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May 10, 2007

Sex! Politics! Dubious Footnotes!

My column for this week.

Posted by smclemee at May 10, 2007 6:25 AM


Scott, I'm sort of surprised that you, as a veteraan reviewer, would be taken in by Scull's review. I've dealt with just some of the dubious numbers and factoids he throws about - for instance, the incredibly iffy notion that Bethlem held fifty inmates at its peak, which is ... uh, not true, or the charge that the admission fee to Bethlem was an apocryphal story, again... not true. In fact, in the two paragraphs in which Scull specifically addresses Foucault's mistakes about English madhouses, I found three errors and one misconstrual.

More comic is the charge that Foucault, writing in 1961, didn't use "up to date" references. Oh really. He should have used like, German histories of the asylum from the thirties and forties? Freudian and behavioralist inspired histories in England? Histories heavily influenced by the idea of racial and sexual degeneration in France? The charge not only doesn't hold water, but neither Scull nor you, in repeating it, name one source that Foucault should have tapped. Chomsky, writing at the same time, simply skipped Bloomsfeldian linguistics, because he felt it was a mistake. And, in fact, Edward Shorter, violently anti-Foucault, feels confident he can skip 60s and 70s research because it was influenced by Foucault. If, to give a parallel example, a historian were to write a history of reconstruction in 1961 and reference recent sources, almost all of them would have been apologies, in one way or another, for the Jim Crow regime in the South.

One of the odder things about Scull's review is it concentrates almost entirely on what Foucault had to say about England in the famous chapter on the great confinement. This constitutes maybe ten pages in the book. It doesn't say anything of what Foucault said of, say, English asylums at the end of the 18th century and the reforms introduced by Tuke, in all of which he certainly prefigures every theme sounded by Scull's hero, Roy Porter, even as Porter disparaged Foucault for not understanding that in England, the work of madhouses was done by private rather than state entities. A shame that these historians, on the track of all that wonderful asylum literature published after world war 2 and before 1961, couldn't read all of Foucault's book. What is this, the hunt and peck version of research?

On the whole, Scull's scrolling of Foucault's footnotes is a smokescreen. It is pretty obvious that this is so in the review. As you should know, a reviewer who is too eager to strike the death blow is usually a reviewer cutting a few corners. Scull cut so many that he wounds himself.

Interestingly enough, Shorter in his history of Psychiatric care labels Scull himself a Foucaultian. And, by the way, Shorter also includes the 'apocryphal" sum paid to visit Bethlem Hospital. His book was written in 1997. Really, Scull should try to update his references.

Posted by: roger at May 10, 2007 11:03 AM

Thanks for the clarification and elaboration, Roger. I'm afraid being an old hand at reviewing doesn't give me x-ray vision into that kind of problem with a piece. And I'm not familiar with Scull's own scholarship at all. These are interesting and important things to know.

In any case, I'll stick by the main points -- that the problems with Foucault as historian have been on record for quite a while, and that doing the interdisciplinary shuffle (or its close kin, the endless credit line for Nietzschean self-fashioning) won't gainsay this.

Posted by: Scott McLemee at May 11, 2007 9:42 AM

I'm not certain what those main points add up to. The subdiscipline of Psychiatric history is littered with angry disputes over theories and over facts - I mean, if a leading researcher on English madhouses like Scull can't get his facts right about the population of Bedlam, than obviously we are talking about hazardous territory here. Foucault's scholarship has often been questioned - but oddly enough, mostly by English historians. I can't recall a German or French historian making Scull like points about the footnotes. To my mind, Foucault's work presents itself, quite clearly, as an analysis that uses primary sources mostly, and that takes a limited set of data and makes a good case for larger patterns. The case could be modified by more data or better data in some ways - say, the periodization of the great confinement - but in many ways, the fights are not about the data, and it is simply misleading to say it is. Take, for instance, Scull's point about monasteries - although I don't think Foucault is as crazy about the conversion of monasteries to madhouses as Scull makes him out to be (and as Roy Porter points out, monasteries certainly were places that the mad were stored in in Russia), the larger point is the connection between religion and the mad, both in the treatment of the mad and the spotting of the behaviors of unreason. When Foucault notices the importance of the Quaker background of Tuke, his data is pretty minimal about the Quakers - and yet he gets it right about Quaker services, the importance of being talked to by the Spirit, and its relation to unreason, in a way that eluded the more positivistic approach of Porter, the historian Scull is following. So how do you analyze that? How do you talk about the connections that are ignored? I really don't think your points stand at all, insofar as they don't address the point: what is the data supposed to do? How is it integrated into the author's themes? In fact, Foucault is simply brilliant at taking a few data points and seeing where they lead. He has the necessary detective's intuition. As in police work, you can have all the clues in the world, but if you are a mediocre flatfoot, you aren't necessarily going to solve the cases.

