A story
of madness

Codebreakers / Vladimir Steyaert

I wanted to broach the way in which society treats those who push science, morals, and the arts forward and are not paid in return. I focused on the idea of code-breakers. In a first while we think of cryptologic, computer, artistic, and theological code-breakers, but beyond that, there are social codes. Through different eras, various disciplines, I looked for characters who broke systems and who were broken in turn.

American military analyst and whistle-blower Chelsea Manning was incarcerated after exposing top-secret documents on the US military excesses in Iraq and Afghanistan. She breaks sexual codes when she changes gender in a milieu (the American army) where this is still taboo. The same goes for Alan Turing, who broke the Nazi defence code enigma during the Second World War before being condemned for “gross indecency”. Originating from a particularly open and tolerant background, he lived his homosexuality without shame and probably never saw this social backlash coming...

Due to the fact that she is simultaneously a woman and an artist, Camille Claudel breaks the social rules of her era. She breaks codes in many different ways: she is an artist, uses nude models, has a romantic relationship without being married, and aborts.

During the Renaissance, innovative philosopher and theologian Giordano Bruno shocks when he breaks the common codes of thought and faith. Today still, the Church still considers his words as heretic, particularly his views on the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary or the existence of the Holy Trinity. Rather than retracting his words or pretending that he was mad, he endured eight years in prison, the tortures of the Spanish inquisition and finally, the pyre. He is a genuine martyr of freedom of thought.

Today, Chelsea Manning has gone back to jail. She refuses to testify against Julian Assange in the trial opposing the United States to Wikileaks[1]. This brave individual lives for her convictions. She is not the unstable and solitary person that some pretend that she is.

These four figures are radical and live their convictions to the full. Each brings something new whilst being socially atypical, which is perhaps doubly unforgivable. In this way, they tell us a tale of madness as it was explained by Michel Foucault2. What society deems as crazy and that should be eliminated in one way or another - homosexuality, hysteria, heresy, transgenders - and the way in which it watches and punishes: the jails of the inquisition, the psychiatric asylum, chemical castration, total isolation as so many new forms of coercion.

— Interview by Cécile Michel on 02 April 2019


1 Julian Assange helped  Chelsea Manning access thousands of top-secret classified documents. Thanks to her help, Private Manning - then called Bradley - leaked more than 700 000 confidential documents relative to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to WikiLeaks.

2 Folie et déraison. Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique is the main thesis of the State doctorate of philosopher Michel Foucault, 1972 , who studies the development of the notion of  madness in history.