A Neuroscientist Reads Foucault Part 3: “Feeling” (the) Abnormal

So far in this series, we’ve looked at Foucault’s genealogy of madness with some biomedically-fueled speculation. We’ve also examined how Foucault’s interrogation of the term “genealogy” could open up some new ways of thinking about human evolution. One post is a scientific examination of critical theory, the other a critique of science itself. For this post I’m going to do a bit of a hybrid piece; I will be breaking down some terminology used by Foucault as a way to expose the meat of it to some neuroscientific concepts – specifically cognitive neuroscience.

Abnormal (Les Anormaux) is a book consisting of lectures given at the Collège de France during the spring semester of 1975, examining themes related to madness, crime, criminalization, medicalization, and the interface between medical and legal practices, among others. I would like to take a close look at the second lecture, from January 15. Here, Foucault is setting up the relationship between the medical and legal power – such a tight, convoluted, and interconnected relationship that it warrants a term he uses frequently, “medico-legal expertise”.

I love the way the lecture opens up – Foucault signals some impatience on the part of his students and attendees – “last week, at the end of class, someone asked me if I hadn’t made a mistake in presenting a lecture on medico-legal expertise, instead of doing the one I had promised, on the abnormal” (p. 29, translation mine).¹ He goes on to argue that the creation of the concept of abnormality, the very creation of abnormal individuals themselves, in the courtroom and beyond, is made possible by the actions and moving positions of so-called medical “experts” and judges, working in tandem, and sometimes switching positions, so that, among other things, the crime and the criminal become one and the same, even so far as the criminal replaces the crime itself. From here, through the medico-legal interface, the criminal is explained/understood as abnormal or mad. Thus, the abnormality of the character of the individual replaces the crime itself under investigation.

Here I will zoom in at a particular phrasing Foucault uses:

“La justice ne peut pas saisir le fou, ou plutôt la [justice]² doit se dessaisir du fou, dès qu’elle le reconnaît fou: principe de la relaxe, au sens juridique du terme”
 “Justice cannot take possession of the mad, or rather, when it recognizes someone as mad, justice must relinquish jurisdiction and release him or her” (translation by Graham Burchell)

This description refers to the state of affairs as a result of the penal code of 1810, which stated that there was no crime or offense if the individual was in a state of “dementia” (madness) at the time of the crime. But Foucault demonstrates how soon after, over the course of the 19th century, there was slippage between the categories of madness and criminality, such that juries began to recommend guilty parties be placed in hospitals rather than prisons, and we see the introduction of the concept of “extenuating circumstances”, allowing judges to take into consideration the state of the criminal himself when deciding the severity of punishment

Thus, prior to this medico-legal coupling, legal bodies were unable to “take possession of the mad”. But what does this “possession” entail? Let’s go back to the quote again, this time with my own emphasis added:

“La justice ne peut pas saisir le fou, ou plutôt la [justice] doit se dessaisir du fou, dès qu’elle le reconnaît fou: principe de la relaxe, au sens juridique du terme”
 “Justice cannot take possession of the mad, or rather, when it recognizes someone as mad, justice must relinquish jurisdiction and release him or her” (translation by Graham Burchell)

 I’ve highlighted the verbs saisir and dessaisir in the original, along with their translated companions “take possession of” and “release”. Saisir and dessaisir represent two forms of essentially the same verb, the second being the undoing of what the first verb is performing. And indeed, “to take possession of something” and “to release it” are fairly consistent opposites in English. But saisir (and dessaisir) do a lot more work than just catch and release things in French – which has implications for what Foucault is saying about the individuals in this scene, and neuroscience has some things to say about these implications.

Saisir can mean “to grab” or “to hold”, but also, “to catch”, “to grip”, “to seize”, “to take with violence”, “to arrest”, as well as “to perceive” and a host of related perception verbs, like “to smell”, “to see”, “to sense”, “to feel” and an interesting verb “cerner/decerner”, which is difficult to translate but roughly means “to figure out/discern somebody or something”.³ Roughly I’d like to sort these definitions out into three groups – the “grab” group (grab, hold, grip), the “seize” group (seize, take possession of, take with violence, arrest) and the “sensory group” (perceive, smell, see, sense, discern). The grab group and the seize group are arguably both translations that are motoric processes, producing actions – whether concretely (grip) or more abstractly (arrest). Interestingly, the third group is rather unlike the other two, in that it focuses on receiving and processing information, again whether concretely (see) or more abstractly (discern). Thus we have a “motor” group and a “sensory” group. This is a breakdown familiar to the cognitive neuroscientist:

