Schizophrenia, Cancer and Viruses: Splitting, Othering and Crossing

[Some thoughts on schizophrenia, cancer and viruses–and how they can be read as different models for understanding our relationship to the world.]

Schizophrenia, according to Deleuze and Guattari, is the quintessential madness of capitalism.  The processes of this kind of madness are the processes fundamental to capitalism, taken to the extreme.  The schiz- is the splitting apart.  An internal splitting of self from self, as capitalism divides selves from selves, self from action, process from product, use value from exchange value.  If we follow Laing, the schizophrenic self is subdivided–not necessarily into ‘split personalities’ but into an exaggerated version of internal and external reality.  Between inner ‘truth’ and outer performance, until they correspond hardly at all, speeding towards the limits of alienation.  From these processes of splitting, a fantastic momentum is acquired.  Schizophrenia is a process of restless motion and appropriation, taking on all the personas of history, all the tribes of the world.

If schizophrenia is the madness of capitalism, then cancer is surely its disease.*  Cancer is the result of a certain type of cell growing uncontrollably, reproducing (more splitting) when it should be stopping or dying.  Cancer is the body gone monomaniacal.  Barbara Ehrenreich, describing her experience with breast cancer in Bright-Sided, has a wonderful line about the cancer cells being little fantatics of “Barbara.”  Cancer is what happens when part of the body forgets itself as part of the body, breaks the pattern which connects.  Any ‘self’ that we have is only that: a pattern which connects, interlinked processes, balanced flows.

Cancerous cells not only divide, they invade and they spread.  It is the self which forgets itself and attacks itself, and in the process, the self becomes ‘other.’

Cancer is the pathological emergence of self/other.  The body (this pattern of flows) is a multiple unity.  Yes?  There is no splitting of finger from hand from wrist from arm.  A red blood cell, a neuron, a bone cell–they are diverse manifestations of an underlying unity, their shared DNA.  They are ‘one’ with each other and with the whole body in the same sort of way, I believe, that Buddhism suggests we are ‘one’ with the universe.  But the cancerous cell is the cell which has no sense of its unity with or connection to the other cells of the body.  Not realising that any one cell is coextensive with every cell and thus is everywhere by being just where it is, the cancer cells invade and spread.  They already were their neighbouring cells, they already were the blood and the lymph–but no, they’ve gone all literal, so they take over, they replace those cells with endless copies of themselves.

When you can’t recognise connections, you start playing the game of Self and Other, and it’s a fundamentally destructive game, in which nothing makes so much sense as invasion and colonisation.  Wordsworth’s daffodils colonising every classroom in the Empire, just as Starbucks and McDonalds colonise the city corners now.  The cancer spreads its disconnection, its mad heedless growth.  And of course, the products of that growth, the world which capitalism’s disconnected growth has created is the world in which we ourselves become cancerous.

And what is the opposite of cancer?  What’s the opposite of the self-obsessed, self-consuming self?  The part which refuses connection to the whole?  I reckon it’s the virus.  Yes, the virus also spreads and invades and destroys (and yes, viruses cause some cancers), but the dynamic is very different.  The virus is an agent of radical interconnectedness.  It’s an agent of crossings, existing on the border between living and non-living.  It’s that which can only live through and within another.  And cell membranes are made to receive them, to welcome them in, and when they welcome them, they welcome god knows how many creatures all at once.  Because, you see, viruses are promiscuous; they like to mingle.  They mingle DNAs.  It’s called horizontal gene transfer, the process by which a virus brings scraps of genetic material from one organism to the other, one species to another to another.  Spreading genes not by sex but contagion–not lineage, not mommy-daddy-me, but a wide, strange mixing.  It’s the Island of Dr Moreau in there.  The infected cells, on a genetic level, engage in a process of becoming: becoming-bird, becoming-pig, becoming-monkey, whatever.  And our bodies, well, the pattern is very complex, and it’s much more than just the diverse manifestations of a single code.  The unity is much more polychromatic.  Our bodies are complex interkingdom ecosystems, and even our own mitochondrion seem to be bacterial collaborators.  Viruses speak to our radical interconnectedness , the artificiality of divisions between self and other, self and world.  The body is permeable and constantly permeated on every level.  It is an ecology through which organisms flow.  These flows can engage the body in becomings–potentially enriching, potentially disruptive and destructive–which demonstrate our fundamental, inescapable openness.

*I’ve just seen that John McMurty has written a book called “The Cancer Stage of Capitalism,” and an article to which JSTOR is refusing me access–I apologise for these thoughts being carelessly researched and probably derivative!


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