The Unlimited Realm of the Limit: Objectivity and Schizophrenia 

By Vincent Normand
  • Vincent Normand

    Vincent Normand is an writer and curator living in Paris. His exhibitions projects include Sinking Islands (Labor, Mexico City, 2012), Fun Palace (Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2010) as well as the three parts project The Sirens' Stage, Le Stade des Sirènes, Lo stato delle sirene (David Roberts Art Foundation, Londres ; Fondation Kadist, Paris ; Fondazione Nomas ; Rome ; 2010). He is co-author of the films Metaxu (with Fabien Giraud, 2011) and Counter History of Separation (with Etienne Chambaud, 2010). From 2010 to 2012 he co-directed the art space FORDE in Geneva, Switzerland. He is co-director of Glass Bead, a forthcoming journal and international research laboratory. His texts are published in various magazines and collective publications, and his research has been the object of lectures delivered at the Centre Pompidou (Paris), at the Banff Center (Banff, Canada), or at the Witte de With (Rotterdam). He is also a member of Synapse - International Curators Network at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin.

James Tilly Matthews, drawing of the "Air Loom", reproduced in John Haslam, Illustrations of Madness: Exhibiting a Singular Case of Insanity, And a No Less Remarkable Difference in Medical Opinions: Developing the Nature of An Assailment, And the Manner of Working Events; with a Description of Tortures Experienced by Bomb-Bursting, Lobster-Cracking and Lengthening the Brain, 1810.

If James Tilly Matthews (1770–1815) can be cited as the very first historical case of schizophrenia, it’s owing to the fact that his madness was embedded in an unprecedented stratification of scientific, political, and technological layers that led to the meticulous recording of his symptoms and the careful archiving of his correspondence, until, decades after his death, these elements made the clinical identification and the ‘epistemological conviction’ of his condition possible. The image attached to this text, made by Matthews’ own hands, depicts the object of his hallucinations, an ‘influencing machine’ that he called the Air Loom. Its secret and shadowy mechanism, its analogy with contemporary scientific events, and its hyperbolical connection with political events of the time, incite interpretation to focus on its hazy edges, to understand its workings in light of the order of knowledge that shaped its context of apparition: it opens a space for the projection of a vertical gaze onto the constitution of the rationalist boundaries that animated the enlightened ‘space of Reason’. Indeed, the layers in which Matthews’s schizophrenia were inscribed pertain to the divides, limits, and borders by which Western modernity has worked at stabilizing its structure of production and the representation of truth. The Air Loom, with its alliance of Euclidean geometry and paranoia, of obscure chemistry and conspiracy, of mechanics and psychiatry, of repressed science and politics, seems to provide a distorting mirror to scientific modernity, to inhabit a paradoxical space in which epistemic divides are all at once put to work, torn apart more sharply, and relaunched further. The Air Loom, understood as a world-making image that exteriorizes the interiority of a subject (however delusional), can thus be said to navigate a modern border, a frontier between an object of scientific attention (madness) and the technology by which this attention produces factual truth (the clinic): the boundary that both pulls apart and connects objectivity and schizophrenia.


The Double Agent and the Stereoscopic Machine

James Tilly Matthews’ biography is inscribed in the political and scientific history of Europe at the end of the eighteenth century. A tea merchant of Radical sympathies, Matthews made several trips to Paris during the Reign of Terror, where he witnessed the tireless toil and clockwork precision of the guillotine (la Machine), and developed a solipsistic obsession with the science of Mesmerism (or Animal Magnetism), whose invisible currents were deeply woven into the fabric of the French Revolution and its representation of the body politic. 1Franz-Anton Mesmer’s claim was that there existed an invisible influence throughout Nature, “an universally distributed fluid, so continuous as to admit of no vacuum, incomparably rarefied, and by its nature able to receive, propagate and communicate all motion.” Many Revolution leaders (such as Nicolas Bergasse and Jacques-Pierre Brissot) conceived of this magnetic fluid as the scientific proof that there existed a material manifestation of humans’ essential equality beyond any social distinction, including the distinction between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie. In France, Matthews convinced himself that the Jacobins, just as they had corrupted the ideals of the Enlightenment to their despotic ends, had corrupted Enlightenment science so as to secretly control political events by building ‘Air Looms’, by which a centralized intentionality was held accountable for the chaos of the time. Matthews persuaded both himself and some leading political figures in London and among the French Girondins, that he was a double agent in a position to negotiate peace between Britain and France. After imprisonment in Paris, Matthews eventually returned home in an agitated state and, after shouting abuse in the House of Commons in 1796, was confined to Bedlam psychiatric hospital, where he drew his map of the Air Loom.

