Radical Psychology
Volume Seven, 2008

Mere and Divine Madness: Bush, Schreber and the Contexts of Insanity

Mark S. Roberts [*]

The Contexts of Insanity

Mere Insanity   

The worst possible habit among the presumably insane is to be merely mad, since the merely mad are bereft of the kind of context by which their madness can be ameliorated and justified.  The merely mad are simply the inevitable recipients of the label of madness, being in fact the 'laboratory rats' and 'guinea pigs' for the establishment of a set of infinitely complex rules, standards and observations which, taken in sum, constitute the traditional context for identifying the insane. For the most part, these individuals are measured in their insanity by a number of 'objective' standards, many of which have been inscribed in modern mainstream psychiatric nomenclature.

The above was not, however, always the case. Prior to the development of a scientific psychiatric nomenclature of psychosis, most people were categorized as insane on varying and often idiosyncratic bases. For example, in what Michel Foucault (1973) calculated as the age of reason, madness was determined on the basis of the gross deviation of certain internal substances:

But this movement is quite particular in mania; it is continuous, violent, always capable of piercing new pores in the cerebral manner, and it creates, as the material basis of incoherent thoughts, explosive gestures, continuous words which betray mania . . . An infernal water gathers in the secrecy of its movements, all the images in which mania takes its concrete form (p. 26).

The isolation of the 'substance' of madness led to new ways of explanation. Once an internal context could be established for mania, the specific symptoms of this sort of 'mental disease' could be articulated in an orderly fashion. On this, Foucault writes:

The essential symptoms of mania result from the fact that objects do not present themselves to the sufferer as they are in reality. The delirium of the maniac is not determined by a particular error in judgment; it constitutes a defect in the transmission of sense impressions to the brain, a flaw in communication. In the psychology of madness, the idea of truth as the 'conformity of the conformity of thought to things' is transposed in the metaphor of a resonance, a kind of musical fidelity of the fibers to the sensations which make them vibrate (p. 154).

Once truth or fidelity to the state of reality became the criterion for deviation, a relatively definitive context for madness could be established. Those whose sensory apparatuses malfunctioned could now be classified in accordance with these various malfunctions. Hallucination, illusion, delusion, paranoia, and the like, became legitimate symptoms of sensory malfunction. Moreover, certain forms of physical, social and sexual degeneration were seen as clear indications of madness; the slovenly, afflicted, physically disabled, women, chronically impoverished were seen as prime carriers of madness:  Foucault attributes this attribution of heightened sensitivity to inner movements in women to the uneven distribution of liquids and solids:

The sympathetic sensibility of her organism, radiating through her entire body, condemns woman to those diseases of the nerves that are called vapors. 'The women whose systems have generally more mobility are more subject to nervous diseases, which are also more serious in them' . . . Diseases of the nerves are diseases of corporeal continuity. A body too close to itself, too intimate in each of its parts, an organic space which is, in a sense, strangely constricted (p. 156).

At the point at which a discursive site for madness could be scientifically determined, that is, determined at least within the rigors of the internal movements of humors and vapors, the study of madness could turn to a typology of the subjects of madness. Madness did not travel across sexes and classes, but was limited definitively to certain types of individuals. The signs of madness were not generalized but, rather, contextualized. This, of course, contributed in large part to the creation -- with much intervening analysis -- of the modern sciences of psychiatry and psychology. The restriction of madness to a specific site invoked a spate of documentation devoted to the enlargement and study of these sites. The carrier of madness, of mania, hysteria, paranoia, melancholy, could now become the source of all the information necessary to treat such disorders, since the internal movements held a wealth of data about the external actions and behaviors of the presumably mad.

Although, as I have mentioned above, there was an enormous amount of intervening study of madness, the modern classifications were largely the work of the German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin (1856-1926). Kraepelin (1891/1991) proposed that mental illness was identifiable in terms of certain organic categories, stemming from brain lesion or other pathogonomic symptoms.  In fact, Kraepelin postulated that virtually all forms of mental illness identified in the nineteenth century and earlier had a specific correlate in the brain and were thus categorizable in terms of some sort of internal mental pathology manifest in a number of symptoms. Kraepelin’s categories represented a considerable step forward in identifying the sources of mental pathologies, and, indeed, his distinction between such disorders as schizophrenia (dementia praecox) and paranoia is still in some part observed today.

His method in identifying and distinguishing these disorders was strictly contextual. Virtually all mental disorders revealed a number of symptoms, but each disorder could have symptoms similar to others.  No specific symptom was considered intrinsic to a mental disorder. The key to identification and classification was therefore whether a specific pattern of symptoms could be detected in the patient. The key term here is of course in the patient. For Kraepelin, as for much of late nineteenth century psychiatry, the site of madness was wholly determined by the patient’s symptomatology, regardless of the external conditions that might affect the disorder. The mad person for Kraepelin, as R.D Laing (1969) often points out, is indeed the axis, the locus of the disease process. In his search to resituate the axis of madness, to place it in large measure outside the patient, in the familial or social structures, Laing characterizes the absolute internalization of psychosis in the psychiatric professions in the following way:

“The patient, however, is diseased in a medical sense, and it is a matter of diagnosing his condition, by observing the signs of his disease” (p. 28).

Though Freud and Kraepelin differed significantly regarding the sources of mental illness -- a vast departure based on psychological and organic etiologies, respectively -- Freud made no less of a contribution to isolating and identifying the merely mad. The case of Daniel Paul Schreber (1844-1911) is exemplary in this regard. Freud’s (1911) reading of Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (1903/2000), “Psychoanalytic Notes Upon an Autobiographical Account of Paranoia (Dementia Paranoides)” (Freud, 1911), was to become the locus classicus of the general psychoanalytic theory of psychosis.  But even given its important place in the development of psychoanalytic theory, the reading is largely schematic, incorporating most of the standard concepts of psychoanalysis. Freud argued that what transpired in the case was a simple variant of the Oedipus complex, which in this particular instance was solved in a negative way. Schreber held a feminine position toward his father, a position that was later transferred to his first doctor, Emil Flechsig, and afterwards to the ultimate father figure: God. In resisting this transference, Schreber assumed a defensive position which ultimately evolved into a delusion of persecution. Persecution in turn took the form of castration fantasies, followed by a desire to become a woman. Freud saw all this as an inability on Schreber’s part to reconcile the object of erotic fantasy and the object of persecution, at which point Schreber simply replaced the figure of Flechsig with that of God. This, Freud suggested, allowed Schreber to willingly submit to the sexual advances of God, and thus inscribe himself within the cosmic order of things, the so-called “Order of the World” (Allison, de Oliveira,Roberts, & Weiss, 1987, p. 3).

