The Medical Uses of Nonsense
In 1816, Philippe Pinel, the great revolutionizer of psychiatry, warned that his discipline “opens such a vast field to research that I am still very reluctant to offer an outline of it. One cannot hide the fact that its fundamental bases are little known and that the reciprocal limits between the domain of jurisprudence and that of medicine are still far from having been established.”1 The science of madness became one of the crucial areas for defining the reciprocal competencies, rights, and authorities of medicine and the law. Since the tense negotiations between the two disciplines over the meaning and status of the insane have been abundantly and often brilliantly examined, I will only briefly retrace some of those findings. My interest in discussing these debates is to consider the role of irrationality as a legitimizing force within them—to discern, in other words, the ways in which the very incomprehensibility of the mad created a mysterious and extra-social language that the rising medical profession could adapt to its own purposes.
In the previous chapter I indicated how the unintelligibility, indeed the internal incoherence, of medical discourse created a privileged space for