Some Reading Notes – Disease, Abnormality and Quarantine

 “Diversity is not disease; the anomalous is not the pathological.”(Georges Canguilhem, 2007, 96)

There are often statements on Chinese SNS like “health is the basis of beauty” and the existence of so-called health standards (including height, weight, psychology), but I think this is too arrogant. The standard of health is fluid. Modern medicine’s delineation of the standard of disease is based on an average standard value. In The normal and the pathological, Georges Canguilhem uses the example of amputation to illustrate the importance of this definition. A person who has lost an arm can hardly be said to be healthy from the point of view of other people, because he differs greatly from them in physical characteristics. However, from the point of view of the living organism itself, although at the beginning the amputated subject is unable to adapt to his surroundings, after a period of adaptation he is able to form an adaptive relationship with his environment, and in this sense the amputated individual is still abnormal, but never pathological.

However, the inconvenience of being “unhealthy/abnormal” cannot be denied.

Another Angle

As Michel Foucault mentioned in Madness and Civilization, it is not because we first focused on diseases of the brain and nervous system that we invented the concept of madness; rather, we first established the concept of madness as opposed to reason, constructing madness as an event opposed to reason, and then looking for physiological evidence of madness, i.e., damage to the nervous system and the brain. This approach, precisely, is contrary to the history of modern scientific development.  Thus, we can understand that the modern invention of insanity was not motivated by purely medical and physiological purposes, but from the very beginning by political and social purposes, i.e., the exclusion of an impossible scope of governance, which was defined as insanity. 

Insanity became an ungovernable subject, as distinguished from those modern subjects who are sane and fit to govern, and ultimately, for these ungovernable subjects, the specific approach was to establish mental hospitals (sanatoriums), thus isolating them so that their presence would not jeopardize the functioning and governance of normal society.

Unlike Canguilhem, Foucault, from the beginning, thinks of pathology on a social and political level, rather than on the level of individual health. Whereas Canguilhem’s pathology is thought of in terms of the relationship between individual lives and their surroundings, Foucault thinks of normality and pathology not in terms of the normality and pathology of the individual organism, but in terms of the normality and pathology of society as a whole and in terms of its structure.


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