I did not start my career as a ‘theory person.’
I love stories, especially those that haven’t been told as often as others, which is one of the reasons why this project has been so rewarding as well as fascinating.
But theory is another thing. There are people who adore it, who love working out frameworks of intelligibility and understanding, who thrive on being able to find a pattern again and again and then name it, inspiring others to follow suit.
I’m delighted when a paradigm opens up new ideas for me, and I’m always intrigued when a particular theory works well within my research. I’m even more impressed when an academic theory flies off the page and works consistently in real life: Ari Adut’s ‘theory of scandal’ is eerily applicable year after year.
But theory as a happy pursuit? Hmm…
I clearly remember the moment when I ‘cracked’ Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble as a PhD student. I was sitting in Freddie’s – the daytime-coffee-house-nighttime-bar at Goodenough College – in one of the alcoves with my papers spread all around me on the large circular table and my back against the upholstered banquette. It must have been the 17th time (or maybe the 117th) that I had made my way slowly through the chapter on gender performativity, wondering why words I knew very well were just not gelling together properly in my brain when reordered into a Judith-Butler-sentence.
Suddenly, my eyes just snapped. Out of nowhere, I got it. It was Damascene. (BTW, the best use ever of this word is when Peter O’Toole intones it on the Becket DVD commentary. Your ears tingle for a few seconds afterward.)
I couldn’t entirely believe that the pieces of Butlerian logic had actually fallen into place. I read a few more sentences, then re-read them, but yes. I had it. Of course, I didn’t know if I could explain it to anyone else at that point, but still, small victories…
Dealing with Foucauldian theories, and with Michel Foucault himself, has been a much longer struggle. If you work in gender or sexualities or social power dynamics or histories of madness or institutions or prisons… you really can’t avoid Foucault. He’s a bit like Eric Hobsbawm or Benedict Anderson – somehow, the name always shows up in the bibliography.
Foucault has haunted me at various points in my research and teaching. Discipline and Punish became an essential text in my Rebellions in Ireland and the Canadas seminar. Its chapter about the scaffold as a didactic tool has produced many insightful comments from undergrads and graduate students.
I certainly don’t agree with every Foucauldian argument – can anyone? – but I’ve felt compelled to include his frameworks in various analyses because, nearly forty years after his death, some of his observations about social power dynamics, state control, and nineteenth century sexuality still have real weight. (Except when they don’t. Many of the sexuality arguments don’t work in a Canadian or Irish or British context. See Sean Brady’s Masculinity and Male Homosexuality in Britain, 1861-1913 (2005) and Adut’s aforementioned ‘Theory of Scandal’ (2005).)
And, like clockwork, a haunting happened again in the earliest days of the GMM Project.
I was sitting in the British Library during my sabbatical (Humanities 2, of course) and I had begun to read Foucault’s classic Madness and Civilization (1961). Chapter 1 begins with the disappearance of leprosy from the Western world and the image of the ‘Ship of Fools.’ Two passages in particular leapt out at me. The first was Foucault’s discussion of how navigation by water was, itself, a maddening proposition:
Confined on the ship, from which there is no escape, the madman is delivered to the river with its thousand arms, the sea with its thousand roads, to the great uncertainty external to everything….
And the land he will come to is unknown – as is, once he disembarks, the land from which he comes. He has his truth and his homeland only in that fruitless expanse between two countries that cannot belong to him….
One thing at least is certain: water and madness have long been linked in the dreams of European man.
~ Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, first published 1961, translated by Richard Howard (London: Tavistock, 1967), 11-12.
That liminal space between land and sea, where a coffin ship could also become a ship of fools.
The other image, perhaps even more striking, was leprosy. To safeguard the populace of medieval Europe from the spread of the disease, lazar houses were built on the edge of many towns and villages. As the centuries wore on, leprosy as a disease in Western Europe became less common. But the geographic and social space of the outcast – the lazar house – was left vacant. Foucault gives us the idea of the Great Confinement, when the ‘mad’ of Europe were rounded up and shut away, quite often in places that already had a history of rejection and disease. The spread of the asylum was not particular to a single nation state or province, but a transnational phenomenon. As he points out, the leper might have vanished, but the structures and spaces of rejection and horror remained:
Many of these centers of confinement were built in the very places where the lepers had once been kept; it was as if, across the centuries, the new tenants had received the contagion.
Foucault, Madness and Civilization, 202.
Instead of a lazar house on the edge of the village, now there was an asylum, a house of confinement, that became the focus of people’s fears. Behind its walls, diseases would multiply and perhaps spread to the outside: fevers, scurvy, miasma, cholera, even insanity itself. And I started furiously making notes.
Because on Grosse Île, at the other end from the Celtic Cross and the burial grounds, is the Lazaretto. It is on the eastern-most edge of the island, far from the pier where ships unloaded their passengers for quarantine. The Lazaretto is the only building on the island still standing that witnessed ‘Black ’47,’ when over 5,000 Irish refugees from the famine died on Grosse Île before ever arriving in Québec or the rest of Canada. It was a makeshift hospital for those suffering from typhus and ‘ship fever’ and, later, cholera and smallpox. It was the place to which no one wished to go.
They called it the Lazaretto. Not the hospital or the bungalow or the fever shed. The Lazaretto, where the lepers were kept.
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