Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

Jean et Michele


The Death of Jean Baudrillard Did Happen in The Chonicle (get that subscription!) and The Fictions of Foucault’s Scholarship in the Times Literary Supplement (free to web-loafers) constitute a great double blow to “Continental Philosophy” pomposity in recent days.

First Baudrillard. Carlin Romano, the author, likens Baudrillard to a “French Ann Coulter with stumpy legs and nicotine-ruined lungs” — stalking fame “by making outrageous declarations he knew to be false.” Here’s a grand segment:

In fact, few could make heads or tails of Baudrillard’s prose, typically a hodgepodge of undefined abstractions. They could only regurgitate labels — postmodernist, post-postmodernist, Situationist, post-Situationist — because his sentences often didn’t make sense. More than any other modern French “master of thought,” Baudrillard exemplified the calculated strain in French academic culture that elevates a handful of thinkers in its lucid, elegant language to superstardom precisely because they perform the dance of opaqueness best.

All veteran humanities people know the reasons: Intentionally obscure French philosophy is an established performance art; there’s money to be made, appointments to be secured, prestige to be garnered. Just as rich, white American pop-music execs grasp that giving a tyro singer one name automatically wins teenage fans, operators in the “master of thought” biz know that positioning a properly hieratic obscurantist correctly can lead scholarly publishers to issue any dreck the thinker produces and eventually trigger secondary trots on the “masters” by the same acolytes driving the whole process. Once a French thinker hits the mark, of course, no one dares shut him or her up, or suggests such plebeian activities as editing or rewriting.

Baudrillard, though, may be the screw-up who endangered the brand. His published writings were so bad, and his publicity-hound manner so obvious, that the image of incomprehensibility and clownishness attached itself to the “respectful” profile drawn by his advocates and they couldn’t rub it off.

Then, Foucault. The reviewer, Andrew Scull, examines the recent translation of the full form of Madness and Civilization. But you read that one? Nope – that’d be “Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique” — considerably less punchy. Several chapters and countless footnotes were omitted from the version translated into English. This has been remedied with a full translation, and Scull finds it lacking mightily. Here is a particular example.

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”. It is odd, to put it mildly, to rely exclusively on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century scholarship to examine the place of leprosy in the medieval world. It is peculiar to base one’s discussion of English and Irish poor law policy from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries on, in essence, only three sources — the dated and long superseded work of Sir George Nicholls (1781–1865), E. M. Leonard’s 1900 textbook, and an eighteenth-century treatise by Sir Frederick Morton Eden. For someone purporting to write a history of the Western encounter with madness, it is downright astonishing to rely on a tiny handful of long-dead authors as a reliable guide to English developments: Jacques Tenon’s eighteenth-century account of his visit to English hospitals, supplemented by Samuel Tuke’s Description of the Retreat (1813) and Hack Tuke’s Chapters in the History of the Insane (1882).

What, more broadly does Scull find?

… Narrowness of this kind is not confined to footnotes. Foucault’s isolation from the world of facts and scholarship is evident throughout History of Madness. It is as though nearly a century of scholarly work had produced nothing of interest or value for Foucault’s project. What interested him, or shielded him, was selectively mined nineteenth-century sources of dubious provenance. Inevitably, this means that elaborate intellectual constructions are built on the shakiest of empirical foundations, and, not surprisingly, many turn out to be wrong.

And Humanities departments across the nation are left spitting with rage.


Subscribe to National Review