The Perception-Action Cycle. Fig 1 from Fuster, JM (2004) Upper stages of the perception-action cycle. Trends in Cognitive Science 8:143-145

The Perception-Action Cycle. Fig 1 from Fuster, JM (2004) Upper stages of the perception-action cycle. Trends in Cognitive Science 8:143-145

Joaquin Fuster’s holistic model of brain function (the Perception-Action Cycle, or PAC) divides brain structure/function into motoric (red) and sensory (blue), separated by a large infolding called the central sulcus. On one side, early-level motoric processing takes place (dark red); on the other, dark blue side, basic somatosensory processing (the first stop for information regarding touch – pressure, temperature, pain, and so forth). Hierarchy is crucial here: on the sensory side, we start from first-order sensory processes from all domains, and then as they combine, they become progressively more abstracted. On the motor side, the abstracted processes occurring in the prefrontal areas, like decision-making, motivation, and other executive processes, communicate down the hierarchy until they reach individual motor areas responsible for communicating with muscles. Although Fuster possibly privileges the communication between the upper portions of the hierarchy; i.e., abstract sensory information relays to prefrontal areas, he also provides for communication across multiple levels. In addition to hierarchical and distributed organizational features there is a circular, recursive aspect:

The Recursivity of the Perception Action Cycle. Figure 2 from Fuster, 2004.

The Recursivity of the Perception Action Cycle. Figure 2 from Fuster, 2004.

Here, we see the primary direction of the PAC: motor actions act on the environment, and changes in the environment are perceived by the primary sensory areas, which process this information, generalize it across sensory domains to create a holistic picture of the sensorium, and then relay this information over to prefrontal cortex, which then can use executive functions to choose an appropriate response at a higher-order level and send that information back down to the primary areas, which break it into discrete motor acts.

Saisir manages to capture both sides of the PAC – it senses the environment in nearly every sensory domain – auditory, somatosensory, visual, olfactory. It also acts on the environment – it grabs, sometimes aggressively; it holds onto, it confines. Saisir even traverses the processing hierarchy – it sees, but it also perceives and understands – things which generalize across domains and represent complex concepts. “To seize” and “to arrest” also require higher order processing – for there is not only the physical aspect but the complex judicial and social concepts which make arrest possible and meaningful.

Does justice “feel” the mad individual; or does justice “understand” or “recognize” the mad? And does justice also grab ahold of the mad, while also arresting them?

I like to think that justice is doing all of these things, in Foucault’s exposition. Before the medico-legal coupling, the legal world could not see the mad individual as mad, but he also could not recognize his madness, and he could not seize or capture him with legal appendages. The abnormal person is not visible and also not “hold-able”. He slips between the court’s fingers (dessaisir). And if you cannot be perceived or acted upon, do you exist? Can you be known?

Later we see, as the medical expert and judge form alliances and ultimately swap positions, the mad individual can be sensed, felt, recognized, apprehended. At this point, the court begins to feel that it “knows” the mad, because it has entered within its PAC. Madness, here, becomes a concept that the court can finally interact with, whereas before, madness did not exist for the court. But that brings us to the next question: If you think you know “madness”, does that mean you know who the “mad” are?

 

 

 

Foucault, M. Les Anormaux: Cours au Collège de France, 1974-1975. Ewald, F; Fontana, A; Marchetti, V; and Salomoni, A; eds. Seuil/Gallimard 1999.

Foucault, M. Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1974-1975. English Series Editor: Arnold I. Davidson. Translated by Graham Burchell. Picador:New York 1999.

 

¹This struck me as an extremely French thing to have happened. I remember students arguing frequently with professors when I attended college in Montpellier for a year as an exchange student -coming from an American background it was rather shocking. In this case, for example, I can’t imagine, as an undergraduate, approaching a professor after class and asking them if their entire lecture was a mistake.
²The transcript was corrected here, as Foucault said “la folie” here but presumably meant “la justice”.
³These definitions were taken from CNRS’ language resource website and translated (hopefully not horribly) by me.
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