Summit Lecture Series: Foucault, Madness and Civilization

Summit Lecture Series: Foucault, Madness and Civilization September 1, 2021

Foucault, Madness and Civilization

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John Stonestreet:

Now I’ve told you about Derrida. I want to end our time talking about one more thinker, probably the one that’s had the most impact across the board, a contemporary of Jacques Derrida. Derrida again, is the guy with the idea called deconstruction. Derrida turned his attention to the written text and gave us postmodernism in literature. Foucault gave us his contribution in cultural studies and sociology. Foucault was a contemporary of Derrida’s, a little bit older and he hit the scene with the book called Madness and Civilization. In Madness and Civilization he looked at the history of civilization and how they understood issues of madness or insanity and basically criminal behavior. And what he discovered was there was no consistency. And so his conclusion was, there’s no such thing as right and wrong. There’s no such thing as crime. There’s no such thing as insanity.

All there is, is the powerful in the culture setting up norms for the culture that all the oppressed have to follow. Does that make sense? So there’s no such thing as legitimate cultural norms. It’s all the work of the powerful. And so that’s where he got this idea of the discourses of power. The job then of the thinkers is to uncover these power structures and free the oppressed. Now, later on in his life, and by the way, you may see the consequences of this. He did a lot of stuff in criminology. This is when the criminal then… If somebody is considered a criminal just because the powerful in that society have certain standards that they’re imposing on everybody else, the perpetrator of the crime actually becomes the what? The victim, doesn’t it. You see what I mean? Okay.

So this had a lot of shelf life. Near the end of his life he turned his attention to sexuality. And if he said that there were no such thing as legitimate norms when it came to crime, what do you think he’s going to say when it comes to sex? There’s no legitimate norms. In fact, one of the more disturbing parts of what he does, is he won’t talk about things like rape and incest being wrong. That’s just the powerful categories. I know what some of you were thinking, you’re like, “Why do I care about this dead French guy named Foucault?” Near the end of his life, Foucault gave up his teaching post, would travel back and forth, and eventually moved to San Francisco in the 1980s, where he contracted a… Late ’70s, early ’80s, where he lived at pretty crazy lifestyle. And in 1984, he died of a newly discovered disease. Any guesses? AIDS. “Why do I care about Foucault,” you’re thinking. Who is the single most quoted source in all of Western academia today? Foucault. Foucault’s ideas.

Just in case you think I’m overstating this, I want to point to this woman. Who is this? Sonia Sotomayor. Do you guys know who Sonja Sotomayor is? Who is Sotomayor? She’s a Supreme Court Justice of the United States. She was President Obama’s first nomination to the Supreme Court. During her confirmation hearing she got in a little bit of trouble for a statement that she made in a speech at Cal Berkeley called A Latino Judge’s Voice. You can find this, by the way, if you just Google it, and you should. This was before she became a Supreme Court Justice. This is the line that people questioned. “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” So people started to say, “Well, wait a minute. It seems like she’s saying that there’s different kinds of wise and that it’s based on race. And maybe this is going to be reverse racism,” and all that sort of stuff. And so she got into a lot of trouble.

And so President Obama got up on national TV and he said, “Listen, her statement was taken out of context. Read her statement in context and you’ll feel better.” Well, I just did what I was told. I went and looked up her speech and I read the statement in context, and I felt way worse. Because when you look at the context of it, here’s what you find. This is the larger context of it, all right? Same speech, “Whatever the reasons we have different perspectives, either as some theorists suggest because of our cultural experiences or as others postulate, because we have basic differences in logic and reasoning.” Now hold on. Do we have different experiences based on our cultures? Is that true or false? Yes. That changes culture to culture. What’s the thing about logic though? Does logic change? Can you be a married bachelor anywhere on the planet? Why?

Because it violates the law of non-contradiction. You can’t be a married bachelor at the same time, whether you’re in Budapest or Boston, it’s the same thing, right? The rules of logic are together. So again, this is a post-modern idea, which kind of goes at the idea of truth. She then goes on to say that everyone’s trapped in their own perspective of judging, of being a judge. Hers is a feminist theory and she wants it to always be under construction and never established. She doesn’t want to get to a place of justice or a place of understanding. She wants it to be all under construction.

