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Psychiatry, Subjectivity, Community

Franco Basaglia and Biopolitics


Alvise Sforza-Tarabochia

Law 180, which abolished mental asylums in Italy, was passed in 1978. It came to be known as the ‘Basaglia Law’, after the physician whose work revolutionised psychiatry in Italy and worldwide. Franco Basaglia (1924-1980) battled to overturn an obsolete but prevalent conception of psychiatry, rooted in the asylum, where allegedly dangerous madmen were incarcerated rather than cured. Following Law 180, the asylum system was indeed dismantled in Italy, to be replaced by community centres. This radical transformation coincided with the emergence of ‘biopolitics’, a direct involvement of political power with the biological lives of the subjects, by means of homogenising disciplines such as the statistical analysis of the population.
Examining both his practice and his theory of psychiatry, this book argues that Franco Basaglia foresaw this change in the paradigm of power, and that it is possible to trace its embryonic conception in his writings. Combining history of ideas, social and cultural history, and philosophical analysis, the book contextualises Basaglia’s works within the intense current debate on biopolitics. In doing so, it shows not only how his theory of the subject and his criticism of psychiatry are still as powerful and relevant now as they were in the 1970s, but also how Basaglia’s philosophy makes an integral contribution to the burgeoning field of contemporary Italian theory.


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Chapter 1 Basaglia and Psychiatry in the 1950s


Introduction The groundbreaking extent of Law 180 and the innovative transforma- tions that Basaglia’s work brought about cannot be fully understood if we abstract them from the context of how psychiatry was practised in Italy in the 1950s, the years when Basaglia concluded his medical stud- ies and began practising as a psychiatrist in Giovanni Battista Belloni’s university clinic in Padua. After presenting a short intellectual biography of Franco Basaglia, this chapter therefore features an introductory over- view of psychiatry, beginning with its situation in the first half of the twentieth century. The general concerns of the relatively young medical specialty of psychiatry are presented, with particular attention to aetio- logical theories, diagnostic criteria and available treatments. I then give a more detailed picture of how psychiatry was practised in Italy, discussing also the principal laws that regulated the administration of psychiatric treatments and admission to the main structure in which psychiatry was practised, at least until the 1978 reform: the psychiatric hospital, i.e. the asylum, the public manicomio. In Italy, when Basaglia became a psychiatrist, the mainstream doctrine in psychiatry was biological and institutional. In brief, on the one hand, mental illness was believed to be a disease like any other, with an organic origin (be it in the brain, in the nerves or in the endocrine system) and therefore requiring an appropriate physical treatment (shock therapies, psychosurgery, and so on). On the other hand, there was a deeply rooted belief that institutionalisation – the involuntary prolonged hospitalisation of mental...

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