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The Age of ImmunologyConceiving A Future in an Alienating World$

A. David Napier

Print publication date: 2003

Print ISBN-13: 9780226568126

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: March 2013

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226568140.001.0001

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(p.15) Part I Anthropology (p.16)

(p.15) Part I Anthropology (p.16)

The Age of Immunology
University of Chicago Press

(p.17) What do you do when you have the deep sense that you are just not making it? As the only son of a family with four daughters, for me there might have been little in the way of contestation, or, perhaps, everything was contested. My godmother, my father's sister, had five boys to whom I became an older brother. Her husband, my godfather, was an ex-Marine (in fact and in spirit) who worked for my father. Four of those boys became fighter pilots; I chose anthropology.

As an anthropologist, one freely describes the particulars of everyday experience among one's subjects; but vanity normally keeps us from considering ourselves exemplary of much of anything. So, why should I introduce this unsensational information? I think because it is a conundrum for me, an example of one curious notion of ego that I find deeply “immunological.” Let me explain.

When I was a child I insisted on dressing only in black. I would have nothing else to wear because black allowed me a place where options were real: I defended Indians; I felt duty bound to defend almost anyone; I fought constantly; I loved nature; I took the name of Francis when I had to be confirmed. My primary sport—swimming and high diving—left my Mediterranean complexion enough “black” that I spent many summers in urban Pittsburgh and rural Appalachia being called “nigger.” In the parlance of psychology these inclinations would be distressing.

Yet, what is the origin of psychosis? Is it found in the photograph of me as a child playing Elvis songs on a guitar at age three? Or the hours, days, years I spent in autistic, percussive spasms that had me rebounding off of walls and chairs and couches? Maybe it is located in a congenital spinal problem that complicated simple body functions, or its pain which created a need for constant motion—like some Hindu pilgrim for whom meaning becomes embodied in a kind of repetitive visceral swooning? (p.18) Perhaps it is more common still—like the wallowing in dirt that every child recognizes as the most primordial form of ecstasy.

Were I that child today, I would certainly be diagnosed as having some attention deficit disorder. I would be “medicalized” and labeled. I would be contained from completing whatever pivate rite of passage these dissociative episodes kept trying to make happen. The pain of knowing that one can grow out of hardship but hasn't raises the question of whether we gain new strengths of character when change occurs. Is it any wonder that so-called “depth” psychologists—whose notions of ego are inherited from Descartes—found me and my kind strange objects of fascination? After all, where else could they turn for their wilderness children, their little savage monsters who would cry while pounding at the earth during a heavy rain, or who would be deeply grieved by the simple event of forced bathing?

I raise these episodes to make clear my view that there is a commonness to the other we fear. After all, nothing described here is very novel or extreme, even if excising the strange from the normal, exaggerating it, made the psychologists who peered at me through one-way mirrors feel very fulfilled. The experiences I relate, in other words, are not especially edifying: they neither contribute to a refined notion of what it means to be human, nor do they allow me to establish any control over a specific rhetorical domain, to speak to people here and now about “the other side.” I relate them to illustrate how uncommonness is located for us in the common—how for each of us life becomes a struggle to recreate one's past in a world that tries to label the uncertainty of transformation as “other”—to overinscribe (“I had a problem”) experiences that should not be so quickly named, labeled, and codified.

And is it not mere codification—inscribing, naming—to which we all pay homage anyway? Man is a namer, the Bible tells us. Nobody wants to read a text that cannot be appropriated, expropriated, transcribed, and inscribed onto another experiential domain. And, yes, I was aware as a child of the degree to which I had become a spectacle for the Spocks of this world; for there was the director of our school, the genteel and self-effacing Margaret MacFarland, who provided the ideas for the likes of Benjamin Spock and the ubiquitous Mr. Rogers—that man who, as a graduate student, visited our school in search of ideas for our nation's first programming in what was then called “educational television.” Indeed, there were many (including Erik Erikson) who saw in our preschool enclave a fertile ground for inscribing themselves on the history of an “enlightened” world of adolescent psychology. Finding a black “other” inside a white exterior, that was the reverse engineering that made them so very “enlightened.”

Stigma and naming—making psychology out of the peculiar manifestations of cultural categories of thought: this is what I would now like to explore.