John Haslam, who examined Matthews at Bedlam, included the image of the Air Loom in Illustrations of Madness, the psychiatric report he dedicated to his patient, published in 1810. The text that accompanied the illustration scrupulously reconstructed the world of the Air Loom, as conveyed by Matthews over the years. From the work of the writer Mike Jay, who recently gave an exhaustive interpretation of this book and of its inscription into the history of medicine 2Mike Jay, The Influencing Machine: James Tilly Matthews and the Air Loom Gang (London: Strange Attractor Press, 2012)., we could reconstitute a broad description of the Air Loom as envisioned by Matthews.

In a basement cellar close to the London Wall, an anonymous gang was allegedly controlling and tormenting Matthews’ mind with magnetic fluids and rays. The machine they had developed for this purpose, the Air Loom, combined recent developments in gas chemistry with the strange force of Animal Magnetism. It incorporated keys, levers, barrels, batteries, sails, and brass retorts, and worked by directing and modulating magnetically charged airs and gases. It ran on a mixture of substances like “spermatic-animal-seminal rays,” “effluvia of dogs,” and “putrid human breath.” The gaseous substances, made magnetic by the machine, passed into its upper parts, which were always unclear to Matthews but seemed to incorporate arrangements of cylinders and canvas sails, from which the magnetic rays emerged, programmed to deliver thoughts, feelings, and sensations directly into Matthews’ brain. The Air Loom was being operated by a gang of undercover Jacobin revolutionaries, who had forced Britain into war with Revolutionary France and were bent on maintaining hostilities between the two nations. Among them, a sadistic puppet-master and strategist, codenamed Bill the King, acted as the leader of this gang, while all operations were recorded by his sarcastic and punctilious second-in-command, Jack the Schoolmaster. But the gang’s activity was not directed solely at Matthews; rather, he was the only witness to a conspiracy that had already engulfed Europe. Matthews believed that there were, in fact, many Air Loom gangs all over London, influencing the minds of politicians and public figures, and with a particularly firm grasp of the British prime minister, William Pitt, whom they could control whenever he addressed parliament. In Paris, too, the Directory was being manipulated by Air Looms, as were the crowned heads of Prussia and beyond. By influencing the minds of politicians, the gangs were threatening national and international catastrophe.

In the world of the Air Loom, the machine and its victims are equally automata. Their respective ‘workings’ are made of an infinity of discontinuities (the Air Loom is defined by the primary trapping of the machine: interrupters; the victim’s actions are severed from intentionality), yet their bond consists in a continuity that remains blurry to the subject and radically exceeds his understanding. Hence, in this hiatus, is a psychosis that leads Matthews to see meaning everywhere, in every mediation with his environment, tearing off the cultural fabric: political events, scientific developments, social trends, or what Mike Jay calls “over-the-horizon prophecies.”. The shadows of Mesmerism, of the Terror, of the transformation by the guillotine of clinical violence into political routine, and of the gradual stabilization of bicameralism in modern politics, are all cast on the Air Loom. The machine thus appears as both a cognitive mirror of Matthews’ delirium and a historical mirror of Europe’s becoming at the turn of the century. The more the Air Loom and its network of secret channels of communication are described, the more they appear as devices weaving together that which was in the process of being bisected by political and ideological ravines. As a matter of fact, to pursue his work as a peacemaker, Matthews had to become a double agent, to split in two, by holding mutually exclusive and increasingly hostile views, depending on whom he was addressing. The Air Loom provided Matthews with this double agency, while allowing him to reject responsibility for half of his actions, some might be his own, or they might equally be mechanical impositions, forced into his head by magnetic workers.

