Foucault, History of Madness Excerpt

Foucault, History of Madness, p. 251:

(1) Behind the calm order of medical analyses a difficult relationship is at work, (2) where historical becoming comes into being: (3) this is the relation between unreason, as the ultimate meaning of madness, and rationality as the form of its truth.

Published in 1961, History of Madness is Foucault’s early archaeological examination of the normative structures operative within modern society in regard to madness. This particular passage exemplifies the archaeological quality of Foucault’s work in that the passage refers to the chaos subsumed within the discursive and normative structures that seek to control such chaos through a violent imposition of form.

The sentence has three parts; part two amplifies part one, and part three amplifies parts one and two. The amplification serves to delimit the conceptual parameters of the subject matter; it gives the subject matter structure and in doing so mimics the very discursive structures which shape subjectivity that Foucault critiques.

The active relation between unreason and rationality remains operative despite attempts by medical analyses to impose a passive relationship (as correlation) between the two through taxonomic organization and classification. “Behind” in this passage conveys the image of an eclipse where what is veiled in shadows remains operative; a “behind” that Foucault seeks to excavate.

Interestingly, the term “historical becoming” taken on its own conveys a process of continuous movement in that the historical becomes; it is an active verb. However, put in conjunction with the verb “comes” and the noun “being,” “historical becoming” is transformed into a noun. The sentence itself transforms a verb into a noun and, concomitantly, conceptually transforms a process of continuous movement into a solidified state of being; again, replicating the discursive construction of subjectivity.

Underneath the order of taxonomic classification, an order that seeks to impose form onto the chaos and solidify it into an essential truth, an active and dynamic relation (effect and reaction of each on the other) exists between unreason and rationality. The juxtaposition of unreason and rationality highlights the active yet difficult relation between the two. Rationality, with its discursive structures of thought, is sought as a way to control the chaos; to structure unreason through prescribing its essential truth using the structures of rationality itself. Rationality imposes form on unreason in order to make unreason sensible to rationality. In its violent attempts at control, rationality seeks to calm the disquiet of unreason.

In regard to Foucault’s larger project, this passage all at once excavates, critiques, and yet mimics the subsumed discursive structures that give rise to normative structures and shape modern subjectivity; activities and themes that occur throughout his following works. In all, the effect of the passage is quite disquieting. It seems impossibly to disrupt yet re-inscribe subjectivity; it is chaos and order, active and passive, becoming and being impossibly intertwined.

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