Hannah Lyn Venable: Madness in Experience and History

Giorgi Vachnadze

Madness in Experience and History: Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology and Foucault’s Archaeology Book Cover Madness in Experience and History: Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology and Foucault’s Archaeology
Hannah Lyn Venable
Paperback GBP £34.99
258 Pages 4 B/W Illustrations

Reviewed by:  Giorgi Vachnadze (University of Louvain)

It would be fitting, perhaps to start speaking of Madness in Experience and History by refusing to begin at the beginning and stepping right into the centre oscillating towards the periphery through a long and patient outwards spiral. The battleground of reason and unreason, the site of power and resistance; a space where the inside of the embodied subject meets the outside of institutional constraints; the structures offered up by history to consciousness – is the concept of the Flesh. Flesh, for Foucault, unifies the discursive practices of society and the techniques of the self, bringing together the practices which act on the self with those which are acted by the self” (Venable, 2021). The notion of the flesh is the space of reconciliation, the fundamental schematism that could harmonize the embodied ontology of Merleau-Ponty and the historical ontology of Michel Foucault. Seeking the unified approach, Hannah Lyn Venable offers the reader a comparative analysis between the two prominent representatives of 20th century French thought and a complementary, integrated methodology for interrogating modern psychiatric discourse.

For Merleau-Ponty, Flesh is the body in motion, the human subject embedded in the world through her interactive capacities; the “I can” as opposed to the Cartesian “I think” is what sustains the order of things through the human perspective. Underneath the apparent stability of our empirical observations, the propositions of science and mathematics – facts, objects and states of affairs – the domain of the non-rational both sustains and threatens to undermine our sense of self and others; our relationship to the world. Flesh is where the subject and object come together. The primordial experience of the world is neither thought, speech nor observation, but action. In truth, it is not therefore “the subject” that sustains the world; it is the body. Flesh is already meaningful. This is the meaning of perception.

For Foucault, on the other hand, Flesh is the contested object, it is the apparatus that sustains one’s way of life. The body as an object to be governed, managed and disciplined can offer resistance to the series of objectifications imposed on it through power, which operates vicariously through the institutions of modern science and psychology. The “enfleshed” subject can constitute herself through alternative techniques of the self as a way to refuse the technologies of the self that attempt to render her docile. Flesh is the political battleground sustained by history.

Phenomenological analysis and archaeological historization come together in order to shed light on the history and experience of madness: The non-rational – divided into the pre-rational of Merleau-Ponty and the irrational of Michel Foucault – is juxtaposed against the rational as it is given to us in perceptual (i.e., corporeal) experience and throughout history. An archaeology and phenomenology of madness, according Venable, can shed a new and interesting light on our contemporary understanding of “mental illness” (a recent invention). With this aim in mind, Venable takes us on an uneasy yet beautiful and hopeful journey beyond the rational-nonrational divide into tragedy, the sense of loss and the wisdom of madness.

Madness in Experience and History, quite unlike the object of its investigation, exhibits a beautiful, structured architectonic. The book is neatly laid out and easy to navigate. This makes its otherwise difficult subject matter incredibly accessible to the reader. The book is organized into five parts and eight chapters. The first part offers a helpful diagram of the larger textual cartography laying out the outline, a series of definitions and key terms, the general aims of the text and the underlying methodology of the work. The second part of the book analyzes Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological approach to madness and the pre-rational as a stand-alone intervention in contrast to the third part, which similarly engages with the Foucauldian archaeology of madness and the irrational. The fourth part is where the process of theoretical integration begins. It starts out by tracing the real historical encounters between Merleau-Ponty and Foucault and their mutual influence (mostly the influence of Ponty’s lectures on Foucault), through a biographical study of their lives and the development of their thought. The section further advances into a detailed analysis of the seemingly divergent, irreconcilable differences between some of the important concepts employed by the philosophers. Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological subject is posed against Foucault’s bracketed subject and the perceptually situated subject is contrasted with the historically situated subject. The section concludes through the summary of their differences, bearing in view their potential complementarity and the possibility of reconciliation.

