Sunday, March 29, 2009

Foucault On, Foucault Off

If there is a big bad theory name out there that causes undergraduates to scurry underneath their desks and recall fondly such thorny questions as whether or not Updike was the apex of American domestic masculinity, it's Foucault. (Honorable mention to Derrida, whose welter of translucent clauses are the grammatical equivalent of being trapped in an aquarium full of grease). Before these two, the most linguistically leaden encounter I had with theoretical language has to go to Herr Kant, whose plodding cascade of cinderblock definitions made me long for intellectual self-defenestration. (I much preferred that waggish Mr. Barthes, whose languorous suppositions made it seem like he would be loads of fun at parties, especially after too much red wine.)

Fortunately, there's cogent snarkiness to be had in Andrew Scull's review of Foucault's History of Madness, wherein Mister Scull highlights some selective scholarship on Foucault's part, inferring that he deliberately chose antique, erroneous, or superseded texts in order to buttress his diagnosis of power, race, politics, power, class, power... did I mention power? For instance, while it makes for good copy (in a kind of "Here there be dragons" sort of way) Scull points out that the 1815–16 House of Commons inquiry into the state of England's madhouses did not reveal "that Bedlam (Bethlem) placed its inmates on public display every Sunday, and charged a penny a time for the privilege of viewing them to some 96,000 sightseers a year" as Foucault claimed it did. Nor was there actually a "ship of fools" that wandered from port to port with a cargo of the insane. As Mssr. Colbert would say, “Truthiness is all."

No comments: