The risks and benefits of universal narratives

Classics buffs and economics enthusiasts rejoice! There is a play on at the Theatre d’Aujourdui that is well worth your attention, and quite relevant to stigma and graduate research.

Luc Picard and Sophie Desmarais perform at Le Théatre d'Aujourd'hui. Photo by Jérémie Battaglia.
Luc Picard and Sophie Desmarais perform at Le Théatre d’Aujourd’hui. Photo by Jérémie Battaglia.

Set in 2008 as the US markets begin to crash, the play tells the story of hedge fund agent (Luc Picard) and his relationship with a junior analyst (Sophie Desmarais)—an anxious mathematician with poor social skills who, after going through months of therapy, is learning how to communicate beyond numbers and models.

Her favourite new communication tool? Epic Similes. (Here I mean “epic” in the Homeric or Epic Poetry kind of sense, not the overused version my teenage cousins use to describe their youtube channels.)

Indeed, the world of finance that is depicted in Michael Mackenzie’ Instructions pour un éventuel gouvernement socialiste qui souhaiterait abolir la fête de Noël * is steeped in references to Ancient Greek literature.

A Greek Classics professor of mine once said that Ancient Greek literature had covered every possible narrative, and that these narratives were universal.

Thus, the story of the play is about so much more than stock brokers and the 2008 financial crisis. It is a reflection on each and every one of us, and our interactions within capitalist economies.

One of the most interesting components of the play is the character of Cass. Cass is a psychological traumatized young woman who falls perhaps within the Asperger’s end of the autism spectrum.

Cass is an archetype.
As you Classics enthusiasts will know, an archetype serves two purposes, whether it wants to or not:

Agamemnon (by artist Philippe Chery)… the original hedge fund agent?
  1. First, it is a pure embodiment of a trope used to tell a universal narrative. I dare you to count the number of times people living with mental illness are used as foils onto which stories of compassion and/or stories of pure evil can be told. (DC/MARVEL movies, anyone?)
  2. Secondly, archetypes simplify things. Within Sophie Desmarais’ character, we see the intersection of mental illness and cognitive disability.  This is typical in plays and movies, and a little frustrating, because it compounds two distinct realities and blurs the lines between them.

I worry about what creative portrayals of mental illness or cognitive disability do for society. For one, I think some increase stigma by propagating simplistic stereotypes. The same can be said outside of arts and culture.

Universal narratives in graduate studies
As graduate students, many of us will be working with marginalized populations in our research. I personally write a lot about people experiencing depression. This September, I went to the Canadian Academy of Psychiatric Epidemiology conference in Ottawa. There, some graduate students were presenting their research on suicide outcomes. I was struck by the nonchalance with which they described their research, as if the statistics they were describing did not in fact represent real, diverse people. It was really challenging to listen to them present; I felt saddened and a little angry because they lacked respect for their studies’ participants.

I felt the same way watching the play, because Cass’ character was so monochromatic. She deserved a more complex portrayal.

Most people I have met conducting research at McGill are very thoughtful and professional, but I do think there is a lack of conversation about what we can do as researchers to decrease the stigma surrounding the various issues we study—especially within the biomedical sciences.  The stakes are high, because we risk re-marginalizing the groups we are working so hard to empower.

Indeed, as everything crumbled in the play’s stock-market setting, you could almost predict that though Luc Picard’s Agamemnon-like character would probably stumble, the fate of Cass was to be even more dire.

Instructions pour un éventuel gouvernement socialiste qui souhaiterait abolir la fête de Noël  plays until November 2nd 2013 at Le Théâtre d’Aujourd’hui, 3900 St-Denis. Tickets for students are 25$ online.

* This play is in French.

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