Finally, of course, there is some irony in saying that Foucault has problems as a historian and letting Scull's review get a pass. That review either should or shouldn't be mentioned to make your point - and if you do mention it, you can't just pretend that its possible faultiness is irrelevant. Because, of course, this rather twists around your point - Foucault, you are saying, is so faulty he even uses my methods to make a point - ignoring relevant data just as you are doing. And I do think that is rather ... dishonorable.

Posted by: roger at May 11, 2007 11:49 AM

Scott, ps - X the last sentence. I don't think you are being scholastically dishonorable. I do think you are being incredibly annoying, however, since you are saying you couldn't do, say, three hours worth of research - which is all it took me to find several holes in Scull's review - to write a much fairer account of attacks on Foucault's scholarship. After all, this is, supposedly, the great thing about blogging, the tools it gives us to check the experts. And if you are going to be writing an article for a magazine, even a web mag, one expects a little preliminary research.

Posted by: roger at May 11, 2007 12:42 PM

Odd -- I really don't remember the part where my column held up Scull's review as definitively showing Foucault to be worthless. Maybe because I don't believe that and have never said anything like it. The review was taken as an instance of something else that I was writing about, the tendency for faux "controversies" to reheat themselves. Cross-examining Scull was not a necessary part of that effort.

If that is annoying, then it is the irritation that comes from confusing one sort of article with a different sort of article. You can call me dishonorable. I can question your comprehension of what I actually did and did not write. And we can, in principle, go back and forth on this for a while -- though for my part I don't really have anything else to say in the matter.

Posted by: Scott McLemee at May 11, 2007 1:12 PM

I guess I was mislead by the sentence: "But many of Scull's complaints hit their target." Somehow, I did not think hit their target meant - Scull proves that Foucault's work is useless. Rather I thought it meant - I can judge that Scull's complaints hit their target. If you are really saying, well, here's a wild guess about something I have no desire to really research, but for my money, many of Scull's complaints hit their target because I like spreading the meme that Foucault is inaccurate - well, I'd have no complaint about that. You could add, but his inaccuracy doesn't definitively show him to be worthless - rather like praising someone for having stopped beating his wife.

Posted by: roger at May 11, 2007 1:50 PM

Sounds like your beef is with Roy Porter, Winifred and Brendan Maher, Marcel Gauchet, and others who have challenged the book.

My off-hand remark about "hitting the mark" was a matter of saying -- way too casually for my own good it seems like -- that he was covering more or less the points they have. I don't think of myself as propagating memes, which under the circumstances may be naive.

Posted by: Scott McLemee at May 11, 2007 2:11 PM

Scott, partly, of course, my beef is with those guys - as I wrote above, I think Porter, for instance, is very selective in what he takes from Foucault and attacks - but I don't think about them much! Mainly my beef is with the specifics of Scull's review, which is a display of astonishingly poor scholarship in a very open and emotional attempt to discredit Foucault for ... poor scholarship. I think the emotion is tied to the mistakes. If Foucault made as many mistakes in his book as Scull makes in the space of four pages, we would be talking about a dreadful bit of crap, there. History of Madness stands up because it isn't a dreadful bit of crap, either scholastically or theoretically. Foucault often does make absurd jumps from little data - he quotes Voltaire, after all, to talk about the Quakers! but the beef held by Roy Porter, Winifred and Brendan Maher, Marcel Gauchet always turns out to be with interpretation. If you know that mad people wandered about and begged in England in 1600, you might have a certain number, you might have certain correlative facts - the number of new workhouses or something - but mainly you have qualitative accounts. That is what everybody has. Foucault is quantitatively, of course, wrong about the great confinement, which was not as great as he makes it seem in the period he wants it to happen in over the territory of Europe. Nor, however, was it a tiny confinement, as per Scull.

Posted by: roger at May 11, 2007 2:46 PM

Scott, and once again, sorry about that dishonorable crack.I should say that my heat, about this, comes from reading your stuff and liking it, as I think you are generally on the side of the angels - suspicious of a certain politics of sidetaking that too often happens in academia on both the left and the right. Myself, I think you slipped on the Scull review, or at least something that should be interesting was happening there that you missed.
Anyway, I shouldn't have been so hotheaded!

Posted by: roger at May 11, 2007 2:54 PM