Michel Foucault – the duplicated body – History of Madness

Consequently a madman is not recognized as such because an illness has pushed him to the margins of normality, but because our culture situates him at the meeting point between social decree of confinement and the juridical knowledge that evaluates the responsibility of individuals before the law.” (127 Foucault History of Madness)

The practice of confinement in civilization comes from a consciousness that is capable of duplicating our bodies. The body of an individual is duplicated as both a legal body and a social body. The dual existence of an individual in society creates a particular void of tension and multiplied responsibility attached to each action. We are legally responsible for our actions in the social sphere, and the social sphere is held together by a consummate understanding of the rationality of the order and structure held in place by law. Foucault places his view in the center of these two poles – tracking the historical development of confinement as a systemic action by authority and order, giving expression to the myriad tension that is created by a system that is capable of duplicating our bodies. Existential tension arises once the individual is duplicated – in existence there is a dual bond in every action, both legal and social, and this multiplies one’s responsibilities and bonds. Often, what one can be held responsible for legally is in direct correlation to how positive or negatively they affect order in the social world, or how much power they’ve accumulated. There is a parallax to this duplication, where at points the two distinct forms of the body seem to overlap, and at points seem entirely separate.  There is a crossover from social behavior to legal punishability, and many layers of authoritative control between the two poles. Social bodies stand eternally before the law, which is capable of capturing them. Medical examiners, judges and policemen all play roles at the gateways between the legal and social. The practice of confining the mentally ill and mad is an example that Foucault finds to be an especially revealing practice of societal consciousness and the double bond of an alienated individual. The mentally ill play an important role because they cannot be held legally responsible for their irrational behavior, yet also cannot exist socially because they are disruptive to order.

“As subjects of law, men are progressively absolved of their responsibilities as alienation takes its toll, but as social beings, madness brings them to the fringes of culpability and condemnation” (127)

Confinement became a way to separate the mentally ill from the social world, and contain their bodies under legalities and restrictions. But for confinement to become institutionalized there had to be a juridical process that satisfied both poles of the existence, the power of decision as to whether a person is or is not mad was entrusted with medical examiners and judicial authorities – a medical opinion and judicial processing was needed in order to treat the mad body in a legal world.

“Confinement, and the judicial practices that had grown up around it, had in no way enabled a more rigorous medical grip on insanity. On the contrary, it seems that the tendency was increasingly to dispense with the medical controls that had been planned by the regulations of certain hospitals in the seventeenth century, and increasingly to turn decisions about where madness began and ended into purely social issues” (126).

The mad individual is removed from the social world once deemed unfit, and captured by the legal world by a medical examination or judicial procedure that simultaneously justifies public rationality and creates the organic social limits and punishability of citizens by law. One is always in relation to the other, the law can’t exist without a social sphere and the social sphere cannot hold shape without rational law. One problem was that the type of examination and opinion that was necessary for confinement was not in any way regular or consistent, along with the idea that a person can be perceived as mad by an irrational neighbor – there is a division and overlapping of social acceptance and authoritative control, Foucault writes, “In the seventeenth century, like crime, public order and scandal, madness had effectively become a matter of social sensibility, and accordingly, it could be judged by the most spontaneous and primitive forms of that sensibility. What determined and isolated the fact of madness was not so much medical science as a consciousness susceptible to scandal” (125). The Salem witch trials might be a good example to bring in here, when the social sensibility becomes irrational towards what is mad, or what is a witch, consequently creating severe punishment that is legally justified for individuals who are perceived to conflict with order. Each of the two worlds, at opposite ends of a polar unity, are capable of spinning out of control in constant relation to each other, one creates the limits and actions of the other, in a certain sense.

“Mental illness, which medicine took as an object, was slowly constituted as a mythical unity between a legally irresponsible subject and a man who troubled the social order, all under the influence of the political and moral thought of the eighteenth century” (128).

“The moment when the jurisprudence of alienation becomes the necessary condition for confinement is also the moment when Pinel and the psychiatry that was beginning to emerge claim to treat the mad as human beings for the first time. What Pinel and his colleagues felt to be a discovery for both philanthropy and science was at bottom little more than the reconciliation of the divided consciousness of the previous century. Building the confinement of social man into the interdiction of the juridical subject mean that for the first time the alienated were recognized as being both incapable and mad: their eccentricity, which was immediately perceived by society, limited their juridical existence but did not obliterate it altogether. By that fact, the two meanings of medicine were reconciled – the one which attempted to delineate the delicate structures of responsibility, and the other which only helps bring the social decree of confinement.

All of which was of the utmost importance for subsequent developments in the medicine of the mind. In its poritivist incarnation, this was little more than the combination of the two experiences that classicism had juxtaposed without ever joining them together: a social, normative and dichotomous experience of madness that revolved entirely around the imperative of confinement, formulated in a style as simple as ‘yes or no’, ‘dangerous or harmless’, and ‘good or not good for confinement’. And a finely differentiate, qualitative, juridical experience, well aware of limites and degrees, which looked into all the aspects of the behavior of the subject for the polymorphous incarnations that insanity might assume. The psychopathology of the nineteenth century (and perhaps our own too, even now) believes that it orients itself and takes its bearings in relation to a homo natura, a normal man pre-existing all experience of mental illness. Such a man is in fact an invention, and if he is to be situated, it is not in a natural space, but in a system that identifies the socius to the subject of the law.” (129).


Foucault, Michel, and Jean Khalfa. History of Madness. London: Routledge, 2006. Print.


About Michael Johnson

michaeljohnson.studio thewindandthestones.com viewfromaburrow.com

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