This issue grew from a desire to explore a topic whose boundaries are porous and whose integrity as a theme could never be contained. To speak or write about the mind is challenging in its very essentials, because all minds are different and any measure of what is neither “typical” nor “normal” is fundamentally problematic and potentially harmful.
Our Studies of the Mind issue is therefore an exploration of identity and of resilience. It is our attempt to get underneath a central aspect of narrative: its capacities to study, represent, and expand the multiple concepts of “the mind.” The works included here take as points of inquiry the unique ways that society and the individual alike conceive of and express the nature of consciousness, subjectivity, memory, self-knowledge, and mental illness. Their authors seek, in their own ways, to map the non-linear experience of mental life.
Here is some of what we learned.
Photography around mental illness is especially positioned to shed light on the gap that everyone perceives between the inner world and the outer world. “We know depression through metaphor,” Andrew Solomon points out in his TED talk. How are metaphors of mental illness expressed through photography, a practice tied to the concrete, the visible?
The photographer Daniel Regan has attempted to visualize the space between scientific diagnosis of his mental illness and what it has been like to live with it. Speaking with Genevieve Walker for this issue, he said of his attempts to communicate with clinicians during his institutionalized treatment for mental illness:
It was dumbfounding to see myself and my most difficult experiences through the eyes of someone else…I often wonder if I would have shown my photography to clinicians at that stage if it would have helped bridge a gap between us as I often felt I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain exactly how I felt. All I had was photographs.
The mind can be a space of dislocation and a site to generate new languages of meaning. In a review of Unbearable Splendor, Sun Yung Shin’s book of poetry as essay, Erin Sharkey identifies the author’s attempts to find new metaphors on the one hand, and new documents on the other, that will help her to express an alienation that for her has no body of precedent. “Shin is at once the human and the replica, observer and the observed, the repelled and the repellant,” Sharkey writes of the author’s use of roboticist Masahiro Mori’s concept of the uncanny valley to describe her experience of transracial adoption.
The mind is terrain for both alienation and refuge. As Michael Ignatieff has put it, disagreements over who belongs where may come to to define the 21st century, perhaps the next century of great migrations and the resistance to them. If that is true, then the literature of this century must look unblinkingly into the depths of those fractures. In her piece, Angela Wright explores painful family secrets, tying the traumatic past of her grandmother—a woman she had never met who was part of the Greek Resistance against the Nazis—to her own struggle with anxiety.
The story of the mind is a non-linear narrative. Kirstin Kaschock begins her piece by quoting the scholar Julia Kristeva, who writes: “One does not begin with the part in order to reach the whole: one begins by infinitizing the totality in order to reach, only later, the finite meaning of each part.” Kaschock articulates the importance of breaks as they shape her life as a writer and a mother and as they relate to modern dance. Her essay probes how the vitality of one important work can give and take meaning from the whole body of work an artist creates.
The mind can be a proving ground for resisting extreme inequality. Amy Shearn’s short story “New City,” a dystopian tale of gentrification, and Tongo Eisen-Martin’s poems for this issue dramatize the urgency and effects of inequality. We wish to thank our guest poetry editor, Christine No, for her sharp and flexible eye, expertly shaping this issue’s poetry section.
This editors’ note has little hope of capturing the full scope of innovative and fierce work to be found in this issue; we invite you to peruse it deeply, repeatedly. Publishing it has reminded us of something better said by psychogeographer and essayist Lauren Elkin in her interview with critic Michele Filgate: the geography of the mind exists in many places. As Elkin told Filgate: “It is not a neutral act to walk in the city, as a woman, and I’m not sure it ever was for a man, flâneur or otherwise.”
One of our most exciting previous issues was an examination of life in cities. To that and other issues we now add this, our compendium of non-neutral acts, on the study of the mind.
In this issue