Forum Lectures #8: Marie Meier

The Mentally Ill as Citizen Category in the Danish Welfare State: How to use Literature as a Cultural Testimony?

Forum lecture 8: Marie Meier


Historically, the negotiation of what it means to be mentally ill has been affected by several divergent factors: questions of security and finance, views up on gender and heredity and the medical interventions in the field of psychiatry. The sum of these factors forms certain time specific imaginaries of mental illness, which intersects with different national political agendas, legislation and changing practices in public healthcare institutions. This lecture focuses on the method of comparative literature to trace “the mentally ill” as a key political figure in the Danish welfare state from the beginning of the 20th century to the present. Contextualizing three passages from novels of the Danish authors Amalie Skram (1895), Tove Ditlevsen (1968), and Hanne Højgaard Viemose (2019), I depict what can be conceived as three distinct eras of mental illness in a welfare state context. Doing so, I follow the broader transition from “the insane” to “the patient” to the current “user of psychiatry” and demonstrate that different imaginaries and articulations of what it means to be mentally ill have been – and still is – part of societal and political discourses. Finally, drawing on Gilles Deleuze’s notion of “Societies of Control” (1992), I argue that the decentralization in the field of psychiatry that has taken place in Denmark – and other comparable western countries – since the late 1970s must be seen in correlation to a broader social transformation from disciplining the citizens in a Foucauldian sense, to a new kind of control and subjectification/marginalization.

About Marie Meier

Marie Meier is a Ph.D. Fellow at the Saxo Institute, Department of History, and part of the collaborative research project The Politics of Family Secrecy. See more info here: The Concealment of Mental Maladies. She holds a MA in Angewandte Litteraturwissenshaft from Freie Universitët Berlin and a bachelor in Comparative Literature from the University of Copenhagen. During her Ph.D. she has been affiliated with Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, Center of the History of Emotions.

In her thesis The Concealment of Mental Maladies she employs different kinds of empirical sources, conceived as ‘cultural testimonies’ – patient records, oral history interviews, and fiction – to trace the different configurations of “the mentally ill” in the welfare state. More specifically she is interested in how shifting dynamics of concealment and disclosure have shaped not only our perceptions but also the experiences of mental illness.

Forum Lectures

Forum Lectures is a series of lectures by Danish and international thinkers and cultural workers reflecting on how art co-forms communality. FORUM LECTURES brings thinking and shared study back to the university and invites for public lectures the last Tuesday every month at 17:00 - 19:00.

The initiative is hosted by the research group of the New Carlsberg Foundation research center Art as Forum. Our researchers are occupied by a.o. the infrastructures of the arts, collective modes of production, the entanglement of political theory and aesthetic theory, assembling strategies of curation, dematerialized art, acts of strategic separatism and temporality in digital art.

The lecture is for free and open for everyone interested.