Saturday, 27 December 2008

Madness and Civilisation by Michel Foucault

I have read various books in French, but am happy to admit that Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation is not among them. Happily a full English translation was published by Routledge some years ago, and so this important work is now available to a whole new body of readers.

Madness and Civilisation is a re-working of Foucault’s 1961 doctoral thesis which looks at the treatment of madness through the ages. The first thing to note, however, is that Foucault draws a distinction between the “mad” and the “unreasonable”, something which is perhaps more meaningful in French, where “déraison” is one possible interpretation of “insanity”. Foucault’s point is that is was the “unreasonable” who were reviled, locked up and generally ill-treated, but that to be “unreasonable” perhaps meant no more than to have an alternative point of view. R.D. Laing would of course express related sentiments in The Divided Self, in which he suggested that what we commonly view as insanity, and in particular schizophrenia, might actually be no more than a sane person’s reaction to an insane world. Laing would later claim Foucault as supporting his views, though the latter was characteristically ambivalent when asked about this. Two things people realised about Foucault very quickly were that he hated taking anything other than centre stage, and that he hated being pinned down on any particular subject. Towards the end of his life his utterances became positively opaque, and he specifically disavowed several of his earlier books, though never Madness and Civilisation.

While on the subject of other writers it is worth pointing out that similar views had been expressed even before Foucault. During the previous decade, Henri Bergson had suggested that the brain might operate as a mechanism for filtering out aspects of reality which are too rich for the mind to deal with, and Aldous Huxley in The Doors of Perception mused in 1954 as to whether “madness” occurs where this mechanism fails to operate properly, so that someone glimpses reality as is actually is rather than the sanitised version of it that is intended for them.

There was an interesting version of this view circulating even during the Renaissance. The reason, or truth of God was beyond human understanding, but it was suggested that the insane had come closer to this truth than had been intended for human experience, and had been rendered mad in consequence. Thus the coupling of insanity with a superior, or at least alternative view of reality is one that has a long history. Modern writers such as John Collier, H.P. Lovecraft and Philip K. Dick were to incorporate this idea into their own work. Indeed, Dick himself famously claimed to have had some sort of revelatory experience in his own life, during which some such sort of altered or superior reality revealed itself to him.

As with so much modern thought, we also find a sound rooting in Freud. He thought that the natural state of mankind was viciousness, destructiveness, and a total inability to live together for the common good. Civilisation is for him something which acts as a filter to deflect these natural but base instincts in the interests of human progress. Like Huxley, he believed that when these safety mechanisms failed, what we regard as mental illness could result. Thus “madness” might be not an abnormal functioning of the mind but rather a totally normal functioning, yet one which society for various reasons cannot admit, much less tolerate. Hence the modern inability to admit an alternative view has a lengthy, if not an honourable tradition.

Sadly both Foucault and Laing were criticised, with some justification, by their more industrious but less interesting academic colleagues, as being populist writers and for sacrificing intellectual endeavour for self-publicity. Certainly Foucault was someone who would have attended the opening of an envelope, who turned every issue into a petition so long as he could be the first signatory on the page, and every petition into a lengthy press conference. He campaigned for socialism in the fifties, and against it in the eighties. He took part in the highly publicised shoplifting raids of a bizarre Maoist organisation which stole luxury foodstuffs and distributed them to the poor. He demonstrated with Paris students in 1968, being tear gassed and imprisoned. He demonstrated on behalf of Algerian nationalists, and later also went to Iran, famously claiming that an Islamic revolutionary republic was a logical impossibility because Islam did not believe in the power of the state. Ayatollah Khomeini disagreed.

The fact that both Foucault and, less flamboyantly, Laing spent so much time on television shows was held in some way to diminish the seriousness of their message, which is a shame because it has never been more apposite. In his later works Foucault would go on to examine at great length the concept of power, and that what seems at first sight the protection of the individual may simply be the state lengthening its reach: a chilling foretaste of life in a post 9-11 world. He also believed that contemporary views of madness had been conditioned by bourgeois morality of the nineteenth century, which saw work as a holy and social duty, and the mad as being denied any chance of redemption through employment.

We live in democracies which past generations of Americans and European fought and died to create and preserve. We enjoy a high standard of civil liberties, often enshrined in constitutions or Bills of Rights. Yet never has the alternative view been more under threat. Never have the words “terror” or “terrorist” been more easily bandied around as an excuse to stifle even discussion, let alone dissent. As Speaker Reed famously said “all the wisdom in the world consists of shouting with the majority”.

A pessimistic view of civilisation might take the view that we had the chance during the Age of Reason to shake off the old shibboleths of kings, gods and tribes. That we had an opportunity to banish for ever the police state, political polemic and petty bourgeois morality. Yet we failed, and these shibboleths now exert as strong a sway as ever they did. Leaders around the globe of all nationalities, religions and political persuasions exhibit views of the world which are self-evidently delusional and demented. Thinking people must find themselves daily posing the question “am I mad and the rest of the world sane, or (more worryingly), am I the sane one?”

Reading Madness and Civilisation may therefore come as a great comfort. Foucault believes that society is prone to define madness for its own convenience, and to brand as “unreason” all that which might challenge the traditional view. Therefore take heart, and join the growing ranks of the mad.

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