Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Imperial Projects in Peripheral Madness

Foucault has asserted that a great confinement took place in Europe, with the proliferation of the asylum, during the early modern period. Waltraud Ernst’s Mad Tales from the Raj: the European Insane in British India, 1800 – 1858, published by Routledge in 1991, investigates the role of the Asylum in India and attempts to ascertain whether this can be said of its propagation there. She seeks to understand the relationship of the institution to the colonial project in the British Empire. She was originally trained as a cultural psychologist and now teaches and researches the history of western medicine during the modern period. In this book she uses her knowledge of psychology to investigate some of the treatment strategies of the European soldiers put in the care of the mental health professionals in India. This book spreads itself awfully thin in terms of the treatment of several topics, especially given how petite it is, less than 200 pages, yet to her credit Ernst accomplishes this feat.

Ernst sums her goal in writing this work as a twofold endeavor to elucidate the relationship of the mental asylum to colonialism and to develop a theoretical framework in which to understand mental health in its socio-political context. While there is no doubt that Ernst successfully tells a good story as to the loci of the European insane within the European colonial context. Additionally she seeks to examine the role the clinic had on the treatment of the insane as well. A lot of references are made to Foucault, where Ernst is quick to accuse him of playing fast and loose with the historical record. She furthermore indicates that asylums were not anywhere near the Panopticons that one is made to believe in reading Foucault. She also gives passing glances to the notion that the clinics played a role in the establishing of colonial domination, instead argumentatively favoring the idea that the clinics were established as a last ditch effort to save European face in the colonial context.Europeans, she discovered, did not want their own seen by Indians as susceptible to insanity and were quick to either remove them back to Europe or else hide them in the clinics established in India. Which doesn't undermine arguments about colonial legitimacy. There is definitely more room to expand in this analysis.

While the work mobilizes a lot of primary material, very little thick analysis is proffered. Instead the book fills a void in a dearth of knowledge about the introduction of the treatment of mental health in India. She excellently gives a sweeping overview of the half century this book covers but much remains to be done on several levels. While she couldn’t have been expected to expound on every detail of the multiple topics this book stretches across, it nonetheless argues its topics lucidly and with quite a bit of humor.

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