Whether Freud’s reading of the case is correct or not is of little consequence here. What is, though, is that, like Kraepelin, Freud erected a set of diagnostic criteria into which he was able to fit Schreber’s unusual thoughts and behavior. His early sexual attachment to Flechsig, the transference from Flechsig to God, were the operators that explained the fantasies of sexual intercourse with God, his transformation into a woman, his persecutory and paranoid fantasies, and, in the end, the entire delusional, visionary, and hallucinatory content of the Memoirs. Schreber quite easily entered the traditional realm of the merely mad, in that there was a ready psychoanalytic diagnostic explanation that served to fully account for virtually all of his thoughts and actions. For Freud, Schreber could be nothing but mad, simply because virtually everything he thought and acted upon was already inscribed in the symptomological and nosological discourses of psychoanalysis.

To be merely mad, then, is not necessarily to act directly contrary to the set laws of reason, civil society, and normalcy, but, more so, to have one’s acts and thoughts fit into a concept formation of madness, that is, an organized, consensual, and “scientifically” determined view of what it is to be mad. In this sense, madness is limited to the mad, and, subsequently, acts of madness can only take place within the topos of madness, whether that topos is determined symptomologically, nosologically or psychologically. Thus, what appear to be mad acts that fall outside the context of mere madness are invariably attributed by societies and experts to areas that stand quite apart from the traditional contexts of madness, primarily to those of religion and politics.

Divine Insanity

In the framework of either Kraepelin’s or Freud’s conceptions of psychosis, many acts of religious ecstasy would surely be categorized as mad. But, for the most part, religious acts are judged within the context of religion per se, and are thus limited to canonical, theological, and mythic perspectives -- frameworks that are rigorously predetermined by a set of specialized discourses. No act, feat, or gesture exceeds the limits of these contexts, and each act or thought eventually finds its rightful place within them. For example, the Catholic Encyclopedia (1990) routinely lists no less than 21 flying saints, all of whom were supposed to have mastered the art of bodily levitation. In point of fact, not only is bodily levitation a physical impossibility -- the gravity defiers would wind up somewhere around the former planet Pluto -- but even to make such a claim would surely fit somewhere in the order of delusions in psychiatric diagnosis, not to mention Hume’s (1748/1955) scathing rejection of such acts in his essay “Of Miracles.”

Besides routinely accepting saintly flyers, Christian writers, since the time of St.  Augustine, have created several definitive categories for unusual visions. The Catholic Encyclopedia lists three different types:  1) Corporeal Visions: These are the result of a supernatural manifestation. This type of vision has two principal modes. Either the very substance of the presence of the person will be presented or it will be merely an appearance consisting of luminous rays. The former would be true of either living persons or of the glorious bodies of Christ and the Holy Virgin. The latter is realized in the corporeal apparition of the unresurrected dead or pure spirits. 2) Imaginative visions. This sort of vision is categorized as an act of the imagination, but it is generally considered a hallucination  The image is always assured to originate with God, and this is confirmed by the fact the subject has no control over the intensity or duration of the image. 3) Intellectual visions. These perceive the object without a sensible image. The source of this image is, of course, God. And its principal explanation rests on the fact that only God can indeed control such a vision. In effect, the subject is led to its understanding by, in a manner of speaking, the hand of God.

Needless to say, all of the above would fit quite neatly into virtually any set of diagnostic categories. Reports of having flown around the room would most certainly raise suspicions, while any one of the above visions would fit some clinical definition of hallucination, illusion or delusion. But none are treated this way within the context of miraculous and mystical Christianity. On the contrary, each act, vision or revelation is not only treated routinely within this context, but a ready explanation, replete with “scientific” data is offered in every case. Religious figures cannot therefore be merely mad simply because there is a traditional set of explanations that transform what might be considered merely mad behavior and thoughts into divine revelations, into a profound piety that not only evades the set nomenclature of psychiatric literature, but is revered within the context of an entirely other literature.

Such a category transfer can also function in politics. To say the least, the field of politics is overloaded with what might, under ordinary circumstances, be considered acts of utter madness. For brevity’s sake, one can take some of the thoughts and acts of the twentieth century’s principal murderers and dictators, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. Alan Bullock’s (1992) comparative study presents a detailed description of the clearly insane atrocities committed by these two leaders. But Bullock generally contextualizes these acts within the domain of the political. For example, when describing Stalin’s 'paranoid personality', he argues that his well-known sense of persecution -- a sense that led to the slaughter of millions of 'enemies' -- had its source not strictly in psychological abnormalities and deviations, but, more so, in the domain of political forces:

The experience of “the revolution exposed from above” left a permanent mark on Stalin.  The result was not to create doubt or remorse, rather to strengthen the paranoid tendencies already apparent and contribute to the extraordinary episode of the trials and purges later in the 1930’s. . . .Two other characteristics have a particular relevance to the sort of politics in which Stalin and Hitler were engaged. First, the strength of such delusions is increased the more they have a nucleus of fact. This was provided in Stalin’s case by the tradition of conspiracy in Russian revolutionary politics, with the constant formation of factions and the bitterness of disputes. . . .Second, the development of the paranoid personality is not necessarily disabling.  It is compatible with the exercise of political abilities of high order; as speaker, organizer, leader. In situations of crisis it can give positive advantage, providing a powerful source of energy and self-confidence, the conviction of being right, and a spur to the relentless pursuit of enemies (pp. 360, 362, 363).

In essence, Bullock is suggesting that even through Stalin and Hitler may have been considered paranoid under more rigorous clinical scrutiny, their respective personalities could be explained within the contextual  exigencies of politics. Neither Stalin nor Hitler were merely mad, but, given the surrounding conditions, their colossal insanity was largely neutralized by the frameworks of the politics in which they were immersed.

Thus, the divinely mad fall decidedly outside the general frameworks of psychiatric diagnosis. They may demonstrate psychotic characteristics, but most of these characteristics are explainable in other terms, in discourses remote from those central to psychiatry and psychology. The merely mad, on the other hand, are not only held to the letter of psychiatric discourses, but are often the very sources of the technical language of these discourses. Schreber held the key to the psychoanalytic explanation of psychosis for both Freud and Jacques Lacan; Hitler, Stalin, St. Theresa et al. were “sanctified” in wholly other spheres. But is such a distinction real or only made apparent by the varying readings, forms of representation, and meanings intrinsic to different disciplines and discourses?

