For 2020 LSA Collegiate Fellow Renée Ragin Randall, madness is one way of understanding war, but not in the way one may think. Her current project looks at how Lebanese artists use film, fiction, and photography to illustrate how madness has impacted Lebanon and its current post-colonial state.
As a former U.S. Foreign Service Officer, Randall also studies militarization in the Global South and how it has influenced literary and visual culture. Randall spoke with LSA about her research, the United States, the concept of moral injury, and why more humanists need to study it.
LSA: You study the theme of “madness,” specifically how writers and visual artists have used the word as an idiom to describe the Lebanese civil war (1975–1990) and its political and socioeconomic impacts. Can you talk more about that with examples of how these creatives explored madness to symbolize the climate before and after the war?
Renée Ragin Randall: I’ll start with the disclaimer that the aphorism that “war is madness” is neither new nor singular to Lebanese cultural production. Representations of how large-scale bloodshed can destabilize individuals and their societies can be found in ancient texts such as Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey and contemporary works like Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now.
My specific interest in madness in the context of Lebanon was prompted by two works of literary fiction, both of which were written by a Syrian journalist and author, Ghada al-Samman. In two of her novels, she writes of a profound madness that takes hold of the capital city, Beirut, during the civil war. She describes Beirut’s inhabitants as increasingly violent and irrational. Her characters suffer nervous breakdowns, and the poles of sanity and insanity seem to invert as the most innocent are left to fend for themselves.
In one of her most biting critiques, al-Samman describes the city as a psychiatric asylum whose doors have been flung open. Underscoring the pervasiveness of this condition, the presentation of the narrative voice slips away from traditional realist prose and takes the forms of dreams, nightmares, allegories, hallucinations, and even stories of the supernatural.
Al-Samman’s fiction, however, offers up a claim slightly more nuanced than “war is madness.” It suggests that a madness of sorts had been present before the war—rooted in specific political, social, and economic conditions—which itself led to violence.
In my research, I look at war-time fiction such as al-Samman’s, as well as post-war film and photography-based artwork, exploring how different mediums of expression from different periods of time make similar arguments about the 15-year conflict and its aftermath. Alongside them, I consider the unique political and social history of this tiny country, circumstances from which a particular experience of madness derives. This combined approach allows me to move away from a helpful, if too universalizing, starting point that “war is madness” and towards an understanding of what madness is and can be in a particular place and time.
LSA: How would you connect the theme of madness as it relates to the United States and how writers/visual artists here (past and/or present) have used the term to describe the state of the country?
RR: The “madness” at the heart of my research is not necessarily what we refer to as mental illness (although it does take that form in some instances). Rather, it is a form of social commentary on the state of both the individual citizen and the collective body politic. As such, both the concept of madness and the form it can take varies, depending on one’s temporal, cultural, and geopolitical context. In other words, even this more metaphorical idea of madness is a social construct. Cultural interest in madness, therefore, will closely mirror evolving norms and ideas in a given population.
By way of illustration, in the 1970s, feminist scholars in the United States, particularly Phyllis Chesler as well as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, revealed a systemic tendency to dismiss the emotional distress of women suffering under patriarchy as “madness.” In other words, rather than acknowledge the toll of workplace discrimination, misogyny, and thin legal protection for women who had been the target of domestic or sexual violence, American society chose to label those on the receiving end as “crazy.”
This failure was repeated both in film and literary representations of female characters: Women “overreacted” to the slightest provocation, the argument went, because they were too emotional—hysterical, even. Many of our cultural producers have used their own creativity to foreground this pernicious cycle of victimization: We can see examples of this from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s canonical short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) to the haunting narrative of Penny, the mother in the 2019 film Joker.
LSA: You are also researching the concept of “moral injury” and trauma in the context of militarization. Can you talk about moral injury in the framework of today’s nonmilitary, political/social world in the age of the COVID pandemic, political unrest, and the continued fight for social justice? Why is it important for humanities scholars to explore this?
RR: The study of moral injury began as a way to think more critically about the post-combat behavior and attitudes of some of the U.S. veterans returning from wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The term was coined by psychiatrist Jonathan Shay in the 1990s. It applied principally to veterans who had witnessed or participated in atrocities. These veterans not only displayed emotional and psychological changes, but also spiritual, ideological, and physiological signs that they felt themselves to be irredeemably cut off from the rest of society. It was the consequence, they felt, of transgressing a moral code that once bound them to a certain standard of humanity: the prohibition against the taking of innocent life.
Over the last few decades, there has been a quiet but noticeable conversation about the possibility that moral injury might also find purchase in the world of civilian life, as well. Perhaps this reflects the militarization of civilian life. Consider, for instance, the police officer who stands aside during a rapidly escalating confrontation between their white colleague and an unarmed black man or woman who ends up murdered. Moral injury might just as easily take root in (supposedly) non-militarized government work: What about the border patrol agent who oversees the separation and confinement of a nursing infant from their mother? And, then, there is the matter of the COVID-19 pandemic. Doctors have had to choose who among their patients will get access to the limited life-saving resources available. While the latter two examples do not pertain to the deliberate taking of life, some have begun to wonder if they might nonetheless qualify as examples of moral injury because they nonetheless result in death.
In a moment where life seems increasingly precarious, managing the impact of this precarity becomes an “all hands on deck” affair. Moral injury was once primarily the interest of psychologists, theologians, and ethicists in the late twentieth century who grappled with the legacies of asymmetrical warfare. Now, it must become the priority of anyone who recognizes that the frontlines have migrated and proliferated, arriving at all of our front doors.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This story is part of a series highlighting the research of LSA Collegiate Fellows, a program of the National Center for Institutional Diversity (NCID) at the University of Michigan. The LSA Collegiate Fellows Program is one of the most unique and innovative programs in higher education, recruiting and retaining faculty who are experts in their fields and have demonstrated commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion through their scholarship, teaching and/or engagement.