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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Scull's fun and factoids: or Foucault in round one

A couple of months ago, Andrew Scull published a scathing review of Foucault’s The History of Madness, which is out in a new translation, in the TLS. At the time, this made a stir on some of the theory blogs, but LI didn’t pay much attention to that. Theory blogs love to trample extensively through the mire, but lately LI has wished for a change of mire – it is always zizek zizek zizek badiou French theorist zizek zizek zizek.

However, we did read this post on the valve about the whole thing by Joseph Kugelmass.

Kugelmass had the same reaction as most of the theory web, which was to defend Foucault by retreating to the notion that Foucault, after all, didn’t have to get his footnotes and facts right – that he was working with another set of criteria. The reason for this attitude was that Scull’s piece gave off the shimmer of expertise. Here, at last, Foucault's misstatements and tricks would be unmasked by a man who knows what he is talking about, an expert in the field. The takedown would be cool and professional, building to an earned indignation. LI’s first reading of the review was defensive too: Foucault, I wanted to say, was writing in Uppsala in the late fifties, and so didn’t have the latest resources. So he made do with what he had. Brave fellow.

I'm not an expert in medical health history. But I am something of an expert in reviewing. And from that experience, I knew that some things were a little too easy in the Scull review. And so LI started digging. The more we dug, the more we thought that, far from being the piece of an expert confronting bullshit with the fruit of empirical research, we were looking at something much more familiar, the half assed takedown. Face it, you are not going to take down a book so firmly entrenched in the canon in a four page review - but you can do some damage. Scull seemed to overreach from the beginning of the review, and when he reaches that section which should be razor sharp, a cutting away of all of Foucault's supports, revealing him to be a lilliputian fraud, a strange thing happens...

While the headline writer phrases Scull’s critique in terms of the fictions of Foucault, but a better headline would be the factions of Scull. His facts are, when not quite factual, often astonishingly – squishy.

There’s nothing more boring than fisking an article, so we will simply concentrate on that part of Scull’s review that deals with Bethlem Hospital - Bedlam - which is, after all, within the area of Scull's expertise. Here, at last, the reader should be able to take things on trust. This is the section dealing with Bethlem:

“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.

Monasteries surface elsewhere in his account. We are told with a straight face that “it was in buildings that had previously been both convents and monasteries that the majority of the great asylums of England . . . were set up”. This is a bizarre notion. First, there were no “great asylums” set up in England in the classical age. Vast museums of madness did not emerge until the nineteenth century (when they were purpose-built using taxpayers’ funds). And second, only Bethlem, of all the asylums and madhouses that existed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was ever housed in a former convent or monastery, and when it was, its peak patient population amounted to fewer than fifty inmates, hardly the vast throng conjured up by Foucault’s image of “grands asiles”.”

The first thing that should be said about these paragraphs is that they conceal a point Scull is conceding to Foucault. Almost all of Scull’s objections pinpoint p 191-193 of Histoire de la folie. Here’s the paragraph that is most strongly questioned:

“C'était sans doute une très vieille habitude du Moyen Age de montrer les insensés. Dans certains des Narrtürmer d'Allemagne, on avait établi des fenêtres grillagées qui permettaient d'observer de l'extérieur les fous qu'on y avait attachés. Ils formaient ainsi spectacle aux portes des cités. Le fait étrange, c'est que cette coutume n'ait pas disparu au moment où se refermaient les portes des asiles, mais qu'elle se soit au contraire développée, prenant à Paris et à Londres un caractère quasi institutionnel. En 1815 encore, s'il faut en croire un rapport présenté à la Chambre des Communes, l'hôpital de Bethléem montre les furieux pour un penny, tous les dimanches. Or le revenu annuel de ces visites s'élevait à près de 400 livres: ce qui suppose le chiffre étonnamment élevé de 96000 visites par an.”

The main thing is -- Scull agrees with Foucault. Up until the 1770s – well into the l’age classique – it was customary and quasi institutional to visit Bedlam.

The larger point about which Scull, following Roy Porter, does not agree is that the early modern era saw a great commitment of the mad. This is why the Olympic precision of “and when it was, its peak patient population amounted to fewer than fifty inmates” seems so devastating.

The problem is, of course, that it is also wrong.

