Building the Virtual Asylum: Protecting the Boundaries of Normality Through the Visualization of Madness

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Numerous researchers have given sustained focus to how visual representations impact public perceptions of mental illness. Often, however, analyses of such images focus upon the visual representations of mental illness without moving beyond an argument advocating for the abandonment of such imagery. A shift from focusing solely upon the recognition of problematic images toward examining the complexity of why these images persist can provide additional insight into the dominant and often entrenched cultural practices and understandings that serve to protect the boundaries of a presumed normality. Michel Foucault’s writing and lectures on madness provide an important foundation for considering the relationship between stigmatization and visual culture. Foucault’s archaeology explores an ongoing tendency to place the “mad” out of sight and/or to return the mad to a position of temporary visibility in order to elucidate moral arguments or to display these individuals as specimens for scientific analysis. Informed by Foucault’s (1961) archaeology of madness, Julia Kristeva’s (1982) concept of the abject, and Nicholas Mirzoeff’s (2002) application of Jacques Derrida’s (1994) “hauntology” to a visual culture of exile, this paper explores how the identity of the “normal” is constructed through the fear of and confinement of the “abnormal” within the virtual “asylum” of visual culture. In this sense, the actual definition of stigma through its references to a literal and metaphorical marking of the body can provide insight into what underlies these desires to mark and control the “mentally ill” Other through and within visual culture.


Keywords: Disability, Visual Culture, Art, Mental Illness
Stream: Representations: Media, Communications, Arts, Literature
Presentation Type: Virtual Presentation in English
Paper: A paper has not yet been submitted.


Dr. Jennifer Eisenhauer

Assistant Professor, Department of Art Education, The Ohio State University
Columbus, OH, USA

Dr. Eisenhauer is Assistant Professor of Art Education at The Ohio State University where she teaches courses related to social and cultural issues in art and education. She received a dual-Ph.D. in Art Education and Women’s Studies from The Pennsylvania State University. Her research is framed by an interest in postmodern and poststructural theories of pedagogy, language, and subjectivity particularly as they relate to the construction of individual, social, and cultural identities through visual representation. She has written on such topics as the cultural construction of girls and girl cultures, zine cultures as pedagogical sites, and the cultural representations of physical and mental disabilities. In her most recent project, The Visual Culture of Stigma, she continues to explore issues regarding visual subjectivity as related specifically to the representation of mental illness in historical art, medical imagery, and contemporary visual culture. In her artwork, she explores similar themes through performance, installation, and video. She has presented papers at local, national, and international venues and most recently published “Just Looking and Staring Back: Challenging Ableism Through Women’s Disability Performance Art” in Studies in Art Education.

Ref: D08P0006