Chapter seven begins the strategic synthesis. Venable starts out by reviewing the existing, yet incredibly scarce, literature that attempts to bridge a sustainable dialogue between Merleau-Ponty and Foucault. According to Venable (2021), “…there are only two scholars, Nick Crossley (British sociologist) and Judith Revel (French philosopher) who have produced full books which attempt a complementary approach to the philosophies of Merleau-Ponty and Foucault…”. With the added difficulty, that Crossley remains nonetheless the only scholar (aside from Venable) to have written a book-length study of the matter in English. Venable continues to reconcile the differences concerning the respective theories of the (implied) subject, the alleged conflict between perception and history, the respective influences each writer had on psychology (mostly Merleau-Ponty) and Medical Sociology together with Disability Studies (Foucault), concluding the section through a summary discussion of the potential contributions that the integrated approach could offer to contemporary approaches in psychology.

The final section, part five of the book, extrapolates on the benefits of the aforementioned contributions through three particular case studies of Schizophrenia, Major Depressive Disorder and Bipolar I Disorder to develop an extensive critique of the bio-medical and reductive models of mental illness. The latter, often unbeknownst to medical practitioners, tend to draw on outdated techniques of governmentality to repress, isolate and subdue the underlying non-rational of mental illness (i.e., madness), through one-sided pharmaceutical interventions. Instead, a phenomeno-archaeological strategy could help identify the social and existential causes of mental suffering and provide an alternative method to the diagnostic model, which tends to compartmentalize the problem and add unnecessary stigma to the patient.

Venable advocates for a return to the seemingly outdated notion of “madness” to expose the deficiencies of the medicalized term “mental illness”. “… “madness” contains certain colloquial meanings which remind us of the broadness and ambiguity of human experience, unlike other more technical terms such as “mental disorder,” “mental illness” or “psychopathology.” (Venable, 2021). Both Foucault and Merleau-Ponty use the term “madness” in their discussions on psychopathology. Venable further introduces the term non-rational. The non-rational is divided into two subsets: the pre-rational and the irrational. The two different modalities of the non-rational aim to capture the distinct ways that our experience of madness tends elude strict systems of classification and sharp conceptual boundaries.

The pre-rational can be understood as the condition of possibility for the rational. It refers to the multiplicity of embodied processes, activities and ways of going-about-in-the-world that have to take place, before the clear and distinct ideas, facts and observations can be given to consciousness. The pre-rational can refer to the simplest non-reflective experience of our day to day lives. Playing sports, driving a car, dancing etc. Anything that involves putting conscious reflection out of play can be safely placed in the domain of the pre-rational. All instrumental and technical know-how belongs to this category as well. To the contrary, the irrational represents everything that stands in the way of reason. The irrational is opposed to reason, it creates ambiguity, problems, misunderstandings, errors in judgment as well as more intense experiences of anxiety, sense of loss, existential dread and melancholia. The irrational, unlike the pre-rational, tends to subvert reason in one way or another. The irrational could also manifest in transgressive behavior and the violation of social norms, bearing a complex relationship to crime and deviance. Finally, the non-rational cannot be understood without reference to the rational. In reconciling the differences between Foucault and Merlau-Ponty, Venable, in her holistic approach to mental illness, seeks to eliminate the sharp boundary separating the rational from the non-rational.

As we mentioned previously, the concept of the pre-rational is attributed to Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of madness. In order to develop this idea, Venable draws parallels with Aristotle. According to Aristotle, every single thing bears a form (eidos) which pertains to the essence of the thing. “For Aristotle, the form is what brings the elements together to make it a whole, such as bringing two letters into one sound of a syllable or the forces of nature into one flesh of a living creature” (Venable, 2021). The mentioning of the word “flesh” in the sentence is of course no mere coincidence and as we spiral outwards from that central term, we are soon going to see how it forms a conceptual network with the notions of experience, history, madness, reason, the non-rational and the idea of restlessness employed by St. Augustine. The ancient idea of the whole being more than the sum of its parts plays a crucial role in Venables’s account of the essence of human experience – madness. “…madness arises out of this shared way of experiencing the world instead of being something separate from it…,” explains Venable (2021). The Phenomenology of the pre-rational aims precisely at this; to uncover our common experience of an embodied “being-in-the-world” (Heidegger, 2010) and the integral role of the non-rational in constituting that experience.

