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On madness and civilization - Foucault.

beloved foufou

The following has been written after yours truly sincerely read and reread this book and each chapter in it multiple times to afford this text as generous and considerate a reading as any literary text can possibly demand.

(It's more a rant than a review and will likely land better if you've already read the book)

1. Madness and civilization is awful - I do not know what the intention was but whatever he's doing with what he thinks he understands of what he calls madness - I find unhelpful at best, misleading at worst and pretentious on every page.

2. Even arendt I wouldn't call pretentious with her grandiose thought experiment essays, especially one in which she talks about culture which I found unhelpful as philosophy. She seemed to have a definite idea she outlined - some systematic coherence she was unwilling to sacrifice to build her thesis. But madness and civ is a work from which i walk away, not just confused about “what he was saying” but also more confused about what i conceptually have till now understood of “madness” - which I identify as partly responsible for a form of thinking that yields no knowledge that is either applicable (something i tolerate in other writers) or even coherent in itself as conceptually intuitive. 

3. Now, maybe it’s a limitation I harbor - I’m reading this book knowing that i have read chomsky/paglia’s criticism which i figured might bias me. So I decided to offset that bias by a higher degree of generosity and leeway that i determined to afford this book. I would have liked to disagree with those who’ve criticized him, because at least that would have the fruit of additional knowledge (as opposed to the bland uninspired agreement). Unfortunately that has not been the case. It’s likely the first time I’ve said this about any book - but ‘I really hope I forget what I’ve read in this book soon’. I would like to cite specific passages to support my opinion but i think most of the book which you’ve mentioned you’ve already read serves as good example.

4. I can imagine why it’s compelling - almost any remotely left leaning person will walk away from it having their ideas confirmed - no assertion specific or clear enough to be disagreeable is ever made. Madness is sociological and also biological, a product of too much passion, and in another paragraph too little passion, it is an affliction of the idle and an affliction of those beset by too much. it is a manifestation of folly, and also of reason and also of unreason and also of imaginative excess and also imaginative dearth. It is melancholy, it is delirium, it is an act of faith, an act of negation, an act of affirmation, sustaining an image, eroding it, beyond imagiation, rooted in it but also in reason. it is the abundance of vivacity of a certain sort. it is also poetically the “smile of a skull” hearkening death as evidenced by the title of a painting foucault has seen. Anyone who forms a coherent idea after this book does so by simply confirming or connecting what they aleady know in contradictory ways, the contradictoriness of which is neatly obscured behind pretty prose and relationships described using analogies drawn by a literary figure who prefers to cite cervantes, bosch and high art instead of historical documents, concrete years/dates/places, or even non-academic records. 

5. Often in his book you find the phrase “madness is …” but it is entirely unclear whether he is speaking of what he understands by madness, what people from the time/place (which he hasn’t mentioned) understand by it, what it is objectively as a constant concept that is universal but also ever changing, or something else. Using artful prose, he glides between frames of reference making all sorts of statements but none which find any accountability with any entity/body/space that can be investigated for any measure by which it can be refuted. 

6. To his credit he does speak of some concrete things - about the existence of general hopital, the idea of ship of fools, confinement - but at most i can confidently assert “These things existed and i guess have something to do in some vague way with madness but i don’t feel confident accepting responsibility for saying anything more specific about them - without just directly citing foucault and asking you to make whatever you want from it. The ultimate academic charlatism thrives when nothing can be concretely identified.

I think I’m somewhat aware of my education’s acute limitations and how little i know about history and generally everything -something that is humbling when attempting more erudite writers who i try to give the benefit of doubt for having maybe undertstood something I haven’t - leading to a suspension of judgment when things aren’t clear enough - but this is almost insulting (saying this at the risk of sounding anti-intellectual). I might (And occasionally do) enjoy obscurity and pretty prose when it doesn’t pretend to feed knowledge to a reader as someone taken incapable of critical thought.

Someone on telegram wrote that foucault is good at what he does. I mentioned how that conveys little information by itself until they either describe “what he does” in non-self-referential terms or ask me to assume that “what he does” is self evident. The conversation turned into an argument over whether tautologies of this sort in natural language convey anything without additional reference - almost everybody in that left group convinced that they can, and I that they cannot. However, my initial question of “what does he do” went unanswered.

Dear Foucault, 
what use is anything that you've written?
You've managed to describe your intuitions in esoteric french jargon but what does achieve; intellectually or historically? 

A history enthusiast.

Sometime in april 2020.