Scull doesn’t give his source for that figure. However, we do have some interesting figures cited by Joseph Mortimer Granville in The Care and cure of the insane v. 2 (1877). In one of the reports to the 1815 select committee on madhouses which Scull seems to preen himself on, a Mr. Edward Wakefield, who made a humanitarian investigation, and was met and accompanied by the governor of the hospital, toured the male and female incurable wings and reported, “in the men’s wing were about 74 or 75 patients”. (289) This, of course, doesn’t include the population in the separate female wing, or the other parts of the hospital. The interesting Granville then cites a more in depth account of the hospital, made from the hospitals records in a paper by a Doctor John Webster, given in 1843, who writes that 22,897 insane patients were admitted to Bethlem hospital since 1683. In the twenty years between 1762 and 1782, for instance, 3945 patients were admitted, 1366 were cured, 560 died. Breaking it down, Webster writes that in 1750-51-52 462 were admitted, 145 were cured, 118 died. (304-305). So where does Scull get his 50 patient figure? Is it an average? If so, then it is, to say the least, bad scholarship not to say so. What year is he referring to?

In fact, Thomas Bowen, whose 1783 book is approvingly cited by Scull in his own book on the English Madhouse system, The Most Solitary of Afflictions, talks of a great influx of patients from all over the kingdom into Bedlam in the first years after its re-opening.

Scull knows to press on the Anglosphere fetishism for statistics – it gives a positivistic tang to the review, sets him up as the scientist versus the Gallic charlatan. But in truth, the scientist has no basis for his fifty figure.

Now, let’s deal with a few other Scull specials:

“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 Scull’s most genuine point. Even here, though, he twists things. Foucault writes of a report to the House of Commons, not a report from the House, and he writes “if we can believe it”. The real point here is that Foucault cites no source for this report. His source, Ned Ward, instead talks about the price paid by visitors to see the patients in Bedlam. Here Scull thinks he can score another hit:
“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.” I’m not sure what turn out to be apocryphal means. Scull’s own citing of Ned Ward’s article in the London Spy, which this seems to refer to, page 51 in his book, Most Solitary of Afflictions, refers to Porter’s book, Mind Forg’d manacles, for “skepticism about the authenticity of Ward’s Report.” Mind Forg’d Manacles was published in 1987 – some twenty six years after Histoire de la Folie was published. And is Scull even right?

This is from an essay in The World, published on June t, 1753, footnoted in an edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, describing a visit to Bedlam:
“It was Easter Week, when, to my great surprise I found a hundred people at least, who, having paid their twopence apiece, were suffered, unattended, to run rioting up and down the wards…” (1889)

Scull’s review, then, is, to say the least, not the most reliable account of Foucault’s “mistakes” even on a topic on which Scull is supposedly an expert. The more interesting question, however, is why Scull was instantly conceded to be right, and Foucault wrong? I think this might be on account of the general beating Continentalist are perceived to have received from Sokal and Bricmont. That perception is wholly based on the idea that Sokal is a hard scientist, a physicist. What Foucault did was make us question experts – and he appeared at a time when the advice of experts, from that given about the Vietnam war to the dangers of radiation, fell into disrepute. Unfortunately, knowledge by authority is a very powerful thing – in Weber’s triad of legitimations, tradition/authority is at the center. It is especially powerful when the authority figure bases his authority on reason – but then uses the authority qua authority to squash opposition. This is just what Scull did. The scurrying for the exits done by Foucaultist is a painful reminder that, on the whole, academics can be defined as those people who have been extraordinarily influenced, in their development, by the classroom. Thus, their rebellions are most easily quenched when a teacher figure comes through the door.


Scruggs said...

What, no comments on this?

I thought the basis for Sokal's repute was based more on exposing laziness and gullibility that wouldn't have been the pitfalls of sharper humanities scholars. That it was knock at the culture of a certain kind academic publishing, and not necessarily a knock at any particular philosophy. (I really dislike the Continental vs. Anglo/Analytic thing. If ever there was a silly binary. . .)

But anyway, the post was a deft explication of a nasty method.

roger said...

I don't want to get into Sokal too much - I'm more concerned about his effect, which was, to my mind, a retreat to a certain kind of soft soaping rhetoric that leans heavily on being fictional and shit. I would prefer being wrong - nothing wrong with being wrong. In fact, if you are going to do anything heady in philosophy or social sciences or, say, physics, probably you are going to be wrong a lot. The daring spirit in which the first wave of Frenchies went about things is sadly missing today, in my humble. Which is why I thought the Foucault kerfluffle was typical - while interpreting Foucault and bickering about it is fine, because it limits the possibility of being wrong, defending what Foucault has to say against other people in the field is a whole other matter. One leaves that to the experts. Well, fuck that. Sokal, or the Sokal effect, isn't the only reason, but he is representative of a certain spirit of milquetoastiness.

Scruggs said...