The unity of human experience is decisive for Venable and Merleau-Ponty in understanding the importance of the pre-rational and vice versa. An anti-Cartesian sentiment of rejecting mind-body dualism as well as the anti-Kantian sentiment of rejecting the subject-object division, both very important endeavors in the work of Foucault and Merleau-Ponty, are found throughout Venable’s Madness in Experience and History. According to Merleau-Ponty, consciousness is indivisible and “indecomposable” (Indécomposable). Venable successfully monopolizes on the French variation of the term to reveal the richness of the meaning underneath. She explains that the term refers to “something that cannot be divided into parts, broken down, taken apart or separated; it refers to the French concepts of inseparability (inséparable) and nonfragmentation (non fragmentable)” (Venable, 2021). The indivisibility of the human consciousness and the pre-rational manifest themselves in the body as they pertain to the fluidity of the total (reflective and non-reflective) experience, an immersed embeddedness in the world.

In this way, the pre-rational or the pre-logical, vis-à-vis the reflective and the logical, bears the same dialectic relationship to reason, which the non-rational bears to the rational; they are the same. One of the key take-aways in the discussion of the pre-rational as well as the irrational, is to reveal the complexity of the relationship between the rational/nonrational distinction on the one hand and the normal/abnormal distinction on the other. A very important insight offered by Venable, is that we cannot simply group the rational with the normal and the non-rational with the abnormal, as was often done. And we will see further through our journey, it is neither the pre-rational nor even the irrational that cause human suffering, it is in fact the aforementioned relationship; the connecting line between the rational and the non-rational for each individual, or even entire communities. Psychological suffering, according to Venable, is the result of a deformation of that relation, their “falling out of tune” with each other. This discrepancy manifests in the body, within the flesh of our performed selves.

It is true, that perceiving and the awareness of perception can be separated, some perceptions are clearly more “cerebral” or “cognitive”, while others are enacted “unreflectively” and “without conscious awareness”, but the distinction is arbitrary, or methodological, to be more precise. It is a technique of speaking about human experience, much less than a representational model. The division admits of degrees. In other words, we have a scaled understanding of those distinctions, which Descartes and Kant wanted to separate categorically. In this sense, when Venable (2021) and Merleau-Ponty address “the primordial” relation humans have with the world, they are not advocating for a clear division between the pre-logical and the reflective; Venable’s goal specifically is to build on Foucault’s project of an “expanded reason” in order to take into account both the irreducible mystery of the irrational as well as the spontaneous activity of the pre-rational.

The empirical world of a trained and socialized subject and the discourse of science (which today more than ever, plays an important political function in how we constitute ourselves as subjects) is a derived language, it is posterior to the primordial experience of the world. Where the first can be conceptualized as a series of spatial relationships between objects, the latter operates as a field of interactive capacities and actualities. “…the point”, writes Venable (2021), “is that through reflection on the primordial field, we can see the human in the fullest sense, beyond the subject and object divide, and this demonstrates how the human relies on an area of a field, known as the unreflected.” The affective perceptual field is therefore primary and anterior to what we would normally call a world. It is a field of affects. This primordial world can be accessed through various techniques, including of course, phenomenological philosophy, but also the arts, sport activities and limit-experiences.

The center of the primordial field of habitual behavior is the body. The body, once again, is not an empirical object for study, the body objectified through i.e., the disciplines of biology, anatomy, neuroscience etc. The latter is a derived body that bears close to no resemblance to the affective body. This is not a body made up of atoms, genes, cells and molecules. Merleau-Ponty’s body is that which administers affects and re-arranges habits. It is not the metabolic body, rather it is a body of actions, a multiplicity comprised of a dynamic series of affecting-and-being-affected. Without the dynamic body, the empirical body cannot come to being. “The body, as the first, most basic habit, is the platform of nonrational behavior upon which other habits can be built. The process of growing habits is continuous because habits are always in a state of renewal” (Venable, 2021). According to the description, the body bears a direct resemblance to the previous Aristotelian characterization of form. Hence, the body is not a thing among things, but rather the general form of human behavior.

