What is the power that petrifies all those who dare look upon its face, condemning to madness all those who have tried the test of unreason?
Michel Foucault’s landmark work, A History of Madness and Unreason in the Classical Era, is a dense treatise. At once philosophy, history, sociology and psychology its central subject leads to the origins of the asylum, and the shifting sands around not only mental illness, but around poverty and criminality. Those three distinct subjects become objects inside the walls of confinement, and none more so than the “mad.” History of Madness traces that landscape of exile and alienation where difference – variously perceived as madness, unreason, eccentricity or the catch-all distancing distinction of ‘otherness’ – is separated, isolated and institutionalized, figuratively as judgment, literally as confinement. Foucault’s signal achievement is a painstakingly detailed portrait of the classical “Age of Reason” and its institutionalization of the so-called “mad.” It is possessed of a chilling sobriety that ripples forward through the troubled twentieth century, and resonates in a world nagged by related problems like prison reform. The specificity of Foucault’s work does not limit its application. He charts a sociological regression during an age of supposed progress. The ever-subjective categories of madness and unreason began as separate autonomous subjects and dissolved into a singular alienated, undifferentiated object, whose status was determined solely by the arbiters of the new democratic society whose freedom required protection from the threatening dangers of the criminal and the criminally insane, the “sick.” Foucault’s demanding work gathers momentum as it progresses and his singular perspective clarifies like a dystopian vista appearing in sharp relief after a long journey through dense fog. Brief commentary and original poetic meditations are interspersed with excerpts from the Routledge edition (2006), translated by Jean Khalfa and Jonathan Murphy.
The circle was therefore complete: all the forms of unreason, which in the geography of evil had taken the place of leprosy, and had been banished to the extreme margins of society, had become a visible form of leprosy, offering their corrosive wounds to the promiscuity of men… The age-old confusion about leprosy came to the fore once more, and it was the vigour of those fantastical themes that formed the first agent of synthesis between the world of unreason and the medical universe. They communicated first of all through the phantasms of fear, meeting in the infernal confusion between ‘corruption and vice.’
The new dream was of an asylum…where unreason would be entirely contained and offered as a spectacle without ever threatening risks of contagion. The idea, in short, was to build asylums equal to their true nature as cages. It was this same dream as ‘sterilised’ confinement that reappeared…
And that sick "dream" would continue to reappear under National Socialism, Stalinism, Eugenics and wherever power and fear coalesce under the disguised control of corporate ‘interest’ or ‘security.’
But in the anxiety of the second half of the eighteenth century, the fear of madness grew at the same rate as the dread of unreason, and for that reason these twin obsessions constantly reinforced each other.
A dialectic with rippling parallels from the classical age forwards, where Cartesian logic, in the name of enlightenment, stole power from the affective realm Romanticism failed to reclaim. The usurpation has been completed by industry, technology and blind allegiance to the so-called "free market" (which is to condemn blind allegiance rather than economic systems).
Madness became the paradoxical condition of the continuation of the bourgeois order, to which from the outside it nevertheless constituted the most immediate threat…
And in a light still dim, on the fringes of philosophy and medicine, psychology and history, with a naivety that all the disquiet of the nineteenth century and indeed our own age have yet to dispel, it proposed a very rudimentary concept of alienation… defined as the negativity of man, in which the concrete a priori of all forms of madness were to be discerned. Madness was thus placed as close to and as far as possible from man; in the place that he inhabits, and also in the place in which he loses himself, in a strange homeland where his residency was also that which abolished his being…
Enter the void
the space between
madness and unreason
the unsuspended bridge
degenerate and deranged
isolated in exile
a solitary plane
sublunary and distant
differentiated yet subsumed
by the darkness
that is both
boundary and expanse
Is it because a society begins to be afraid of the mad that it displaces them, and ensures they are kept in isolation? Or is it rather because they have taken on an autonomous identity, and occupy an independent space, that a fear of them begins to spread?
Like any proverbial ‘chicken and egg’ equation, the question begs the underlying issue prismatically reflected within it.
It is as if a ‘medical analytics’ and an ‘asylum perception’ never managed to overlap; and the classificatory mania of the psychiatrists of the past century probably indicates a renewed discomfort facing the duality of sources in the psychiatric experience, and the impossibility of any reconciliation between them. This was not a conflict between theory and experience…the known and the unknown: it was in a more secret manner a tear in the experience that we once had of madness, and which perhaps still exists today, a rent between madness considered by our science as mental illness, and all that it can give of itself in the space in which it has been alienated by our culture.
The tear in the fabric
long before the psychodynamic
split registers within any
collective unconscious or
attempts to demarcate
its reach or define its scope
…the century linked confinement to insanity ever more strongly…Subject and object, image and aim of repression, it was a symbol of its blind, arbitrary nature, and a justification of all that was reasonable and well founded within it. Through a paradoxical circle, madness finally appeared as the sole reason for confinement, while serving as a symbol of its deep unreason… confinement itself was a cause of alienation: …all that was most unreasonable, shameful and deeply immoral about power in the 18th century was represented in the space of confinement, and by a madman…
We have always repressed or alienated what we fear or fail to understand. The openness of freedom is a threat to anyone hording wealth, coveting power or seeking control. The distancing effects prompted by fear extend beyond the confining walls of insanity that caged so-called “immoral” or “disruptive” voice like De Sade’s. Poverty became another appendage of 18th century “unreason,” another “project” for society to control by the defining outlines of what would become “the empty forms” of positivism. Where “the ancient notion of hospitality” saw poverty and chronic illness as a communal responsibility and a challenge to be met by the moral ordering of the church, the classical era gave birth to the alienating notion of “individual responsibility.”
