Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation

Michel FoucaultWhile slowly working through a growing backlog of podcasts on my iPod, I happened upon this fascinating conversation (available as transcript and audio) with Justin Clemens about Michel Foucault and his Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason.

Here’s just two snippets:

One of the things that Foucault argues specifically about what happens to madness in the 17th century is that it suffers a ‘great confinement’ as he calls it, an exclusion and incarceration whereby people who we would now denominate mad are locked up higgeldy-piggeldy with an enormous number of other sorts of types, like beggars, petty criminals, layabouts, prostitutes, and so on. And he wants to ask us to the provenance or historical anticipations of this great confinement. He finds this in the great leprosaria of the mediaeval period, and he draws that connection first of all in order to show yes there have been these techniques before in the history of the West, certainly, but then that the great confinement that he’s talking about vis-à-vis madness in these other forms, it’s not quite the repetition, something different is going on, and it’s kind of a bravura Foucault performance again …

I think that Foucault was actually desperately trying to de-philosophise. One of his critiques of Derrida is that Derrida is just a kind of part of a well-determined little pedagoguery of a very exclusive, prestigious, small, small-minded, philosophical discourse that actually in its obsession with the great texts of the masters, fails to recognise its links to society and actually what happens in society is registered in philosophy, in its dissimulating way. And so much of Foucalt’s life it seems to me, is desperately trying to not be a philosopher in a classical model, but to try and be (to use a word he didn’t mind himself) a real intellectual, to question philosophy, history, psychiatry, medicine, prisons and so on, sexuality, in a way that returns them a kind of deranging and alienated force and makes you think about them again in ways that either historians wouldn’t have made you think about again, and/or philosophers wouldn’t have made you think again. So Foucault’s I think tries to make you think again.

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