Madness and Democracy: The Modern Psychiatric Universe

Madness and Democracy: The Modern Psychiatric Universe

Madness and Democracy: The Modern Psychiatric Universe

Madness and Democracy: The Modern Psychiatric Universe

Synopsis

How the insane asylum became a laboratory of democracy is revealed in this provocative look at the treatment of the mentally ill in nineteenth-century France. Political thinkers reasoned that if government was to rest in the hands of individuals, then measures should be taken to understand the deepest reaches of the self, including the state of madness. Marcel Gauchet and Gladys Swain maintain that the asylum originally embodied the revolutionary hope of curing all the insane by saving the glimmer of sanity left in them. Their analysis of why this utopian vision failed ultimately constitutes both a powerful argument for liberalism and a direct challenge to Michel Foucault's indictment of liberal institutions.

The creation of an artificial environment was meant to encourage the mentally ill to live as social beings, in conditions that resembled as much as possible those prevailing in real life. The asylum was therefore the first instance of a modern utopian community in which a scientificallydesigned environment was supposed to achieve complete control over the minds of a whole category of human beings. Gauchet and Swain argue that t

Excerpt

In a sense, an intellectual “accident” is at the origin of this book, which began as the preface to a new edition of J.E.D. Esquirol's Des passions considérées comme causes, symptômes et moyens curatifs de l'aliénation mentale (The passions viewed as causes, symptoms, and treatments of mental alienation, 1805). the text's disproportionate growth was surprising: the work first appeared limited and easily controlled but turned out during the writing process to be voracious, uncontrollable in its dimensions, prolific in demands, illuminations, and unexpected inspirations. Writers will attest that this is a perfectly ordinary experience of loss of control. But it is also an experience that an imperious tradition generally requires us to surmount: according to the rules we have learned, we ought to get a grip, eliminate our skidmarks, reshape the monster, restructure the project so that it looks more or less as though it had been initially intended to be what it has become. the point is to preserve the authoritative appearance of the author: he is on top of his subject, master of his thought, firmly maintaining power over the work. He is the only one who knows in advance where he is going and who has global mastery of what can be said; he follows the example of the authorities whose prominent positions put them in charge of evaluating the future for us and of organizing the emergence of what is new. These two “authorities” are equally derisory embodiments of an ancient illusion of power, an illusion inherent in the Western tradition according to which truth is always already given: it is unveiled by history, perhaps, but never produced ex nihilo as history unfolds—and thus it is integrally available to be possessed and dominated.

From its own special vantage point, our present work strives to shed some light on the ultimate and principal avatar of these embodiments of an illusion, and to denounce their disastrous consequences. For with the advent of democratic sovereignty, the inoffensive dream of theory has left the realm of books to be materialized in totalizing social projects, and to nourish the political aims of complete, exhaustive mastery of the collective destiny. the process has given rise to an unprecedent type of institution of which the insane asylum provides, in its exorbitant ambition and its constitutive failure, an illustration that is at once marginal and exemplary. the asylum episode offers an extreme example, but a highly significant one, of the massive impotence left over from two centuries under the sway . . .

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