Madness and marginalization

Interesting discussion of hospitals, the marginalized and the mad in Political Affairs Magazine.

The French philosopher Michel Foucault, in his short essay “Madness and Society,” [DE 83, from 1970] begins by assuming what needs to be proved: that the attitude towards “madmen” (his term) has not fundamentally changed from earlier, medieval society. In order to claim this, he makes a few assumptions: that society is divided into certain hived off components, namely, 1) labor, or economic production; 2) sexuality and family, or reproduction; 3) language/speech, and 4) “ludic” activities such as games and festivities. These categories are fairly arbitrary, since we can see that reproduction could easily be included in production, since the reproduction of the laborer is obviously necessary to production, and of course it assumes that games have no reproductive aspect to them, which is surely at least arguable. Nevertheless, these assumptions provide the groundwork for Foucault’s hypothesis that there are “marginalized” individual members of society who have special properties.

What Foucault calls the “second cycle of social production” (without telling us here what the “first cycle” might actually be) includes these individuals; his example refers to “primitive” tribes and their celibates, homosexuals and transvestites. The justifying reference for this assertion is, however, not to members of the medieval society which preceded the modern social conditions, but the “primitive.” The “primitive” I suggest cannot be used convincingly to justify such claims about the medieval. Foucault is nevertheless able to assume that these individuals are marginalized because of his previous separation of categories, in which economic production is artificially segregated from the other realms, the reference to the “primitive” is only tacked on to this.

The result is that there is no possibility of recuperation in Foucault’s account. The possibility that the (apparently) marginalized might actually be also at times culturally necessary, even central, to the reproduction of society, even if in a “shamefaced” or de-negated way is from the outset disallowed.

The essay is quite interesting, but suffers from not taking into account Foucault’s more complete writings on the topic. For example, Abnormal gives a number of examples of marginalized characters who exist happily–think of the Jouey case–before modern psychiatrizing gets ahold of them.


5 Responses

  1. I really have problems recognising Foucault in this portrayal, either the full version or the abridged. Admittedly it gets slightly better after the bit you’ve quoted, but the entire idea that exclusion is the big enemy seems about as un-foucauldian as you can get.

  2. If this is a tempered critique of Madness and Civilisation (though it appears not to be ) then there is not much of a new inroad into evaluating Foucault’s early fumblings.

    Foucault’s assertions (at this point) were always rough around the edges and his Hegelian history of madness were always doomed per se,

    However, a triumphant madness (Artaud, Celine etc) in terms of literature were not the scaffold for his approach to madness. And, let’s face it, he was talking about exclusion/alienation rather than a bringing into the fold of elements of unrestrained thought as a weapon to attack the medical subordination of “character” – for want of a better word.

    In many ways, it is an excellent essay but the last third merely corroborate the simplistic need/desire for “mental health” denied by a system of capital health care.

    Although Foucault’s early work is correctly brought into question, its focus is lost in the quandary of uni-directional mental pathology which was the mainstay of Foucault’s early thought.

  3. Under protest. The article is not worth at any rate, and it is not interesting at all. The article is lame and oportunistic, it centers the critic against Foucault in a single text taking conveniently out of context the whole foucaultian perspective. its no surprise to find such articles criticizing Foucault partially just to get opinative & spot some selfish points on purpose of a fashionable topic, in this case, the heath care isssues. I´m under protest because the article is not worth to be posted here. Under protest because its easy to see that the article is reactive against Foucault for free.


    • I disagree entirely with this article.
      It seems to go off entirely cliched understanding’s of Foucault’s ideas on madness.

      Do you share my disagreement with it with regards to Foucault’s early works?

  4. […] Madness and marginalization […]

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