Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, as Read by a Crazy Person

December 25, 2013 § Leave a comment

This is a synopsis–what did they call them in grad school? A precis?–of Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, which I read as part of my disability studies grad class. It struck me as profoundly weird, like seeing yourself in the mirror for the first time. 

Michel Foucault’s classic Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason might be just as aptly subtitled The Extermination of Madness at the End of the 19th Century. For Foucault’s main argument–which does not come until the tail end of the book, a la Henri-Jacques Stiker–is that “what we call psychiatric practice is a certain moral tactic contemporary with the end of the 18th century, preserved in the rites of asylum life, and overlaid by the myths of positivism” (276). Foucault argues that this modern-day sleight-of-hand is the result of a centuries-long process of “scission” (x) between the language of Reason and the language of madness; his task in Madness and Civilization is then to trace the development of this gradual split through an analysis of European history during the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Enlightenment Age. Through numerous case studies and extensive quotes from prominent figures of the era, Foucault examines how shifts in the role of institutional structures such as the leprosarium, the house of confinement, the hopital, and the asylum paralleled shifts in European society’s understanding of madness. From the 15th century’s conception of madness as indistinguishable from indigence and criminality to the 18th and 19th centuries’ liberation of a differentiated madness unto a normative and condemning bourgeois moral order, Foucault documents the process by which institutional structures and practices have inscribed themselves upon the bodies and minds of those considered mad: excommunication, physical abuse, regulation, and judgment have given way, in more recent times, to the creation of that “serene world of mental illness” in which “modern man no longer communicates with the madman” (x).

Curiously, Foucault leaves off his historical analysis here, at the doorstep of the 20th century. Unlike Stiker–who makes similar claims and uses similar methodology to support them–Foucault refers to contemporary society only obliquely. We can only surmise that his silence regarding his own century echoes the great silence of an Unreason stilled by the totalizing discourse of medicine; after all, he warns us in the preface that “I have not tried to write the history of [psychiatric] language, but rather the archaeology of that silence [which results from such a language]” (xi).

Confronting this strategic silence, I cannot help but wonder what a more cultural criticism-focused scholar like Rosemarie Garland Thomson would make of this obstinate absence of the present. Would she not say that in critically addressing the history of madness–that is, in addressing the history of madness with an eye to power, to the domination of certain bodies and minds–we must also discuss this contemporary psychiatric language, given that it continues and has real force in the lives of modern subjects (especially those defined or who self-define as disabled)? The language of unreason may indeed be the unreachable abyss beyond which no Western discourse can venture–but what of the ways, immediate and concrete, in which contemporary society treats and represents those considered mad, insane, crazy, mentally ill? Certainly, for me one of the most surprising aspects of Foucault’s text was this subjective disjunct between his history and my experience–two things which, objectively speaking, should be seamless. As a teenager, I was hospitalized for a time in a psychiatric institution, the primary effect of which was to scare me straight, basically: an experience that echoes Foucault’s description of the asylum as “an instrument of moral uniformity and of social denunciation” (259) which merely masquerades as modern medicine. Yet reading Foucault, I am left with the sensation that the history he details so painstakingly in no way bears upon the now: it seems a disembodied account of madness, a history discontinuous with present times and present practices–an impression strangely belied by the realization that what I am reading is somehow “our” history, “our” legacy. Not until I have finished the book does it hit me, and then only oddly, in the space of his silence: these things continue, and I have lived them. 

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