8 July 2013
Philo’s recent article on Foucault’s flirtation with phenomenology and romanticism in his early studies of madness (see below) reminds me that the asylum is an often neglected space in studies of heterotopia. Yet there are reasons to put asylums forward as heterotopias par excellence, particularly in their intense play of the ideal and fantasy, a play of light and dark.
We know that Foucault was drawn to Sade’s dark images of ‘the Fortress, the Dungeon, the Cellar, the Convent’ (Foucault, 2006a: 362), but in contrast he also describes asylums as utopian ‘independent microcosms’ and an ‘inverted mirror of society’ (2006a: 362) – just as later his described prisons as ‘the microcosm of a perfect society’.
Foucault outlines Tuke’s model for treating the mad with healing power of Nature at the Retreat in York at the end of the eighteenth century. We could also turn to Browne’s description from 1837:
Conceive a spacious building resembling the palace of a peer, airy, and elevated, and elegant, surrounded by extensive and swelling grounds and gardens. The interior is fitted up with galleries, and workshops, and music rooms. The sun and the air are allowed to enter at every window, the view of the shrubberies and fields, and groups of labourers, is unobstructed by shutters or bars; all is clean, quiet, and attractive’ (229)
It is also worth noting that Foucault opens his 1973-74 lectures on Psychiatric Power at the Collège de France with Fodéré’s fantastic description of an ‘ideal asylum’ (2006b: 1-3). In all their different forms, these spaces are powerfully virtual and real.
Browne, W.A.F. (1837) What Asylums Were, Are, and Ought to Be, Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, facsimile edition in A. Scull (1991) (ed.) ‘The Asylum as Utopia: W.A.F.
Foucault, M. (2006a)  History of Madness, London: Routledge.
Foucault, M. (2006b)  Psychiatric Power: Lectures at the Collège de France 1973-1974, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Philo, C. (2013) ‘A great space of murmurings’ Madness, romance and geography, Progress in Human Geography 37 (2) 167-194
Prompted by the 50th anniversary of the first publication of Foucault’s famous book commonly known in English as Madness and Civilization, this essay explores how the book has changed between versions, in the process losing what can be cast as both its phenomenological undertones and a ‘romanticism’ about the truths supposedly revealed by madness. Reasons for Foucault’s own disavowal of these elements are considered, and taken together – conjoining a critical biography of the book with attention to Foucault’s reactions to it – this essay fashions a mirror to hold up to certain currents within contemporary human geography. It is argued that the ‘romantic fantasy’ which permeates the original book, if not overwhelming it, has significant echoes in the ‘romantic gesture’ displayed by some present-day geographers. The older Foucault’s distancing from his earlier romanticism is hence instructive for scholars critiquing the recent history of human geography, but there may also be grounds for claiming that it would be mistaken to lose this romanticism, together with its phenomenological correlates, entirely.