Pomo Periscope X: Foucault Deconstructed

24 March 2007 at 11:23 am Leave a comment

| Peter Klein |

This week’s Times Literary Supplement includes Andrew Scull’s review of a new translation of Foucault’s History of Madness, the book that launched the French philospher’s public career. (HT: A&L Daily.) The first English edition, Scull notes, had the great merit of brevity, if not accuracy.

Madness and Civilization was not just short: it was unhampered by any of the apparatus of modern scholarship. What appeared in 1965 was a truncated text, stripped of several chapters, but also of the thousand and more footnotes that decorated the first French edition. Foucault himself had abbreviated the lengthy volume that constituted his doctoral thesis to produce a small French pocket edition, and it was this version (which contented itself with a small handful of references and a few extra pages from the original text) that appeared in translation. This could be read in a few hours, and if extraordinarily large claims rested on a shaky empirical foundation, this was perhaps not immediately evident. The pleasures of a radical reinterpretation of the place of psychiatry in the modern world (and, by implication, of the whole Enlightenment project to glorify reason) could be absorbed in very little time. Any doubts that might surface about the book’s claims could always be dismissed by gestures towards a French edition far weightier and more solemn — a massive tome that monoglot English readers were highly unlikely, indeed unable, to consult for themselves, even supposing that they could have laid their hands on a copy.

From the extended edition, published now in English for the first time, we learn that Foucault’s primary sources were narrow, outdated, and superficial.

Foucault’s isolation from the world of facts and scholarship is evident throughout History of Madness. It is as though nearly a century of scholarly work had produced nothing of interest or value for Foucault’s project. What interested him, or shielded him, was selectively mined nineteenth-century sources of dubious provenance. Inevitably, this means that elaborate intellectual constructions are built on the shakiest of empirical foundations, and, not surprisingly, many turn out to be wrong.

The bottom line?

The back cover of History of Madness contains a series of hyperbolic hymns of praise to its virtues. Paul Rabinow calls the book “one of the major works of the twentieth century”; Ronnie Laing hails it as “intellectually rigorous”; and Nikolas Rose rejoices that “Now, at last, English-speaking readers can have access to the depth of scholarship that underpins Foucault’s analysis”. Indeed they can, and one hopes that they will read the text attentively and intelligently, and will learn some salutary lessons. One of those lessons might be amusing, if it had no effect on people’s lives: the ease with which history can be distorted, facts ignored, the claims of human reason disparaged and dismissed, by someone sufficiently cynical and shameless, and willing to trust in the ignorance and the credulity of his customers.

Yikes! Perhaps some of these AMR papers should come with a warning label.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Management Theory, Myths and Realities, Pomo Periscope.

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