The Madness of Two Presidents

There are trained killers coming here to get us
– George W. Bush

…all creation on earth would have to perish…
– Daniel Paul Schreber

The above two quotes come from two presidents, one the current president of the United States, the other the president of the Royal Superior Court in Dresden during the last decade of the nineteenth century. Both quotes report an imminent disaster soon to befall humanity. Bush issues his dire warning within the context of nearly absolute political power and authority, its literal meaning appearing to remain secondary to a larger purpose. Schreber’s warning, much unlike Bush’s, emanates from the insane asylum at Sonnenstein -- a place where Schreber had been transferred after having been declared mentally ill, and having passed through several earlier stages of institutionalization.

Given their wildly varying contexts, the two claims appear to be entirely unrelated. In Bush’s case, the seemingly delusional threat of imminent danger, death and destruction appears largely ameliorated by the obvious fact that its content is for the most part the result of some ulterior, presumably rational, plan -- one intended to influence public opinion so as to realize certain political and ideological objectives. Those in agreement with Iraq war policies and the plan to fight world-wide terrorism might take the utterance as basically factual -- perhaps a bit exaggerated -- and intended as an extension of the Bush Administration strategy. Others opposed to the Administration’s policies might take the utterance to be patently false and as sheer propaganda intended to bolster a failed course of action. In short, virtually no one would reasonably assume that Bush’s warning in any way indicated that he was mad, delusional or incoherent. On the other hand, in Schreber’s case, the oddity of the claim would always be seen within the context of both his presumed mental illness and the dire conditions under which the claim was uttered. Many of Schreber’s interpreters take the delusion of the end of the world as a decisive component in a much larger paranoid scheme -- one that was indicative of his complete mental breakdown.

But, on further examination, President Bush is in many respects as mad as or even madder than President Schreber. Both claims are, I will argue, quite similar, and are separated for the most part by certain approaches to and readings of representational, psychological, and political discourse characteristic of the periods in which they were uttered, that is, what I have referred to above as contexts.  Moreover, the parallels are not limited to this set of statements alone. There are numerous other acts, behaviors, assertions and gestures that tie the two presidents together in their madness. Thus, taken out of their political, historical and discursive contexts, Bush and his administration’s policies and visions do indeed have a delusional character, one far more pernicious than Schreber’s since they are, unfortunately, imbued with immense power and, in the end, painfully 'real'.

The Two Presidents on a Collision Course: Persecutions, the Survivor, the Inner and Outer Voices, God’s Plan, and the Desire for a Dead Planet.


Even given the apparent differences between the two presidents, there are still numerous points of connection between them -- points which, taken outside their respective contexts of representation and politics as usual, show some noteworthy similarities. To begin with, President Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness is replete with claims of virtually endless plots and conspiracies intended to persecute him in some way or other. His first doctor, Emil Flechsig, is most often viewed as the main perpetrator of these devious schemes. Flechsig, it seems, had, from the very beginning of Schreber’s illness, concocted an intricate plan to control him in virtually all his human activities, both of a physical and mental nature. The first phase of this persecutory scheme was termed “soul murder.” President Schreber believed that Flechsig was determined to destroy him by killing his soul and thus beginning his transformation into a woman (a process Schreber called 'unmanning'):

“ever since the beginning of my contact with God (mid-March 1894) . . . somebody committed soul murder, at first Flechsig was named as instigator of the soul murder.. .In this way a plot was laid against me, the purpose of which was to hand me over to another human being after my nervous illness was recognized or was assumed to be incurable. . .”  (pp. 23, 56-57). Schreber goes on to describe the plot in even greater detail: “Always the same idea. . . was to ‘forsake’ me, that is to say, to abandon me. . .sometimes also by killing me and later by destroying my reason (by making me demented)” (p. 142).

As time elapsed, Schreber envisioned even greater complications in the various plots against him.  As a result, Dr. Flechsig proceeded to take complete control over all of his functions, even those as basic as defecating.  Schreber, deeply offended by this attempt at absolute domination, found this restriction to be an affront to his intelligence, arguing that someone of his high position -- President of the Superior Court at Dresden -- should surely be allowed to shit of his own volition. Persecution did not stop at external control of his biological functions. Physical injuries, in the form of 'miracles', were done to his entire inner organ system as well:

“The miracles enacted against the organs of the thoracic and abdominal cavities were very multifarious. I know least about those concerning the heart; I only remember I once had a different heart. . .”  (Schreber, 1903/2000, p. 263) . These restrictions on his behavior, his thought, the attacks on his very physical well-being, his personal freedom intensified to such an extent that a “final plan” began to emerge. In brief, Schreber envisioned a vast cosmic stratagem, organized around his transformation into a woman, which might, in the end, result in his being impregnated by God and giving birth to a new race of humans. “It is only as possibilities which must be taken into account that I mention that my emasculation may even yet be accomplished and may result in a new generation issuing from my womb by divine impregnation.” (p. 263.). And further: “Nothing of course could be envisaged as a further consequence of unmanning but fertilization by divine rays (i.e., God) for the purpose of creating new human beings. . . .” (Schreber, 2000, p. 263)

All of Schreber’s visions and proclamations have of course been characterized by his various doctors and many of his later commentators as delusional and as the stuff psychosis is made of.  Freud based his entire theory of psychosis on this very case, as did Lacan, in his famous essay in Ecrits. (Lacan, 2006). Although the explanations vary, there is one overriding theme in virtually every reading: the fact that Schreber tends to blame his problems on others, on external interferences ranging from his doctors to God himself. His entire analysis of his own condition, of his “nervous illness” is centered on the implantation, the miraculous, spontaneous appearance of certain uncanny facets of his existence during his stay at both Flechsig’s nerve clinic and the Asylum at Sonnenstein.  His delusions were not exactly his, but, rather, implanted in his mind through what he called “nerve-connections,” as a means of driving him insane. The plot to “unman” him was at first Flechsig’s, and then later attributed to God. His intense pain, the destruction of his organs, were also part of an ulterior plot to destroy his reason. Indeed, nothing that happened to him actually happened by him. His agency was tethered and silenced by the environment into which he was thrust; he wasn’t actually mad but simply driven to this state by outrageous intrusions over an extended period of time. [1]

