"12 MONKEYS" ET DERAISON Foucault: The Sequel

By Kip Hinton, English The Ohio State University kip+@osu.edu __________________________________________________________________

 

"The madman is an outsider not because he comes from the world of the irrational and bears its stigmata; rather, he is an outsider because he crosses the frontiers of bourgeois order of his own accord and alienates himself outside the sacred limits of its ethics."
-Michel Foucault, "Folie et Deraison"

"You know what 'crazy' is? 'Crazy' is MAJORITY RULES!"
-Jeffrey Goines, "12 Monkeys"

 

Simply thinking about the film "12 Monkeys" feels like approaching Foucault: you know you aren't going to grasp it entirely, so you have to settle for the general concepts. The schizophrenic camera work is dizzying in much the same way that Foucault's anti-lucid arguments are. When we finally grasp some concepts, we must decide which ones to consider, because there are too many issues in both cases. Foucault's preoccupation with institutions and madness comes immediately to mind. From there it becomes apparent that these aren't mere surface similarities. The conception of madness in "12 Monkeys" embodies Michel Foucault's. "12 Monkeys" is a postmodern update of "Folie et Deraison."

As a psychiatrist, Dr. Kathryn Railly has been trained to deal with just this sort of thing: a patient who is convinced he is from a different world. James Cole claims he is from the future, and repeatedly mentions a plague which is coming in 1996. "Is 1996 the present, James?" "No, 1996 is the past, too." The time periods are different worlds in Cole's mind, and their positions are relative to the reality he holds onto: he is a time traveler from 2035, come to find a sample of the virus before it mutates, so the human race can "get back on top." As we expect, to Dr. Railly, this story is no different than that of the patient claiming to be "from Pluto, a member of an upper-class elite." We don't know whether this patient believes his Pluto story is a construction of his mind or is merely repeating what psychiatrists have told him, but we see the dual existence. Dr. Railly's job is now to convince Cole that he is not from the future, and there is not going to be a plague in 1996. This clashing of realities is the same as that which goes on in every delusional person's mind. By the time she succeeds in convincing him, he has convinced her as well. The problem is that no matter which reality is accepted, one reality- equally real- must be denied.

These characters and others very much represent Western thought on madness. Jeffrey says "I'm insane, I'm supposed to act crazy," and every patient is a stereotype of insanity: paranoia, hypochondria, schizophrenia, delusions, depression, mania, or hysteria. Each person fits into their category, and together they fit into the asylum. When Jeffrey is in the asylum, and looks like an insane person, he is insane. When he is dressed well and eating with the upper-class, he is merely eccentric. Cole is given rough showers, because cold showers are both a treatment and a punishment, traditionally believed cure frenzy and mania (Foucault: MC, 168). He is placed in chains, because there is nothing "more obedient to man than the application of iron" (p.161). He exhibits "the apparent violence of madness, which sometimes seems to multiply the strength of maniacs to considerable proportions" (160). His drooling, repetition of words, and rocking back and forth are further evidence. When he finds Jeffrey in 1996, Jeffrey refers to the traditional treatment of madmen when he says "This man is insane. Feel free to torture him or whatever it is you do." Even Cole's ecstasy upon hearing "Blueberry Hill" fits: "Music's effects were especially remarkable upon madness... Wilhelm Albrecht also cured a delirious patient... by prescribing the performance, during one of his attacks, of 'a little song which awakened the sufferer, pleased him, excited him to laugh, and dispelled the paroxysm forever'" (178). The scientists of the future were aware that Cole was mentally unstable. He was chosen , as he said, because he had a good memory, but also because he was "susceptible to hallucinations and dreamlike states," making time travel less disorienting and leading him to truth others may not see (Caputo, 237).

The idea of madness as acceptable, or even a state possibly closer to truth than sanity, was widely held previous to modern times. The insane were often interpreted as voices of God, who "communicated with the great tragic powers of the world" (Foucault: MC, 281). This was the time when the Church was the arbiter of morality, and the Church's 'saints' were almost always individuals who had previously been condemned as insane; the link between divinity and madness was explicit. Since the Renaissance, however, we are guilty of "refusing to recognize madness in its own terms, refusing to accept its voice as a legitimate one" (Gutting, 99). The Church began to view insanity as "an originary choice of unreason over reason" (75). It became a morality issue- people who were insane were no longer the voice of God, they were voices against God, against the natural order, because they were voices against society: "The nature of a given society defines norms in terms of which certain personality traits are pathological" (67). The insane became savages, and their "unchained animality could only be mastered by discipline and brutalizing" (Foucault: MC, 75). Cold showers, centrifugation, branding, enforced silence, and other forms of torture came into vogue.

