Foucault: Madness and Civilization

Notes, Summaries & Reviews

This book read a lot like Orientalism to me. It is a history of The Other and how it has been defined in relation to what is normal, what is reasonable. In Said’s work, the opposing ideas were Western and Oriental. In Foucault’s, they are reason and folly. I think the two overlap a lot, however; the Oriental was often associated with emotion, spiritual ways of understanding the world, and unreason. Equally parallel in both works is how one of the opposing binaries — the Oriental and the Mad — is made to embody all that is undesirable and the operative results of being understood that way. I understand why this book would probably be important for anyone in colonial and post-colonial studies to read.

It’s a very deep history that definitely falls firmly in the camp of constructionism. Like The Birth of the Clinic, Madness & Civilization is looking at how the discourse (knowledge-base) around something informs how it is viewed and dealt with in society.

Posits that madness was handled via confinement starting the 17th century, “the moment when madness was perceived on the social horizon of poverty, of incapacity for work, of inability to integrate with the group; the moment when madness began to rank among the problems of the city.”  (64)

“The new meanings assigned to poverty, the importance given to the obligation to work, and all the ethical values that are linked to labor, ultimately determined the experience of madness and inflected its course.” (64)

Interesting for my research is the change in conceptions of madness Foucault outlines in “The Great Fear,” summarized well in the following excerpt:

“In the second half of the eighteenth century, madness was no longer recognized in what brings man closer to an immemorial fall or an indefinitely present animality; it was, on the contrary, situated in those distances man takes in regard to himself, to his world, to all that is offered by the immediacy of nature; madness became possible in the milieu where man’s relations with his feelings, with time, with others, are altered; madness was possible because of everything which, in man’s life and development, is a break with the immediate.” (220)

This reminds me of neurasthenia and makes sense given contemporaneous therapeutic recommendations — a return to nature, to the natural state of man. Modernity, it was believed, was overexciting and led to mental problems.

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