The other president, Bush, though not expressing quite as colorful and effusive delusions as President Schreber, often, likewise, complains about insidious persecution. The persecutory charges are almost always leveled regarding some malfunction of Bush administration policy, and are uniformly attributed to the 'enemy', whether they be insurgents in Iraq, or Democrats, or the full array of liberal organizations. Bush, like Schreber, cannot commit an error of his own accord, but, rather, the errors are almost exclusively created by some external source, that is, his 'enemies'.  Now, it should be noted, even though it is often the case that many politicians routinely blame their failures on the opposition, Bush’s complaints tend to be unusually persistent, extreme and inflexible. Justin A. Frank, in his book Bush on the Couch (2004), tends to attribute these charges to symptoms characteristic of megalomania:

The combination of paranoia and protective delusion leads inexorably to the cause of the formulation: the summary analysis of Bush’s psychic state. A careful consideration of the evidence suggests that behind Bush’s affable exterior operates a powerful delusional system that drives his behavior. The most precise psychiatric term to describe his pathology is most frequently used to identify a particular condition exhibited by schizophrenics that, as we will see, has broader applications as well: megalomania . . . A megalomanic sees himself as the center of the world, the one figure who has all the answers. He tolerates no disagreement, and sees external reality as either threatening or nonexistent (p. 200).

Frank’s proxy diagnosis is buttressed by Mark Crispin Miller’s observations in his book, The Bush Dyslexicon (2002). Here Crispin Miller proposes, among many other things, that Bush’s political style involves an insidious habit of blaming others for undermining his efforts while, at the same time, using similar tactics against the presumed plotters. The key term is of course 'plotters'. Bush, Miller argues, “was always quick to charge his adversaries with doing the sort of things to him that he had done -- and was still doing -- to them. . . In the presidential contest, Bush was always quick to cry that he was being hit below the belt. Meanwhile, Bush always represented his attacks as mere defenses -- even when his team struck first” (pp. 250-251). In other words, much like Schreber, Bush identifies the source of his suffering -- his political failures and negative criticism -- as strictly outside and thus tends to obscure or completely eliminate his complicity in these problems. This deeply protective behavior is further typified by Frank as a means of mitigating the fear of 'internal persecution' : “The defining characteristic of adult megalomania is the need -- driven by terrifying fear of internal persecution -- to pinpoint and then annihilate all persecutors seen as outside threats.” (Frank, 2004, p. 203).

The Survivor

I had to fight a sacred battle for the greater good of mankind.
--Daniel Paul Schreber

Bush was tired of rhetoric. The president wanted to kill somebody.
--Bob Woodward

(Commenting on Bush’s impatience preceding the attack on Afghanistan)

In his examination of the relationship between paranoia, megalomania and power, Elias Canetti (1984) conceives a figure representative of all three of these conditions: the survivor. For him, the survivor emerges at just about every point in the history of military, political and social power, and epitomizes the need to survive by destroying one’s enemies: 

The moment of survival is the moment of power. Horror at the sight of death turns to satisfaction that it is someone else dead.  The dead man lies on the ground while the survivor stands.  . . . In survival each man is the enemy of every other, and grief is insignificant measured against this elemental triumph. Whether the survivor is confronted by one dead man or by many, the essence of the situation is that he feels unique. He sees himself standing there alone and exults in it (p. 227).

The characteristic trait of the survivor, then, is to assure his own threatened existence by killing others, or, in many cases, standing triumphantly before a comforting field of corpses. Moreover, the survivor, Canetti maintains, cannot exist without enemies. He is determined to save his people by defeating his enemies and, if need be, to sacrifice himself; he is the source of salvation and of survival for the masses. Schreber makes precisely this sort of claim when discussing his true mission: “I had to solve one of the most intricate problems ever set for man and. . . I had to fight a sacred battle for the greatest good of mankind.” (Schreber, p. 139)  But, in the end, this is just a ruse: “The deception is complete. It is the deception of all leaders. They pretend that they will be the first to die, but, in reality, they send their people to death, so that they themselves may stay alive longer” (Canetti, 1984, p. 241).

His own fear and fear mongering are the driving forces behind both the power and the strategy of the survivor. He spreads fear and a sense of danger, and, if he is in a position of command, fear spreads proportionately as his commands are carried out. His own fears are mitigated only by making an example of someone: “He will order an execution for its own sake, the guilt of the victim being almost irrelevant. He needs execution from time to time and, the more his fears increase, the more he needs them. His most dependable, one might say his truest, subjects are those he has sent to their deaths.” (p. 232). The survivor’s personal fear also extends to the despot. The despot is his enemy, in that the despot is the projection of his own weaknesses and shortcomings. But, conversely, the survivor is the living example of the despot’s weaknesses: he survives, while despots consider survival their prerogative. In short, both are inimical to one another because both are the reflections of each other’s weakness, of their unfulfilled wishes, of their megalomaniacal pursuit of absolute power.

Although the survivor comes in virtually all forms and character types and exists in all historical eras, one of the prime examples of this sort given by Canetti is President Schreber. Schreber, of course, was neither a powerful military leader nor a murderous warrior-king, killing others so that he may survive. But he was, in Canetti’s view, a classic paranoid, and paranoid delusions sometimes reflect fantasies characteristic of the survivor. The foremost paranoid fantasy consists of the, so to speak, spontaneous generation of enemies, packs of them: “The paranoiac feels surrounded by a pack of enemies who are all after him. . . .his terror becomes overwhelming.” (p. 456). The enemies are purely transformable, assuming any shape the delusional mechanisms might engender.

Schreber saw black and white bears sneaking into his room at night, but the skulking “enemies” eventually morphed into cats with shining eyes sitting in the trees of the asylum garden, and, later, a procession of Dominican monks who camped in his head overnight. For Schreber, the presumed enemy took almost any form conceivable, malleable to the extent that they might be anywhere, strike from anywhere, and masquerade as virtually any fearsome figure. Indeed, the plot against him was so devious that he couldn’t even be sure that the pork on his plate would not be turned into veal, or vice versa. As his system became more rigid and exclusive, Schreber’s world shrunk in size; it was reduced to him and them, to him and everyone else: “As the rigidity of his system increases the world grows poorer and poorer in real figures, until only those remain who have a part to play in his delusion. Finally he is left only with himself and what he rules” (p. 454).