In contrast to Foucault’s “implied” understanding of the body, which does not possess an inside, Merleau-Ponty’s account portrays the body as a center of activity; the pre-rational nucleus of human experience wherefrom habits, actions, capacities and in short: perceptions emerge. Unlike the body of passivity described by Foucault, which always is and can only be inscribed from the outside, even by the subject herself in her negotiations with power, the active body of Merleau-Ponty is a creative actor of the flesh, structuring and re-structuring its own habitual patterns. Venable’s central argument is that the two bodies are perfectly reconcilable, more so, each can account and compensate for the deficiencies in the other.

Entering the Foucauldian realm of the archaeology of madness and the irrational, the opening lines of the third section of the book introduce St. Augustine’s writings on human restlessness. “Augustine’s portrayal of the restlessness of humanity sets an excellent framework for considering Foucault’s account of unreason: both see unspoken pain at the heart of the human experience and both call us to acknowledge the depth of the pain rather than ignore it” (Venable, 2021). Needless to say, unlike Augustine, Foucault does not identify the source of human restlessness in either sin or eternal damnation, nor still would Foucault find the solution to human suffering in seeking refuge with God. Instead, Foucault calls for a historical analysis of unreason to uncover the various forms taken by men’s and women’s anxious relationship to themselves and analyze the different constructions of madness employed by the ages in their attempts to manage and domesticate the irrational.

Venable (2021) argues for an essential unity, which brings together the multiple manifestations of the irrational throughout European history labelling it the “overarching non-rational”. Foucault’s unreason or “(déraison)”, writes Venable, can be understood as something that is opposed or contrary to reason. The Foucauldian unreason is specifically opposed to the Christian and Latin (late Roman) conception of reason: ratio. The latter should not be conflated with the Greek logos. Unlike the former, the latter is not pitted against déraison, such valorization of reason as separate and superior to unreason, Venable states, would bear a closer relationship to Greek hubris i.e., arrogance. Instead, the logos, unlike ratio, offers an expanded understanding of reason having no trouble entering into a dialectical relationship with unreason.

Venable continues to trace the multiple forms of madness describing the ways in which societies chose to govern the mad by following Foucault’s work; the History of Madness, throughout three distinct epistemic formations: The Renaissance, the Classical Age and Modernity. At this point Venable begins to combine Foucauldian and Pontyesque terminology to speak of the “perception of the rational” and the “perception of the irrational” as different manifestations of the same rational/non-rational divide which (unlike Foucault), Venable tends to take as the universal constant in the history of reason and madness. And once again, unlike Foucault’s work, Venable’s seemingly innocent attunement of phenomenology to archaeology begins to sound increasingly Hegelian[1].

Aside from the three distinct historical epochs, Venable introduces what Foucault terms the four consciousness of madness: the critical, the practical, the enunciatory and the analytical. As we will see, none of these techniques of managing the irrational can be found as stand-alone and entirely separate from the other three. However, with the introduction of each epistemic break separating one discursive formation from the other, we find some of these techniques becoming predominant, while others recede to the background.

Beginning with the 16th century: The play of light and dark is the main motif behind the Renaissance understanding of the rational and the non-rational. The Renaissance was the most tolerant of the three ages. During this period, madness, despite its terrifying manifestations, was seen as something necessary. As an essential counterweight to the light of reason, unreason was perceived as the frightful, tragic path one had to take to achieve light and clarity. Finding multiple expressions in the works of notorious Renaissance artists such as Hieronymus Bosch, Matthias Grünewald and Pieter Brueghel, the age of Renaissance would embody a metaphysics of the tragic, which takes contradiction seriously, but not as a problem to resolve or a sickness to be cured, but rather an irreducible mystery; a cosmic antagonism that needs to be confronted by coming to terms with it. “To try and tear away the illusory and the chimerical would also be to tear away the real and the true. The illusory aspect of the irrational is woven together with the reality of the rational” (Venable, 2021).

