Appendix I. Madness, the absence of an œuvre

— Foucault, Michel. Madness, the absence of an œuvre.” In History of Madness, edited by J. Khalfa, 541-549. Routledge, 2006.

One day, perhaps, we will no longer know what madness was. Its form will have closed up on itself, and the traces it will have left will no longer be intelligible. To the ignorant glance, will those traces be anything more than simple black marks? At most, they will be part of those configurations that we are now unable to form, but which will be the indispensable grids that will make our culture and ourselves legible to the future. Artaud will then belong to the foundation of our language, and not to its rupture; neuroses will be placed among the forms that are constitutive of (and not deviant from) our society. All that we experience today as limits, or strangeness, or the intolerable, will have joined the serenity of the positive. And that which for us now designates this Exterior might come, one day, to designate us.

All that will remain will be the enigma of that Exteriority. What, they will wonder, was that strange delimitation that was in force from the early Middle Ages until the twentieth century, and perhaps beyond? Why did Western culture expel to its extremities the very thing in which it might just as easily have recognised itself - where it had in fact recognised itself in an oblique fashion? Why, since the nineteenth century, but also since the classical age, had it clearly stated that madness was the naked truth of man, only to place it in a pale, neutralised space, where it was almost entirely cancelled out? Why had it accepted the words of Nerval and Artaud, and recognised itself in their words but not in them?

In this way the vivid image of reason in flames will fade. The familiar game of gazing at the furthest part of ourselves in madness, of lending an ear to those voices which, from far away, tell us most clearly what we are, that game, with its rules, its tactics, its inventions, its ruses, its tolerated illegalities, will forever be nothing more than a complex ritual whose meanings will have been reduced to ashes. Something like those grand ceremonies of exchange and rivalry in archaic societies. Something like the ambiguous attention that Greek reason paid to its oracles. Or that twin institution, since the Christian fourteenth century, of the practices and trials of witchcraft. For civilisations of historians there will be nothing more than the codified measures of confinement, the techniques of medicine, and on the other side the sudden, irruptive inclusion in our language of the words of the excluded.

What will the technical substratum of such a mutation be? The possibility of medicine mastering mental illness like any other organic condition? The precise pharmacological control of all psychical symptoms? Or a definition of behavioural deviancies sufficiently rigorous for society to be able to provide, for each one, the appropriate mode of neutralisation? Or other modifications still, none of which perhaps will really suppress mental illness, but whose meaning will be to remove the face of madness from our culture?

I am well aware that by formulating that last idea, I am contesting something that is ordinarily admitted: that medical progress might one day cause mental illness to disappear, like leprosy and tuberculosis; but that one thing will remain, which is the relationship between man and his fantasies, his impossible, his non-corporeal pain, his carcass of night; that once the pathological is nullified, the obscure belonging of man to madness will be the ageless memory of an ill whose form as sickness has been effaced, but which lives on obstinately as unhappiness. Truth be told, such an idea supposes that that which is most precarious, far more precarious than the constancies of the pathological, is in fact unalterable: the relationship of a culture to the very thing that it excludes, and more precisely the relationship between our own culture and that truth about itself which, distant and inverted, it uncovers and covers up in madness.

That which will be not be long in dying, that which is already dying in us (and whose death bears our current language) is homo dialecticus - that being of the outset, of the return and of time itself, the animal that loses its truth and finds it again illuminated, a stranger to himself who becomes familiar once more. That man was the sovereign subject and the dominated object of all the discourses on man, and especially alienated man, that have been in circulation for a long time. Luckily, their chatter is killing him.

So much so that we will no longer know how man was able to cast at a distance this figure of himself, how he could push beyond the limit the very thing that depended on him, and on which he depended. No thought will be able to think that movement where still very recently Western man found its bearings. It is that relationship to madness (and not any knowledge about mental illness, or a certain attitude in the face of alienated man) that will be lost forever. All that will be known is that we, Western men five centuries old, were, on the surface of the earth, those people who, among many other fundamental characteristics, had one that was stranger than all the others: we had a deep and pathos-filled relationship to mental illness, one that we ourselves found difficult to formulate, but which was impenetrable to anyone else, and in which we experienced the most vivid of all our dangers, and what was perhaps our closest truth. It will be said not that we were distant from madness, but that we were in the distance of madness. In the same way that the Greeks were not distant from hubris because they condemned it, but rather were in the distancing of that excess, in the midst of the distance at which they kept it confined.

