The majority of space in the first three chapter’s of the English translation (a much more condensed version) of Foucualt’s Madness and Civilization is taken up in focusing on the history of the figure of the madman and the concept of the “insane” as it was initially treated or referred to in past history. This was of course to be expected since the subtitle for the work reads “a History of Insanity in the Age of Reason.” Foucault begins his larger discussion of madness by first introducing the peculiar experience of Leprosy in Europe generally around the Middle Ages (though he does tend to refer to certain happenings throughout the text which may reach farther into the depths of history.)
Highlighting the disappearance of the disease as resulting from the segregation of those bodies possessing it from the larger populace as well as marking the institutions (particularly of buildings and their organization and function), Foucault might be understood as providing a kind of lens with which to understand his approach to the remaining bulk of the text and to the subject as a whole. Firstly, he makes clear that his subject is, like the lepers defined by the visual experience in reading the body as different and in need of treatment/regulation/separation, is a matter of the manner in which bodies are read, separated and “treated” by a larger institutional order serving the public. Secondly, his focus on the remaining structures left behind following the near disappearance of Leprosy on the continent suggests what is commonly understood as his approach to understanding categories such as “madness” or “reason,” the “madman” or the “man of reason” that emerge by looking at the institutions put in place to define and regulate those categories.
While there is certainly a lot of information that can be taken out of these first three chapters as Foucault moves through different periods of time, charting the changing relationship of the “madman” to the society and the state, I would like to highlight a particular moment that I found to be of interest: the act of displaying the insane. Foucault discusses this shifting social experience of the professed “madman” primarily in the third chapter entitled “the insane” where he contrasts an emerging experience of madness during the classical period as one in which “Madness became pure spectacle (69).” Where as in previous moments in time, both the lepers and the “insane” were likely to intermingle (to a certain degree- at least, that is, that they could be encountered on the street; etc) with common folk, even viewed as a testament to what was viewed at the time as God’s grace or presence, a “guardian of truth” “remind[ing] each man of his [own] truth (14)” of “the secret nature of man (21),” during the classical period, the “age of reason, ”madness was shown, but on the other side of bars; if present, it was at a distance, under the eyes of a reason that no longer felt any relation to it and that would not compromise itself by too close a resemblance (70).” This perhaps can be understood by the ways in which the bodies/minds (noting that here, according to the time period, these two are inextricable) classified as “mad” were segregated and “treated” in the same manner in which lepers had been in previous history (fittingly, the second chapter is titled “the great confinement”. Through this segregation and through activities that were conducted exclusively to classify certain bodies in such a way which explicitly denoted them as entirely separate entities from the rest of the population, including chaining and jailing as well as display made accessible to the public for a small fee, for the individual free of such classification, “Madness had become a thing to look at: no longer a monster inside oneself (70).”
Foucault, Michel. "'Stultifera Navis'," "The Great Confinement," "The Insane." Madness and Civilization : A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. New York: Vintage, 1988.