Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 564

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Nearly every academic historian who has criticized Madness and Civilization has censured Foucault for violating the rules of historical scholarship concerning evidence, argumentation, and expository style. Specialists in medieval, early modern, and modern European history have taken exception to every one of his abstractions and generalizations, including his central one about the Great Confinement between 1657 and 1794. Historians have predicated their censure upon the mistaken belief that Foucault’s work is conventional historiography, when in fact Foucault ridicules conventional historiography in Madness and Civilization and writes instead a counterhistorical mythology about the past.

Some philosophers of history and literary critics have been appreciative of Foucault’s work and its destructive, antihistorical purposes. Perhaps the best way to comprehend how fundamentally different Madness and Civilization is from conventional historiography would be to consider the orthodox historian George Rosen’s Madness in Society: Chapters in the Historical Sociology of Mental Illness (1968), which unsuccessfully attempts to transpose Foucault’s mythic images (without acknowledging his debt to Foucault) into a conventional historical narrative. Madness and Civilization is not faulty historiography but brilliantly scintillating mythopoeia. Myth is not false; it is true in a way quite different from scientific fact. It is not confined by logic, cause and effect, and empirical verification. Its truth is felt, instituted, experienced, and symbolically reenacted.

While Foucault’s writing is elegant, it is not very accessible. Like the organization of his book, his literary style is not so much faulty as idiosyncratic, precious, and peculiar. Elsewhere, Foucault describes his writing as a labyrinth in which he could lose both himself and his readers. Virtually every reader of Madness and Civilization has been perplexed and irritated by its incomprehensible style, the opacity of its writing, and its sometimes deliberate infelicity of expression. These difficulties have resulted in much criticism. Critics who are unable to decipher Foucault’s writing and incapable of grasping his audacity and brilliance have condemned his work for ridiculous reasons, such as his sexual preference and the supposed cliquishness of French intellectuals.

Madness and Civilization is an outrageous book, quite literally so, and it betrays the sources of Foucault’s intellectual inspiration, from iconoclastic thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche to the Dadaists and Surrealists. Repeatedly, Foucault holds up for emulation the relatively obscure French Surrealist dramatist and actor Antonin Artaud, who maintained that all writing is garbage that the writer flings at the reality which affronts him. Elsewhere, Foucault studies Surrealists such as Raymond Roussel, Rene Magritte, and Georges Bataille. Indeed, Foucault’s expository style has a surrealistic quality, with studied free-form spontaneity, attacks on conventional wisdom and scholarly respectability, and a general contempt for the prevailing rational, moral, and aesthetic standards.

Yet that is not to label Foucault “mad” or to dismiss him as a latter-day minor Surrealist who writes outrageous history. The most perceptive critics of Foucault call his approach “antihistory” and “irrealism,” an intentional systematic repudiation of any connection at all between history and past reality. Madness and Civilization expresses Foucault’s outrage at conventional historiography and the society of which it is one prop. He criticizes society for misrepresenting the deplorable history of madness as progress. A reader who goes to Madness and Civilization for narrative and analysis of the history of psychiatry will be disappointed, even bewildered. A persevering reader, however, will be both bedazzled by Foucault’s imagery and persuaded of the truth of his story.