MADNESS – Michel Foucault

“One day, perhaps, we will no longer know what madness was. Its form will have closed up on itself, and the traces it will have left will no longer be intelligible. To the ignorant glance, will those traces be anything more than simple black marks?” (541 Foucault History of Madness)

I’ve recently finished Michel Foucault’s book, History of Madness published by Routledge press. Reading the book cover to cover was very much like looking at an enormous painting very closely, one inch at a time, so that by the end of all the inches, one might be able to hold in place an image in ones mind, or for an instant glimpse the mirage of a glimmering form evolving over the course of centuries, being filled by generations of people who fill what pre-exists, changing it and being changed in the process.

For now, I’d like to make a few sort of broad marks –

Madness is a form of unreason, to be understood as a manner of being that is incapable of acting reasonably. Reason is the ability to carry out actions that are within an established and accepted social order. Madness can only be understood as something that is not reason, perceived as unreason. The form of madness therefore exists only within the encompassing form of reason, which is the order of our thinking and acting.

Our understanding of madness is a creation of civilization that has taken many forms throughout history. Foucault demonstrates the shape shifting of institutions and understandings of madness over the course of centuries, beginning in the Middle Ages. What is accepted behavior in a civilization is a creation of limits that is held in place by collective belief, maintenance and policing, the filling of forms, and how much resistance a path of progress meets.

We identify madness in the mad man, through the perception of a man that acts without reason, as something that is exterior, a point that sticks out on a plane of consistency.

The treatment of the mad has gone through many stages. Because every person in a civilization is a duplicated body, that is, each person is duplicated as both a legal body and a social body, the treatment of a mad man is in a state of imbalance. A madman is incapable of being responsible for his social body, so his legal body cannot be found guilty in the same way as a criminal, who acts with conscious intent in a social sphere.

Confinement has traditionally been the way the social space has eliminated the forces of the mad and criminals, and in some cases the poor. A critical consciousness took the form of medical treatment of the mad. Medical treatment became as a way to absorb madness into a new field that separated them from the same confinement as the criminal or poor. Confinement became more a hospitalization.

A turning point in the evolution of medical confinement was a way of thinking that believed that the mad could be liberated in an altered confinement. By giving the mad a walled in and secluded space where they were not putting others in danger, the mad could become more free to mad impulses and behavior. In this way madness was to be unleashed in order to be studied by reason.  Madness always exists within reason, but reason always recognizes madness as something exterior. Reason is split into a critical consciousness and a tragic consciousness. The critical seeks to understand madness, the tragic seeks to feel madness, or imagine being interior to madness. Each of these has a limit that can never become madness. Medical treatment is a form of critical consciousness that seeks to understand madness, and to be capable of controlling it, silencing it if necessary.

For Foucault, the oeuvres of madmen – he notes Nietzsche, Van Gogh, Antonin Artuad – are what stand in opposition to our ability to understand, imagine, or silence madness. Messages have come to us from the other side of the occult, in the images of Van Gogh, the texts of Nietzsche, the writings and drawings of Antonin Artaud. Madness possesses a power that exists, and this is what cannot be denied. It is an aspect of consciousness that is capable of being channeled through the human being.

“…medical progress might one day cause mental illness to disappear, like leprosy and tuberculosis; but that one thing will remain, which is the relationship between man and his fantasies, his impossible, his non-corporeal pain, his carcass of night; that once the pathological is nullified, the obscure belonging of man to madness will be the ageless memory of an ill whose form as sickness has been effaced, but which lives on obstinately as unhappiness. Truth be told, such an idea supposes that that which is most precarious, far more precarious than the constancies of the pathological, is in fact unalterable: the relationship of a culture to the very thing that it excludes, and more precisely the relationship between our own culture and that truth about itself which, distant and inverted, it uncovers and covers up in madness.” (542-543 Foucault Madness)


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

cover image:

Cy Towmbly, TIZNIT 1953

About Michael Johnson

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