After the French Revolution, the insane were moved into asylums. This was to keep others safe from insanity (203), and supposedly to allow them to 'heal.' "Classical madness is, in Foucault's view, simply unreason" (Gutting, 77). Because the insane were "proof of the inadequacy of bourgeois society" (65), a more insidious motivation arose to hide them, "so as not to see in them the scandalous expression of the contradictions that have made their illness possible" (Foucault: MMP, 104). There was no attempt or pretense to understand madness scientifically or medically. Then came the modern age, and the Church's morality was replaced by that of Science: "The asylum is a religious domain without religion, a domain of pure morality" (Foucault: MC, 255), and "what we call psychiatric practice is a certain moral tactic contemporary with the end of the eighteenth century, preserved in the rites of asylum life, and overlaid by the myths of positivism" (276). The idea of 'mental illness' was born, and madness became a kind of disease (Gutting, 67).

This 'new' way of looking at madness is a facade, because it "is a construction of a psychology and psychiatry in the service of our society's attempt to control (by excluding and silencing) those who do not conform to bourgeois society's basic values" (67). "Other societies- for example, those of medieval and Renaissance Europe- tolerated and even accepted the importance of the mad's deviations. Our society, however, refuses the mad even a marginal place and instead claims- on the allegedly scientific authority of psychology and psychiatry- that madness has no status beyond that of an objective mental deficiency" (67). The only escape from science is "the madman's acceptance of the norms of society" (68). As Dr. Railly notes, "Psychiatry is the new religion. we decide right and wrong." So madness became a paradox. Society creates the mad, and then tries to compel the mad to stop being as they are. This is the situation of "12 Monkeys." They are in the asylum, Jeffrey Goines says, not because there is something inherently wrong with them, it is just because they don't subscribe to the norms of modern society, they aren't "good consumers," and don't buy "TVs, VCRs, microwave ovens, personal sexual devices..." So to Jeffrey, bourgeois society is based on Buying, which is the necessary result of Foucault's bourgeois society based on Work (Foucault: MC, 247). Jeffrey says "they have to protect the people outside from the people inside, or they'll catch what we have," which echoes Foucault: "these wards spread around them, by fermentation, a contagious atmosphere... these burning vapors then rise, spread through the air, and finally fall upon the neighborhood" (203). Likewise, Jeffrey says the people inside must be protected from the world, just like "the asylum was protected from history and from social evolution" (254). Foucault and "12 Monkeys" are both obsessed with animality. To Foucault, "the animality of madness is simply the human being at his zero degree" (Gutting, 75). Animality is what makes the insane violent, strong "savages." He speacs of exhibitions of madmen as if they were in a zoo (76), and places madmen as "so immersed in their animality" (76), they function solely on reflex and instinct, completely removed from societal undertakings. "12 Monkeys" lacewise depicts the insane as animals in each asylum scene, and the audience is seeifg them through the bars of the monkey cage. "We're all monkeys," Jeffrey says, just before one of his many speeches about the horrors of our cruelty to animals, his main motivation in life. Ultimately, his aptly named "Army of the 12 Monkeys" succeeds in a gesture of animal freedom by liberating the zoo, and possibly by returning the entire world to the hands of animals. As a madman, he feels a connection with the animals which is missing with humans: "Wiping out the human race? Sounds like a good idea." He wants to exist without bourgeois consumerism, without cruelty based on animality or insanity: "my father... will have them transfer me to one of those classy joints, where they treat you like a guest." This is a truth disguised as the ramblings of a madman. Ironically, his father, Nobel Prize-winning virologist Leland Goines, conducts the very experiments Jeffrey hates. Similarly, the bears and bulls of the Merrill-Lynch commercial were bourgeois society's conception of animals, as economic tools, to be used as needed. Foucault's madmen are as close to nature as possible, and the result of "12 Monkeys'" madness is a world returned to nature, to the animals. Cole says to the scientists "I just want to do my part to get us back on top, in charge of things," because insanity /animalism has subordinated science and rational humanity. A newspaper article on the wall reads "animal populations unaffected by virus," and there is an impression of the Insane conspiring with both the animals and the "teeny-tiny invisible things called germs" to take over the world. This is the ultimate defeat of bourgeois consumerism: it is destroyed by the insanity it created and tried to deny. While the human race is destroyed by insanity, it is not Jeffrey. It is Dr. Peters, a trusted member of the establishment, Leland Goines co-worker. He destroys it as a sort of punishment for what he sees as madness: "The true cry of the insane is 'let's go shopping,'" a direct attack on the consumerism Jeffrey also loathes. He calls this insanity "true" because the insanity of people like Jeffrey was not true; Jeffrey understands society perfectly. His imprisonment was proof of that. In bourgeois consumerism, the Mall is the new cathedral, complete with steeple and angels. And as in Foucault, psychiatry is the new religion: "The doctor has the almost miraculous power to cure" (Foucault: MC, 274). When Foucault says "the Novel constitutes the milieu of perversion, par excellence, of all sensibility" (219), we are only a small step from Jeffrey saying "There's the TV. Kneel. Worship. Pray." TV is the device that holds society together. It keeps us pacified, tells us what to buy, how to live. In an interview, Terry Gilliam, the film's director, said "television is this awful mirror that we all look into every day, but it distorts the reflection and I hate it. however much you try to resist it, you begin to believe the world really is that way." So as a madman may invent incredible alternate realities, bourgeois consumerism has invented a uniform alternate reality, giving the world a collective delusion, and resulting in Dr. Peters being correct.