These people - who will no longer be us - will still have to consider this enigma (a little the way we do ourselves, when we try to understand today how Athens managed to fall in and out of love with the unreason of Alcibiades): how could men have searched for their truth, their essential words and their signs in a risk that made them tremble, and from which they could not avert their gaze, once it had caught their eye? This will seem even stranger to them than asking death about the truth of man; for death at least says what all men will be. Madness, on the other hand, is that rare danger, a chance that weighs little in relation to the fears that it engenders and the questions it is asked. How, in a culture, could so slim an eventuality come to hold such a power of revelatory dread?

To answer that question, these people who will be looking back at us over their shoulders will have little to go on. Only a few burnt clues: a fear that came back repeatedly over the centuries that madness would rise up and swamp the world; the rituals surrounding the exclusion and inclusion of the madman; that careful attention, from the nineteenth century onwards, that tried to surprise in madness something that would reveal the truth of man; the same impatience that rejected and accepted the words of madness, a hesitancy to recognise their inanity or their decisiveness.

As for the rest: that single movement with which we go to meet the madness from which we are distancing ourselves, that terrified recognition, that will to fix the limit and to make up for it immediately through the weave of a single meaning, all that will be reduced to silence, just as for us today the Greek trilogy of mania, hubris and alogia, or the posture of shamanic deviancy in a particular primitive society, are silent.

We are at that point, that fold in time, where a certain technical control of sickness hides rather than designates the movement that closes the experience of madness in on itself. But it is precisely that fold that allows us to unfurl that which has been curled up for centuries: mental illness and madness - two different configurations, which came together and became confused from the seventeenth century onwards, and which are now moving apart before our eyes, or rather inside our language.

To say that madness is disappearing today is to say that the implication that included it in both psychiatric knowledge and a kind of anthropological reflection is coming undone. But that is not to say that the general form of transgression of which madness has been the visible face for centuries is disappearing. Nor that transgression, just as we are beginning to ask what madness is, is not in the process of giving birth to a new experience.

There is not a single culture anywhere in the world where everything is permitted. And it has been known for some time that man does not begin with freedom, but with limits and the line that cannot be crossed. The systems that forbidden acts obey are familiar, and every culture has a distinct scheme of incest prohibitions. But the organisation of prohibitions in language is still little understood. The two systems of restriction are not superimposed the one on the other, as though one were merely the verbal version of the other: that which must not appear on the level of speech is not necessarily that which is forbidden in the order of acts. The Zuni, who forbid the incest of a brother and a sister nevertheless narrate it, and the Greeks told the legend of Oedipus. Inversely, the 1808 code abolished the old penal laws against sodomy, but the language of the nineteenth century was far more intolerant of homosexuality (at least in its masculine form) than the language of previous ages had been. And it is quite probable that psychological concepts such as compensation and symbolic expression are totally inadequate to account for such a phenomenon.

One day it will be necessary to study the field of prohibitions in language in all its autonomy. Perhaps it is still too soon to know exactly how such an analysis might be done. Could the divisions that are currently permitted in language be used? First of all, at the border between taboo and impossibility, we should identify the laws that govern the linguistic code (the things that are called, so clearly, language faults); and then, within the code, and among the words or existing expressions, those whose articulation is forbidden (the religious, sexual, magic series of blasphemous words); then the statements that are authorised by the code, licit in the act of speech, but whose meaning is intolerable for the culture in question at a given moment: here a metaphorical detour is no longer possible, for it is the meaning itself that is the object of censorship. Finally, there is a fourth form of excluded language: this consists of submitting speech that apparently conforms to the recognised code to a different code, whose key is contained within that speech itself, so that the speech is doubled inside itself; it says what it says, but it adds a mute surplus that silently states what it says and the code according to which it is said. This is not a question of coded language, but of a language that is structurally esoteric. Which is to say that it does not communicate, while hiding it, a forbidden meaning; it sets itself up from the very first instant in an essential fold of speech. A fold that mines it from the inside, perhaps to infinity. What is said in such a language is of little importance, as are the meanings that are delivered there. It is this obscure and central liberation of speech at the heart of itself, its uncontrollable flight to a region that is always dark, which no culture can accept immediately. Such speech is transgressive, not in its meaning, not in its verbal matter, but in its play.

