Society and Civilization

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Not Meeting the Demands of Civilization

Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization wasn’t much of Foucault’s own account of madness. It was more of an account of how madness was understood from one stage of civilization to another in the course of history. Madness and Civilization, to me, was well-written and strong. As Foucault’s 1st book, it has depth and really exhibit Foucault’s comprehensive understanding of the object of his inquiry, which was madness as it was understood and treated under the scrutiny of civilization.

            Madness, as it was understood, came in several faces which shared a common feature, although it might’ve come in different degrees in different faces of madness. Those faces were melancholia, mania, hypochondria, and hysteria. Their common feature was abnormality in the abstract sense of the term.

            Foucault recognized that what was considered to be madness was firstly judged by the so-called normality. This normality wasn’t just the social norms devised to bring order among the members of society but also the normality of the laws of nature and physics. Normality was, and still is, sustained in civilization for the sake of order which is one of the main prerequisite of a civilization’s longevity. Civilization demands its members to be physically in accordance with nature by staying healthy, psychologically sane, and socially in accordance with social norms. These were the demands that mad people were considered to be incapable of meeting.

            Foucault was of course very critical towards civilization and its excessive demands for normality. Even worse than the demands for normality were the attitudes “normal” people had toward mad people and the ways that were employed to treat these mad people. In order to bring the mad people back to sanity several ways were employed to “cure” them. Among others, icy-cold water being poured onto the body of the mad person from a level as high as possible and the mad person being confined in a remote place, far from the “sane” members of the society. Even more outrageous, these mad people were also being excorcised. All these, for Foucault, were only maltreatments.

            Of course, if we stay honest to the objective historical condition of the periods that Foucault analysed we can forgive all those maltreatments to be merely experimental. We can forgive those maltreatments to the extent that they give way to a better understanding of madness, its symptoms and the proper way to treat them. But Foucault employed no such attitude towards the maltreatments. Instead, Foucault was more intrigued by the irrational and destructive sides of those maltreatments.

            It was strange, for Foucault, how the so-called sane and rational people treated the mad people in many irrational ways. Many treatments were employed for the body of the patient while madness had little to do with the body than it did with the mind. Patients of madness were being excorcised because they were considered to be possessed by evil or being punished by God due to their sinfulness while madness may, in fact, have nothing to do with sin. Madness is blind to saints and sinners.

            The insane wasn’t the only one under the umbrella of madness. Later in the modern industrial period the unemployed and lazy person were also considered to be mad. It wasn’t wholly wrong, though, because unemployment sometimes do lead to madness especially when the unemployed no longer able to cope with the demands of the then and now competitive life. The common feature of the employed and the insane was their “abnormality” or their incapability to meet the demands of civilization.

            Radically, madness is difference. Madness was synonymous with irrationality, insanity, abnormality, and chaos which, respectively, are the opposites of rationality, sanity, normality, and order. As Foucault stated in Madness and Civilization at the end of part IV:

“That is, on one hand madness is immediately perceived as difference: whence the forms of spontaneous and collective judgments sought, not from physicians, but from men of good sense, to determine the confinement of a madman; and on the other hand, confinement cannot have any other goal than a correction (that is, the suppression of the difference, or the fulfillment of this nothingness in death); whence those options for death so often to be found in the registers of confinement, written by the attendants, and which are not the sign of confinement’s savagery, it’s inhumanity or perversion, but the strict expression of its meaning: an operation to annihilate nothingness.” 

The later group of opposites that I wrote above the quotation is the character of civilization that it needs to sustain. The order and longevity of a civilization is ensured by keeping these characters alive. Therefore the opposites, the difference, must be suppressed or even annihilated. 

            Today, in some societies madness is still being fiercely suppressed but not so much in a society with a more advanced and scientific understanding of the madness phenomena. As history progressed and human knowledge and science advance the madman gets a more proper treatment. They’re not necessarily being cured but at least they’re being treated humanly, not as savage animal or an embodiment of evil. Where the madman gets his/ her treatment is also an a lot more friendly environment compared to the confinement sites in the past.

            What is Foucault’s demand to civilization in respect to its attitudes toward and treatments of the madman? Of course Foucault demands a proper treatment for the madman, a treatment that is human. More radical than proper treatments Foucault demands, in my interpretation, a radical change in our epistemology of madness from a one-sided understanding to a comprehensive one. The previous understandings of madness, in the periods that Foucault analysed, were not only incomprehensive but also clouded by irrelevant, scientificly inadequate assumptions such as the God’s punishment assumption previously mentioned.

            The incomprehensiveness of old understandings of madness is expressed by their strong reductionist tendency on the understanding of human. Too much emphasis on rationality contributed to the maltreatments of the madman. For Foucault, human isn’t exclusively rational but also has irrational sides which are partly expressed by the madman. Reductionist understanding of human is not only obsolete but also destructive to human him/ herself. To be able to treat the madman in a proper manner we must first get rid of those obsolete understanding and assumptions.