Michel Foucault's Madness and Civilization Mentioned on Book Review

Excerpt from Book Review :

Michel Foucault's Madness and Civilization (mentioned on page 5 of 11, "the reading list")

Michel Foucault's Madness and Civilization is a complex work with so many different themes that it requires strenuous and concentrated reading to understand and retain Foucault's argument. The material then needs a review in order to reflect and critically engage with the reading. This kind of book is no light reading nor can it be done within a few hours. It needs a pen in hand or a luminescent marker to wade through the lines. The reader, too, needs to know that best results demand that he absorb this book in small bites in order to read, reflect, and reread before continuing with other sectors of the book. Foucault, too, can disturb people with his revolutionary insights, but for those who are philosophically attuned and who are post-modernist by inclination and by cognitive tendency, Foucault's book will grab and delight. It is one of these rare books that disturb your previous paradigm of life. It makes you step aside from the tide of the way that you ordinarily perceive life and human interaction due to your socialization. It shakes your socialization and sets patterns of human interaction and control in a new form. In fact, once you have finished reading that book, you may never see life the same. You may even end up an anarchist as so many others who have read this same book have become.

Michel Foucault's Madness and Civilization

The best way to summarize Foucault's Madness and Civilization may be to categorize it into its various themes. Foucault follows the progression of societal treatment for madness throughout history and comes to an analytical conclusion about that illness by categorizing the phenomenon of insanity under different terms. These in turn are:

1. Uneasiness of madness (end of Middle Ages)

Madness supplanted social fear of leprosy. All the myths and superstitions of leprosy -- the fear, fantastic images, and apocalyptic visions -- associated themselves with the phenomena of madness. Insane people were, in turn, accused of being witches and thought to be inhabited by holy spirits. They were tortured and worshipped, and it was, generally, thought that the demon controlled them

2. The Age of Confinement (17th century onwards / Classical Ages)

Society controlled madness by confining it in a small corner and shutting it away from civilization. The confinement of madness came under the auspices of the police and represented a control of power by the elite over the vulnerable or, in other words, over the 'abnormal' I.e. over those who deviated from the norm of society. These 'abnormal' people threatened society by their difference. They were, therefore, controlled and, against their will, shunted into a place that was set apart form the world.

Foucault, too, discusses the overlap of economic ideas with the concept of madness. 'Mad' people were those who could not contribute productively to the economic running of society. They were therefore seen as unproductive and useless to social life. Worse still, they could not only contribute but were also sapping up social resources. Useless to society, they were locked away.

The classical period, too, distinguished between body and soul, or mind and matter / body. A whole / rational person (aka Descartes or Kant for instance) was someone who combined both body and mind and whose emotions -- or id (in the terms of Freud) -- was controlled by rationality (or ego / super-ego (again Freud). The person whose persona was clearly divided and showed fission between body and mind with emotion and primitive body urges running wild was someone who was incomprehensible and worrisome to the classical mind. He threatened society and was, therefore, locked away.

Dreams were also something that could not be controlled and, therefore, Foucault shows that madness was often equated with dreams. The classical conception of madness popularized four key themes of insanity: melancholia/mania and hysteria/hypochondria. In the 19 thcentury, these would merge together under one as popularized conspicuously (although not exclusively) by Freud.

Towards the end of this classical period, society tried to cure this 'mad' person. He was feared and reviled, but at the same time public fear grew around the image of confinement and society used medical methods in order to treat the outcast. He was ridiculed and treated as a spectacle. At the same time, 'bedlam' or the lunatic asylum, as in turn it became known, became a shunned and fascinating place. The mad person aroused ridicule and fascination, and society applied their medial treatments of the age to 'normalize' him.

3. Condemnation of Confinement (the 19th century)

Society saw confinement as an economic as well as a social error and aberration. The insane person had to be separated form other social deviants. The house of confinement therefore transmuted into an asylum which literally meant to 'protect' the individual from the ravages of society. The family of the victim became the protectors or the ones who most frequently placed him in the asylum. The asylum served as a refuge from society. The person became an outcast. More often than not (and particularly if she was a woman -- which seemed to be mostly the case), the victim was painted as morally guilty for relinquishing her social duty. Madness, therefore, at the end of the 19th century became moral degeneracy. And a new relationship between patient and doctor emerged where patient was encouraged to confide in doctor and the doctor became the moral healer. Thus the birth of psychoanalysis.

Art and Madness

Foucault's book ends with the complex relationship between art and madness. He sees the two closely intertwined since both step into the realms of the imaginary and often disturb the world of the pragmatic and real. Says Foucault:

Since the end of the nineteenth century, unreason no longer manifests itself except in the lightning flash of works such as those of Hoederlin, of Nerval, of Nietzsche, or of Artaud

These people were obsessed with their work, fervid in the creation and 'hallucination' of new ideas that contradicted and threatened the mesh of human reality. In a great way, therefore, Foucault himself could be called a 'madman' and it may explain the reason that he seems to identify so well with the outcast. The outcast, in his opinion, is anyone who is a deviant to society. These, too, are people who scorn and shrug off convention. And, therefore, extend to artists who create a revolutionary and new way of perceiving and illustrating the world.

Since madness is a component of Art (or the reverse), it is for this reason that the medical approach (including psychoanalysis) is so mismatched to insanity and cannot 'cure' it. Modern medicine and therapy (or psychiatry) fail to listen to the voice of the mad, or to unreason (a popular Foucault term), and tend to lecture at it rather than to stand at its level and engage with it in an unconditional emphatic dialogue.

Returning to Art and to artists such as Nietzsche, Nerval and Artaud, madness may be linked to creativity but also destroys the work of the art. The seed of madness inherent in these works -- the passion and anti-rationality - robs the work of its logic and reason, make sit scintillate in a Nietzsche an frenzy, but, by doing so, takes it out of the realm of the cool, logical and rational realm of scientific 'normality' that the Western (or 'civilized' world) so delights in.

The Construction of Madness.

The social construction of madness is Faucet's all-encompassing point, and the thread onto which the reader should hold if he or she wishes to make any sense of the book.

Madness is not an illness per se, but, rather, a phenomena that is defined by its context (namely socio-historical era), and has, accordingly, undergone many different delineations in its history as the conceptual categorization of insanity (beforehand) showed.

Madness is no permeable, fixed natural illness. In fact, it may not be called an illness altogether. It is rather a label applied to a human who differs / deviates from the social conventions of his era, and each era perceived and treated the insane person in a different way.

A combination of socio-cultural-economic variables determine the particular group's attitude to the deviant individual - and Foucault will explore this idea in another book that is dedicated to the way that society considers and treats another outcast: the offender whom it too locks up, not in an asylum but in a jail.

Madness has gone through many different definitions in history. In the Medieval Age it was both deified and burnt. The Renaissance / Enlightenment gentleman confined it, whilst the Modern gentry treated it. Then it was seen as a moral illness, and today? That's where the question-mark hangs.

At the end of the day, we see how social perception and individual behavior are so closely interconnected. The 'mad' person can be, in turns, 'spiritual', 'bad', wayward, possessed, split, and 'irrational' and so…

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