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Madness and Civilization

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Michel FoucaultEdit

Madness and Civilization [French: 1961 | English: 1965]Edit

Inthe early work Madness and Civilization, Foucault embarks on what can be considered the loose application of achaeological method on the history of mental illness. His premise for the book is to employ historical analysis to question on what grounds we understand madness to be a sign of "mental illness", and to prove these grounds to be historically contingent rather than reflective of truth. If the actions of Turke and Pinel were to be celebrated as an enlightened casting away of the insane's chains, Foucault would argue that their actions are no more effective, or proven effective, than medieval or Rennaissance understandings of madness (the mad having access to spirits, or the mad refusing reason).

Foucault endeavors to use this text as a way to "define the moment of this conspiracy before it was permanently established in the realm of truth [...] We must try to return, in history, to that zero point in the course of madness at which madness is an indifferentiate experience, a not yet divided experience of division itself" (ix). Thus, we can image that Foucault want to go back before the "split", before man was divided into mad and sane as a self-evident truth. Before this split, madness had other functions, and was understood by alternative discourses. In in almost Latour-like turn, Foucault suggests that it is not science that suddenly could prove madness exists: "What is constitutive is that action that divides madness, and not the science elaborated once this division is made and calm restored. What is originiative is the caesura that establishes the distance between reason and non-reason [...] Hence we must speak of that initial dispute without assuming a victory [...] without ever relying upon the fulfillment of what it claims to be" (ix-x).

To do history in this way means to shake off the presumptions of one's own moment's believe or suppositions; it is to take no roll or feature for granted, and to refuse to believe that anything came into being because it was intended or ordained to do so. This is not to say that circumstances are static, but that critical history requires you to give up your investment in the truth of your object, and to understand objects, and the histories we create for them, as part of our own ideological issues. One method for doing this is to pursue an object to the point before it is structured as we understand it contemporarily. Thus, Foucault seeks to investigate a historical moment when reason and non-reason "inseparable at the moment when they do not yet exist, and existing for each other, in relation to each other, in the exchange which seperates them" (x). Foucault seeks a time when reason and non-reason shared a common language:

"the constitution of madness as a mental illness, at the end of the eighteenth century, affords the evidence of a broken dialogue, posits the separation as already effected, and thrusts into oblivion all those stammered, imperfect words without fixed syntax in which the exchange between madness and reason was made. The language of psychiatry, which is a monologue of reason about madness, has be established only on the basis of such a silence. I have not tried to write the history of that language, but rather the archaeology of that silence" (x-xi).

Giving some helpful visual relations, Foucault writes: "Where can an interrogation lead us which does not follow reason in its horizontal course, but seeks to retrace in time that constant verticality which confronts European culture with what it is not, establishes its range by its own derangement? What realm to we enter which is neither the history of knowledge, nor history itself; which is controlled by neither the teleology of truth nor the rational sequence of causes, since causes have value and meaning only beyond the division" (xi).

Rather than seeking division, are we seeking possibilities?

The historical period Foucault will cover is the own in which the language of between reason and madness is radically altered. Two events are pivotal for Foucault: 1657, creation of the Hospital General and the great confinement of the poor; and 1794, the liberation of the chained inmates at Bicetre. What occurs between these two events is "the gradual discovery by science and philanthropy of madness in its positive truth" (xii). This transition sets the terms for us understanding madness as only mental illness.

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