Saturday, April 04, 2009

The history man

Foucault alleges, for example, that the 1815–16 House of Commons inquiry into the state of England’s madhouses revealed 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. In reality, the reports of the inquiry contain no such claims. This is not surprising: public visitation (which had not been confined to Sundays in any event) had been banned by Bethlem Royal Hospital’s governors in 1770, and even before then the tales of a fixed admission fee turn out to be apocryphal. Foucault is bedevilled by Bethlem’s history. He makes the remarkable claim that “From the day when Bethlem, the hospital for curative lunatics, was opened to hopeless cases in 1733, there was no longer any notable difference between the London hospital and the French Hôpital Général, or any other house of correction”. And he speaks of Bethlem’s “refurbishment” in 1676. In reality, it had moved in that year from its previous location in an old monastery in Bishopsgate to a grandiose new building in Moorfields designed by Robert Hooke.
In short, Foucault was talking bollocks. Andrew Scull shows how much bollocks he was talking. I only mention this because the work of Foucault came up in discussion, in another place. And because I struggle to see why people take Foucault so seriously. The errors of fact which Scull mentions here are not trivial. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of 18th Century English history could see them, and could see that they undermine his entire theory. He is simply wrong about the past. So why is Foucault constantly invoked as an authority and guide?

Answers on a postcard, please, to the usual address.

17 comments:

Justine said...

hat tip, Stephen:

http://foucaultblog.wordpress.com/2007/05/20/extreme-prejudice/

Giovanni said...

Was signed in as my partner by mistake there.

Giovanni said...

I guess I should also offer an extract more directly pertinent to your quoted bit, although the whole retort is worth reading alongside Scull's invective:

Turning to questions of factual accuracy, one can imagine Foucault penitence and mortification in the face of Scull’s damning revelation that the spectator admittance price at Bedlam was not always one penny, and that visits on Sundays were discontinued and public admission limited after the 1770s. Except that a fairer judge of exactitude than Scull might have noticed that Foucault, even in 1961, expressed some prudent uncertainty about the evidence on Bedlam visits. Scull neglects, more importantly, to acknowledge that Foucault was not alone in his mistake. Scull himself, for example, was still writing, nearly thirty years after Foucault, that “throughout the century, the doors of Bethlem were open to the public and the inmates exhibited to satisfy the impertinent curiosity of sightseers at a mere penny a time”. Scull afterwards acknowledged this error and confessed to “relying upon and helping to disseminate this myth in some of my earlier work”; for unexplained reasons, the absolution he appears to have granted himself for this misdemeanour is not made available to Foucault. When Foucault is denounced by Scull for describing as a ‘refurbishment’ (in the original French, a ‘reconstruction’) the relocation of Bethlem to a new purpose-built building on a new site, one wonders if this is the kind of material, however inflated by Scull’s blustering insolence, on which a credible charlatan-hunt can be sustained, even in the current pages of the TLS. (Scull serves up, once again, some stale mockeries of Foucault’s opening chapter on the condition of the mediaeval insane and the iconography of the Ship of Fools, ignoring, yet again, Foucault’s perfectly credible references to the widespread late mediaeval European practice of religious pilgrimage to shrines reputed to cure insanity. )

Paul said...

So, are we agreed that Foucault was wrong about Bedlam? Whether Scull was once also wrong about it and has since admitted his mistake is beside the point; that is no more than petulant griping on the part of Jeremy.

And where are these "great asylums?" Christs Hospital (1552) is a school and was founded after the dissolution of the monasteries, St Thomas' (founded in 1173) was monastic but was just a medical hospital; St Bartholemew's (1123) was also a medical hospital but was not a monastic foundation. Jeremy tries to twist the argument by talking of these as "16th-century English establishments for the custody of various categories of the destitute, " but they were nothing of the kind. There was no great confinement.

It might also be worth mentioning that the Poor Law of 1601 which established the workhouses (indoor relief) also provided outdoor relief: cash, without confinement.

Giovanni said...

Was wrong about a detail concerning Bedlam that was far from disqualifying of his theses, and admitted that possibility long before Scull did. That doesn't really rescue Scull's review, whose vitriol is at the level of Kandell's hatchet job on Derrida when the cadaver of the latter was still warm, and part of a crusade Scull initiated decades ago. Good on him, and sure, details have be found to be inexact or open to differing interpretation in Foucault's histories, which happen to have been studied a lot more closely than Scull's. That said, the question of the great confinement as Foucault actually put it is pretty much accepted by historians nowadays, at least it was at the time I left Milan university when a friend was doing an MA on it on the wake of Roy Porter "coming around" and the publication of Reassessing Foucault. If the question has been actually reopened or the old arguments are simply being rehashed to coincide with the publication in paperback of Scull's book, I'm not too sure, it's not really my field and I haven't looked into it for quite some time. It's not your field either, but this guy's word appears to be good enough for you. Whatever makes you happy.

Paul said...

Tish. Foucault was wrong about big facts which affect his thesis: the history of Bedlam and those of the supposed other places of confinement. I am not taking Scull's word; I know the history of which Foucault is so woefully ignorant. And as I said before, this ignorance is not trivial. It refutes his thesis.

Giovanni said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Giovanni said...