Now, because of time, I’m going to push through this. I want you to see this. “Because I accept,” Sotomayor says, “the proposition that as Judge Resnick describes it, to judge is an exercise of interpretation.” Wait, that’s not what she says. To judge is an exercise of what? Who said that first? It wasn’t Resnick. That’s Judy Resnick, by the way. Who said it first? Who said that laws were instruments of power? Michelle Foucault said it.

Now, I don’t know if Sotomayor knows she’s quoting Foucault, but who’s she quoting? Foucault. When Elena Kagan, the next Obama nominee to the Supreme Court was going through her confirmation hearings, a democratic Senator piped up and said, “If we can get her on the court, finally we’ll be able to quote, “get something done.” How many guys have studied US government at some level? There are three branches. What are they? Judiciary, legislative, and executive. Two of these branches are supposed to get something done. One of them is not supposed to get something done. Which one is that? The judiciary. They’re not supposed to get something done. They’re supposed to evaluate what the other two branches have done. Now I know it’s weird. Now the executive branch today is getting stuff done, all kinds of stuff, right. And I know it seems like an oxymoron to say that Congress is also supposed to get something done, but they are. But the judiciary is not.

So she’s quoting Foucault. Now, that’s the big context. And here’s the local context. Justice O’Connor has been often cited as saying that, “A wise old man and a wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases.” I’m not sure she’s the author. And I’m not sure that I agree. First, as Professor Martha Minow has noted, “There can never be a universal definition of…” Isn’t that interesting? So the local context, this is the controversial statement. Right before that, she says, “There’s no such thing as a universal definition of wise.” Now that begs the question. How would you know that a decision is wiser, if you don’t have a definition of wise. Now you think I’m blowing this out of proportion.

I found this immediately during this whole scenario. I’ve been using this example now for… Ever since she was nominated. 10 years maybe now. I feel, I think it’s a great example of how Foucault has trickled his ideas down in the judiciary. The very first time I used it, there was a staff member sitting in the back row back there, and he was paying attention and he took out his cool little hipster moleskin notebook, right. And he wrote down a question and he said, he thought to himself, “If I ever get a chance to talk to Sonia Sotomayor, I will ask her this question,” thinking he’d never get a chance to talk to Sonia Sotomayor.

Well, just so happens within a few months, he had landed a job as a congressional staffer with Mike Pence of Indiana. And he was downtown DC working on Capitol Hill as a congressional staffer. And one day there was an announcement for the congressional staffers. There’s going to be a speech given by Sotomayor. And she got done her speech and she stopped and looked at all the staffers and said, “Does anyone have any questions?” So he’s in the back. And he pulls out his hipster little moleskin notebook that has that question that he had written six months before.

His name was Isaac. And Isaac sat there and let everyone ask their questions. He was the very last one, and he piped up and he said, asked this question. “Justice Sotomayor, what should be the foundation of justice for our country?” Is that an unfair question? Is that a mean question to ask of someone who’s say, I don’t know, a Supreme Court Justice of the United States? Is that a legitimate question? He asked the question. Her response? Dead silence. She just kind of looked at him. It was like that prolonged, awkward silence. You know, that seems like it’s going on and on. And he started to get a little nervous and look at the big hefty guys with the black sunglasses that were surrounding the room. And then she just looks back and goes, “You know what? I don’t think I’ve ever considered the question in that form before.”

A Supreme Court Justice of the United States never considered what should be the foundation of justice? Some of you said you were going to law school. Who’s going to law school? Here’s the thing. You don’t study the constitution in many law schools. What do you study if you don’t study constitution?


Not laws. What?

You study legal precedents. You study case law because there’s no foundation. It’s always under… There we go. So she says, “I have never considered that question.” Then more silence. And she thinks about it some more. And then she says this, “I suppose for me, it would be the inherent dignity of all people.” Which, by the way, is not a bad answer. Not the constitution, but it’s okay. We’re getting in the ballpark. But then she says this, “But I don’t know what it should be for anyone else.” So her universal standard of justice changes from justice to justice, to person to person. Yeah. Ideas have what? Consequences. All right. Later on. Thanks guys.

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