Ultimately, from the depth of its invisible workings, the hallucinatory device that is the Air Loom seems to project an outermost border (a limit that oscillates between the Channel and Europe) toward which Matthews’ delusion launches its paranoid narrative arcs, and in reflection to which he keeps instituting his central heuristic position. In a classic schizoid fashion, Matthews’ direct, boundary-crossing, ‘geodesic’ lines of signification, satisfying a need for causality, invent salient narrative continuities in place of the implicit discontinuities that sever the self from the whole. In this regard, the articulation of visibility and invisibility symbolized by the Air Loom suggests an economy of the gaze analog to the abstract model of the disciplinary society under construction: the panopticon. The Air Loom, understood as the aggregator of Matthews’ delusional ‘captures’, can be said to be a stereoscopic machine, an optical apparatus through which the schizophrenic subject all at once operates a division between real and perceived worlds, and fathoms their simultaneity, by holding them in a meaningful and productive constellation.


The Object of the “Schize”

The striking correlation of the Air Loom with contemporary events could lead one to overtly ‘naturalize’ this first case of schizophrenia as the mere consequence on human consciousness of the new ideological and technological environment brought about by the political and industrial revolutions of the time. From the seductions of such a naturalization, we should avoid its reductionist tendencies, and retain only its speculative drive, by being stereoscopic ourselves, and by considering the Air Loom as a world-making image whose hallucinatory overlap with the world of the moderns addresses its cosmography.

The epistemological cuts (or ‘great divides’), by which the modern cosmography of taxonomy operates, can be said to consist primarily of clinical gestures. Michel Foucault’s renowned work on the history of madness and the archeology of medical perception 3In Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (1961), and The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception (1963). has demonstrated how the “anatomico-clinical” method of auscultation of symptoms on bodies reached an anthropological significance, in that it came to constitute the implicit lattice of the modern experience of knowledge at large. 4This analysis is paralleled in Peter Sloterdijk’s provocative qualification of the anatomy dissection tables as the “altars” of modernity, in Peter Sloterdijk, Sphères III: Écumes, trans. Olivier Mannoni (Paris: Maren Sell Éditeurs, 2005). The modern slicing of things into epistemic categories, as well as their articulation in a language by which modern science affirmed its positivity, indeed pertain to the gestures of border production specifically attached to the kind of institution in which James Tilly Matthews was confined. The rise of a limit between reason and non-reason (or between the sane and the insane) consists of a denaturalizing cut, a gesture of caesura that lets tumble, on both sides of its sharp-cutting edge, entities suddenly made mute and deaf to each other, hence requiring the synthetic mediation of an institution of scientific veridiction able to make them ‘speak’ again: the clinic. The epistemic model of the clinical gesture is thus essentially double in nature: on the one hand, it silences the non-reason it objectifies by imprinting around it limits that disconnect it from the world of Reason, and, on the other hand, these limits are precisely that which assembles a new continuity between non-reason and the rationalist world of the moderns, by allowing for objective truths produced on the former to resonate in the later.