This debilitating fear of imminent, omnipresent attack and progressive madness led Schreber, Canetti suggests, to the final reassuring illusion of the survivor: alone before a field of corpses. “The idea that all other human beings had perished dominated him for years and this of course meant that he thought of himself as being the only one. It is difficult to resist the suspicion that behind paranoia, as behind all power, lies the same profound urge: the desire to get other men out of the way so as to be the only one; or, in the milder, and indeed often admitted, form, to get others to help him become the only one” (p. 462).

Though an admirer of fictional little caterpillars (once identified as his favorite book), Bush most likely has not seen bears creeping into the Lincoln bedroom, nor cats with glowing eyes in the rose garden. But his extreme determination to rid the world of evil, to kill his (and America’s) enemies, to sacrifice thousands of American and Iraqi lives in a war of 'freedom', and to bravely lead his country to safety in a time of crisis are all symptomatic of something quite similar to Canetti’s notion of the survivor. This obsession with power and protection, with instilling fear in the masses is well summarized by Frances Fox Piven (2004) when she writes:

The president followed Gőering’s age-old formula for leading a people into war. He told Americans that we are in danger, that we “must not ignore the threat gathering against us. Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof -- the smoking gun -- that would come in the form of a mushroom cloud” (p. 91).

Generating fear, according to Canetti, is an important component of the survivor’s delusional system, since the heroic salvation of his threatened people often serves as a means of killing his enemies, his “real” persecutors. Frank, in his psychiatric analysis, interprets this tendency in Bush in ways quite similar to Canetti’s reading. In commenting on his fervor to save a wounded nation after 9/11, Frank, quoting a Bush friend, writes: “Bush knows we’re all here to serve a calling greater than self. That’s what he’s committed his life to do. He understands that he is the one person in the country, in this case really the one person in the world, who has a responsibility to protect and defend freedom.” (Frank, 2004, p. 205). And elsewhere, the typical clash of survivor and despot, in the person of Saddam Hussein: “When he blurted out ‘Fuck Saddam, we’re taking him out’ -- back when the war in Iraq was still an unrealized fantasy -- his words were only symptoms of his omnipotent delusions. Once he had rallied an army, and concocted an excuse, to fuck his imagined persecutor, however, he was able to send Americans to their deaths to support his magical thinking” (Frank, 2004, p. 205).

Magical thinking or political survival, the basic structures of paranoid delusion and megalomania remain present in Bush’s actions and thought. His utter refusal to admit mistakes, to succumb to any resistance -- or reason -- is exactly what characterizes the survivor. Schreber reduced the world to him and them -- by breaking down humans into smaller and smaller entities, by dividing the “souls” into infinitesimal units, and, finally, disposing of all beings on the planet by having God sneak up behind them and “ambush them.” Bush, quite similarly, though from a diametrically different political position, exalts at death and destruction, and the annihilation of his presumed enemies: “Just before his sober four-minute speech on March 20, 2003, announcing the commencement of America’s bombing of Iraq, Bush was captured on an internal White House TV monitor pumping his fist, exclaiming ‘Feels good’ ” (p. 208).   Crispin Miller takes this tendency even one step further by tying it to what he terms “exterminationist” thinking -- a conception developed within Christian Reconstructionism. Bush, he argues, is so obsessed with 'ridding the world' of 'evildoers' that he keeps a personal scorecard of al Qaeda operatives, placing a cross over the photograph of each one killed by U.S. forces. He also openly bragged in his 2003 State of the Nation speech of having “done away” with at least 3,000 suspected terrorists (Miller, 2004, p. 290). This callous, sometimes ecstatic attitude toward death and dying, the survivor’s need to kill, or “execute” as Canetti proposes, is also revealed in Peter Singer’s work on Bush’s ethics, The President of Good and Evil (2004), where he writes:

When Bush was elected president, the federal government had not used the death penalty for thirty-eight years. Bush reinstated it. When he was governor of Texas, that state had more executions than any other, and Bush signed 152 death warrants -- more than any other governor of Texas, or any other American governor in modern times. Typically, he made his life and death decisions after a half-hour briefing with his legal counsel… “Guess what’s going to happen to them? They’re going to be put to death. A jury found them guilty and -- it’s going to be hard to punish them any worse after they’ve been put to death.” The words alone do not convey the exaltation, almost glee, that appeared on Bush’s face when he spoke of the coming executions of the men who had been convicted of murder. ( p. 45).

The Inner and Outer Voices

Although he undoubtedly understood all the questions, he has not given us a single piece of useful information. His talk was only a series of disconnected sentences having no relation whatever to the general situation.
--Emil Kraepelin, Lectures on Clinical Psychiatry
The miraculously created birds do not understand the meaning of the words they speak.
--Daniel Paul Schreber

I know how hard it is to put food on your family.
--George W. Bush

Although quite articulate under normal conditions, the institutionalized Schreber suffered endless complications with language and expression. For the most part, he believed his speech to be controlled rigidly by outside forces, that took the form of various figures and conduits, some beneficent, some evil. One of the most common sources of interference with Schreber’s speech and thought process is the talking birds. These birds embody the souls of departed people, and speak to Schreber in phrases that have neither emotion nor specific meaning. This confusion of language and meaning in turn becomes a source of consternation and desperation for Schreber, who feels that much of the abuse that he suffers at the hands of his “enemies” is due to fundamental misunderstandings of this sort. The birds are so insensitive to the meaning of words that, often, they will simply utter words that have some phonetic similarity to one another, but which vary significantly in meaning:

It has already been said that the sounds need not be completely identical; a similarity suffices, as in any case the birds do not understand the sense of the words; therefore it matters little to them -- in order to give some examples -- whether one speaks of:
“Santiago or “Cathargo”

“Chineseenthum” or “Jesum Christum”

“Abendroth” or “Abemnoth”

“Ariman” or “Ackermann”   (Schreber 1903/2000, pp. 192-193).

