Friday, November 16, 2012

Foucault and madness

Foucault's work on Madness, which is itself
a discourse of madness
this looks like a Rorschach test
(ink blot) which is commonly used by


Foucault wrote extensively about the institution of mental facilities (asylums) and the medicalization of madness.  Fundamental to Foucault’s philosophy (as he rejected the idea that he was a social scientist) is the concept of power. (Dillon and Foucault 1980:2)  In his book, Madness and Civilization, Foucault gives an overview of the history of how Madness has been defined and studied throughout western civilization, with special regard to how the modern asylum and the discipline of psychiatry have control over the legitimate discourse of knowledge about madness. (Rieff 1967)  According to Foucault’s analysis, the definition of madness “as a malleable phenomenon, [is] produced through discourses that keep changing through time”.  (Erb 2006:51).  Power, for Foucault is that ability to legitimately create discourse about knowledge, thereby defining what is and isn’t knowledge.  Throughout his career Foucault was referred to as both a structuralist and a post structuralist.  Structuralists look at how external forces, like culture, influence the individual, while post structuralists deny the sufficiency of external structure, instead focusing on how the meaning taken from those structures changes over time and between people and on what presuppositions are required to make sense of those external structures. 
Crucial to his analysis is the effect the “age of reason” had on defining madness. (Erb 2006)  By labeling people as reasonable, acting through reason, that creates a label of unreason, which became known as madness.  By creating the mad, the discourse reinforces normal, reason, while stigmatizing deviance, madness, in the legitimate construction of knowledge.  This discourse claims that people are fundamentally reasonable, so any people who are unreasonable must be broken, insane.  By labeling the unreasonable as mad, the psychiatric discourse gains the legitimacy to create treatments for the condition, like asylums.  Foucault’s analysis reveals that throughout history, the term mad has been used to rationalize a strict and radical measure of control, incarceration or confinement, on individuals whose very existence challenged the popular discourse of what is normative, like witches and sexual deviants.  “The implicit assumption behind the treatment of the insane was that the prohibited impulses [that the insane indulge in] which had broken through the crust of law and religion [discourse]… The mad were, therefore, a kind of counter-elite; and the madhouse was an uncivilization” which keeps the civilized in check (Rieff 1967).  The mad house is a counter example that, the powers that be, can use to show why they are important, in order to keep their power.  This goes back to Foucault’s discourse analysis and structuralism, by defining what is civilization we also define what it is not.  Madness is the brute animal impulses that rationality overtakes in the normal civilized person.  This is something that is very Freudian in its nature: the concept of reason requiring repression, and then when those repressions break down, the animalistic drives are released, the person is mad.            

 Foucault criticized Freud’s understanding of madness as a disorder, as a degeneration, breaking down, of the mind.  Instead Foucault offered a phenomenological perspective of madness, focusing on the patients perspective and experience instead of making the patient see the world from what the institution defines as the normal perspective, that of the mentally healthy psychiatrist.  The sociologist Goffman would continue this train of thought, theorizing how the mental illness of the patient is diagnosed when the patient fails to properly play the roles expected of him/her, the patient instead plays the roles that the psychiatrist matches with a specific illness, ie acting depressed results in a diagnosis of depression.(Sedgwick 1974)  A criticism of Foucault is that Goffman does exactly what he does, but in a more satisfactory way.  However, Foucault’s interest in madness is not a sociological analysis, but rather in “the rationalization of the management of the individual”; the aspect of power in the institutionalization of mental illness (Dillon and Foucault 1980).  This rationalization leads to the medicalization of deviance, of mental nonconformity or abnormality, all of which results in the modern mental health system.         
            However Foucault did more than just criticize Freud.  He acknowledge the major impact Freud had in creating a psychiatric, scientific discourse of madness by instead of using a vocabulary that dismisses the mad and shuts them up in an asylum, the mad is a subject to be studied.  Foucault’s self-proclaimed greatest influence, Fredrick Nietzsche, famously was driven into insanity, becoming the classical example of the mad genius, which bridges the gap between what the discourse considers knowledge, like Nietzsche’s work, and madness, Nietzsche after his psychotic break. (Foucault, Stastny and Şengel 1995)        


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