Oliver Sacks NYRB piece, “The Lost Virtues of the Asylum” (which will appear as the Introduction to Christopher Payne’s photographic essay, Asylum: The Closed World of State Mental Hospitals) concretizes contemporary issues in political theology, particularly concerning the shape and effects of rights-talk. Without romanticizing madness or the asylum, Sacks nonetheless reminds us of the “sanctuary” that was provided by them. Originating in, and extensions of, cloistered life, work was a central aspect of the asylum–until the so-called defense of their “rights” and “autonomy” ended this so-called exploitation, turning these sanctuaries into palaces of passivity and atrophy. As he summarizes, recounting his own work in these institutions during this transitional phase of alleged “improvement”:
Sadly and ironically, soon after I arrived in the 1960s, work opportunities for patients virtually disappeared, under the guise of protecting their rights. It was considered that having patients work in the kitchen or laundry or garden, or in the sheltered workshops, constituted “exploitation.” This outlawing of work–based on legalistic notions of patients’ rights and not their real needs–deprived many pateints of an important form of therapy, something that could give them incentives and identities of an economic and social sort. Work could “normalize” and create community, could take patients out of their solipsistic inner worlds, and the effects of stopping it were demoralizing in the extreme. For many patients who had previously enjoyed work and activity, there was now little left but sitting, zombielike, in front of the now-never-turned-off TV.