Debate rumbles on


I think the TLS debate is reaching its sell-by date. Very little is being added, and positions are becoming entrenched. The slight opening afforded by the review to consider what using historical sources means today seems to be closing.

We can note Alex at “Je est un autre” has an interesting contribution though. He argues that Foucault’s book, for all that Scull criticises it, provides a context for Scull’s own work, as well as other “contra-Foucault” workers.

Working on madness, Scull seems unable to escape a Foucaultian paradigm as much as he would wish.

Touche or… not?

Alex does point out an article from 1987 which analyzed Foucault’s reception among the historians (Allan Magill, Journal of the History of Ideas). Magill rightly notes that Foucault never saw himself as a historian (“nobody is perfect”).

Magill uses some citation analysis for part of his argument: [sorry wordpress won’t allow upload of the pic right now. See Magill’s article.].

While this is only part of the argument it might be intgeresting to do something similar today with the more powerful tools we have. Citation analysis has been done from time to time in geography by eg., R.J. Johnston.

Testy exchanges between Craig at theoria (x-posted at Long Sunday) and Scott Eric Kaufman. Craig claims Madness and Civilization is an outlier work, prompting this response:

Are you really this slow-witted? If you want to criticize what I wrote, criticize what I wrote. Were you as superior to unserious, derivative hacks as you proudly declare, you would’ve responded to their argument with something more substantial than the howl of the outraged acolyte. (“They don’t understand my love for you, Michel, and they never will!”)

Wow. Maybe we should back out s-l-ow-l-y and leave them to it…

Update I. In an earlier post I had listed both the Scull review and the one by Colin Gordon. Now they come together. Gordon has a letter defending Foucault in the TLS.

Scull tries to present Foucault as saying, implausibly, that English psychiatric asylums were established in former monasteries. A reader who tracks down this citation (page 56 in the translation) will find that Foucault is in fact referring to foundations of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century houses of correction in England and Germany. Foucault nowhere asserts, as Scull implies, that all or most insane people in early modern Europe were incarcerated in such institutions. The primary targets of the seventeenth-century “Great Internment” which Foucault’s book famously describes were, as it makes clear, the idle poor.

No doubt we can expect to hear from Scull as there are some serious accusations here. Gordon says Scull is engaged in a project of “blackening Foucault’s name.” A second letter from Bill Luckin at Manchester is also printed.

Update II. The best comment thread about all this is currently over at the Valve. It seems to be a good space for some critical thought.

Update III. It might be nice for someone to compile a list of all the things people say are factually incorrect about the book and see if they’re true (insert cheap-shot here, we should live that long, etc.). Seriously. I’d always heard that Foucault claims the Narrenshiff was real when “eny fule kno” it was literary, but here’s F (on p. 8) saying it was clearly literary. Gordon cites some specifics as well.

Or is this finally not so much about small individual facts?

…adding, I know he says they are real as well, or at least itinerant (the famous sentence of an itinerant existence as the lot of the mad).

5 Responses

  1. Thanks for the pingback fella. Anyhoo, the cynic in me says two things
    1.Scull wouldn’t have a career without Foucault (tenures and money in academia being what it is) 2. There is some resentment that Foucault is a big name in madness studies and he ain’t. A view compounded when you discover that he like Foucault encountered some friction among the academic community for his views – “astonishing misrepresentation and distorition” said one reviewer, “historically wrong” said another. If you wanted to do the equivilent of the hatchet job some news sources are now doing on Foucault, just pull one of these reviews and point out *his* history might not be up to snuff. More importantly though – “MacDonald, Porter, and I all, I think, exhibit a distinctly ambivalent attitude to the work of Michel Foucault, and yet also add that in no small measure it was probably his wide-ranging speculations that attracted us to the field in the first place.” p 4-5 So yeah. All these quotes come from he Insanity of Place / The Place of Insanity: Essays on the History of Psychiatry (Routledge Studies in Cultural History) which someone with ready access to a library should pull out as I am just taking this all from the online amazon reader and there is a probably more fulsome article on F in there. He’s obviously a smart guy.

  2. I should point out that my contribution in that comment wasn’t intended to concentrate on the cynic bit and should be centred on the digging about scull bit.

  3. […] Foucault saga continues, with an excellent summary of the debate so far at Foucault Blog, that kindly references my comments on the subject yesterday. At the risk of repeating everything […]

  4. The testiness between Craig and I is longstanding, and in the end, more of a disciplinary thing than anything else. (He thinks very, very little of people who work in English departments, and lords his superiority over us poor folk every chance he gets.) That said, I think people are doing a bit of a two-step here: first, claiming that Madness and Civilization is merely an early work; then acknowledging that it is, in fact, considered a seminal text in a few (interrelated) fields. This kind of defense doesn’t work for me. As I mention in my comments elsewhere, I think we need to separate what Foucault said about methodology from the one he actually practiced. The former is defensible — I defend it, albeit implicitly, in that post — the latter, maybe not so much.

    (Odd side note: clicking through Alex’s link to the Megill article, I see that I was taught Foucault by the man who wrote Michel Foucault: An Annotated Bibliography, Michael Clark. That’s neither here nor there, and given that Clark is an English professor in an English department, I’m sure Craig treats the work with appropriate disdain.)

  5. […] myself to expand upon the fact that] There’s been a recent back and forth in the bits of blogosphere I occasionally frequent, sparked by a review of a newly translated early Foucault work. I’ve […]

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