Foucault, Madness and Civilization

I am rereading the first three chapters of Madness and Civilization, a book that I had a mildly antagonistic relationship to when I read it two years ago. While I can’t say my feelings have changed, I did notice a lot of things that I hadn’t realized on my first reading. What I take as Foucault’s mission statement here is that when madness was classified as a mental illness in the eighteenth century, this created a gulf between madness and reason which did not exist prior to this. He is attempting to write “the archaeology of that silence” which exists because modern psychiatry has ignored the things that exist between madness and reason, the kinds of language and identification which was prevalent prior to the eighteenth century. In his view, medieval madness is a mystical experience that only rarely crosses over into a medical problem. This is, in my opinion, an essential misunderstanding.

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I was so annoyed at Foucault’s characterization of the medieval period in 2019 that I wrote this (the clip I mention is in reference to Michael Camille’s 1996 guest interview on This American Life):

In sending me this twenty-plusyear-old audioclip,my friend unknowingly provided me with the perfect way to express my frustration with Madness and Civilization: it is an unintentional record of modern ideas about the medieval period that borrows from twentieth-century conceptions of the Middle Ages without reflecting on the fact that it is doing so. Like Medieval Times,it is a collection of the ways we think about the Middle Ages today,a thought experiment in the weirdness of the modern period as distinct from, but also similar to, the medieval.

In addition to stressing an irreversible shift from banishment to confinement that happens between the medieval and early modern period, Foucault never defines what madness is, and conflates madness and folly.

It is both a haunting precursor to the apocalypse and a foolish affect that can’t be the focus of fascination and can’t be taken seriously. Is it intellectual disability? Is it mania? Is there any point in trying to compartmentalize it, or must it be approached in the way Foucault does it: as a sweeping category that can mean whatever he wants it to mean?

To be clear, I still stand by my point. However, on rereading there were a number of interesting things that Foucault brings up which I want to know more about. The first of these is his argument that in the fourteenth century, the figure of the leper is replaced (in terms of its societal function) with the figure of the madman. Given that lepers were seen as having too much melancholy humor (cf Rawcliffe), I think this transition is a really interesting one and also not as medically drastic as Foucault seems to believe. He also states that in the late middle ages, madness ceased to become a statement about one’s unpreparedness for the apocalypse (people are mad not to prepare), and became a sign that the end of the world is coming. He places this at the time just before the “dawn of the renaissance” when things became too burdened with signs, so much so that they lose their own form; humans and animals become nondistinct from each other, because the straightforward religious significations of animals have given way to embodiments of madness without secure meaning (18). I am very interested in why he believes this, but tragically there is not a note. His interest in the apocalypse continues, though, and he argues that apocalyptic imagery changes in a formative way in the fifteenth century from a standard story with God at its heart to a proliferation of madness. Madness and the end of the world are entwined, which is a fascinating statement but again, I have no idea where it comes from.

At the same time, medieval madness is dark but not complicated: “all within it is brilliant surface” (25). Men who seek knowledge too seriously go mad not because they are serious, but because their work doesn’t mean anything. Madness is all around in the world but it is men who are susceptible to it, a convention which is shared by spiritual understandings of madness (cf Fowler, M,M &M). In Foucault’s words, “Madness deals not so much with truth and the world, as with man and whatever truth about himself he is able to perceive” (27). This is a medieval attitude, but it’s late medieval, and he pushes to have it attributed to the renaissance. In either case, he characterizes medieval madness as both simple and cosmic, “out there”, before it comes to rest inside people. The seventeenth century is the crucial shift at which madness ceases to be tragic, and instead becomes a moral problem of “unreason”. In other words, madness stops being a conduit for divine knowledge and starts simply being a problem.

The main thing I still want to understand, and still don’t get, is what Foucault means by the overlap of madness and reason before the eighteenth century. If it’s because madness is a kind of knowledge, I don’t completely agree, but I think he comes around to complicating this anyway in his assertion that learned men don’t actually know anything. But his account seems to ignore all medieval discourses about reason and what it means to be reasonable. I think what he actually means is that madness begins to be classified; each disparate kind of madness has its own solution and begins to be confined within it. This ignores the entire history of medieval neurological/emotional treatment, in which different kinds of madness are classified and treated differently. As my notes say, “he wants material conditions to work as metaphors for the popular view of madness”, and they just don’t. Reason tames madness because we are in the age of reason now, and pre-reasonable societies couldn’t have confined mad people or treated them as ill rather than uniquely knowledgeable.

Foucault wants so badly to create a break between fifteenth and sixteenth/seventeenth century understandings of madness, and it just doesn’t work. Avicenna’s translations and Burton’s Anatomy (600 years apart) speak to each other in similar ways. Foucault interestingly does not mention madness getting treated with more respect in the EM, as melancholy does for some people when it is aestheticized; aestheticization rather seems to be the medieval issue that is solved by rationality in the seventeenth century. For obvious reasons, while Foucault brings up some interesting threads here that I’d like to know more about, I can’t help but disagree with him.

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