Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Enlightenment and Mental Health

Greetings, Citizens.

I have been reading a book called "The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception," by Michel Foucault. It's a bit of a tricky read for those unfamiliar with academese, but it has some utterly fascinating insights. These are insights that have changed the way that many theorists discuss pertinent issues in today's world, including concepts of performance, identity, and the methods of knowledge creation and preservation (also called "epistemology"). Even halfway through the book, I can already draw some very interesting relations between the developments suggested by the text and the way that mental health works in our modern society.

To spare you all a mind-numbing history lesson, I'll try to focus in on what I found to be one of the key points. In describing the evolution of medicine around the turn of the 19th century, Foucault writes:
"Medicine must no longer be confined to a body of techniques for curing ills and of the knowledge that they require; it will also embrace a knowledge of healthy man, that is a study of non-sick man and a definition of the model man. In the ordering of human existence it assumes a normative posture, which authorizes it not only to distribute advice as to healthy life, but also to dictate the standards for physical and moral relations of the individual and of the society in which he lives" (34 from Vintage Books, trans A.M. Sheridan Smith).
Here Foucault indicates a crucial turning point in the history of medicine and a possible birthing point for the very basis of "normative medicine" that psychiatry depends upon. In essence, the Enlightenment created an historical moment where the principle of "reason" was triumphed to the fullest extent possible, concluding that a scientific process could be utilized to the fulfillment of all of man's needs, including his moral ones. Because of this union of science and politic, medicine becomes a political tool, and is used to prescribe and proscribe in accordance with the perceived prosperity of the state it works for.

In some fields, this makes sense; from a strictly physical standpoint, the study of the phenomenon of "epidemic" and the environmental constituents that make it up, for example, lend themselves very well (although not completely without problem, of course) to the health of both the people and the state. In theory, anyway, this kind of longitudinal study can produce valuable insight into causes and cures of ailments in the physical bodies of people and the state institutes they comprise. For example, this kind of study is what leads to industry health regulations - arguably, a standardized criteria of ways to avoid health that is necessary for body-political regulation.

But as it crosses out of the physical realm and into the moral/emotional one - and admittedly, this can be a very blurry line - the standardization starts to make less and less sense, and it exposes the system for the tool of the powers-that-be that it is.

This ultimately calls into question the entire project of The Enlightenment, something that a grand play called Marat/Sade has done time and again. We observe that revolutionary forces of so-called "reason" still end up preserving themselves through tyrannical assertion of a specific value-set which must crush all who oppose it, however hypocritical this may end being.
Of course the flip side of this is the pathetic lukewarm liberalism of our "postmodern" society which refuses to take a strong stand on anything, and instead just let life happen while absently protesting things that are noisome. Hopefully we can find an alternative some day, but right now the very idea is making my head swell up and clog.

So, I think I will end it on that note: just some food for thought for you good citizens of New Madia.

Fare thee well!


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