Madness and Democracy: The Modern Psychiatric Universe

By Marcel Gauchet; Gladys Swain et al. | Go to book overview

CHAPTER II
The Politics of the Asylum

Changing Man, Producing Man

IF WE TRY to reconstruct the way the crucial conversion came about, it appears as though the insane asylum began to dominate medical thinking with its own logic, that is to say, its own phantasmatic construction, almost from the start. For it is clear that the pattern of authority within which psychiatric practice was integrated is a borrowed model, endowed with an abstract general validity. While this pattern found an exemplary embodiment in the insane asylum, it could not have been invented there. Doctors did not use the asylum to create a unique, unprecedented structure. They took their cue from a recently developed ideal of institutional order, an ideal that was explicitly prevalent in one entire sector of activity but that actually traversed the full extent of the social field in a diffuse way, for it was derived from the very essence of the society that had grown out of the democratic revolution. In short, doctors espoused, or, more precisely, allowed themselves to be subjugated by, the paradigmatic project of an organization of collective space that could change man.

The project was inseparable, in its emergence, from the immense rupture that is at the origin of modern societies and to which the French Revolution lent the exceptional strength of its language. As we know, the explicit restoration of the principle of sovereignty to the people was the central feature of that event. But another well-known phenomenon needs to be emphasized here as well: the way in which society's full recovery of the right to define itself and the power to organize itself, a right and a power until then ascribed to divine will as manifested in the person of the king, was translated into concrete reality. If the rejection of the transcendent roots of power instituted a perfect harmony, on the theoretical level, between the motivations of society and the will of its officials, in practice what emerged was the state's unlimited right to act and its unlimited pragmatic power over society. Taking a Tocquevillean interpretation to the extreme, then, one might plausibly view the revolutionary moment as the decisive incident in a lengthy process of growth and assertion on the part of the state. In stripping the supernatural world of its status as true source

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