It is quite probable that every culture, of whatever nature, knows, practises and tolerates (to a certain degree) but equally represses and excludes these four forms of forbidden speech.

In Western history, the experience of madness has shifted along this scale. Truth be told, it long occupied an undecided region, which is difficult for us to define, between the prohibition of action and that of language: hence the exemplary importance of the furor inanitas pairing which practically organised, according to the registers of action and speech, the world of madness until the end of the Renaissance. The time of the Great Confinement (the Hôpitaux généraux, Charenton, Saint-Lazare, which were organised in the seventeenth century) marks a migration of madness towards the region of the insane: madness henceforth keeps little more than a moral relationship to forbidden acts (it remains essentially linked to sexual taboos), but it is included in the universe of language prohibitions; with madness, classical confinement encloses libertinage of thought and speech, obstinacy in impiety or heterodoxy, blasphemy, witchcraft, alchemy - everything in short that characterises the spoken and forbidden world of unreason; madness is the excluded language - the one which against the code of language pronounces words without meaning (the insane’, the imbeciles’, the demented’), or the one which pronounces sacred words (the violent’, the frenzied’), or the one which puts forbidden meanings into circulation (‘libertines’, the obstinate’). Pinel’s reform was far more the most visible consecration of the repression of madness as forbidden speech than a modification of it.

That modification only really came about with Freud, when the experience of madness shifted towards the last form of language prohibition mentioned above. At that point, it stopped being a language fault, a blasphemy spoken out loud, or an intolerable meaning (and in that sense, psychoanalysis is indeed the great lifting of prohibitions that Freud himself defined); it appeared as speech wrapped up in itself, saying, below everything that it says, something else, for which it is at the same time the only possible code: an esoteric language perhaps, since its language is contained inside a speech that ultimately says nothing other than this implication.

Freud’s work should be taken for what it is; it does not discover that madness is caught up in a network of meanings that it shares with every day language, thereby authorising us to speak of it with the everyday platitudes of psychological vocabulary. It displaces the European experience of madness to situate it in the perilous, still transgressive region (and therefore still forbidden, but in a particular manner), which is that of languages that imply themselves, i.e. which state in their statement the language with which they state it. Freud did not discover the lost identity of a meaning; he identified the irruptive figure of a signifier that is absolutely unlike the others. That alone should have sufficed to protect his work from all the psychologising intentions that our half-century has employed to smother it in the name (the derisory name) of the human sciences’ and their asexual unity.

By that very fact, madness appeared, not as the ruse of a hidden meaning, but as a prodigious reserve of meaning. But reserve’ here should be understood less as a stock than as a figure that contains and suspends meaning, which furnishes a void where all that is proposed is the still unaccomplished possibility that a certain meaning might appear there, or a second, or a third, and so on to infinity. Madness opens a lacunary reserve, which designates and demonstrates this hollow where language and speech imply each other, forming the one on the basis of the other, and speaking of nothing other than their still mute relationship. Since Freud, Western madness has become a non-language because it has become a double language (a language which only exists in this speech, a speech that says nothing but its language) - i.e. a matrix of the language which, strictly speaking, says nothing. A fold of the spoken which is an absence of work.

One day, it will have to be acknowledged that Freud did not make speak a madness that had genuinely been a language for centuries (a language that was excluded, garrulous inanity, speech which ran indefinitely outside the reflective silence of reason); what he did was silence the unreasonable Logos; he dried it out; he forced its words back to their source, all the way back to that blank region of auto-implication where nothing is said.

