Veena Das on Reading Abnormal (1974-75)

By Veena Das (Footnotes need to be properly linked)

In Michel Serres’s moving tribute to Foucault, as he comments on Histoire de la folie, madness appears as the geometry of the incommunicable. “Very profoundly, then, the lessons of this book take up those of Nietzsche, as well as Hellenic and medieval lessons. It is a discourse of unreason on reason, for which these stutterings of reason on madness prepare the way. Here we discover the inspiring chain that was loosed from the hands of Goya, van Gogh, Chekov, Artaud.” (p.51[1]).

But Foucault has already turned away from the fascination of madness to its more prosaic forms. By the time we come to Abnormal, we are dealing with mental illness and not madness, and by the end of the course on 19th March, 1975, Foucault speaks of a new kind of composition of psychiatric knowledge in which “Psychiatry no longer seeks to cure, or in its essence no longer seeks to cure. It can offer merely to protect society from being the victim of the definitive dangers represented by people in abnormal condition.” So how is this broad plot line filled as the psychiatrist is found not in the asylum, not even in the presence of the theater of the hysteric, but in court rooms, in the deep countryside peering over evidence of sexual misconduct, and in the bedroom of the masturbating child? What is the picture of power that psychiatry comes to embody as it gives up the dream of curability of the ill person and instead becomes the defender of the social order? Here is, first, a rather prosaic summary of the broad argument of the course.

The main question posed in Abnormal, seen from the perspective of law, might be this: what are the early foundations of modern notions of culpability and techniques of normalization, which have organized public institutions? The first important movement in Abnormal is to argue that juridical and psychiatric discourses come together between late 1700s and early 1900s to constitute a modern system of correction and punishment. While in 18th century penal law psychiatric testimony is adduced to establish soundness of mind to establish responsibility in law, in modern law psychiatric testimony shifts its focus from the crime committed (an actual crime) to crime that could be committed (potential crime). This shift creates a space for “expert knowledge” provided by the psychiatrist whose testimony creates a link between the criminal act and the life of the criminal. Minor events that occurred before the crime was committed and which are not illegal in themselves gather weight in the light of the crime for which older notions of culpability and standards of proof do not work. By tracking the interchange and traffic between the categories of the monster, the person to be corrected, and the masturbating child, as these move between judicial categories and psychiatric ones, Foucault argues both for the invention of instinct in psychiatry and the regulation of sexuality through techniques of normalization that now create a split between the crime and the criminal on the one hand and the disease and the ill person, on the other. This text is fascinating for showing in what way modern reason creates a continuum between the prison and the asylum within regimes of incarceration at the institutional level and creates a picture of power in which the precise economy of modern punishment also creates the space for moving what might have been remained marginal discourse of criminal psychiatry to generate concepts that become central in mainstream psychiatry.

The text shows that the claims by some that Foucault should have paid more attention to sovereign power are hard to entertain, for what we have here is the demonstration of the way sovereign power and the picture of power as normalization evolve together – even within disciplinary regimes, sovereign power does not simply disappear – it is reallocated, often degraded, sometimes silenced – and though it is not like a potential waiting on the door step of reality, it can sometimes be sensed in the most unlikely of places, such as in the witches pact with the devil that, Foucault argues, takes the model of a juridical subject (unlike possession, as we shall see). As he was to say later, “I do not wish to say that the law fades into the background or the institution of justice tend to disappear – but that the law operates more and more as a norm, judicial institutions are increasingly integrated into a continuum of apparatuses (medical, administrative, etc.,) whose functions are for the most part regulatory.”[2]

As a counterpoint to the organization of public institutions, the family is the frame of reference for the individual to be corrected. The monster who appears early in the text as the exceptional figure – cosmological or anti-cosmological – gives way to the more general figure of the individual to be corrected who emerges in the play of relations between family and adjacent institutions such as that of the school, parish church, etc. Here, in the individual to be corrected we find the suggestion that the power of normalization is strictly speaking the power of correction or rectification – and that the movement from a power that is ritualized, intermittent, to one that can be continuously deployed comes from the way that the family is reorganized and becomes incorporated into the project of correction and rectification. In the final movement in the text, the figure of the masturbating child or adolescent emerges as offering the universal potential for correction while the monster and the person to be corrected are absorbed into this figure. This transition is accomplished through a detour into Christian procedures of confession and penitence through which body and flesh are separated. In the interpretations of the sixth commandment, masturbation is added to other sins of the flesh as techniques of questioning in confession undergo subtle changes.

Thus what makes the subject open to these new psychiatric discourses seems to have been made possible by the techniques of Christian confession and penitence. What is to be corrected is not any more a crime or even an illness but the entire field of child sexuality. The genealogical line followed here is that which starts with sins of the flesh, which then produces a meshing together in the 18th century of psychiatry and the family rather than psychiatry and the judicial. This meshing together is generated by the figure of the adolescent masturbator – who makes “the person to be corrected” present everywhere and also opens the family for medical intervention generating the “medicalized family”. By the end of the nineteenth century pathology has been distinguished from the abnormal – as deviant behaviors become syndromes (rather than illnesses) and a new nosography in which uncorrected sexual instinct can generate every kind of disease comes into being.

Psychiatry in this picture then becomes the custodian of the social order. Three questions put to psychiatry even today by the courts, Foucault argues – is the individual dangerous, is the accused indictable, is the accused curable – have no meaning, strictly speaking, in law or in a psychiatry that deals with illness. These questions are the residues of the theory of the degenerate – they belong, for Foucault, to the psychiatry of the abnormal, but what picture of power does this leave us with?

A our seminar, I will pose three specific issues for discussion iand then give a brief ethnographic vignette to suggest some other directions that happen in the gaps between sovereign power, regulatory power and the power of normalization. The three issues I will pose concern (a) the norm, (b) the grotesque, and (c) the subject.

[1] Michel Serres, “The geometry of the incommunicable: Madness”, in Foucault and his Interlocutors (Arnold A. Davidson ed.), 1998.

[2] Michel Foucault, “Right of death and power over life”, 1978