Walk with me. It may not be a pleasant little stroll but, fortunately, it will be a rather short one. The roads paved by the words that follow are not straight and you will often find yourself questioning the final goal of this essay. But if you endure and follow the strange lines of reasoning, you may come to some very interesting realizations about the nature of madness. I want you to forget everything you have ever known about insanity and start investigating its nature without any pre-defined notions. Just assume for now, as an experiment, that madness is something we invented.
If we were to speak of exclusion and raise the question concerning the Other. a morbid contest at play: “Who is the most alien, strange and troubled among us?” What creature - we may no longer speak of humanity here – has worn the most repulsive mask? Despite often sharing a cell with a criminal inmate, with their identities merging together in confinement, the trophy of the uncanny winner must be reserved for the Madman.
So why trouble ourselves? Should we be bothered and outright disturbed? Disturbed by what? What is in fact the question we are trying to raise? Because so far it seems we have raised nothing but Hell…
It is good to raise hell sometimes, or equally: To descend to it. Do we in fact understand insanity? There is without a doubt, a vast body of knowledge concerning “mental illness”. Seems like familiar ground; of mental illness we can speak on, and on, and on without end. We often feel compelled to do so. Isn’t that really the point of all idle chatter in hallways and coffee-shops? Auditioning for our freedom; day after day repeating the banalities of our shared reality.
Another trigger word: Reality. Here most likely lies the answer to the “Disturbed by what?”question we raised earlier. It is the question of reality that disturbs us; confronting-us-confronting-the madmen. A severe lack of reality. Or at least a reality that is not properly shared. The source of the real “danger” of madness seems to be its ambivalent incoherence. A direct and symmetrical reflection of a sober and an insecure chatter in the light of day, echoes in the disruptive and confused murmur of the mad at the dead of night.
Very well. We are now hopefully, completely disturbed. Perhaps disgusted to the point where we can begin to justify what we are about to do. Steady forward, one step at a time. All matters of hygiene, very well practiced in the Western hemisphere, are connected to health. To our bodily health and, naturally, to the health of our soul; mental health. And mental health requires mental hygiene. But one nonetheless such that could be traced back to objective biological processes in the body. That’s how we get a hold of the body, so that afterwards we can fix the person as well. To fix her in space, in time, and within language. We can begin.
Distance. The healthy, the clean and the reasonable must be separated from the sick, disgusting and the unreasonable. Technically, they are not criminals, it would be unjust to prosecute them and the nature of their sickness prevents them from being sent to a regular hospital. Let us confine them by whatever means necessary at the moment, until we can figure out and understand the nature of their pathology. Meanwhile, please increase the frequency and intensity of the moral blathering mixed with scientific lingo until we can reverse-engineer the very reasons for their segregation!
Speech. We must force them to speak. If they speak they will be cured. What should they say? The truth! They must speak the truth about themselves. They should be able to recite their name, the names of their immediate family and friends, they must demonstrate a fixed and stable identity with an adequate awareness of their surroundings. Then the days of the calendar, the year, the clock and so on! Reality must be fed to them; bit by bit.
Surveillance. In order to confine and fix the madmen in place, an architecture of constant observation is necessary. An effective institution is a transparent one. Doctors and the medical staff must have optimal visibility of the patients. Prisons are an excellent model for imitation. Truth and transparency, they go hand in hand. Nothing must be hidden from the Doctor’s gaze.
Discipline. A strict regimen from the break of dawn to the end of day. The patients must exercise, take regular walks, food and drink must be consumed at the prescribed times, in prescribed amounts and they must engage in community activities. Those who prove to be more docile and obedient will receive incremental benefits until they are ready to be integrated into the workforce. Until then, the poor ones will be made to work without wages, while those who belong to wealthy families will be charged money for the care they receive from us.
All in all, try to draw as much on scientific knowledge as you can to justify the intervention, despite the fact that none of that knowledge will actually be applied during treatment. As you know the treatment itself is of a moral nature, they must be put to work, they must busy themselves with themselves and they must acknowledge the truth. Our truth of course.
Enough of that. Now you see; madness, innocent in its pure form, is only an instance of social uselessness. It does not exist! It is a matter of idleness and a refusal to play by the rules of the social game, which resulted in the Othering of the insane through the medicalization of their bodies.
Through the quadruple effect of confinement, forced imposition of objective reality, constant supervision and training, madness was simultaneously constructed and pathologized. Before the 19th century, and especially before the classical Renaissance age, we may say, insanity was constructed and demonized by religion. The mad were only a variety of the damned. Their sufferings were a testament to God’s divine wrath. They were sinners. Philosopher Paul-Michel Foucault explicitly rejects the movement from mythical to medical understanding as either progressive or humane. It is only a substitution of one form of power with another. And the reason the substitution took place was not due to some improvement in our moral convictions, but due to the discovery of a more effective, practical and profitable method of exercising power.
Displaced, pastoral power is no longer at the center of governance. Nevertheless, what to this day remains unchanged, is the economic and political benefit of incarcerating those who refuse to work and those who think differently. More so, with the secular state, we seem to have arrived at a point in history where reason itself is used as a repressive force. Power has become rational, methodological; scientific.
The model of the Asylum is only the more obvious and comprehensive, but if we were to speak of power and subjugation in general, similar mechanisms operate throughout society. The Other is simultaneously manufactured and repressed, created and ostracized, made-up and classified as an abomination. Foucault has exposed the productive aspect of power. This is particularly symptomatic of liberal societies. We are constantly forced to speak, consume and appropriate fabricated identities. Consumerism is the imposition of constructs; objects of desire disguised as “authentic” expressions of love, science, happiness, philosophy, etc. Consumer “culture” directs human action through decoys and implicit commands. Instead of applying direct force (an option always ready at hand in reserve) liberal forms of governance operate through suggestions, hints and incitements backed up by scientific knowledge and the police. Refusal to conform results in being stigmatized, unemployed, incarcerated or left behind in one form or another.
Foucault advocates experimenting with oneself. Refusing to speak “the truth” of oneself and questioning scientific knowledge in terms of its misrepresentation, misapplication or any other instance of stepping out of its proper domain. Instead: Resistance through the dynamic and “strange” aspects of being. The Foucaultian ethics of the care of the self is a lifestyle based on limit-experiences. It offers a way to evade the normalizing power of institutions and find new, alternative ways of living and relating to O/others.
We live in strange times, but effectively our relationship with madness has not changed. We remain hypocritical. The new alliance between science and the state has only replaced one religion with another. An archaic set of instruments designed for social exclusion have now been exchanged for an army of rational hypochondriacs and the new religion of health, medicine, facemasks and hand-sanitizers. Administering those who either refuse to fix their bodies in space - under the clinical scope or their being in words - under diagnoses.
In the age of bio-politics, we should take care to acknowledge the irreducible nature of our being. The fact that our lives are not reducible to the biological. And the fact that a false sense of security drives a poor bargain with freedom. Not the freedom to consume, isolate ourselves or stay healthy, but the freedom to transgress, refuse, resist and share a public space free of technological surveillance. In order to have a real encounter with the Other, we must other ourselves.