Issue #61 April 2023

Mad Utopias – Using Madness as Political Praxis

Rodolfo Morales - Paracaidistas

Utopia is a philosophical project as well as a political and theological one. The grasp for utopia is evident in Marx’s eleventh thesis in which he asserts the purpose of philosophy is not to interpret the world but to change it. Marx poses philosophy as having the noble role of creating a world, hopefully a better one. Utopic thought may be understood as an inevitable eschatological end, or it may be best understood as a project. Utopia is an expansive occurrence and phenomenon rather than a finality. In this light, it is more similar to Nietzsche’s post-structuralism. Nietzsche’s poetic aphorisms in Beyond Good and Evil force us to consider what philosophy is once the structures we bind ourselves to have been dismantled.

Utopia as a project may be understood as a site of contention; one in which we may find ourselves readily abandoning what once was thought of as perfection. In this interpretation of utopia, I find Mad Studies and experiences of madness to be indelibly intertwined.1placeholder Madness is often experienced as a breakage with reality, and utopias also rest upon the ability to break with current sociopolitical realities to create something new. Madness, and the act of going mad, mayprovide insight into utopia.

I do not precisely recall when I first went mad. However, I remember the night I tasted the air and as it curled around my open mouth, I understood the big Something. As my mind clicked into place with the Divine, I knew another world was possible. I knew it more so than when I chanted those same words in political protests, and even deeper than when engaged in political theory. I ontologically became defined by this other world, undefined and yet perfect. The utopic project, in many ways, mirrors my night of madness. It assumes the possibility of a new world, understands that world as necessary, and that the new world will inevitably encounter difficulties and situations as of yet unthinkable.

Madness appeals to a post-structuralist interpretation of utopia. Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy describes art as existing between two forces – one an affirmative frenetic will to life, the other rational and orderly. The will to life is “to endeavor to grow, to gain ground, attract to itself and achieve ascendency…”2placeholder Individuals imbued with the frenetic will to life, “consider it ludicrous or shameful that they should be expected to restore order to the chaotic world.”3placeholder Madness exemplifies this will to life. It is impossible to control one’s mind when mad. It leaps and bounds ahead, uncontrollable. During manic states others can be frustrating because they seem slow. As my mind has raced towards God, I felt a deep irritation as others could not maintain my frenetic pace.

Nietzsche’s theory of amor fati contends that individuals must not only accept their fate but throw themselves into it. They must vociferously answer “yes.” A significant component of the will to life and thereby will to power is to throw off paradigmatic thought, such as the contention that suffering is innately bad. He proposes, instead, that suffering should be embraced, because it is through suffering that human history evolves:

“The discipline of suffering, of GREAT suffering – know ye not that it is only THIS discipline that has produced the elevations of humanity hitherto? The tension of the soul in misfortune which communicates to it its energy, its shuddering in view of rack and ruin, its inventiveness and bravery in undergoing, enduring, interpreting, and exploiting misfortune, and whatever depth, mystery, disguise, spirit, artifice, or greatness has been bestowed upon the soul – has it not been bestowed through suffering, through the discipline of great suffering?”4placeholder

Nietzsche’s arguments propose a model of existing in which individuals radically accept all the aspects of themselves that may be normatively found limiting. I accept that not only am I subject to the tides of madness, but I also accept that the utopic project is ongoing and the potential for suffering is ever present.

Utopic communities such as the Quakers have experienced and faced repression. They initially were forbidden from practicing their faith freely, and their commitment to pacifism was regarded as nearly treasonous during the American Revolution. The Quakers have continued to act upon their belief system in spite of their early discrimination. They are only one such utopic community in the United States; however, they do reflect Nietzsche’s argument that these moments of discrimination can be foundational to a group’s future. Steven Smith argues “pity produces feelings of guilt and obligation that for him diminish the individual’s capacity for self-creation and assertiveness.”5placeholder In a similar vein, Thomas Abrams and Brent Adkins utilize Nietzsche to approach the understanding of the tragic disabled person – they contend that one should not shrug off tragedy, but rather to affirm it.6placeholder By affirming one’s tragedy, one can shrug off the pity that individuals may extend to those experiencing suffering. The affirmation of pain is a pathway towards understanding madness and utopia as a method of asserting one’s own being.

Amor fati is a compulsion to acceptance. It is neither a compulsion to move forwards nor backwards. The acceptance of one’s fate and the embracing of the Self in its entirety does not necessarily preclude a utopic politics if one approaches amor fati from a mad perspective. Madness is a state in which one transcends the normative interpretations of the world. The legacy of the Enlightenment has long constrained our conceptions of the world and what futures are possible, even within leftist theory.

