Recently a co-worker was chatting with a Frenchman about her trip to London. She remarked on the ubiquity of anti-French jokes in the British media. The Frenchman shook his head and said, "They never get tired of it."
The woman asked if it ever bothered the French that the British made fun of them so relentlessly. He shrugged and said, "What can you do? We try to make fun of them, but they just drown us out. At least we can take comfort in the knowledge that no matter how many jokes the British make about us, we always have the Belgians."
What better occasion for cross-Channel sniping than the reissue of a Michel Foucault book? Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique. The book, Foucault's second but the one that secured his reputation, is better known in the US as Madness and Civilization. The new translation by Jonathan Murphy and Jean Khalfa contains the entire text of the first French edition, including the footnotes, over a thousand of them. Uppsala, Sweden. Foucault did consult with some French archives, but evidently he was rather lax in his cross-checking. In any event, Foucault's data sample isn't up to professional historians' standards. who, "by the very ambitions they have set for themselves" are often forced "to rely to a substantial extent on the work of others." Nevertheless, Scull indicts Foucault on the quality of his historical research:first published in France in 1961
But the secondary sources on which Foucault repeatedly relies for the most well-known portions of his text are so self-evidently dated and inadequate to the task, and his own reading of them so often singularly careless and inventive, that he must be taken to task.
And take him to task Scull does, picking out factual errors in Bedlam Hospital's policies regarding the public displays of patients and Foucault's "bizarre notion" (do the French have any other kinds of notions about the British?) regarding the conversion of monasteries into madhouses in Britain. Scull ends his review by suggesting Foucault's footnotes reveal someone who is "cynical and shameless, and willing to trust in the ignorance and the credulity of his customers."
Huzzah! Some research into the history of Foucault's reception in the English-speaking world would have revealed that Scull's revelations about Foucault's sometimes questionable research practices are old news, especially regarding Madness and Civilization. James Miller, author of The Passion of Michel Foucault, describes the book as "hard to follow . . . [Foucault's] own convictions more insinuated than argued." But as Miller reminds us, Foucault intended the book to be less a dry documentation of psychiatric practices throughout the ages than his magnum opus, his own Being and Nothingness. Foucault wasn't a historian in the conventional sense, or even a philosopher. Rather, he was concerning with "becoming what one was," and Folie et déraison was his first sustained attempt to become himself, which is why the book is such a tangle of concepts.
Foucault's most persuasive concepts (panopticism, madness as a social construct) have always rested on narrow historical documentation, yet they have resonated with readers because of their explanatory power in cultural analysis. He helps us understand how we live now. Those of us who have learned from Foucault--while keeping his limitations in mind, as any critical reader should do--read him because of the way he looks at his sources. Foucault invites us to consider reversing some of the historical causalities more quotidian-minded historians leave unexamined. When Foucault claims the justice system exists to serve the penal system and not the other way around, one is obliged to think that claim over, but the claim is itself is far more illuminating and provocative than knowing that the public visitation of patients at Bedlam ceased in 1770, and did not continue into the nineteenth century, as Foucault asserted. What's important is that the patients went on display in the first place.