Academic journal article Criticism

The Persistence of Unreason: Michel Foucault's Mad Melodrama

Academic journal article Criticism

The Persistence of Unreason: Michel Foucault's Mad Melodrama

Article excerpt

Critics have long disagreed about how to read Michel Foucault's first major work, History of Madness (1961). Excoriated by some and praised by others, History of Madness has been called everything from bad history to a dazzling prose poem. These differing assessments are explained, in part, by conflicting assumptions about problems of evidence, historical causality, the nature of truth, and the place of the irrational in scientific modernity. While these theoretical concerns are important, I want to redirect them by reading History of Madness as a melodrama: not as a bellelettristic literary text but as what Foucault called an "object-event."1 My literary approach to this object-event refocuses these common theoretical concerns about History of Madness through the lens of ethics. Specifically, I show how History of Madness's melodramatic mode produces an effect of ethical disorientation whose threat Foucault figures as a persistent, irruptive unreason. As a melodramatic story about the persistence of son in modernity, History of Madness forces its readers to engage the difficult, unsettling ethical ambiguities of a hyperrational, postsacred world.

Although History of Madness is a hybrid, a focus on its melodramatic imagery, themes, rhythm, and structure brings out the specific moral framing Madness and melodrama share. In reading History of Madness as a melodrama about what at first appears to be a Manichaean struggle between reason and unreason, I am interested in how the book impels its readers toward the moral irresolution of a nondualistic ethics. In the classroom, my students consistently report feeling confused in response to the book. Their disorientation reflects the affective ambiguities of a postmoral ethics, with oscillations between anger and pity, sadness and hilarity, sympathy and aggravation, lucid understanding and frustrating perplexity. Many use the word passion to convey the intensity of these reactions without quite knowing what that passion amounts to or why the book haunts them long after they've moved on to Foucault's other writings. Rethinking History of Madness through the lens of melodrama has given me a language to discuss these responses without, as many have done, simply dismissing the book as the half-baked project of an immature thinker whose more important work came later. Thomas Elsaesser's identification of a distancing irony and an equally powerful tragic pathos at work in Hollywood melodramas of the 1940s and 1950s has been especially helpful for understanding the ethical disorientation that History of Madness provokes.2 If Elsaesser is correct in asserting that "the existential undertow of all genuine melodrama" is its "at once comic and tragically absurd"3 dimension, melodrama may be a useful term for describing Foucault's seemingly Manichaean drama about unreason persecuted by a "sovereign" (xxvii) reason.

If my literary examination ofFoucault's ethics through the lens of melodrama is somewhat at odds with standard approaches to his work, this is not to say that the word melodrama has not been hurled, often derisively, in Foucault's direction. In Foucault (1985), José Merquior denounces Foucault's description of the birth of psychiatry in History of Madness as "a piece of ideological melodrama."4 In a similar mode, James Miller's sensationalist psychobiography about Foucault's "passions" derides Foucault's participation in BDSM as a "psychological melodrama."5 More sympathetically, and in a rare recognition ofFoucault's irony, Andrew Bennett reads the author function in "What Is an Author?" as "self-consciously melodramatic."6 As these examples suggest, despite Foucault's erudition and philosophical rigor, many interpretations of his life and work imbue him with forms of excess that characterize classic melodrama: he is seen to exaggerate, especially in his young, blatantly antihumanist phase; his challenges to reason, morality, and subjectivity simply take things too far. He is a hysteric, a folle: both his life and his thinking reek of a melodramatic too-muchness. …

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