One can assume, obviously, that the birds do not speak to Schreber, but, rather, speak within him. His language system is then articulated in a way in which the cognitive function operates in terms of what one might call cognate semantics, that is, if words sound alike, they may be taken to have more or less the same meaning, or no meaning at all, since the birds do not understand the meaning of words. This confusion in turn links together a number of linguistic inconsistencies that plague Schreber throughout, and, in his view, is one of the sources of his inability to convey his true thoughts. It is almost like he would make perfectly good sense on some occasions -- e.g., having meals with the doctors and staff at Sonnenstein -- but at other times he would lapse into totally confused, nonsensical, and distorted speech -- e.g., his bouts of bellowing, which is also indicative of his general inability to communicate and his recourse to emotive forms of expression in order to convey certain inner messages. On still other occasions, Schreber had great difficulties finishing his sentences -- a phenomenon he called “the system of not-finishing-a-sentence.” Fragments of sentences like “It will be. . .”, “Lacking now is. . .” were placed in his head by “nerve-connections,” and, given his mental condition at the time, he was left unable to remember how to complete them. (p. 198).  When it comes to Schreber’s language, then, virtually all personal expression is channeled through his mind by some presumed external means, and dependence on “outside” sources is virtually absolute: “All the noises I hear . . .seem to speak the words which are talked into my head by the voices and also those words in which I formulate my own thoughts.” (p. 236).

Crispin Miller points out an interesting parallel between the above language difficulties and Bush’s problems with expression. It seems that Bush’s gaffes and mix-ups are largely the result of memory difficulties, and in this respect the onset of the “endless parataxis” of his sentences can be traced to a kind of linguistic amnesia.  Crispin Miller, moreover, attributes this linguistic turmoil to certain cognitive and psychological factors, particularly to an “amnesiac” state induced by either a congenital defect or youthful drug and alcohol dependence, or both. He characterizes this amnesiac state quite humorously:

When he tries for a grammatical arrangement more complex than see-Dick run, Bush often breaks down in mid-effort, having just . . . forgotten how he started out, and where he ought to go: “I felt like their decision was not a fair decision at the time, and I felt like they had rewritten a law and -- you know, so therefore.” As it dictates the endless parataxis of his sentences, so does the president’s amnesia often have him flailing in supreme rhetorical confusion, blurting out disjointed bits of prose until some propaganda tag line pops into his head, which then gives him something clear to say, repeatedly (Miller, 2002, p.p. 260-261).

The parallel between Bush and Schreber, excluding the hallucinatory character of Schreber’s language problems, seems clear. The lack of clarity, of coherence in Bush’s expression is due to some mental condition that arises as a result of the context in which he finds himself. Left on his own and dependent on spontaneous expression, Bush becomes tongue-tied, “blurting out” either incomplete sentences or incoherent ones. The problem is resolved, according to Crispin Miller, when Bush is able to recall a simple message -- that is, a piece of propaganda -- which, one might assume, has been inculcated repeatedly by various “handlers” over the course of his political career. The problem of memory loss and its attendant verbal incoherence, then, like in the case of President Schreber, is determined by recourse to those outer voices that “enter” President Bush’s head. In certain instances he can speak properly, save his discourse, and be fully understood only when he is being spoken through.

Frank’s analysis of Bush expands the two president’s language equivalence by indicating still other problems with “the voices.” In fact, perhaps being a bit hyperbolic, Frank claims that Bush’s language problems are symptomatic of “a patient in dire need of help.”  (Frank, 2004, p. 121). Although acknowledging the “amateur” nature of most Freudian slip analyses of Bush’s gaffes, he considers them to be salient indicators of his mental condition. Slips, malaprops, and parataxes like “there needs to be a wholesale effort against racial profiling, which is illiterate children,” “Is we learning?” “. . .he or her will be able to pass a literacy test,” and “we should allow the world’s worst leaders to hold America captive,” contain the seed of a large part of Bush’s general pathology, that is, the constant repression of thoughts that run contrary to what he believes to be his public, and private, image. Destructive actions and thoughts are covered over by what amounts to, in Frank’s opinion, an entirely false, sometimes irrelevant, set of statements. Believing, quite irrationally, that he cannot say anything that would undermine his image of “compassion” and deep concern for the lot of the American people, he will often make outrageous promises that he did not intend to keep. For instance, in praising AmeriCorps, an extension of the well-liked Peace Corps of the Kennedy years, he assured the American people that he would fund the program at a 50 percent increase over the next year. In the following year, he cut funding by 80 percent. It is not unusual of course for a president to lie about program funding--or anything else, for that matter -- but Frank views this as indicative of a much deeper pathological language problem -- a problem that centers on being spoken rather than speaking, on the suppression of one’s deeper feelings and attitudes in favor of entirely recycled affable gibberish. Effectively, this forceful repression culminates in confusion between the inner and outer world, the world of “reality” and that of fantasy. Much like President Schreber, President Bush is beset by a cacophony of voices, all of which resonate within, but often assault him from without.

God’s Plan

I saw God’s omnipotence in its complete purity.
--Daniel Paul Schreber

O may it all my powers engage
To do my Master’s will.
--George W. Bush quoting from A Charge to Keep

President Schreber’s confrontations with God were legend. Along with the infamous Dr. Flechsig and von W’s evil soul, God was seen as one of the principal causes of Schreber’s trials and tribulations. God tested him by attacking his credibility as a human, his intellect, and, in the end, by creating the greatest “struggle in mankind’s history”: the plan to transform Schreber into a woman and impregnate him with divine rays so as to create a new race of humans. On numerous occasions in his Memoirs, Schreber relates the details of his intimate relationship and conversations with the deity. What characterizes virtually all of these encounters is the absolute faith and belief Schreber professes in God’s plan for him. Even at the cost of his masculinity, his very sanity, the wellbeing of his vital organs, he is willing to wrestle with God in order to right the “Order of the World” and fulfill what he views as his inevitable mission: the future salvation of mankind:

I come to the last point of my work. I consider it possible, even likely, that the future development of my personal fate, the spread of my religious ideas and the weight of proof of their truth will lead to a fundamental revolution in mankind’s religious views unequaled in history. . . Even though if many, particularly Christian dogmas hitherto accepted as true, would have to be revised, the absolutely certain knowledge that a living God exists and the soul lives on after death could only come as a blessing to mankind: and so I close in the hope that in this sense favorable stars will watch over the success of my labor (Schreber, 1903/2002, pp. 258-259).