Could we call it the Valve Effect instead? The good kids always pile on after teacher smacks the obstreperous kids around a bit. And rightly so, in my opinion. Ordered liberty requires some sacrifices, even if that does only produce a pile of steaming dung. Sharpened mortarboards at thirty paces helps that along some.

Luke said...

Hello Roger,

I know you don't want to get into Sokal too much but

doesnt Sokal critique what are literally intellectual impostures, for the sake of the lay reader, say, who might naïvely assume that prof. Deleuze say, understood something about advanced mathematics

my point is that Sokal is not saying this is all in toto imposture but rather locating instances of imposture

this, I think, relates back to the demonisation of Foucault (who Sokal does not attack - Foucault after all is an ideosyncratic but careful materialist)who is always, it seems, guilty by association with people he had nothing to do with

in the times article: Laing, Szasz. Goffman

against an absent commonsensism

in Johann Hari's new statesman article: zizek, derrida...

against an equally absent assumed common sensism

I'm personally critical of Foucaults claims re economic history but I think the current witch hunt is quite tawdry

[also the article "the fictions of Foucault's scholarship" claims Goffman was American. Goffman was Canadian]

roger said...

Luke, it has been a while since I've thought about Sokal. So, trying to remember my response...

a. A criticism of a scientific concept, a mathematical formula, or a logical conclusion that is wrong is a great thing. As I remember, Sokal finds some problems in some Lacanian use of mathematics. Cool.
b. But, criticism of a term that is taken from science because it has some model like features that the taker likes and given specifically other properties has to criticize with regard to those other properties. There are halfway cases. The use of equilibrium, for instance, in economics is taken from physics, and often operated parasitically to suggest that, like the molecules of a gas in a closed system, human agents and exchanges would arrive at an equilibrium - thus omitting the significant difference between the two types of systems.
There are also more extreme cases. Nobody ever accused physicists of misinterpreting Finnegans wake because of what they say about quarks.
So, when Deleuze takes the term singularity, he is very careful, in Logic of Sense, to define what he means by it. And he uses the term again, I believe, in later works, with the understanding that he is referring to his previous notions. It won't do, then, to criticize Deleuze for mishandling the cosmological notion of singularity -as I vaguely remember Sokal doing - because he wasnt.
Furthermore, Sokal plunged into the philosophical content of what Deleuze was saying, and here he has no special expertise to lend. I think he has as much right to do philosophy as the next person, but he is as vulnerable to a philosopher's criticism for the way he handles his philosophical arguments - which, in spite of a weird physics meme, aren't secondary to physics, or determined by saying, I'm a physicist. I'll give Sokal credit for not being as arrogant about such things as, say, Steven Weinberg, whose naive positivist statements in the NYRB made me hoot with laughter, especially as he thinks lays it all down the like the pronunciamentoes of true and originalle genius, bonified and certified.

Luke said...

yes, I can understand what you mean w/r to Deleuze, nevertheless I think Deleuze is sometimes cavalier in his use of science/math but I think hopes for a relationship with his readers where this would be understood as such

my point is that Foucault is

a. careful in a way that Deleuze isn't - in fact is a different kind of writer altogether

b. directly relevant to the current political aituation vis a vis the penalisation of Iraq etc

c. possibly being rubbished now for just this reason

If I remember right F A Hayek had this thing of saying the idea of evolution migrated from economics to biology, not the other way round

Roger I could do with a laugh, and will check out Steven Weinberg

all the best

Luke said...

..."aituation" isn't some postmod neologism I've made up - I meant situation

roger said...

I think Sokal had a good idea, but he should have brought into the fight an enlarged sense of the philosophy of science. It is as if the only philosopher he had read was Popper. Myself, I would recommend the Stanford pragmatists that came out of Suppes' work - Nancy Cartwright, Ian Hacking, John Dupre - to get an firm outside sense for approaching Deleuze, say, in terms of science.

On the other hand, I have read quite a bit of Deleuze, and I never felt that his first reference was to physics at all. His references were pretty clearly primarily to a canon of philosophical texts, literature, ethnography, psychology and politics. Deleuze, after all, was a critic of Lacan's work, and Freud's, not a supporter - so he was definitely working on another wavelength.

As for Lacan's turn to mathemes - I admit, I don't understand them. I don't even understand them as analogies. My mind goes blank, and then I start thinking about dinner. Socrates had his daemon - I have the perennial fish vs. spaghetti question.

Colin Gordon said...

Well said! except NB that when Scull writes about Bethlem "and when it was, its peak patient population amounted to fewer than fifty inmates", the "when it was" refers to the period before 1674 when it was still on the old monastic site.