Tag Archives: Michel Foucault

A history of madness

“UFO” by astraverkhau is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

I remember reading Derrida take issue with Foucault. It was about madness, funnily, and the founder of deconstruction asked how it was possible to bear witness to insanity, The essay was ‘Cogito and the history of madness’, and while much flew over my head, I was struck by the humility with which Derrida showed to take on Foucault and critique his former teacher.

It was a long time ago. I was 28, 29 years old. Derrida was at first utterly incomprehensible to me. Then eventually I got to grips with some of his thinking. It was on an MA course in critical theory at the University of Sussex and it gave me a lot of confidence, to engage with deconstruction.

My former teacher was Professor Nicholas Royle. It was the first year he led his module on Derrida and much of the course formed the basis for his book on Derrida in the Routledge Critical Thinkers series. My cohort are all there, in the acknowledgements together. It was a very generous act by our former teacher. But if Derrida describes himself as a disciple of Foucault, that is surely what we were in a way and for a while: disciples.

I should probably keep this quiet and any Derrida expert reading this could probably deconstruct this post in no time; but I’m no longer so convinced about what I learned about my strand of Derrida.

My dissertation was on madness and much of it revolved around a phrase which appears in an interview from the collection Points; Derrida says “A madness must watch over thinking”. That is to say, we should not allow our decisions to unfold by reason alone because to do so would render our lives too mechanistic. That way danger lies and, yes, we should avoid an excess of reason.

But to inform a decision with madness? I must now be honest; it seems a bad idea. Madness, to my mind, is choosing cigarette brands according to religion. Or believing you can tune into radio stations on your teeth. That sort of thing. It should not watch over thinking. Emotion should inevitably watch over thinking, but emotion is not madness and I no longer subscribe to the idea that madness and emotion are on a sliding scale.

Madness is not an absence of reason or an excess of emotion. I think the mad have plenty of reasons for most of what they think or do. And I don’t believe they are any more passionate than those of us above ground. And yes, I do think one can bear witness. You can witness madness by observing the barefoot guy picking through the trash outside the shopping centre. You can observe it by reading Judge Schreber, or even Swedenborg.

Swedenborg was in contact with aliens, apparently, while remaining one of Earth’s first rank philosophers. Derrida asks, with what I recall seemed like alarm at the time, in his essay Passions: an Oblique Offering, “How is a Swedenborg possible?”.  How indeed? This is a profound question, and it indicates that Derrida’s understanding of madness has its limits. As does mine or yours. But you would not want aliens to watch over thinking.

Bonnie Camplin, Patterns (2015)

patterns

There are certain areas of human experience which don’t get on the news, don’t get written into soap opera plotlines and evade the attention of reality TV. They are pretty much off the menu.

But testimony does survive around, say, mind control, belief in ESP, perception of extra-dimensional beings, witchcraft, fringe religious beliefs and a general susceptibility to the occult.

Books have been written. And many of them comprise Bonnie Camplin’s display for the Turner Prize 2015. Wikipedia pages have been compiled, and these too have their place in her show.

The archive is laid out on tables all around the gallery walls. Chairs invite you to sit down and read; a photocopier lets you copy what you need. The artist intends her work is a “research tool”.

Meanwhile, a cluster of five monitors invite you to watch documentary films with a quite different tone to that of BBC4. Taken from YouTube, these deal with secret military programmes, and so on.

Yet all of this information is suppressed or presented with a heavy pinch of salt in favour of a governable consensus. You won’t get on Question Time with a question about SS-controlled UFOs.

It is not even as if Camplin’s authors and witnesses are mad. Madness, according to Foucault, is the absence of a work. But these people are minor video stars and scholars.

But what the French philosopher also tells us is that, “Madness is the punishment of a disorderly and useless science”. Spend too much time with this work, you’ll deserve a sense of derangement.

“Learning becomes madness through the very excess of false learning,”* he also says. And so Patterns, and the SLG show from which it has evolved, can be seen as schizogenic machines.

It’s hard to recall a more dangerous exhibition. Perhaps a monumental installation by Richard Serra could fall on you, but Camplin threatens you with psychological collapse.

That’s not her plan. It appears she prefers, by giving exposure to hidden bodies of knowledge, to expand our bounds of reality. Nevertheless, this piece should have a health warning.

Bonnie Camplin is one of four shortlisted artists in a show for the Turner Prize 2015 at Tramway in Glasgow. This can be seen until 17 January 2016.

*p.25, Madness and Civilisation, Routledge, 1997.