The Ship of Fools would come to express the social pragmatics of madness in the age of the Renaissance. The mad were “entrusted” to sailors as useless cargo occupying the decks of traveling merchants and fisherman. As the general undesirables, banished from the cities, they were trapped within the wet liminal spaces of turbulent waters, roaming endlessly from harbor to harbor. Water became the master-signifier for madness. The Renaissance would embody the critical consciousness of unreason, where the opposition between reason and unreason would not preclude and even further; would necessitate the dialectical relationship between them.

The human monster was the caricature for the Renaissance conception of madness. The monster, despite being an aberration, an exception to the taxonomic system, a deviation from a classifiable species-being[2], served as a reflection of the very human struggle against tragedy, unnaturalness, illusion and the decentered relationship between the subject and the world. “The mad person on the boat and the peasant in the town share the same world: the presence of the wandering boat reminds the peasants on shore of the difficulty in seeking after truth and the reality of the tragic all around them” (Venable, 2021). Both the madman and the man of reason would share a common experience of the unnatural and the monstrous as an essential possibility for mankind.

The Classical age, like the Renaissance, recognized the darkness of the irrational, but unlike the latter, it broke off the dialogue between reason and unreason and modified the critical attitude by exorcising the dialectical relationship. The Classical age, marked by The Great Confinement, is the defining historical period, which according to Foucault, has played the most important role in constituting the modern (our) attitude towards what eventually became known as mental illness. With this in mind, Venable brings our attention to the purpose of Foucault’s project by reminding us of the full title of what is arguably Foucault’s magnum opus:[3] Madness and Unreason: History of Madness in the Classical Age.

The classical irrational, in stark contrast to the Renaissance, far from a natural predisposition of man, was now identified with moral failure. The Classical age therefore activates a new attitude towards madness, which sees the non-rational as a serious problem that requires correction. Unreason was now perceived as the regression of man to a primordial level of development. The madman was labeled as primitive and beastly. The animality of madness was used as a pretext to create distance between reason and unreason, to isolate, confine and place madness out of sight. The radical expulsion of madness was followed by an excess of reason. Every immoral, irrational act was reduced to a series of causes, effects and reasons to the point where madness itself became overdetermined by reason without thereby being assimilated to it. An extreme repression of madness by reason led to an ontological metamorphosis of unreason, where the irrational transformed into a persistent presence of nothingness. “…these three qualities show the steps that the irrational takes toward nothingness: first, the irrational is opposed to the rational, and then it is driven into the void between madness and the rational; here, madness becomes the place-marker for the irrational and is judged by the rational according to some unknown forces. The rational, in the end, appears to dominate, but its foundation remains insecure” (Venable, 2021). This tripartite transfiguration of unreason into nothingness offered by Venable shows how the Classical age, in its desperate attempt to annihilate madness, flies in the face of a paradox and ends up subverting its own foundations of reason. Another, somewhat extensive but very insightful quote will illustrate this point more clearly: “At its root, the content of madness signifies an absence, a nothing, because experiences of madness can be explained only by something positive in the categories of the rational. Paradoxically, this positive display of something real in madness is actually a display of nothingness. This means that the experience of the irrational, which is summed up in the experience of madness, must mask itself as its opposite to be understood” (Venable, 2021).

The Classical age is representative of the critical and the practical consciousness of madness. The separation between reason and unreason is no longer accompanied by a dialectical understanding of their reciprocity. Instead, the practical consciousness is used to divide and conquer madness entirely, until nothing remains but the pure visibility of a totalizing and undisputed rationality. The enunciatory and the analytic consciousness of madness are also present in the classical age. Where the first serves to label anyone and everyone, especially those considered idle and “purposeless,” as insane leading to their immediate or eventual confinement, the latter was used give support and lend weight to the initial superficial “diagnosis” by drawing on “objective scientific claims” about “the nature of madness.” Very different from the Renaissance, where the mad were “let loose” to roam the seas and sometimes the streets, the Classical age sought to confine, cure and correct the incorrigible individual.