The clinic can be enlarged as the model of modern knowledge in that it mirrors the dialectical articulation of the visible and the utterable by which scientific modernity at large, by way of the isolation of objective truths, has worked at delineating its ‘space of Reason’. As the historians of science Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison argue, 5Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, Objectivity (New York: Zone Books, 2007). the modern notion of objectivity, as opposed to other epistemic ideals in their making of scientific images (‘truth-to-nature’ or ‘trained judgment’), consists of a tool of veridiction that not only bolsters the process of an objectification of things in Nature, but culminates in a regime of visibility in which the very act of seeing finds its vanishing point in the subjectivity of the observer. Objectivity, understood as an epistemic orientation building an immediate correlation between that which is seen and that which can be said of it, defines the ‘triangle of truth’ assembled by the clinical gestures of scientific modernity: it raises limits and borders that run through Nature indeed, but that also cross through the interior of the subject, through the body, through the eyes of the scientific community, through modern culture. The sleight of hand of modern knowledge could thus be identified in the specific way the rationalist boundaries and objective limits it imprints in the world constantly naturalize themselves, by universalizing their language, hence appearing as facts obscuring their existence as mere instruments of epistemic appraisal: the logic of the limit enacts all at once the denaturalization of the objects it examines and the naturalization of the borders it imprints between them.

This twofold nature of the modern gesture of division has led Bruno Latour, among others, to undertake a ‘symmetrical anthropology’ of the ‘great divides’, in which he famously argued that “the Moderns see double.” 6Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993). According to him, there exists a fundamental dissociation in the world rendered by modern knowledge: a gradual divorce between the theory the moderns produced of themselves (a narrative of purification, of isolation of objective meanings in Nature, of radical discontinuity between Nature and Culture, between subjects and objects) and what the moderns did in practice (a story of hybridization, of ceaseless associations between Nature and technics, of incessant combinations between objective reality and subjectivity in the construction of ‘quasi-objects’). By working at understanding the laws according to which Nature was functioning, the moderns can be said to have engineered Nature.

This ‘seeing double’ simply sheds light on the fact that the clinical gestures operated in the world of the moderns, as well as their constant naturalization as objective truths, make of modern epistemic activity a fundamentally schizophrenic regime. In light of Daston and Galison’s description of objectivity, Latour’s statement should be taken at face value: the modern literally sees double, by constantly facing the unlimited recurrence of the limit. The modern always has to chose to look at an object either from the side of his subjectivity as observer, or from that of the objectivity of the observed. In this configuration, the very activity of knowledge implies a decision that consists of the management of an ever-deepening chasm, an inscrutable “schize” 7“Schize” is a term introduced by Jacques Lacan in Seminar XI (1963–64) to distinguish between “conscious vision” (that produces specular images verifying the identity of the observed, thus “purchasing” data from it) and “gaze” (that corresponds, at a more primitive level, to the movement of “predation” of the scopic pulsion). on the sides of which subjects and objects are constantly re-distributed, a split one might want to call a ‘line of schizophrenia’ equally and symmetrically inscribed in the objective world and the subject.


The Air Loom: the Warp and Weft of Modernity

As Timothy Morton points out 8In Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007)., current neurophysiology has suggested that a nicotinic receptor in the hypothalamus, called Alpha-7, enables the brain to perform distinctions between foreground and background sounds, between unintentional patterns (such as noise) and intentional sounds carrying meaning and framing attention (such as speech), and that breakdowns in neurotransmission across this receptor may be partly responsible for schizophrenic symptoms such as hearing voices emanating from sonic sources that are normally ignored (radiators, air vents, ambient noise). This hypothesis makes of schizophrenia the outline of salient manifestations in a field of ‘mute’ or implicit phenomena, the delineation of meaningful figures out of a field of percepts that do not explicitly call for the attention of a subject.

This process of formalization and organization of salience by way of delineations conferring meaning is precisely where objectivity, despite the discontinuity it imprints between its rational activity and madness, connects with schizophrenia. It seems that the Air Loom as a stereoscopic machine and the illustrious seeing double of the moderns consist of two visualizing technologies with a symmetrical relation with the twofold logic of the limit that shaped modern epistemology. Considering the workings of the Air Loom, objectivity and schizophrenia indeed appear as two modes of border projection that, from a background of experience, events, and objects, bring salience to the foreground, and organize their ‘productive’ agency. They are two meticulous machines of explicitation that, while radically set apart by the modern dichotomy between the darkness of error and phantasm and the lights of truth and revelation, address, in their opposition, the very meshing of the modern space of Reason: where the modern process of the objectification of Nature splits knowledge into objective and subjective worlds, the Air Loom splits the self into real and perceived worlds.