Gilliam says that for the disturbing and surreal ideas in "12 Monkeys" he rushes "back to Breughel, to Bosch, to Goya." These same three painters are crucial to Foucault's conclusion (Foucault: MC, 280-285). They certainly did not discuss the works with each other, yet the works embody what both of them try to tell us: "Madness has become man's possibility of abolishing both man and the world... It is the ambiguity of chaos and apocalypse: Goya's Idiot who shrieks and twists his shoulder to escape from the nothingness that imprisons him- is this the birth of the first man and his first movement toward liberty, or the last convulsion of the last dying man?"(281) "What truth would they speak if we lend them an ear? A 'tragic' truth, the truth of a 'split,' let us say, a tragic knowledge. This is the sort of truth that would kill you- or drive you mad- of which Nietzche spoke" (Caputo, 237).

"12 Monkeys" and Folie et Déraison are both about the failure of progress. The sets for the film were, as Terry Gilliam put it, "Old disused nuclear plants, factories, power stations: 'cathedrals of technological progress.' I've always had a problem with the belief that technology was going to solve all of our problems." Foucault accuses "physicians and scientists" of concocting the "modern concept of scientific psychology and psychiatry... as a disguise for the doctors' moral domination of the mad in the name of bourgeois society" (Gutting, 95) and says madness is the ultimate outcome of "overcivilization," a "generalized defense reaction" (Foucault: MMP, 102) to progress. Indeed, the doctors in "12 Monkeys" seem to have no interest in healing or helping people, they merely preserve the system. TV embodies progress, technology, and consumerism, and all of these have replaced religion as 'the opiate of the people.' Our communication devices have only separated us; our entertainment has only made us bored; our fast food has only made us impatient. "Against the illusions of science and morals Foucault advocates a more originary tragic experience, an experience of reason's undoing and auto-deconstruction by unreason, which is the 'truth' of the human condition" (Caputo, 243). With truth, progress, and religion gone, our modernity is based on nothing but a collective delusion. Only the insane can hope to maintain sanity.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

Caputo, John. "On Not Knowing Who We Are." *Foucault and the Critique of Institutions.* J.Caputo and M.Yount, ed. University Park, Pennsylvania: Penn State University Press, 1993.

Foucault, Michel. *Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason.* R.Howard, trans. New York: Pantheon Books, 1965.

Foucault, Michel. *Maladie mentale et psychologie.* A.Sheridan, trans. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987

Gutting, Gary. *Michel Foucault's Archaeology of Scientific Reason.* Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Lakeman, Thomas. *12 Monkeys: Website.* J.Greer, producer. Digital Planet, 1995. http://www.mca.com/universal_pictures/12

Mohl, Lucy. *Film.com.* Phinney/Bischoff, designers. Seattle: Film.com, 1996. http://www.film.com

Peoples, David and Janet. *12 Monkeys.* T.Gilliam, director. Hollywood: Universal Pictures, 1995.

 

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copyright(C) Kip Hinton, 1996. All Rights Reserved, All Wrongs Revered.
send responses to this list or to kip+@osu.edu
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"Maybe it's all in the madman's mind. -Director Terry Gilliam on "12 Monkeys"

"The ideas promulgated [in the 20th cen.] revolved around excessive cgfsumption. In certain extremes, those who resisted this ideal were considered mentally deficient." -Screenwriter David Peoples on "12 Monkeys"

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