Where the rationality of the Classical age can be described as the privileging of order, morality and positive truth, the Modern age would deal with madness through the notions of objectivity (carried over from the Classical age), science and the norm. But most importantly, the Modern age has set itself up as the first discursive formation that attempts to ignore the non-rational altogether. In this way, the irrational becomes alienated, exiled and silenced (Venable, 2021). The analytic consciousness of madness dominates our age. The break in the dialogue with madness is no longer deployed as an active turning toward and excommunication of madness, but rather its alienation and thereby its own self-alienation, the latter being pragmatically implied in the former. Madness is no longer forced into nothingness; it has gone mute.

The Modern age, building on the exclusionary practices of the Classical age becomes the age of humane treatments, cures and rehabilitation programs. “…the modern approach builds on the reality of the already confined mad and takes this preexisting condition as an opportunity for new medical studies and experiments” (Venable, 2021). The transition from the Classical to the Modern age results in the transformation of the incorrigible individual (the human monster of the 16th century Renaissance) into the sexual pervert. The abnormal individual is now portrayed as a threat to the nuclear family, which in turn serves as the foundation for civil society. No longer held morally accountable for his deviance, the pathologized person is pronounced sick; in need of help and treatment.

It goes without saying that the irrational isn’t going anywhere just because we decided to ignore and medicalize it. But it has become easier to fail to acknowledge it for what it is due to the incessant covering-over of madness by modern discourse. “Anxiety”, “Panic Attack”, “Depression,” “Perversion”; the labels used to channel the violent flows of the non-rational act as chimeras that foster substitute experiences in place of the confrontation with the tragic. “Like a teenager rebelling against the strict rules of his or her parents, the irrational revolts against the modern reduction of madness to mental illness; the more it is oppressed and pushed aside, the louder it bursts onto the scene” (Venable, 2021). Perhaps the work on the self in our age, implies a new confrontation with unreason beyond prescription pills and therapeutic interventions and maybe the courage for truth implies a courage for madness. What is the price that needs to be paid to refuse the biomedical model? Alternatively, what is the price paid for acceding to it? Or is this a false dilemma?

An expanded understanding of reason drives Venable’s work on Merleau-Ponty and Foucault. And according to Venable, it is also what motivates both Foucault and Merleau-Ponty to engage with the history and phenomenology of madness. Whether this is indeed the case, especially for Foucault, is a question that needs to be further addressed. Venable seeks to bypass several difficulties in her aim to reconcile Merleau-Ponty and Foucault, especially given Foucault’s explicit rejection of phenomenology, his refusal to formulate any clear theory of the subject, the methodological approach of archaeology and finally, his skeptical attitude towards psychology.

Among phenomenological philosophers Foucault is known as the author of the bracketed subject, while to the comparatively larger circle of scholars he is also known as the author of the implied subject. The bracketed subject can be viewed as a strategic anti-phenomenological deployment. The Husserlian notion of “bracketing” refers to the mental act of suspending or putting the natural attitude out of play. Its purpose is to prepare the philosopher for performing phenomenological analysis. The phenomenological reduction or the epoche is central to the phenomenological method. The act of bracketing is performed by the transcendental subject and the subject is thereby the founding element for the method. By bracketing the subject, Foucault thereby annihilates phenomenology itself, claiming that the subject, far from an undeniable given, as is the case with Descartes, is in fact a complex product of power-relations. The unity of the subject is one of the contested grounds between phenomenologists and Foucauldians. Granted, Merleau-Ponty’s theory of the subject is significantly different from the Husserlian subject due to the emphasis on the role of the body, Venable’s take on the matter is that the Pontyesque body nonetheless exhibits an indivisible (non decomposable), albeit experiential, unity. This unity, either implicitly or explicitly, I argue, is not found with Foucault.

The subject in Merleau-Ponty is the starting point and the ultimate foundation of reality. Ponty takes care to show that the essence of the phenomenon is not simply observation, but an embodied and interactive relationship with the world. As we mentioned before, perception is action, or the capacity to act within a milieu – the ‘I can’. “Everything must begin with my own perspective as a subject for I cannot ever entirely escape myself,” writes Venable (2021). This is clearly not the case for Foucault. Foucault privileges discourse over the subject, claiming that the subject is in fact a product of multiple discourses. One produces oneself through discourse, an on-going narrative of the self about the self; the self is constantly sustained through institutional mediation. In this sense, contra Venable, it seems that the Foucauldian account of experience is one of fragmentation, rather than unity. The subject is dispersed via discourse and all unity is merely an a/effect.

