Speaking Volumes: Madness and Civilization

April 14, 1995

Susan Bassnett on Michel Foucault's Madness and Civilization .

Some books have titles that compel you to read them; others ones that deter you from trying. Michel Foucault's Histoire de la Folie is translated by Richard Howard as Madness and Civilization, a title that requires a long explanatory subtitle: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Hardly compelling, and yet this is a book I keep returning to, one I recommend to students and daughters alike, one that has been, and still is, central to me and my writing.

Today, unlike Harold Bloom, whose thoughts are increasingly canonical, I have no anxiety about influences. Rather, I have anxieties about academic shouldisms and definitions of disciplinary boundaries that go back to the time when, unable to pay the rent from my university salary in post-1968 Italy, I turned to such activities as media journalism, modelling and acting. Later, this history was cited as testimony of a lack of scholarly rigour, just as my refusal to proclaim myself as a specialist was declared amateurism. In Anglo-Saxon academia, you cannot be interested in the medieval world and post-modernism, in philology and feminism, in experimental theatre and Victorian poetry, in creative writing and Latin American history. To have such interests means you are seen as Jill of all trades and mistress of none. I used to fret about the contempt of experts armed with canons and fields of study - until I encountered Foucault.

Madness and Civilization showed me a new way of looking at scholarship. Foucault was not hemmed in by disciplinary boundaries; he used his vast knowledge to ask fundamental questions about cultural history. His book is a history of insanity, but also a great deal more. It is a history of western cultural practices that explores the relationship between the structures of power and human knowledge. He demonstrates that the Age of Reason was not the great watershed of human endeavour; it was a time of coercion, when the "strange republic of the good" was born, that could be imposed by force on all those suspected of belonging to evil. Legal systems, policing systems, examination systems, all the institutions of morality we now take for granted were set up, for ever putting a fortunate few on top and condemning the mass to lower positions or even to banishment outside.

Foucault answers the question we ask each time we read about abhorrent, mad acts that lawyers affirm are perpetrated by people who are legally sane. Defining and then confining the mad, he argues, are two stages in a process of ordering society, to ensure the majority are held in control. Madness became a category in the age that sought to order everything into encyclopaedias and dictionaries. Then and now someone has the power to decide who is and is not mad.

Foucault contrasts the treatment of the mad in the 18th century confined in asylums with the medieval world, tracing radical shifts of perspective. What I love about his book is that it invites me to question further - how were changes of perception linked to changes in economic systems, why did Europe move towards establishing such coercive structures just when the New World was opening up, was the Enlightenment actually a darkening? He challenges received assumptions about human progress.

Foucault's book was the answer to a prayer. He did not just cross disciplinary boundaries, he rejected them altogether and, what is more, showed how they were part of the same coercive process that built madhouses and pontificated about who should be shut up in them. He shows that everything influences everything else, that culture is a network of signs. His book is a celebration of the interdisciplinary, the intercultural. It stopped me worrying about boundaries and specialisations and started me asking more questions about what I know, how I know it and who is really in control of the world I live in.

Susan Bassnett is director of the Centre for British Comparative Cultural Studies, University of Warwick.

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