Thursday, December 8, 2011

Foucault and the Great Confinement

Foucault discusses (reminding me of the excellent prose of Nietzsche) the sending of the mad off on ships to the sending of them to the Hospital. “Oblivion falls upon the world navigated by the free slaves of the Ship of Fools. Madness will no longer proceed from a point within the world to a point beyond, on its strange voyage; it will never again be that fugitive and absolute limit. Behold it is moored now, made fast among things and men. Retained and maintained. No longer a ship but a hospital.

“Scarcely a century after the career of the mad ships, we note the appearance of the theme of the ‘Hospital of Madmen,’ the ‘Madhouse.’ Here every empty head, fixed and classified according to the true reason of men, utters contradiction and irony, the double language of Wisdom: ‘. . . the Hospital of incurable Madmen, where are recited from end to end all the follies and fevers of the mind, by men as well as women . . .”

“. . . the Hopital General is not a medical establishment. It is rather a sort of semijudical structure, an administrative entity which along with the already constituted powers, and outside of the courts, decides, judges, and executes. ‘The directors having for these purposes stakes, irons, prisons, and dungeons in the said Hopital General and the places thereto appertaining so much as they deem necessary, no appeal will be accepted from the regulations they establish within the said hospital . . .”

Foucault goes on to describe the associated laws the powers of those who run these Hospitals. Once you are inside, there is no appeal. It reminds me of Dana’s Two Years before the Mast, and of Melville’s stories. Why did authorities move from banishment, to something very like banishment in the ships of fools to the confinement in Hospitals? If it had happened in America I would have said that the local authorities ran out of a frontier. The sheriff could no longer tell the unwelcome to get out of town by sundown because the sheriff in the next town would very likely send him back. In the absence of places of banishment, the local officials needed to deal with their own problems locally; which isn’t to say that they didn’t still send the unwanted away, but don’t we still do that today, kicking the homeless out of parks and from under bridges?

Taking responsibility, that is keeping one’s unwanted, is a development in a way, but Foucault doesn’t see it that way: “A quasi-absolute sovereignty, jurisdiction without appeal, a writ of execution against which noting can prevail – the Hopital General is a strange power that the King establishes between the police and the courts, at the limits of the law: a third order of repression. . . . .” Of course if Foucault (or his translator) meant “repression” as a clinical term then I would agree, but if intended to connote negative criticism then I would ask what else was available to them at the time and where else was a better method being employed.

While Foucault doesn’t say what ought to have been done instead, he strikes me as being critical of what was done. And if my suspicion is accurate at times guilty of anachronism -- in his underlying assumption that criminals, the insane and the mendicant should be neither sent away nor locked up.

Think of the confinement of the Japanese during World War Two and of the Arabs at Guantanamo Bay. The initial concern was to protect American citizens; so in each case they rushed through procedures that seemed right to the authorities at the time – just as the French did with their Hospitals. Later on people arose who were critical of these procedures and laws were (are being) changed. The incarcerated are treated more humanely and the places of confinement differentiated: the mad to one place and criminals to another.

“There must have formed, silently and doubtless over the course of many years, a social sensibility, common to European culture, the suddenly began to manifest itself in the second half of the seventeenth century; it was this sensibility that suddenly isolated the category destined to populate the places of confinement. To inhabit the reaches long since abandoned by the lepers, they chose a group that to our eyes is strangely mixed and confused. But what is for us merely an undifferentiated sensibility must have been, for those living in the classical age, a clearly articulated perception. It is this mode of perception which we must investigate in order to discover the form of sensibility to madness in an epoch we are accustomed to define by the privileges of Reason.”

[to be continued]

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