In the geometry produced by this split, the Air Loom reverses the ‘triangle of truth’ that the clinic assembles between reason, non-reason, and the scientific institution that produces veridiction from its reciprocal objectification. It inverts the orientation of its apex. The particular economy of the imagery of the Air Loom indeed seems to consist of a mimetic materialization of the model provided by the duality of clinical gestures: on the one hand it is the expression of a boundary (in that it allowed the epistemological conviction of Matthews’ schizophrenia), and, on the other hand, it materializes the reciprocal projection of the domains of objectification and subjectification in each other (by way of sudden blends of the subject’s sensory faculties with technology in hallucinatory experiences of ‘mediality’). The Air Loom is thus an image ‘parroting’ or ‘aping’ the clinical divides that work at repelling it, as a symptom, at the border of Reason: it functions as a counter-figure of the modern order of rationality. So well that, in this mimetic agency, the clinic makes of the Air Loom a symptomatic articulation of its own rationalist boundaries. This agency is the rule of the morphology and the symbolic economy of a world-making image like the Air Loom: there is a symptomatic simultaneity and a manifest solidarity between the apparition of this image in the imaginary of Reason and the clinical gestures that work at containing it outside the bounds of Reason. 9This agency finds its literal and practical expression in the fact that James Tilly Matthews, while confined at Bedlam psychiatric hospital, took part in a public competition to design plans for the rebuilding of the clinic, and that his drawings were finally used in the architecture of the new hospital, in a singular reversal of the construction of the relation between madness and the instrument of objectification of its symptoms.

In the extent of James Tilly Matthews’ case, the continuity between the two apparatuses of border production in which consist schizophrenia and objectivity lies in the morphology of the mimetic articulation between the Air Loom and the clinic, in the form the Air Loom provides to the apparition of schizophrenia in the epistemological horizon and the imaginary of the moderns. The Air Loom can indeed be said to consist not only of epistemological and psychological expression, but also of a morphological expression of the modern space of Reason. The machine does not produce signification, it disembowels the narrative fabric of the time of its apparition and reassembles its incoherent splinters into a new morphology, a discrete facies. The machine does not produce signs, it does not function as the index or as the partial enunciator of a more elevated or more abstract realm of knowledge, rather, it works peacefully in a circulation of gestures by way of which the silent glory of its automatism alone is stated. There is no hidden meaning in the Air Loom, just a secret form. The machine does not produce any logic, linguistic, or semantic agency for the schizophrenic subject, precisely, it projects the subject down into an aleatory field of morphological events whose continuities remain hazy, precisely because they consist of chains of transformations that are not reasonable. Its enigma thus pertains to the fact that its workings are taken in an indeterminate number of potential configurations, in a rigorous though uncontrollable polyvalence: outside language.

Understood in its morphological continuities with the clinic and the order of rationality of the moderns, the power of an image like the Air Loom resides in the fact that it temporarily subverts the modern dichotomy between truth and error, by bringing into dialogue a whole generous world of forms that the clinic, in turn, in its laboratory situation, deprives of relatedness by placing between them its monologic truth. The workings of an image like the Air Loom, incorporating both the morphology of the modern gesture of division and the operation of its transgression, thus cannot be exhausted only in the description of the set of causalities that make it an expressive figure of its own historical, scientific and epistemological background. The comprehension of its ‘mimetic debt’ toward the systemic conditions of modernity indeed calls forth its stereoscopic articulation, which in turn calls to task modernity at large as a reversible image. Hence, such a ‘stereoscopy’, one that holds together figures like the Air Loom and structural schemes like the clinic, would consist both of an archeology of the historical conditions of their division and of a vantage from which to address a set of symmetrical instabilities where images, expressions, and formal articulations lie.