken two contrasting perspectives on the issue of the ultimate 'truth' of what they do. Either:-
2. They see history as being about 'multiple perspectives' each of which may contain a certain limited 'truth' but which cannot be aggregated together to produce one 'ultimate truth' of an historical period or subject. According to this account, history is always 'subjective' and always open to interpretation and reinterpretation.
Somehow, it seems important to hold both of these perspectives in mind, though in practice it is very difficult. An example from my own work: I think the 'facts' really matter and it can be shown objectively that self-harm survivor activism arose as a combination of mental health activism (e.g. Louise Pembroke through Survivors Speak Out) and feminist activism in Bristol (e.g. Maggy Ross and the Bristol Crisis Service for Women) in the period 1986-1990. I am happy to defend these as 'facts'. But fast-forward ten years and we find that the movement actually contains two very different types of activism: that associated with the campaigning of Louise and the National Self-Harm Network and that associated with Sharon LeFevre in North Wales around the Action, Consultancy and Training Group. These are both equally 'facts' and they do share some points of similarity; but they are also very different perspectives on self-harm survivor activism.
The other issue from the meeting that really struck me - it relates to the issue of 'multiple perspectives' - was the significance of 'localism'. This is, perhaps, very hard for an academic to grasp because we are constantly being implored to adopt an 'international perspective' in our work, and certainly publishers like and expect that. But the recollections of Andrew, Frank, Peter, Clare, Phil and Ian also stressed the importance of a local perspective. Maybe I am demonstrating a certain Northern bias here - I tend to see 'London' as just one (very big) thing! But what is very clear is that local histories and patterns of activism may actually be very different in Hackney, Ealing etc. Why? This, it seems to me would be a different and innovative way of doing the history of the movement: not in terms of a national perspective; not in terms of an international perspective; not in terms of a subject- specific perspective (hearing voices, self-harm, anti-ECT etc), but in terms of a geographical locale. In my own work, for instance, it is very clear that Bristol feminist activism and its links with mental health activism was very important in the period 1985-1990; but actually, there has never been a detailed grassroots account provided of this.
Finally, as I wended my way back up North, I found myself thinking of the words of the Czech writer Milan Kundera. 'History', Kundera said, 'represents the triumph of memory over forgetting'. That sums up the significance of the day and of the group's efforts for me.
There can be no doubt that the history of the movement has been 'hidden' - there has been a lot of pressure applied to 'forget' - and that when it has seen light of day in the work of academics, say, it has been and remains incomplete. This places a definite 'responsibility' upon academics who work in this area and that 'responsibility' is in the nature of a political and ethical commitment, not a 'scientific' task. At the same time, users/survivors have so far been given only minimal opportunities to record their own history - I am thinking here of Peter being given just 3,000 words to recount the history of the movement when he has been its most exemplary chronicler for twenty years or more.
So, it seems to me, that if 'memory' truly is to 'triumph over forgetting' for the history of the movement, two imperatives seem to apply:
First, and most urgently, more opportunities for people with direct experience of psychiatry need to be pursued to recount their historical experiences and their analyses of those experiences whether through written publication, public exhibition or multi-media work. I am thinking here of something like an 'activist' equivalent of the 'Testimony' archive of experiences in the old Asylums compiled by Mental Health Media, digitised and stored now for all time in the British Library. Clearly, the work of the History Project would be central to this, however we choose to take the manifesto forward. I am stressing the importance here of 'experience + analysis' - not only 'experience' - because I worry that sometimes the powersthat- be are quite happy to embrace the 'survivor's voice' tokenistically without taking any notice whatsoever of the criticism contained within it. I have found the work of the Mental Health Media 'Testimony' project to be powerful precisely because the cumulative testimonies contained within it amount to an extensive and overwhelming critique. One of the reasons the powers-that-be want people to 'forget', it seems to me, is that 'remembering' can be so very critical of them.
Second, I do not think we should give up on academia, though, of course, I would say that wouldn't I! Rather, it is important to identify and work in alliance with 'academic-activists' who accept the sorts of 'responsibilities' I have outlined above. Such 'academic-activists' reject both the idea of the 'ivory tower intellectual' and the 'academic in the service of government' function and, instead, embrace the idea of being 'embedded' within the movements they write about and whose democratic goals they work to promote. There is a limited and secondary role for academia in this project; but it is not an altogether meaningless one.
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