We perceive things that are currently going on around us in a light that is still dim; and yet, in our language, a strange movement can be discerned. Literature (and this probably since Mallarmé), in its turn, is slowly becoming a language [un language] whose speech [parole] states, at the same time as what it says and as part of the same movement, the language [la langue] that makes it decipherable as speech. Before Mallarmé, writing was a matter of establishing one’s speech inside a given language, so that a work made of language was of the same nature as any other language, but for the signs (and they were majestic) of Rhetoric, the Subject, or Images. At the close of the nineteenth century (at the time of the discovery of psychoanalysis, or thereabouts), it had become a speech that inscribed inside itself the principle of its own decoding; or in any case, it supposed, beneath each of its sentences, each of its words, the sovereign power to modify the values and meanings of the language to which despite everything (and in fact) it belonged; it suspended the reign of language in the present of a gesture of writing.

One consequence is the necessity for these secondary languages (what we call criticism, in short): they no longer function as external additions to literature (judgements, mediation, relays that were thought useful between a work examined in the psychological enigma of its creation and the act of consumption that is reading). Now they are a part, at the heart of literature, of the void that it creates in its own language; they are the necessary, but necessarily unfinished, movement whereby speech is brought back to its language, and whereby language is established in speech.

Another consequence is that strange proximity between madness and literature, which must not be interpreted as a psychological kinship that has been laid bare at last. Discovered as a language silencing itself in its superimposition on itself, madness neither demonstrates nor recounts the birth of an œuvre (or something that, by genius or by chance, might have become an œuvre); it designates the empty form from which such an œuvre comes, i.e. the place from which it is unceasingly absent, where it will never be found because it has never been there. There, in that pale region, beneath that essential cover, the twin incompatibility of an œuvre and madness is unveiled; it is the blind spot of each one’s possibility, and of their mutual exclusion.

But since Raymond Roussel, since Artaud, it is also the place where language approaches literature most closely. But it does not approach it as though its task were to formulate what it has found. It is time to understand that the language of literature is not defined by what it says, nor by the structures that make it signify something, but that it has a being, and that it is about that being that it should be questioned. But what is that being at the present time? Something, no doubt, that is related to auto-implication, to the double and the void that is hollowed out within it. In that sense the being of literature, such as it has been created since Mallarmé and still is today, attains the region where, since Freud, the experience of madness has been enacted.

In the eyes of I know not which future culture - and perhaps it is already very near - we shall be the people who brought most closely together two sentences that are never really uttered, two sentences as contradictory and impossible as the famous I am lying’ and which both designate the same empty self-reference: I write’ and I am delirious’. In this way we find ourselves beside a thousand other cultures that grouped together I am mad’ with I am an animal’, or I am a God’ or I am a sign’, or even I am a truth’, as was the case for the nineteenth century up until Freud. And if that culture has a taste for history, it will recall that Nietzsche, going mad, proclaimed (in 1887) that he was the truth (why I am so wise, why I know so many things, why I write such good books, why I am a fatality); and that less than fifty years later Roussel, on the eve of his suicide, wrote in Comment j’ai écrit certains de mes livres the story, systematically twinned, of his madness and his writing techniques. And they will no doubt be surprised that we were able to recognise such a strange kinship between that which, for so long, was feared as a cry, and that which, for so long, was awaited like a song.


But perhaps this mutation will not appear to merit any astonishment. We, after all, are the ones who, today, are surprised to see two languages (that of madness and that of literature) communicate, when their incompatibility was built by our own history. Since the seventeenth century, madness and mental illness have occupied the same space in the field of excluded languages (roughly speaking, that of insanity). When it enters another region of excluded language (one that is circumscribed, held sacred, feared, erected vertically above itself, reflecting itself in a useless and transgressive Fold, and is known as literature), madness releases itself from its kinship (ancient or recent, according to the scale we choose) with mental illness.

The latter, in all certainty, is set to enter a technical region that is increasingly well controlled: in hospitals, pharmacology has already transformed the rooms of the restless into great tepid aquariums. But below the level of these transformations, and for reasons which seem external to them (at least to our current glance), a dénouement is beginning to come about: madness and mental illness are undoing their belonging to the same anthropological unity. That unity itself is disappearing, together with man, a passing postulate. Madness, the lyrical halo of sickness, is ceaselessly dimming its light. And far from pathology, in language, where it folds in on itself without yet saying anything, an experience is coming into being where our thinking is at stake; its imminence, visible already but absolutely empty, cannot yet be named.