Foucault does not say insanity is merely a label applied by society. Below is an extended response written to address the question "Does madness have an essence, which is expressed in individuals regardless of their culture and historical period? Answer with reference to Foucault’s work on the history of madness." It is from a paper I wrote for a unit on Foucault last year. I'm not sure of people's views on posting things like this, but it contains the most comprehensive explanation I can give of why madness was not merely a label to Foucault. References are to the abridged version translated by R. Howard.
It is the thesis of this paper that Madness and Civilisation does not show that there is an essence of madness which exists a-historically and a-culturally. Instead the book shows how different ways of engaging with madness have, as their most significant commonality, functioned to transform it into a silent phenomenon. This commonality persists through time relationally in dynamic and historically localised networks of meaning, conditioned by the relation of reason to madness. The history conducted by Foucault unveils the process by which madness was forced first into a liminal social position, then to an exteriority; the movement of confining the mad and positioning madness as an Other in relation to reason. The truth of particular images of madness recounted from the classical age are neither affirmed nor discredited, and archival records are instead taken to be instantiations of the socio-historic context from which they emerge. Foucault named his project the archaeology of silence because it is a thesis of the book that madness endures in excess of the coordinates of reason.
Madness persisted through time inside a complex of historically dynamic meanings masking it in concise formulations from the order of reason. After the time madness passed from a liminal experience to a pure exteriority, Foucault says it became “the Déjà là of death” (1961, p.13). Madness became a dimension of death already-present inside life. It was dissolved into the ether of non-identity through the opposition to meaning engendered by its exteriorisation from and objectification by reason; made into an ‘already-present-death-in-life’, a negativity or an “absence”. The important point to retain in seeing the various forms through which madness passed is that “madness, if it is nothing, can manifest itself only by departing from itself, by assuming an appearance in the order of reason and thus becoming the contrary of itself” (Foucault 1961:101). Each of the elaborate visions of madness in the classical age, despite their differences, functioned to silence madness by situating it inside a discourse whose positivity created, sustained and masked its relation to this absence. Foucault’s ultimate formulation of madness is an answer to the difficulty of conveying the relation of a culture to the entity whose exclusion determined the possibility of its own truths.
Franz Fannon wrote of the decolonisation of Algeria that “being colonized by a language has large implications for one’s consciousness. …It means, above all, to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization” (1963: 91). In a similar vein Foucault writes that the phenomenon of madness is woven inside a “tyrannical synthesis” (1961, p.139) of myriad forces including morality, economics, religion, science and the ascendance of reason. Foucault shows how the mind and body of the madmen, as well as the abstract categories of madness during the classical age, became sites upon which dispersed and changing lines of discursive power were operated, forcing the mad to assume the weight of the culture through which the categories of madness endured. Foucault shows that in classical age the locus for constructing the meaning of madness was not the mad, as would be the case in empiricism. Instead a networked and dynamic set of historically particular meanings as diverse as ethical responsibility, the relation between the mind body and soul, and human physiology, all came to inform protocols for engaging with madness.
The question of Madness and Civilisation concerns not only the permutations through which madness endured in time. The image of madness which comes to dominate the book has its foundational analogue in the practices of confinement which begin with the 18th century. According to Foucault the historical demarcation between madness and reason mirrors the material means through which madmen and women were exorcised from the social body, and forced to exist either exterior in isolation, or as a hideous spectacle. Foucault says that the truth of classical age madness can be found in the practices of confinement which came to surround it. The enforced disengagement of the mad with society contains inseparable parallels with the abstract contrast between reason and madness described in the book. In each case both madness and the mad are driven out of their origin. Unreason was circumscribed from reason just as the mad were removed from society, and the subjugated element in both cases became forced into a relation with its other which was coercive and silencing.
Madness however was more than just a tabula rasa onto which the discourse of reason was transposed. In the concluding chapter Foucault develops the books image of madness by discussing the works of Goya and Artaud which intimate that in the domain of art madness is “the absence of the work of art, the reiterated presence of that absence, its central void experienced and measured in all its endless dimensions” (1961, p.272). The ontological status here is still unequivocal. Madness exists but as an externality resistant to symbolisation, which through its manifestations traverse and transgress the abstract territory of meaning.
Dreyfus and Rabinow say of Foucault’s project that madness “seems to be a series of approximations to an unseizable ontological condition of pure otherness... ” (1983 p.4). The relevant point in relation to whether Madness and Civilisation contains or enables the extrapolation of an a-historical a-cultural essence is that madness exists in-finitely as an entity inadmissible to the order of meaning that would discover its essence. Any essence of madness is a repetition of the means by which it is subjugated from inside the order of reason. This point is captured by Sprinker who says “no writing can do more than reinscribe the series of terms representing reason's sovereignty over and production of madness” (1980, p.83).
