Deviance and Delusions

Robert E Bartholomew. Exotic Deviance: Medicalizing Cultural Idioms from Strangeness to Illness. University of Colorado Press, 2000.

Robert E Bartholomew. Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns and Headhunting Panics: a Study of Mass Psychogenic Illness and Social Delusion. McFarland, 2001.  

Sociologist Robert Bartholomew has done much work in the Fortean field, studying the controversial fields of mass hysteria, moral panics, mass psychogenic illness, and what have become known as culture-bound psychiatric syndromes.

In these two books (there is a fair degree of overlap between them) Bartholomew examines such topics as a First World War Canadian 'phantom aircraft' panic, the 1897 airship, the ghost rockets, school-based cases of 'mass hysteria', the Pokemon TV show panic, phantom gasser episodes in Mattoon and Botetourt, and examples of 'culture-bound' syndromes. The examples he chooses of the latter are latah, a Malay behaviour in which, when startled, people imitate those around them and engage in often obscene words and behaviour; koro, a disorder often reported from China where people believe that their genitals are shrinking into their bodies, tarantism, the medieval dance craze, and demonic possession in 17th century convents.

Throughout he emphasizes the role of culturally based misperceptions, and the extent to which all "eyewitness testimony", particularly in ambiguous circumstances, is powerfully influenced by expectation and cultural beliefs. This can extend from the perception of aircraft, rockets and spaceships in the ambiguous lights and shapes of the "vast expanse of the sky", to "phantom gassers" in the shadows of the night, to the extent that people with koro can "see" their genitals shrinking.

He argues that in addition to "folk devils" there can also be "folk angels": fantasies of hope and deliverance rather than of threat, apparitions of the Virgin Mary and the 1897 airship - a symbol at the time of technological hope and optimism. In reality the line between folk devils and folk angels is very ambiguous. Flying saucers can be seen as symbols of transcendence and redemption (e.g. as in the space brothers myth), or as a terrifying invading other. This ambiguity surely reflects our very ambiguous feelings about the future, and of social changes, which are both promise of liberation, and a threat to all established ways. This was the case in 1897, and reactions to the airship were no means as one sided as Bartholomew portrays. Remember Alexander Hamilton's "hoax" (which I tend to see as a surprisingly sophisticated science fiction short story) in which the airship, symbol of the coming new century and its unknown potentials, "abducts" a cow, symbolic of both and natural world and the traditional agrarian community; and we cannot tell whether the people of the future "the strangest folks I have seen" reflected in its glare, are angels or devils.

There are valuable discussions of the phenomena of school and workplace "mass hysteria", in which both anxiety and imitation play a part. These seem to have both acute forms, generated by ambiguous stimuli, and chronic forms, the latter Bartholomew sees being particularly prevalent in authoritarian and restrictive environments, such as a 19th century European crammer schools and Islamic boarding schools in modern Malaysia. Connected to these outbreak are more contested phenomena such as sick building syndrome total allergy syndrome etc. Perhaps, we might add, the various schoolyard panics and flying saucer landings fit in here.

Very exotic from a Western point of view are the various culture-bound syndromes such as latah. His central contention is that these are not true medical conditions, but learned behaviours which can offer escape from oppressive social conditions. Latah in particular he sees as a largely conscious performance, in effect fraud, by which normally subservient women can express culturally unacceptable behaviours, while denying responsibility because they are not in a state of self control. The latah is a often a form of public performance, in which all concerned know that it is not really real. Perhaps Bartholomew could have noted the similarities with "stage hypnosis" in the west, where people are given license to behave in bizarre and outrageous ways, by being described as not being in self possession. Tantrism may well be a folk ritual rather than a disease and so on.

These books are grimly timely, and a time of a "war" against an endless supply of shadowy enemies is one in which all of the behaviours and experiences discussed in these books can be anticipated. The terrorist is clearly going to rival the paedophile as the folk devil of the age, and to play the role that "anarchist" did at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Fears of chemical and biological attack are likely to stimulate all sorts of mass psychogenic illness, and there are many ambiguous stimuli that can be misinterpreted. Of course, approaches such as Bartholomew's are controversial, and will be contested by various groups. The very words "mass hysteria" and "moral panic" convey negative stereotypes, and many people, not just Forteans, reject any hint of "all in the mind". Yet the real lesson of Bartholomew's work is surely that mind, body and society cannot be separated.

Little Green Men should be accessible to most lay readers, though Exotic Deviance is more heavy going, and unlike Little Green Men is overburdened with social science jargon, and a persistent and intrusive homage to political correctness. Perhaps that's what a university press as opposed to a commercial academic publisher requires. Stick with them both though. -- Peter Rogerson, from Magonia.

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