Venable is not the only phenomenologist who levels the accusation against Foucault for him having neglected the role of the body. It is thought that Foucault has somehow “forgotten” or otherwise ignored the body, the lived body as it is experienced from within, in order to address the “more urgent” matters concerning the body of power inscribed from the outside. Another accusation involves labeling Foucault a determinist due to his “one-sided” approach to the body. If the body is exclusively the product of inscriptions and power-effects, how does one negotiate for freedom? Both of these questions will be addressed shortly towards the end.

By speaking of the unity of experience or the unity of the body, Venable does not thereby concede to the existence of a determined or determining human nature; neither do Foucault and Merleau-Ponty. And yet, Venable (2021) argues, “that the body has a certain “universal arrangement” which operates according to common patterns and allows us to discover through perception and through exploration the order of the world.” Why does this universality have to pertain either to the lived body or the inscribed body remains unfortunately quite unclear and in need of further support. In her attempt to link phenomenology with archaeology, Venable seems to do little justice either to Merleau-Ponty, who in his later work abandons phenomenology altogether, or to Foucault, by discarding several of the central theses orchestrating his entire oeuvre[4].

Venable attempts to respond to these questions in chapter seven and begins the process of reconciliation between the Foucauldian and the Pontyesque views on subjectivity, the role of history and their relationship to psychology. Using a “complementary” approach, Venable offers the reader a strategic synthesis, whereby the dialogue is supposed to result in the mutual enhancement of the two philosophers and their methods. We must ask, once again, how much of the actual content of their work is sacrificed for the presumed effectiveness of the integrated approach? Venable makes a profound point, one rarely encountered in contemporary Foucauldian scholarship; Foucault was indeed interested in the question of experience. And it is without a doubt, that human experience is a problem that gripped Merleau-Ponty as well. But unfortunately, Venable takes a rather unsubstantiated leap, by attempting to link this mutual fascination with experience to a shared understanding of subjectivity. To reiterate, the Foucauldian conception of experience, to my mind, does not by any means imply unity. Quite the opposite. The experience of madness, maybe even by definition, is the experience of dispersed fragmentation. There is, I argue, no implied subject behind this idea of experience. It is fundamentally different from the actual experience of the phenomenological subject. The phenomenological and Pontyesque body may or may not necessarily support the idea of unity, but the Foucauldian conception of flesh at its most “fundamental” level is necessarily disjointed.

The final section of Madness in Experience and History offers novel approaches to mental illness by suggesting several routes for the application of the integrated method. After claiming to have reconciled the differences between phenomenology and archaeology, Venable attempts to introduce her method to contemporary problems in psychology. Starting with the case of Schizophrenia, a modern disorder broadly defined as discord between emotion, thought and behavior and the presence of hallucinatory symptoms, Venable first points out that the element of fantasy never achieves its full expression. The subject’s relationship with reality is never entirely broken down. Perception remains as an invariant structure between the “normal” and the “pathological” experiences of reality. “Both experiences, hallucinatory and perceptual, come from the same structure of human experience… … the primordial relation to the world” (Venable, 2021). The patient therefore, is not cut off from reality, but simply bears a different relationship to it. The pre-reflective non-rational is equally present in the perceptions of the normal as well as the abnormal individual, the difference is, as mentioned before, the relationship between the rational and the non-rational. It is almost as if there was a failure of executing a technique or exercising a capacity, rather than the absence of a faculty.

