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.

Airs, Waters, Places

Notes, Summaries & Reviews

W. F. Bynum in Science and the Practice of Medicine in the Nineteenth Century traces early ideas about the social ecology of diseases to this important piece within the Hippocratic corpus. Of its importance to the history of community health, he says: “…the Hippocratic authors of this work (there were undoubtedly at least two) yoked together medicine, physical geography, and ethnology so persuasively that subsequent medical speculations on why epidemics occurred, and why certain diseases were prevalent in particular regions, made frequent reference to features such as wind, climate, temperature, soil, and humidity.” (59) Reading it today in preparation for Aparna’s History of Public Health class, I’m inclined to agree with this assessment.

I can see a basic proto-epidemiological approach; the authors are trying to understand the prevalence of certain kinds of diseases among particular populations in distinct locations. They take into account many potential “determinants”: climate, winds, water source and quality, habits, and base constitutions. Sudden changes in anything — temperature, humidity, air flow, etc. — are understood as unhealthful. Climates that vary tend to breed ecologies that are also varied, which in turn breeds unbalanced flora, fauna, and humans. In this sense, the theories in Airs, Waters, Places are incredibly ecologically deterministic.

The authors also discuss “distribution.” An example will clarify this assertion. Part 22 deals with Scythians and attempts to explain the high number of eunuchs in their ranks. They are a nomadic tribe in which horse-riding is the primary method of movement, and wealthier citizens are more likely to be able to afford a horse. A higher proportion of eunuchs are wealthy. From this information, the authors deduce that it is the frequent horse-riding that is the root determinant; it causes inflammation of the joints, which is treated via bloodletting behind the ears, which, according the authors, causes impotence. Realizing that they can no longer perform sexually, these men don the clothes and social roles of women, becoming eunuchs. After establishing an abnormal incidence rate in a population and subsequently combining culture-specific behaviors with the physiological effects they have, the authors come up with an environmental explanation for a disease.

This does feel a bit whiggish — looking to the past and cherry-picking methods that look familiar to modern-day epidemiology — but if we are looking for the history of basic public health strategies, I can see why historians have understood this work to be of importance. I’m hoping we discuss how its ideas were or were not used contemporaneously and whether or not it was read and followed by later individuals concerned with community health.

Another interesting bit — the authors’ thoughts on the supernatural character of diseases are of note. Though not ready to throw the possibility of divine will completely out, they were certainly sure that the cause of illness was natural and knowable;

"...no one disease is either more divine or more human than another,
but that all are alike divine, for that each has its own nature, and
that no one arises without a natural cause." (Part 22)

Orientalism

Notes

Foundation of post-colonial studies; methodology is post-structuralist.

Discussion Questions:

Let’s start where we left off last week — would you say that what Said has written is a cultural history?

What sorts of sources does he use to get at the culture of Orientalism, and how does he link the culture to the psychological, ideological, and tangible effects he’s arguing it resulted in?

Science (geographical surveys, linguistic treatises), politics (Napoleon’s correspondence), popular culture (literature [travel, novels], art [paintings],

There’s one aspect of this book that I find particularly important for historians of science to pay attention to, and it’s something Aparna asked us to look out for this week. Said raises a very pertinent question about how we should be writing history; in this case, he’s talking in particular about histories of “the Other.”

Have you seen the kind of discourse Said describes in the primary or secondary sources you consult when your actors or authors are writing about “the Other?”

How can one study other cultures and people from a libertarian, or a nonrepressive and nonmanipulative, perspective? (24)

“Academic mindfulness”

Interdisciplinarianism

How would you answer this question in the context of the history of science, or even more importantly, within the context of your own research?

It seems incredibly important who is assigned the role of “actor” and who is viewed in terms of their “reactions.” Who is changing and who is changed.

Another issue, and one that we’ve discussed at length in other courses but something I think Said deals with well, is the pitfalls of specialized disciplinarity. As historians, in our training, we are expected to read all the “great works” our forebears have composed in order to understand the acceptable methodologies and limits of our field. In a way, this distances us from the reality of the history we’re trying to comment upon, like it did for many intellectuals within the Orientalist community. Instead of looking at the Orient as it was, letting it speak for itself, these actors read what other men in their discipline had written about the Orient and took this as truth. (67)

As historians, should we be trained with such an emphasis on secondary source material? We’re joining a conversation, but we also are responsible for representing people of the past. How can we do so with so very little of their voices being heard? Where is the line between being a part of an intellectual community and making sure the subject of study for which the community has been founded is the centerpiece of the conversation?

What is science’s role in the construction of cultural domination of the West over the East? In the formation of the “Orient”?

What is the relationship between knowledge and power in Said’s narrative?

Does knowledge have to be based in reality for it to be powerful?

Is essentialist knowledge, taking something specific and applying it in a general manner, especially prone to produce problems of difference and inequality?

Criticism:

Why not focus on more European-dominated colonial examples, like the British in India or the Russians in Asia?

DON’T LEAVE OUT THE GERMANS

This is anti-western

Made “Orientalism” into a bad word, condemning all those who would have proudly identified as such before the book was written.

“Said had constructed a binary-opposite representation, a fictional European stereotype that would counter-weigh the Oriental stereotype. Being European is the only common trait among such a temporally and stylistically disparate group of literary Orientalists.” Ibn Warraq, O.P. Kejariwal

Notes from Class:

Reproducing Empire, Laura Briggs

Early 20th century history of eugenics in Puerto Rico

Decolonizing Methodologies

The scholarship that we read is so heavily inundated with empire we don’t even see it.

You need to read Marx to understand this stuff (especially the violence aspects).

Oklahoma as a postcolonial space

Learning how to inhabit the space of the people we study

Any action in a colonized space is viewed as a reaction to the colonizers (by the colonized and the colonizers).

It’s not taking away colonial agency, it’s taking away their individuality.

Colonized cannot go back.

Culture must change to accommodate colonizers. It must change again to unify against colonizers. And it changes again after the colonizers are gone.