There is, of course, a therapeutic element in Schreber’s mission for God and humanity. Clearly, he was concerned to cure himself of what has been interpreted as his psychosis. If he were able to establish the truth of his mission, the facticity of his transformation and visions, he could justify and, perhaps, rectify, his long incarceration and oftentimes cruel and unusual treatment. But beyond his lay analysis lies a fundamental confusion -- the reduction of his own personal, psychological struggle to God’s divine plan, which results in resignation to sheer predestination, to an absolute fatalism. Nothing that Schreber does or is done to him is the result of his own agency; his every movement, every idea that enters his mind, every action is strictly controlled by divine miracle, in accordance with God’s plan for him and the universe. “Everything that happens,[says Schreber], is in relation to me. I became for God the human being, or the one human being to whom, everything that happens must be related.” (Canetti, 1984, p. 462). There is, in a certain sense, no real past or future for Schreber. He is dragged along by a design from which he cannot deviate, and in which he cannot participate actively. The struggle with God is inevitable, and he is thus rendered silent and motionless in his obedience to His plan. As a leaf blowing in God’s divine wind, he cannot exercise any free will, and is therefore, in his own view, not responsible for any of his actions. God and the miracles have an inescapable presence at every moment of his life: “To me therefore it is an unshakeable truth, that God reveals Himself anew daily and hourly through the talking of voices and the miracles.” (Schreber, 1903/2002, p. 304).

According to Singer, and much like President Schreber, President Bush believes in “a divine plan that supercedes all human plans.” Liberty, Bush asserts, is “the plan of Heaven for humanity.” (Singer 2004, p. 91). This deep religious commitment, Singer suggests, interferes with the kinds of objectivity necessary for a leader to rationally plan and run a pluralistic society. In fact, Bush had become so dependent on God’s momentous plan for humanity, he admits openly that he is faithfully following the actual commands, the “voices” of God when he makes certain policy choices, including the war in Iraq, which, apparently, was initially called for by God himself. “My relationship with God through Christ has given me meaning and direction. My faith has made a big difference in my personal life and my public life as well.”  (Aikman, 2004, p. 206). So much so that Israel’s Haaretz News quoted him as saying, “God told me to strike at al Qaida and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Sadaam, which I did.”  (Frank, 2004, p. 72). It would thus appear that President Bush largely obscures not only the line between church and state, but also between the autonomy and rationality required to enact various secular social, economic, political, and foreign policies and the blind faith necessary to uncritically follow a higher plan for both him and humanity in general.

Frank also notes this unqualified surrender to God’s plan as a key component of Bush’s mental illness.  He first cites the fact that Bush turned to God and religion as a means of saving himself from his addictions to alcohol and drugs. This, Frank concedes, is not an unusual incentive to turn to religion; but in Bush’s case there is more than just seeking relief from physical addictions. Bush also uses religion to compensate for the same pain that drove him to drink in the first place. Indeed, Frank asserts, the endorphin high reached in condition of religious ecstasy -- as is also the case with vigorous exercise -- mimic the state induced by excessive alcohol and drug use, thus minimizing and counteracting deeper psychological problems. In Frank’s estimation, “Bush’s faith serves not only to rectify the wreckage left in the wake of his drinking, but also to numb the pain he drank over.” (p. 58). Commitment to God, Christ and religion in general is, then, not only the route to personal salvation, but also, and perhaps more so, a reflection of  Bush’s ultimate struggle to correct the 'Order of the World', albeit his own inner world.

Inner or outer world, the question of megalomania and its relation to religious ecstasy still haunts President Bush, as it does President Schreber. For both, God has directed them to a certain inevitable and unavoidable path, one that involves a nearly complete surrender to a supernatural power. For Bush, the war in Iraq is a holy war, waged in the name of the Christian God;  it pits good against evil, and effects a necessary step in Bush’s mission to save humanity from that very evil. Schreber sees the entire future of mankind resting on the failure or success of his mission, a quest to reveal the very secrets of life and death, of the afterlife and the assurance of 'a living God on earth'. In this respect, the two Presidents share quite similar, and patently irrational, objectives. The main difference, however, is the relative impact of their mutual obsession on humanity and on the future of the planet.

Desire for a Dead Planet

I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully
-- George W. Bush

There was talk of the “clocks of the world” running out.
-- Daniel Paul Schreber

Both Canetti and Michel de Certeau argue that President Schreber was obsessed by putrefaction, by rot. Canetti (2004), as we have seen, ties this embrace of decrepitude into Schreber’s paranoiac fantasies. Believing that his body was the sole repository for all “tested souls,” Schreber spent months lying perfectly still, corpse like, in his bed at the asylum: “I felt this immobility incumbent upon me both in the interests of self-preservation and towards God. . .” (p. 442) Canetti interprets this bizarre act as one of self-petrifaction. Schreber, he argues, feared moving because he would “spill” the essences of the “tested souls,” which were continuously deposited within his body. If we assume the “tested souls” represent a divine penetration of his body, and the work of God’s omnipotence, the act of retaining these “souls” within his body becomes a demonstration of his sheer power, reflecting, once again, his central delusion of omnipotence. Schreber would sacrifice everything, including his most basic faculty of movement, and become a living corpse so as to fulfill the divine plan preset by God.  Of course, as a corpse Schreber might well rot away, but the rotting is a noble act -- comparable to the public glorification of the Pharaoh’s mummy, according to Canetti -- done in view of a greater end, that is, mankind’s salvation. Moreover, the rotting of his body and the eventual annihilation of earthly life is an important phase in his delusional system: he must exist in a world denuded of others. Rot, death and total annihilation are, strangely enough, the only states in which Schreber can feel entirely secure. His need for a dead and rotting planet, as Canetti views it, is thus tied to his profound insecurity and to his paranoiac fear of others, of a seemingly endless proliferation of imagined enemies.

De Certeau has a somewhat different interpretation of this strange obsession. He views rotting as a form of ritual purification, rooted in an originary binary between purity and putrefaction. Schreber, as we have seen, is compelled to attain a state of absolute omnipotence by virtue of God’s revelation of ultimate bliss. But this state can only be attained in a non-verbal manner, which necessitates a ritual sacrifice: rotting. “The decay of the subject, dictated by a voice, is a precondition for the theatrical institution of ‘omnipotence in all its purity.’” (1987, p. 90)  So Schreber’s penchant for rotting and putrefaction is yet another path to his long-sought salvation. If everything around him were soiled and defaced, he could achieve a certain purity that necessarily emerged as a result of God’s plan, that is, the eventual bliss promised Schreber following his divine seduction and impregnation. In a certain sense, the planet must rot away and be defaced as a literal event symbolizing Schreber’s ultimate bliss: “Trying to trace the origin of this idea one must assume some misunderstanding of the symbolic meaning of the act of defecation, namely, that he who entered into a special relationship to the divine rays as I have is to a certain extent entitled to sh. .t on all the world” (Schreber 1903/2000, p. 205).

