About this Project

Outsider Writing is an innovative collaborative project in the humanities bringing together faculty from the University of Chicago with the Director of the Centre for Psychoanalytic Studies, University of Essex, UK, along with archivists and other US and International scholars. Outsider writing may typically be defined as textual material produced by those diagnosed with mental illness or identified as mentally disordered, although the project will also test that criterion. It will investigate the ways in which such texts have been defined either as part of the general culture, or as falling ‘outside’, focusing on 20th century works. In a series of critical discussions over three years, including two Chicago-based symposia and one international conference in the UK, as well as an exhibition and a visiting fellowship at the Neubauer Collegium, the Outsider Writing project will be used to explore the complex interface between questions of aesthetics, socio-cultural history, and medical psychology, all of which have been involved in the reception of outsider writing, and in its designation as non-cultural, pathological, degenerate, or beyond culture. A large amount of scholarly attention has been devoted to outsider art, but there has been hardly any attempt to gain an overview of, or critically explore, the phenomenon of outsider writing or to map its archival presence. This project aims to develop a network of scholarly interest in this field, explore its potential for future research, and by the end of the project, to put together a larger grant bid for a permanent center for research on outsider writing. By examining the cultural products of mental illness, the team looks to find new answers to questions concerning the place of mental illness within culture, highly pertinent to contestations in contemporary humanities between the normative and the exceptional, the traditional and the reconfiguring, the integrative and the marginal.

Image: Illustration from On the Writing of the Insane (1870) by G. Mackenzie Bacon, M.D.; John Churchill and Sons, London.


Art From the Outside: Culture and Mental Illness in the Twentieth Century

September 3, 2019

In this podcast, former Visiting Fellow Matt ffytche reflects on the research he conducted during his Neubauer Collegium residency as part of the Outsider Writing Project. The collaborative project investigated the ways in which texts produced by those diagnosed with mental illness have been defined either as part of the general culture or as falling "outside."

University to Celebrate Life and Legacy of Poet Gwendolyn Brooks

February 22, 2017

Faculty Fellow and Principal Investigator of the Outsider Writing research project John Wilkinson discusses the upcoming Centennial Brooks celebration honoring Gwendolyn Brooks. 

Stone thresholds

January 18, 2017

In a new paper, Faculty Fellow John Wilkinson considers three kinds of aesthetic experiences elicited by a set of artworks that depict a threshold between the human and the non-human. Wilkinson, a Professor in the Department of English and Chair for Creative Writing and Poetics at the University of Chicago, is the principal investigator on the Outsider Writing collaborative research project at the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society.


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