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Madness and Civilization

Michel Foucault

The Insane

The Great Confinement

Passion and Delirium


The age of reason confined all sorts of irregular and abnormal people. In doing so, it created its own profile of the experience of unreason. Confinement was primarily concerned with scandal; it imposed secrecy in order to avoid scandal. A change occurred in the consciousness of evil, from the earlier idea of making evil publicly known to confinement, which was based on shame. All forms of unreason that were close to evil had to be hidden away. But there was an exception to this rule: the public exhibition of madmen. This practice occurred in lunatic hospitals such as Bethlehem in London. Confinement hid away unreason but drew attention to madness in order to organize it. The eighteenth century organized exhibition of madmen was not the same as the situation in the Renaissance. In the Renaissance, madness was public and present everywhere, not exhibited behind bars.

The imagery of animals haunted hospitals of this period. Madmen were similar to beasts, and were treated as such. The animality of madness takes away what is human. In the classical period, the madman was not a sick man. Animality protected the madman from whatever was fragile in man. It made him oblivious to cold, hunger or pain. Madness was not linked to medicine or to correction. The only way to master animality was through discipline and brutalizing. When the madman becomes a beast, in a way he is cured because man himself is abolished. An obsession with animality seen as a natural place of madness created the imagery responsible for confinement. The animal was part of anti-nature, the negativity that endangers the order and reason of nature. Classical practices concerning the insane show that madness was still related to anti-natural animality.

Confinement glorified the animality of madness but tried to avoid the immorality of the unreasonable. If madness was allowed to speak while the rest of unreason was silent, what did it have to say that was so important? At the beginning of the seventeenth century, unreason was no longer so instructive. The great theme of the madness of Jesus began to disappear in the seventeenth century. Christian unreason was marginalized. As Christianity got rid of unreason, the madman became important. The church's concern for madness reveals that it found an important but difficult lesson in it: the guilty innocence of the animal in man.

Madness had a strange relationship with unreason. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries only recognized madness against a background of unreason, which was an absolute freedom. Classical rationalism was on guard against the danger of unreason, a threatening space of absolute freedom


Foucault explores the changing relationship between madness and unreason. Irregular and abnormal people were the lazy, wife-beaters, tramps, the work-shy and the mad. Foucault says that that these people were defined as abnormal by their society. They were not inherently odd, but were seen as such by society. Foucault uses the example of these people to show how a split emerged between madness and unreason. Evil unreason, such as those who committed terrible crimes, or pornographers and libertines such as the Marquis de Sade, were hidden away out of shame, and to protect society.

Madness, however, had to be revealed. This was partly to separate it from other forms, but more importantly so that it could be observed. The idea that observation is a form of control and organization is important to Foucault, and is repeated in his later work. The public who paid to see madmen helped to set them in their place, and by being observed the insane could be placed in a particular social space within unreason. An important distinction is drawn between this situation of observation, and the Renaissance experience. Foucault's image of the Renaissance has madness present as a force in society. It was part of everyday experience, not observed in particular situations. Experiencing madness in this way did not involve controlling it.

Foucault's discussion of animality and madness is contradictory and complex. He charts the move from fantastic images of madness in the Renaissance, to one in which the madman was part animal. Seeing madness as bestial justified treating the madman like a beast, but also offered a deeper explanation of his actions and place in the world. Rather than seeing animal qualities as being similar to those that human have, or seeing humans as highly developed animals, this attitude robs the madman of all humanity. By removing his humanity, madness makes the madman dangerously free. He cannot be bound by human laws, and so has to be confined.

Foucault's picture of animality as anti-nature is also confusing. The "animal" is not part of nature because the order of nature implies a rational order. In a way, the practices of confinement are justified by this conception of madness; they attempt to hide away this irrationality.

Foucault develops the relationship between madness and unreason further in this section. He needs to explain why madness is seen as different to the range of deviant behavior that is confined. He explains it in terms of religious change, adding another dimension to the economic and moral elements already discussed. Foucault argues that unreason and religious ecstasy were less important after the seventeenth century, which is commonly seen as a period of great religious enthusiasm. As religious enthusiasm declined, madness appeared to fill it place. In a sense, the Church needed the structure of madness to replace something it had lost; the parallel with the decline of leprosy is obvious. Explaining the Church's concern with madness in terms of kindness or Christian charity is meaningless to Foucault. What matters to him are changes in demand for certain figures or roles, such as the leper or the madman.

The reorganization of madness and unreason is a general theme of Madness and Civilization. In this section Foucault argues that the classical period confined a range of dangerous and liberated behavior, but that this unreason represented the only way of understanding madness. Madness and the way the mad were treated made sense only against a background fear of absolute liberty. Confining madness, Foucault argues, was the eighteenth century's way of dealing with this fear.

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