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Idiocy: A Cultural History by Patrick McDonagh (review)
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From the very beginning of his erudite, complex, and fascinating book, Patrick McDonagh acknowledges the slippery nature of the concept he explores. A social, cultural, and historical construct with multiple symbolic valences and performing multiple societal functions, idiocy is difficult, if not impossible to define, as its meaning shifts depending on the sociocultural context in which it exists. In that, idiocy shares a good deal of features with madness, perhaps a better studied liminal concept testing our self-definition as humans. Like madness, the concept of idiocy serves as a useful contrast to reason, the feature that we have universally come to accept as distinguishing us from beasts, thus helping discourse-makers in positions of power redefine what constitutes “human,” who gets resources and who gets denied those resources, and ultimately who deserves the right to full citizenship and basic human rights under the law. McDonagh establishes this role of the idiot as the other early in his book, writing “idiocy is as much a socially and ideologically meaningful concept as it is a way of saying something about other people, and the study of idiocy is the study of a particular form of exile, through which some humans are removed in order to enable the remainder to believe in their own unalloyed intelligence” (2).

The cultural historian’s job is then to untangle, meticulously, the myriad connotations and functions of idiocy as revealed through literary works, social reforms and manifestos, pedagogical initiatives, and economic, religious, and class shifts, among others. It is a Foucauldian project, an archeology that does not explicitly acknowledge Foucault (he gets mentioned, though not credited, which is perhaps for the better, since McDonagh’s project is much more heavily reliant on literary sources than Foucault’s). Nor does McDonagh dwell too long on the medical explanations of idiocy—they are mentioned and sometimes used in building arguments, but the author is mainly interested in unpacking the popular perceptions of idiocy as manifested in print sources or sociopolitical movements, broadly construed.

The subtitle A Cultural History betrays an ambition that is quickly tempered in the introduction: this is not a universal, comprehensive history of idiocy, but is instead limited to the evolution of the concept during nineteenth-century Britain. True, to unpack those meanings, the author must make necessary forays into the medieval roots of the term (“idiot” as a private person, who does not hold private office, on a par with peasants and women), into the Shakespearean connotations of the “fool,” and late eighteenth-century notions of the idiot as envisioned by Wordsworth. He also has to venture outside the borders of the empire when particular events, circumstances, or authors prove influential enough for how the figure of the idiot is construed in British society. Most notably, he examines in depth the case of the wild boy of Aveyron (France) and the pedagogical, quasi-failed early nineteenth-century experiment that aimed to reclaim him into society. McDonagh also looks into some of the writings of the most influential leaders of the American eugenics movement, whose arguments entered British social reform discourse in late nineteenth century (in particular, Samuel Gridley Howe’s theory of moral degeneration). The discussion of Wordsworth’s “The Idiot Boy” (1798) and of Jean Itard’s pedagogical experiment with the wild boy of Aveyron (1800–05) are the introductory chapters of the book—appropriately so not just in terms of McDonagh’s relatively strict chronological ambitions, but also in terms of setting up two very different and influential framings of idiocy, which will reappear throughout the nineteenth century. Thus, Johnny Foy, the (anti)-hero in Wordsworth’s ballad, is construed as “a descendant of the ‘holy fool,’ the ‘natural’ and the ‘innocent’” (2)—all concepts that McDonagh will unpack further in the book; a creature associated both with nature and with the feminine, in contrast with “the rational, masculine, urban world of the doctor, the man of science” (45). The story of the wild boy of Aveyron affords the author a chance to explore Locke’s description of idiocy from his famous 1689 Essay Concerning Human Understanding and the way they influenced Enlightenment ideas of idiocy, and by extension, Itard’s experiment...



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