Addendum: Camille Paglia on Foucault: beloved foufou I never met or saw Foucault in the flesh. (He died in 1984.) My low opinion of him is based entirely on his solipsistic, mendacious writing, which has had a disastrous influence on naīve American academics. I miss no opportunity to throw darts at Foucault's scrawny haunches because he is the last standing member of the Terrible Triad of French poststructuralists, whose work swept into American universities in the 1970s and drove out the home-grown radicalism of our own 1960s cultural revolution. I militantly maintain that the intellectual gurus of my college years -- Marshall McLuhan, Norman O. Brown, Leslie Fiedler, Allen Ginsberg -- had far more vision and substance than did the pretentious, verbose trinity of Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan and Michel Foucault. Derrida's reputation was already collapsing (thanks to the exposure of his ally Paul de Man as a Nazi apologist) when I arrived on the scene with my first book in 1990. Lacan, however, still dominated fast-track feminist theory, which was clotted with his ponderous prose and affected banalities. The speed with which I was able to kill Lacanian feminism amazes even me. (A 1991 headline in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera blared my Achillean boast, "I and Madonna will drive Lacan from America!") Though much diminished with the waning of the theory years, Foucault still survives, propped up by wizened queer theorists who crave an openly gay capo in the canon. I base the rhetoric of my anti-Foucault campaign on Cicero's speeches in the Roman Senate against the slick operator and conspirator Catiline ("How long, O Catiline, will you continue to abuse our patience?"). Greek and Roman political history -- about which Foucault knew embarrassingly little -- remains my constant guide. Yes, I have indeed written at length about my objections to the grossly overpraised Foucault, in a 78-page review-essay, "Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf," published in 1991 by the classics journal Arion and reprinted in my first essay collection, "Sex, Art, and American Culture." One of my observations was that Foucault's works are oddly devoid of women. Shouldn't that concern you as a feminist? It is simply untrue that Foucault was learned: He was at a loss with any period or culture outside of post-Enlightenment France (his later writing on ancient sexuality is a garbled mishmash). The supposedly innovative ideas for which his gullible acolytes feverishly hail him were in fact borrowed from a variety of familiar sources, from Friedrich Nietzsche, Emile Durkheim and Martin Heidegger to Americans such as sociologist Erving Goffman. Foucault's analysis of "power" is foggy and paranoid and simply does not work when applied to the actual evidence of the birth, growth and complex development of governments in ancient and modern societies. Nor is Foucault's analysis of the classification of knowledge particularly original -- except in his bitter animus against the Enlightenment, which he failed to realize had already been systematically countered by Romanticism. What most American students don't know is that Foucault's commentary is painfully crimped by the limited assumptions of Sussurean linguistics (which I reject). As I have asserted, James Joyce's landmark modernist novel "Ulysses" (1922) contains, chapter by chapter, far subtler and more various versions of language-based "epistemes" inherent in cultural institutions and epochs. I'm afraid I bring rather bad news: Over the course of your careers, your generation of students will slowly come to realize that the Foucault-praising professors whom you respected and depended on were ill-informed fad-followers who sold you a shoddy bill of goods. You don't need Foucault, for heaven's sake! Durkheim and Max Weber began the stream of sociological thought that still nourishes responsible thinkers. And the pioneers of social psychology and behaviorism -- Havelock Ellis, Alfred Adler, John B.Watson and many others -- were eloquent apostles of social constructionism when Foucault was still in the cradle. A massive work like W.E.B. DuBois'"The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study" (1899) shows the kind of respect for empirical fact-gathering and organization of data that is completely missing from Foucault, who selectively tailors his material to fit a monotonous, rigidly dualistic a priori thesis. For those in the humanities, where anti-aesthetic British cultural studies (shaped by the out-of-date Frankfurt School) has become entrenched, I recommend "The Social History of Art" (translated into English in 1951), an epic work by the Marxist scholar Arnold Hauser that influenced me in graduate school. No one in British or American cultural studies has Hauser's erudition, precision and connoisseurship. Foucault-worship is an example of what I call the Big Daddy syndrome: Secular humanists, who have drifted from their religious and ethnic roots, have created a new Jehovah out of string and wax. Again and again -- in memoirs, for example, by trendy but pedestrian uber-academics like Harvard's Stephen Greenblatt and Brown's Robert Scholes -- one sees the scenario of Melancholy, Bookish, Passive, Insecure Young Nebbish suddenly electrified and transfigured by the Grand Epiphany of Blindingly Brilliant Foucault. This sappy psychodrama would be comic except for the fact that American students forced to read Foucault have been defrauded of a genuine education in intellectual history and political analysis (a disciplined genre that starts with Thucydides and flows directly to the best of today's journalism on current events). When I pointed out in Arion that Foucault, for all his blathering about "power," never managed to address Adolph Hitler or the Nazi occupation of France, I received a congratulatory letter from David H. Hirsch (a literature professor at Brown), who sent me copies of riveting chapters from his then-forthcoming book, "The Deconstruction of Literature: Criticism After Auschwitz" (1991). As Hirsch wrote me about French behavior during the occupation, "Collaboration was not the exception but the rule." I agree with Hirsch that the leading poststructuralists were cunning hypocrites whose tortured syntax and encrustations of jargon concealed the moral culpability of their and their parents' generations in Nazi France. American students, forget Foucault! Reverently study the massive primary evidence of world history, and forge your own ideas and systems. Poststructuralism is a corpse. Let it stink in the Parisian trash pit where it belongs! SALON | Dec. 2, 1998

pulkit manocha april 2020