Marxists have long been criticized for having an eschatological theory of utopia. Benjamin critiqued “vulgar Marxists” as having a simplified idea that the proletariat will always move towards a more just future and that Communism will come to fruition due to Marx’s arguments. Anarchists have faced similar critique in a belief that after the revolution, bread and roses will appear. These approaches rely upon a belief that all of the proletariat naturally behave in a given manner and thus the outcome is logically predictable and inevitable. These arguments, while requiring perhaps a leap of faith when it comes to the revolution, all rely upon a logical view of human being, thereby precluding a mad perspective.

Madness is a state of exception to the logical. It develops its own internal logic of critique and revolution. The logic of the mad may be nonsensical to the non-mad. It may diverge and create its own unique perspectives. It innately rebukes the Enlightenment ideals of a logical universe which adheres to given laws. Rather, madness is a transcendent state. It thus presents a unique basis for a political praxis, this is not to say that I, when believing that I can speak to God, should be a political leader. Rather, it is to say that the experience of madness itself allows for a consideration of a politics that must be non-normative. It must be a praxis that rebukes the logic that underpins Western political thought – that of the rational individual who pursues their rights. Instead, it presents a possibility to develop a political praxis of refutation, in which we prioritize and praise the non-rational individuals who assert their vulnerabilities as a site of political praxis.

Madness is not always positive. It may descend into a dark chaos in which one is pursued by terrifying figures. It may hound you, driving you to believing that evil is swiftly behind you. The highs of madness cannot exist without the lows. In many ways they balance one another. I do not propose a praxis which is an absolute reflection of madness. Rather, I propose a political mad praxis that reflects not the visions of madness, but an ontological breakage from the world. I propose an amor fati that does not embrace a normative movement through the world, but one that bubbles over as effervescent as any hypomanic. Nietzsche’s theory of amor fati, if applied to madness, presents an argument that one should embrace the experience of transcendence. Thus, the possible world is one that transcends normative reality, and posits a possibility that perhaps may not be fully realized. We may reach upwards and scrape our fingers against the sky as we drag it to ourselves. We may embrace a world spirit that is grounded in the breathlessness of the not-yet.

Nietzsche focuses exclusively upon the solitary figure of the wanderer, philosopher, and the free spirit. He avoids and derides mass organizations and institutions. In this way, he is an important figure for both Mad Studies and Utopic Studies. He presents a philosophy that is distinctly future oriented. Madness is a breath-taking moment. It is often thrilling, often fearful, sometimes destructive. However, it is consistently eruptive. It breaks one’s normative relationship to the world and presents new possibilities. It breaks boundaries. Utopia necessitates the amor fati of the mad. Utopians must accept and affirm their contemporary situation while also continuing to pursue a rupture with the now, and affirm themselves for a vision that is defined by rupture. Utopians, like the mad, can never be settled, but must always strive for another world. The mad know another world is possible. I have felt it in my bones.

Riley Clare Valentine holds a Ph.D. in Political Science at Louisiana State University. They research neoliberalism as a rationality and how it manifests in language. Additionally, they do work in care ethics and social theory.

Works Cited

Brenda A. LeFrançois, Robert Menzies, and Geoffrey Reaume, eds. Mad Matters: A Critical Reader in Canadian Mad Studies. Canadian Scholars’ Press, 2013; Peter Beresford, “‘Mad’, Mad Studies and Advancing Inclusive Resistance,” Disability & Society 35, no.8(2020): 1337-1342.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy (Penguin Classics, 1993).

Steven Smith, “Equality, Identity and the Disability Rights Movement: From Policy to Practice and from Kant to Nietzsche in More than One Uneasy Move,” Critical Social Policy 25, no.4 (2005).

Thomas Abrams and Brent Adkins, “Tragic Affirmations: Disability Beyond Optimism and Pessimism,” Journal of Medical Humanities 43, no.1(2022).


Brenda A. LeFrançois, Robert Menzies, and Geoffrey Reaume, eds. Mad Matters: A Critical Reader in Canadian Mad Studies. Canadian Scholars’ Press, 2013; Peter Beresford, “‘Mad’, Mad Studies and Advancing Inclusive Resistance,” Disability & Society 35, no.8(2020): 1337-1342.


Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 98.


Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy (Penguin Classics, 1993), 39.


Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 74.


Steven Smith, “Equality, Identity and the Disability Rights Movement: From Policy to Practice and from Kant to Nietzsche in More than One Uneasy Move,” Critical Social Policy 25, no.4 (2005): 562.


Thomas Abrams and Brent Adkins, “Tragic Affirmations: Disability Beyond Optimism and Pessimism,” Journal of Medical Humanities 43, no.1(2022): 127.


April 2023


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Mad Utopias - Using Madness as Political Praxis

by Riley Clare Valentine

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