Teaching notes on Foucault and Hoccleve

Teaching an MA course on Irrationality, and last night, we did some Foucault and used an inadequate translation of Hoccleve’s Complaint (which I’m just going to have to translate myself). I used the Most Dangerous Writing App, set to 10 minutes, to put together my talking points. Here’s what I wrote, very lightly edited.


Foucault’s Madness and Civilization ends with the apparent liberation of the mad from prisons. No longer would those designated insane be laden down with chains, no longer beaten, no longer suffer cures that were barely distinguishable from physical punishment. They were freed to walk around, to make conversation, free to do everything but what they might have wanted to do before being brought to the asylum.

For in these places of refuge — the etymological root of this word “asylum” — they would learn to govern themselves. The “essence of the liberty” of the mad was to be “imprisoned in an infinitely self-referring observation”; to be “chained to the humiliation of being its own object” (265). It little mattered what the mad thought; what mattered was how they behaved. What the managers discovered was that liberating the mad to master themselves was a far more efficient way to make the mad conform to the social ideals the managers desired.

Foucault’s observations here belong to his larger intellectual project of disabusing us of narratives of liberation. In his History of Sexuality Vol 1, he argues that postwar Europe did not, in fact, experience a period of “sexual liberation.” It was not that sex had been freed from its long period of confinement; it was not that the Victorians prudishly kept sex and sexuality locked up, and that the constant talking about sex from, say, the 1960s on, made sex liberated. Instead, all this obsessive talking about sex elevated sex and sexuality into the chief truths of the social subject. We were confined to our desires. Notice the way, Foucault observed, that psychoanalysis makes us realize that our sexual desires are in fact the truth of what we are. It’s not that sex was liberated, then, but rather that we became its prisoners.

Analogously with the mad in the new liberated asylums. On the one hand, we can be happy that the mad are (supposedly) no longer being beaten; on the other hand, there’s no need to beat them, because they have been liberated into being their own jailers.

The connection to Hoccleve, I think, is straightforward enough. Hoccleve’s problem is that he suspects that everyone looks at him and still sees him as a madman. He wants to convince everyone that he’s now sane, and that he’s not going to slip back into madness.

How can he do that? He needs to make himself meaningful for other people. The problem with your translation is that it’s missing almost half the poem. What you’re missing is Hoccleve’s transformation of himself into a socially useful subject.

What he offers in the concluding stanzas are a series of basically proverbial expressions, all points that are socially and religiously unexceptional: everything is always changing; God gives us things, and takes things away; look upon me, and learn a lesson about God’s power and the mutability of this world. That is, he loses his madness to the degree that he makes himself legible according to the dominant social values of his fifteenth-century English society.

Here we see what it means to be “well” and “reasonable”; it means to become socially useful, and to speak in a language everyone understands.