As a compliment to Dreyfus and Rabinow, Slavoj Zizek’s commentary on the book asks the question “is it not a version of the tension between the Real – the hyperbolic excess – and its (ultimately always failed) symbolisation?” (2007, para.14). If madness as a discursive category exists through the functions of power which sustain the discourse that excludes and objectifies it, it is clear that even in reason madness is a historically determined category. There can be no madness outside the social, discursive and institutional practices that exclude it. “Madness in this sense is not directly a phenomenon we can observe, but a discursive construct which emerges at a certain historical moment, together with its double, Reason in the modern sense” (Zizek 2007, para.27). This again restates the point that madness and reason in their material manifestations are both dynamic and culturally conditioned processes.
As with Foucault Zizek sees the term madness signifying a disavowed dimension of subjectivity whose presence persists in concert with rational knowledge. Pushing the relation of symbolised meaning and madness further, Zizek advances the thesis that, to retain his terminology, Madness and Civilisation suggests madness is a silent feature of the process of imposing symbolic order itself onto the undifferentiated chaos of the Real (2007, para.14). Psychoanalysis teaches that the frantic illusory matrixes of meaning created by the mad often constitute a desperate attempt to evade madness. The mad cling to the delusions which sustain their condition as though in reality it were their redemption. Madness inhabits their utterances implicitly, as a silent but obvious companion to explicit meaning. The madness of an utterance is insinuated, it exists simultaneously exterior to yet inseparable from the content of its medium. Where the truth of a rational statement proceeds from semantic relations to the discourse which legitimates it, in speech madness is the indeterminate exteriority of symbolic meaning; it is “the absence of the work”; an absent, impossible target of, and silent addition to symbolisation.
In ultimately formulating madness as the “absence of the work”, Foucault positions the history of madness inside a tradition in philosophy in which “existence precedes essence”. Awarding ontological primacy to existence opens the field of inquiry to levels of analysis which are obscured by the search for a-historical or transcendent essence. For Foucault it is functions of power operating both upon and through discourse in historically local processes that best explain madness. Its existence is certified and elaborated upon by recounting the material processes which produced it, reaching outside an essentialist methodology and allowing this truth of madness to be heard by narrating the process of its silencing. This of corse creates substantial difficulty for speaking meaningfully about madness. If the conversation between reason and madness is really the monologue of reason on madness, Foucault is faced with the risk of participating in the discourse which excludes and subjugates it.
The difficulty of penetrating the book’s presentation of madness is therefore an effect of this problem. In aiming to avoid that which Foucault criticises most heavily in the classical age’s treatment of madness, he is faced with the task of “escap[ing] the objectivist project of classical age reasoning” (Derrida 1978, p.35). The formulation of madness as the absence of the work is a “reappropriation of negativity” (1978, 35). Madness as a palpable exteriority to symbolisation could not be further from an essentialist definition. The extent to which Foucault succeeds in his archaeology of silence corresponds precisely to the extent to which the book has allowed a vision of madness to emerge through this unique utilisation of negativity. His thesis that madness is the absence of the work dissolves the conditions of possibility required for essentialism, and negativity constitutes simultaneously the springboard away from essentialism, and the most difficult obstacle to expression. Both the language of the book and its object appear as a “flight toward a source that is always without light” (Foucault, 1995 p.294). This avoidance of positivity is a properly methodological technique which informs how Foucault conducted the history of madness. In recounting the positive definitions that existed in the classical age most emphasis in interpretation is placed on this tyrannical and silent dimension of reason’s passage to self recognition.
One major message of the book is that the accepted truths of madness in the classical age were multiple, and morphed with time. Conceptions of madness passed through successive continuous and discontinuous regimes of change inside shifting relations of power and discourse. Another major point is that Madness and civilisation is a unique play on the traditional difference between the two senses of the word ‘for’, in thinking “who is the book really written for?” - the two senses of corse being for the attention of an Other or else writing of behalf, in place of an Other. Saying madness is the absence of the work tries to allow madness to remain in the non-identity-bound realm of the negative; the book is written for (on behalf of) a silent other, and defines madness from the perspective of this silence. This is Foucault’s way of remaining faithful to his thesis that the recounted discursive and material changes have circumscribed it from reason and hidden the mad from society, thereby both obscuring and illuminating their silence.
Derrida, J 1980, Writing and Difference, trans. Bass, A, University Of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Dreyfus, H & Rabinow, P 1983, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, University of
Chicago Press, Chicago.
Fannon, F 1965, The Wretched of the Earth, Grove Press, New York.
Foucault, M 2001, Madness and Civilisation, trans. Howard, R, Routledge Classics, United Kingdom.
Foucault, M, 1995 ‘Madness, the Absence of Work’, trans. Stastny, P & Sengel, D, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 21,
no.2, pp. 290-298.
Sprinker, M 1980 ‘Textual Politics: Foucault and Derrida’, boundary 2, Vol. 8, no.3, pp.75-98.
Zizek, S 2007, Cogito, Madness and Religion: Derrida, Foucault and then Lacan, viewed 1 April 2011