The limits of compassion were quickly reached…The social place in which sickness was situated was therefore entirely redefined...[and] fragmented…so that the sick could no longer be of concern to everyone, but only to their immediate entourage, as proximity in the imagination brought closeness in sentiments…Just as confinement was ultimately a creator of poverty, a hospital was a creator of disease…For the first time in the Christian world, sickness found itself isolated from poverty, and all the other faces of misery…Poverty became caught up instead in problems immanent to economics, and unreason disappeared into the deep figures of the imagination…And what reappears at the end of the 18th century is madness itself, condemned to the land of exclusion, like crime…in places haunted by the phantasms of unreason.
Foucault’s study has the bracing cumulative effect of a penetrating cold that chills to the bones. In reasoning that holds up to the light uncomfortable truths about democratic and republican economies, Foucault demonstrates why Marx should not be summarily dismissed. The “correction houses” where “every fragment of space took on the symbolic values of a meticulous social hell” grouped side by side capital offenders, the insane, libertines, and other undesirables. All were “prisoners” who “would do jobs of some use to society” and “those indispensable tasks that were harmful to health.” Foucault excels at such sobering double-edged diagnoses as this:
In this marvelous economy, work is doubly effective: it produces and destroys, as work necessary to society is born out of the death of workers whose disappearance is desirable…Freedom did not simply have a market value, it had a moral value too…This perfected vision thereby found a double justification: for the outside world, it was pure profit, as it was unremunerated work…Just as bourgeois society was beginning to understand the futility of confinement, and lose the unity of evidence that made unreason perceptible to the classical age, it found itself dreaming of a pure form of work – which was pure profit for this society, and death and moral submission for its outsiders – where all that was foreign in man would be snuffed out and reduced to silence.
From here on, Foucault’s study reverberates with startling clarity to any reader of the dissident’s code, from the empathetic victim to the “mad genius” artist to the sympathetic humanitarian. As the classical age gave way to the modern era and the industrial revolution followed the democratic movements in the Unites States and Europe, mental illness became not only a problem to be solved or shelved by confinement, it became positively linked to guilt and entwined with the shame.
Confinement marked out a limit beyond which scandal was deemed unacceptable. For the bourgeois consciousness, on the other hand, scandal became an instrument for the exercise of its sovereignty. Its absolute power was such that this consciousness was not merely judgment, but also a punishment in and of itself.
Just ask anyone who’s suffered discrimination or abuse at the hands of an individual in the form of the playground or corporate bully. The more insidious manifestation of abuse is in the oppressive forms of silence from the dominant group, the proverbial circling of the wagons and other like-minded control mechanisms to isolate and alienate the “outsider” or the “other.” “Different” has for too long been a thinly veiled insult, which makes Foucault’s study relevant to all forms of prejudice and bigotry. This makes him dangerous.
The asylum was to reduce difference, repress vice, and eliminate irregularity… [it was] a uniform domain of legislation, a place of moral syntheses…a prisoner of nothing but himself, the patient was trapped in a relation to the self that was the order of guilt, and in a non-relation to others that was of the order of shame…In comparison to the incessant dialogue between reason and madness that had marked the Renaissance, classical confinement had been a silencing.
Just further on, he exposes one of those control mechanisms recognizable to any student of dysfunction and codependency, not to mention the forms of abuse and oppression already mentioned.
We have already seen the means –and the mystification – employed in the therapeutic practices of the 18th century to persuade the mad of their insanity, the better to free them from it…Everything is organized so that the mad recognize themselves in the world of judgment that envelops them from all sides; they are to know that they are observed, judged and condemned. The link between the crime and its punishment was to be clear, and guilt was to be acknowledged by all…The asylum of the positivist age…is not a free domain…it is a judicial space where people are accused, judged and sentenced, from which they can only be freed…through repentance. Madness was to be punished in asylums, even if its innocence was proclaimed outside. For a long time to come, and at least until today, it was imprisoned in a moral world.
“Madness and Disorder” become inextricably linked with “social and moral order,” and remain so. Figurative dismissals of the “unreasonable” whistle–blower, or the “trouble-maker” complainant of compromised standards barely conceal the pernicious bond between fear and control. Foucault praises Freud, “who consented never to avert his gaze and his research from this link, and who sought not to mask it” (before criticizing the founder of psychoanalysis for his self-aggrandizing exploitation of the institution he sought to dismantle).
Psychoanalysis can untangle some forms of madness, but it is a perpetual stranger to the sovereign work of unreason. It cannot liberate or transcribe…what is essential in that work. Since the late 18th century, the life of unreason has only manifested itself in the incendiary work of a small number of writers such as Hölderlin, Nerval, Nietzsche and Artuad.
Writing at the dawn of the classical era, Dryden famously wrote:
“Great wits are sure to madness near allied,
And thin partitions do their bounds divide.”
Artaud is the subject of the next installment in this series of "unreasonable madness." Related essays on "madness," mental illness and the artistic temperament are below, in this writer's attempt to "undo the folded lie" even at the risk of repetitive sermonizing.
Postscript: A Foucaultean dream
In a dream
addressed an audience
I was in and bent
down low to the ground
as if to listen
to what it had to say
He then gestured
towards the woods
and beckoned us forth
Where do the lines
of unreason end
and madness begin?
Where do they intersect?
What dark realms
lie buried beneath
secrets beg to
be discovered in