Melancholia, better known today as Major Depressive Disorder leads to the second diagnosis discussed in the book. Similar to cases of Schizophrenia, Venable via Merleau-Ponty, shows that the melancholic subject engages with the same structures of the common, rational order to “distort” and recreate a world of desperation and hopelessness. Once again, the connection is not severed, the patient “takes what she needs” in order to maintain an anesthetized morbid reality of her own. Paradoxically, the patient uses the world to push it away, maintaining a radical relationship of heterogeneity and exteriority with the social. The “abnormal” individual flees subjectivity. “Even when we feel trapped by grief and sorrow, our senses are still taking in the world around us, such as seeing a brightly colored object across the room” (Venable, 2021). By pointing out, once again, the shared structure of the embodied pre-rational, Venable’s approach helps us see what is left of our shared experience; the non-rational between us and those who suffer from mental distress. And this is more than enough to bridge the gap and overcome the stigma that often accompanies a diagnosis. Where Merleau-Ponty should help us see the common phenomenological experience that allows us to relate with those affiliated with mental illness, Foucault helps us see the bigger picture and the historical horizon that links all cultures and epochs in their attempts to deal with madness, unveiling the larger social determinants of psychological suffering. Both approaches either “reach beneath” or see beyond the compartmentalized logic of the bio-medical model.

Bipolar I Disorder characterized by violent mood swings and alterations between mania and depression is characterized by a movement from the general sense of being lost or “decentered” (Venable, 2021) vis-à-vis “normal” experience, to an intense state of concentration and lucidity. Venable identifies a pattern similar to the one found with the other two cases: “As we have consistently seen in other disorders, there is not a total loss of the rational in the distortion of space, for even during a manic episode a person can often still distinguish between objective space and the “me-centered” reality” (Venable, 2021). Once again, we should refuse to give in to our outdated modes of relating with the other by othering them further and reducing them to their diagnosis. The phenomenology of bipolar disorder repeatedly demonstrates that those who suffer under the label have more in common with those who don’t than may be noticed at first glance. Similarly, Foucault’s historical approach shows that the diagnosis of bipolar disorder leaves much to be desired in terms of rigor and accuracy, revealing, as before, the need for a more inclusive and broader understanding of its socio-historical origins.

Hannah Lyn Venable’s Madness in Experience and History: Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology and Foucault’s Archaeology is a beautifully written, clear and concise work of exemplary academic scholarship. It’s ambitious aims of reconciling two hostile schools of philosophy has not gone unnoticed and will remain relevant for years to come. The original integrated approach holds much promise in improving psychological care and providing a better understanding of the history and sociology of mental illness. But despite the lucidity, usefulness and relevance of the work, it does little justice to the archaeological method. Foucault’s work repeatedly emphasizes the importance of dispersions. The Foucauldian subject is a non-subject scattered throughout discourse and the only unity offered to the self is that which is artificially imposed or self-imposed through power. The flesh cannot exhibit unity, since the self is itself an event, a site of power and resistance where freedom is fought for. There is no inside, because the distinction between inside and outside is itself a structure maintained through discourse. Arguing for an implied theory of the unified subject tends to ignore the real theoretical breakthroughs achieved in Foucault’s work. The reduction of Foucault’s notion of experience to the unity of the phenomenological, albeit embodied, subject of actual experience is too high of a price to pay for the sake of a well-rounded theory of the self.


Crossley, N. (1994). The Politics of Subjectivity: Between Foucault and Merleau-Ponty. Avebury Series in Philosophy

Foucault, M., Murphy, J., & Khalfa, J. (2013). History of Madness. Routledge.

Foucault, M. (2013). Archaeology of Knowledge. Routledge.

Heidegger, M. (2010). Being and Time. Suny Press.

Merleau-Ponty, M., Landes, D., Carman, T., & Lefort, C. (2013). Phenomenology of Perception. Routledge.

Venable, H. L. (2021). Madness in Experience and History: Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology and Foucault’s Archaeology. Routledge.

[1] In fact, on page 146, Venable almost explicitly labels Foucault a Hegelian, which in my reading of Foucault, especially his interviews, is simply wrong.

[2] For present purposes a slightly modified, but strictly speaking an incorrect use of the Marxist-Hegelian term.

[3] Perhaps only second or even third in importance to the voluminous work on the history of sexuality and The Order of Things, which was first to bring wide critical acclaim and attention to Foucault.

[4] I.e., Foucault’s rejection of all universals, as well as his portrayal of the human subject, including the embodied subject, as a historico-political construct.

Leave a Reply