The comparison between President Schreber and President Bush regarding a dead planet does not, once again, involve a literal equivalence. But there is clearly a parallel concerning Bush administration polices on military action and on the environment. To begin with, the 'taking out' of the so-called enemies of freedom, Bush’s ontotheology of militarism, has and will have devastating effects on much of the planet and its occupants. What is most significant in comparing the two presidents is the obsessive desire of Bush and his military planners to totally obliterate the will, the property, and the very existences of his presumed enemies. The terms 'shock and awe' characterize perfectly this obsession, and the military concept described by these terms served as the original plan of attack in Iraq. Devised by a team of military theorists at the U.S. War College, the plan was intended to completely devastate, both physically and psychologically, the presumed enemy. Within hours, the enemy would be so demoralized, so severely wounded in both body and mind, that unconditional surrender would be the only option. The effectiveness of the plan depended on the use of extreme force, including carpet bombing, missiles, and the use of so-called “anti-personnel” weapons. Harlan Ulman, one of the planners of the tactic, predicted that within two to five days the Iraqi people would be “physically, emotionally, and psychologically exhausted.” (Ulman and Wade 1996, p. 12) And this utter demoralization of the Iraqi people would begin not in matter of months, as was the case in Hiroshima, but in only “a few minutes.” (p. 459) Obviously, in retrospect, the plan did not work out as planned. But the very act indicates not only an unjustified and illegal use of force against civilian populations, but also the use of awesome military power to sustain a leader’s delusional fantasy. The use of brute force without reason or direction, or its use to obtain some abstract goal, represents an age-old desire to control the world that exists around the leader by destroying it. As Canetti argues, an unpopulated world is the secret goal of every megalomaniac, since ultimate control rests on absolute exclusion of others. Schreber saw the world’s human population “swept away,” leaving only “fleeting improvised figures.” Bush relies on “shock and awe” to destroy the wills and lives of his and America’s enemies, to turn them into a rotting mass of lifeless huddled bodies.

Schreber’s view of the environment around him became manifest in visions of terrible natural disasters destroying the earth and even some celestial bodies. One of his primary, more regional fears was that the city of Leipzig had been totally destroyed along with all of its inhabitants. This vision came to him as part of a hallucinatory elevator ride into the bowels of the earth, where everything became “progressively darker and blacker.” This shocking prevision, in turn, led him to speculate on the reasons that the destruction of humanity might have occurred: “Schreber pictured various different ways in which the destruction of mankind might have come about. He thought of a decrease in the light of the sun, due to its moving further from the earth and a consequent general glaciation.” (Canetti, 1984, p. 442).

This vision of a ruined planet is likewise manifest in the Bush administration policies toward the environment.  If we simply replace the idea of the sun distancing itself from the earth and the consequent glaciation with its opposite, global warming, this parallel becomes clear. From the beginning of his term in 2000, Bush and his administration have argued vehemently against the 'theory' of global warming. To be sure, there is a strong political and economic motive behind Bush’s attacks on global warming and his environmental policies in general. His administration has simply nurtured the needs of energy companies, factory industries, timber and mining companies, and so on.  If one thinks further on the issue, however, it seems not only irresponsible but also quite irrational to seriously compromise the world’s sole atmospheric environment to benefit a minute fraction of the world’s population. Moreover, this tendency is quite in accordance with both Frank’s and Crispin Miller’s assertions regarding Bush’s megalomania and paranoia. Generally speaking, the paranoiac personality has little regard for his surroundings. Indeed, the environment encircling this type is always threatening, much like his conjured phantasmatic enemies. But there always exists recourse to the utter destruction of these imagined enemies. Just as Schreber envisions and fully believes he can systematically destroy all life on earth to save himself, so too does Bush fully believe that his actions regarding the destruction of the environment will fulfill his own delusional mission to save himself by saving the world. Against all reason, all scientific analysis, he must be right. After all, his very existence depends on the death of the planet.  For paranoiacs there are no limitations, no accountability . . . just survival.

Although there are clearly similarities between the two presidents, both in actions and words, the comparison pales in view of their relative impact on the populations and environment of their respective contexts.  President Schreber injured no one, with the possible exception of himself. His struggles went on almost entirely in his head, and his final goal of liberation from the institution in which he was, at least in his view, unfairly incarcerated, was indeed accomplished. He petitioned the courts for his release from Sonnenstein, and won the case in 1903, returning to live in a state of relative sanity with his family. On the other hand, President Bush’s delusions of grandeur have brought torture, suffering and death to hundreds of thousands of innocent people. And even more dangerously, his secret desire to destroy the planet has perhaps sealed all of our dooms. Environmental disasters like global warming are not easily reversible -- if at all.  In the end, the question of political power and its attendant megalomania and paranoia is not easily answerable. But one might benefit by pondering R.D Laing’s (1969) salient question about context:  Who is more insane: the person who fantasizes dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima or the person who did?   


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Lacan, J.(2006). Ecrits. New York: Norton.

Laing, R. D. (1969). The Divided Self. New York: Pantheon Books.

Lothane, Z. (1992). In Defense of Schreber: Soul Murder and Psychiatry. Hillsdale, N.J.: The Analytic Press.

Miller, M.C. (2002). The Bush Dyslexicon: Observations on a National Disorder. New York: Norton.

Miller, M.C. (2004). Cruel and Unusual: Bush/Cheney’s New World Order. New York: Norton.

Piven, F.F. (2004). The War at Home: Domestic Costs of Bush’s Militarism. New York: New Press.

Schreber, D.P. (2000). Memoirs of My Nervous Illness. New York: New York Review Books. (Originally published as Denkwudigkeiten eines Nervenkranken in 1903).

Singer, P. (2004). The President of Good and Evil. New York: Plume.

Biographical Note:

Mark S. Roberts has written extensively in the fields of philosophical psychology, continental philosophy, media studies, aesthetics and psychoanalysis. He has edited seven books on various topics, ranging from Jean-Francois Lyotard's essays to post-9/11 phobias, and has translated works by Lyotard, Dufrenne, Kristeva and many others. His most recent books are Phobias: The Post-9/11 Syndrome (SUNY Press, forthcoming) and The Mark of the Beast: Animality and Human Oppression (Purdue Univ. Press, 2008).

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