"You know the history". Well, that would be that, then. I'll give all the people who have been discussing these issues for the past forty years or so your phone number. Those who are still alive will be mightily relieved I would imagine.

Paul said...

What issues, the foundation dates of various institutions? I realise that it is difficult for Foucault fans to accept that their master may be wrong, but it is more difficult to argue with historical facts. Or are they just matters of interpretation?

Giovanni said...

Those things were widely debated when I was at university (mark I) and the issues were a lot less obvious and clear cut than foundation dates - the fierce detractors would have used glared errors in fact if they had been available, believe you me, Scull above everyone else. The issue as I recall it was wether F had been selective in assembling the evidence that he needed to claim that the French experience applied outside of France. But as I say the dust had pretty much settled by the mid nineties, after a whole lot of research (which formed the literature review part of my friend's MA).

Paul said...

So, when did this Great Confinement take place? Because I see a number of institutions founded over a period of 700 years; some of the early ones had monastic origins, others used monastic buildings after the Dissolution, others have no connexion. Some are hospitals, others not. None, so far as I know, were dedicated to confining the insane, not even Bedlam at its foundation. So how can Foucault claim that there was a 16th Century movement of such confinement?

Giovanni said...

Foucault’s reference in this chapter to one such foundation dedicated partly to the insane, at Hainau in 1533, cited by Scull in his response to my letter as though it were a refutation of my remark, is in fact the only such reference in the whole of this chapter. Pace Scull, Foucault was not mistaken in saying that most of the major 16th-century English establishments for the custody of various categories of the destitute (the refounded St Bartholomew’s, St Thomas’s, Christ’s and Bethlem hospitals) were, like Hainau and other German foundations of the same period, established in former monastic premises. (So was the workhouse at Norwich, with its infirmary located in a former lazar-house.)

(...)

and besides

English-speaking historians often refer to ‘Foucault’s Great Internment’ as if it were the thesis that there was a systematic policy of early modern European states for the incarceration the mentally ill. Such a contention is nowhere to be found in Foucault’s book.

If you can be bothered to actually find out what the hell you're talking about, reading Reassessing Foucault, a collection edited by one of the fierces 'anglo-adversaries' of Foucault (and the (late) reaction of the English speaking world to Foucault has an interesting history in and of itself) might be salutary. Otherwise just dismiss him and move on, I don't have a lot invested in your personal feelings about this.

Paul said...

At least I bothered to find out the histories of the various institutions under discussion, which is more than can be said for Foucault or his defender; and only one of those institutions was founded in the 16th century; and that was a school, hardly an establishment for the custody of the destitute. And I am not dismissing Foucault; I am noting that he has a rather shaky grasp of the history on which he builds his thesis, which casts doubt on that thesis.

Giovanni said...

Let me get this straight: do you think you're the first person to have looked into this? This particular polemic is dacades old and the scholarship that has dissected Foucault's histories is pretty robust and thorough. Scull is a little turd who needs to sell a book ('written in the aftermath of a suicide attempt' - fuck off, mate) but there are plenty of other non-chip-on-shoulder-sporting historians who have questioned several details and larger bodies of evidence used by Foucault since they first hit the shelves. As a result of this critical work some of Foucault's books, particularly the earlier ones, need to be read nowadays as companions to these later works of clarification and reassessment, as part of larger projects of criticism of institutions that he initiated but largely didn't follow through - so too The History of Madness must be read for what it actually said, *and* for what it enabled others to say. For that contribution, Foucault stands an intellectual giant of the twentieth century, who revolutionised the relationship between sociology and history, and the kinds of historical work that could be done, a stature that is largely unquestioned today even by the people whose feathers he ruffled the most way back then.

You seem to be contending (and you wouldn't be the first) that errors of fact he might have been guilty of were willful and disqualifying, whereas *the very same mistakes* by Scull or any other more traditionally grounded historians are neither of those things. You're more than entitled to that opinion, but don't flatter yourself that it's either original or widely held. And I'm done here.

Anonymous said...

You do realise that there were two different translations of Madness and Civilisation, and that it's widely acknowledged that the first translation was widely panned as a bad job?

Added to which, there is an objectionable line of ad hominem attack on the Bald French git that emphasises his sexual orientation and latter day leather antics which I find homophobic pablum ie
James Miller et al. The Didier Eribon biography is far better.

The French Bald Git didn't always get it right (ie Iranian Revolution) but he did have some good insights...

Craig Y

Paul said...

Yes, the homophobic comments and wild allegations are copied and pasted throughout the fundie forums, whenever PoMo is mentioned.

Doubtless he had his insights, as you say, but he should not be excused for his bad scholarship.

HORansome said...

Gentlemen, please, you are arguing past each other rather than with one another. Paul is disputing Foucault's factuality (if I may so use the term) whilst Giovanni is disputing the validity of Scull's critique. Giovanni is right to point out that Scull's criticisms are too strong; Foucault isn't an adherent to the doctrine Scull claims Foucault started. Paul is right to say that Foucault's facts are not so factual. but Foucault thought that as well (he had doubts the authority of his sources, which is more than Scull did at the time) and Foucault is still right on the point of principle, that at some stage the Europeans (both the Continentals and the English) went from treating the 'mad' as wacky members of society to people who needed to be locked away.

Now put away your rapiers and return to the card game.