Excerpts on Foucault from Notes of an Underground Humanist

Making sense of Foucault?— C. G. Prado’s book Starting with Foucault: An Introduction to Genealogy (2000) is good, but in the end it succumbs to the inadequacies of its subject-matter. For instance, in expositing Foucault’s notions of archeology, genealogy, ethics and so on, Prado returns half-a-dozen times to the question of whether Foucault’s claims about truth are cogent. The problem is that, given his disavowal of the project of understanding “objective” truth, how are we to interpret Foucault’s own ideas? Are they not supposed to be true? Are they, as he seems to suggest, merely alternative “fictions,” or narratives meant to undermine prevailing power-structures, or “problematizations of established truths” undertaken purely for the sake of problematizing established truths? Prado repeatedly acknowledges the force of the “self-refutation” charge, and he repeatedly postpones answering it. Again and again he offers tentative, “experimental” defenses of Foucault, but always he implicitly recognizes their inadequacy and says effectively “Keep reading; I promise to get to the bottom of this!” His postponements eventually become comical. In the penultimate chapter, devoted solely to the Foucauldian conception of truth, he fails to come to a conclusion, instead saying, again, “I’ll return to this in the last chapter.” When finally he has to face the music and tell us why we should take Foucault seriously (as a philosopher), he gives the following hilariously pitiful answer: “The point of [Foucault’s] ceaseless problematization of established truths and knowledges is to enable us to resist being wholly determined by power-relations.... [The purpose is to] ‘promote new forms of subjectivity,’ [which] can be accomplished only by changing the truths, knowledges, and discourses within which we are defined and in terms of which we define ourselves. A novel Foucauldian construal is not a thesis to be assessed for truth; it is an opportunity, a perspective-shifting idea that, like a concept as understood by Canguilheim, admits of quite diverse development. The construal’s cogency, then, is not a function of its initial content, but of how it is taken up.” In other words, the only value of the ideas is their usefulness in fighting the Man! Ironic that they aren’t particularly useful in fighting the Man. The best way to do that, the way that gets to the heart of power structures, is to focus on class dynamics, which Foucault didn’t do probably because he recognized that materialist politics were on the wane in the 1960s and society’s attention was turning to sexuality, gender, and subjectivity.

 

Anyway, the existence of “objective truth” is obvious. It is “objectively” true that, according to my experience, I am sitting in a chair right now. It’s objectively true that either the earth revolves around the sun or the sun revolves around the earth. Either mind-independent matter exists or it does not. The fact is that anyone who is interpreting the world or trying to explain it is implicitly aiming for (“objective”) truth, even if he thinks he isn’t. What the typical philosophical postmodernist is saying, therefore, is that it’s true there is no truth. Not a very sophisticated position. [See also these notes on Richard Rorty.]

 

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Reading Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. One of the reasons for his fame is the quality of his writing: there’s a creativity, a forcefulness, a style that probably overawes a lot of academics who are willing to be impressed by that sort of thing when it’s manifested by one of their own.

 

But there is also the fact that Foucault’s obsession with power relations, his obsessive insistence that they permeate every facet of society and even the individual’s mind, and that the subject is a product of subjection, can be contagious. It really drives the point home. Even the dull-minded academic reader can start to think, “Hey, yeah, power! And discourses, and disciplines, and the fusion of power and knowledge—and hey, I’m an intellectual, so that’s great for me—and all these cool terms like ‘political technologies’ and ‘political anatomy’ and ‘vectors of power’ and ‘micro-physics of power’! What a magnificent theoretical vision!” It helps that Foucault avoids talking about business and class relations, which means that society’s central power-structures have no particular reason to be very hostile to him. It’s striking how un-original it all is, though (and truistic). E. P. Thompson’s work shows how the modern subject has had to be disciplined—for the direct or indirect sake of capital accumulation, which Foucault tends to ignore; and then there’s Gramsci (whose ideas themselves are pretty obvious), and Freud, and Nietzsche, and Marx, and a galaxy of lesser-known thinkers who have dissected the workings of power. But Foucault had a gift for self-promotion, so he became a celebrity.

 

And what’s all this blather about “the body”? He goes on and on about how important the body is. Yes, I agree, bodies are important. And they’re objects of power, etc. Again, the reason this jargon became so popular among academics is that feminism and the sexual revolution turned society’s attention to the body—to women’s (lack of) power over their bodies, to cultural interpretations of the body and sexuality, etc. Also, this kind of talk is conveniently un-Marxist, which is always good for having a smooth and successful career. It’s basically a middle-class preoccupation—as most things “subjective” are—something that middle-class people have the luxury to think about, wondering what their attitude is toward their body, whether it’s healthy or whatever, how society has influenced and perverted their relationship with their body. Actually, this intellectual turn toward subjectivity and the body is a symptom of the feminization of society since the 1960s, as decadence has set in (to quote Susan Sontag). With ultra-atomization has come a preoccupation with subjectivity, the self’s insecurity; hence feminization.

 

By the way, a nice thing about reading Foucault is that his prose is so prolix you can skim through a lot of it without missing anything substantial.

 

Another nice thing, though, is that he is more interesting and substantive than his fellow postmodernist “pioneers.” He actually has things to say, although it takes a lot of intellectual digestion to see what they are. The problem, again, is that his writing is diffuse and abstract, consisting of a strange stream of reflections on, in this case, crime and punishment and their evolution. It isn’t really philosophy, as it’s sometimes called, but it isn’t anything else either. It’s uncategorizable. It’s like a bunch of notes to himself on how to understand the “meaning,” given particular social contexts, of various crimes and punishments. Some of it makes me think of a historical phenomenology, while at other times I simply have no idea what’s going on. “What is this stuff?” It is so abstract and self-indulgent you can’t really pin it down, and after pages of reading you remember absolutely nothing of what you just read. Meaningless words passing under your eyes. It’s comparable to the feeling of “zoning out” for a few minutes. (Not all of it is this bad, I should say.)

 

Another obvious problem is Foucault’s idealism. He fixates on the opinions of reformers, philosophers, politicians, scientists, only occasionally descending to earth to note how things actually were. He’s pre-Marxist, like most postmodernists. Or, if not exactly pre-Marxist, unsophisticated in ways that Marx should have reminded him not to be.

 

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A short book review.— The first volume of Foucault’s History of Sexuality is interesting but not excellent. It doesn’t deserve all the praise it has received. The theme running through it is opposition to a “straw man” argument, namely that for the last few centuries sex has been repressed, mainly for the sake of preventing society’s labor capacity from “dissipating itself in pleasurable pursuits.”[1] What a crude functionalist position! Obviously it’s a simplification, desperately in need of elaboration and supplementation. But Foucault’s book itself contains plenty of simplistic hypotheses. Moreover, he constantly finds himself compelled to admit, without saying so, that the “repressive hypothesis” is partly, if not wholly, true. For instance, he repeatedly acknowledges that after the sixteenth century, sexual prohibitions were severe, and propriety demanded that one maintain a certain silence about sex, and so on. More importantly, “the multiplication of discourses concerning sex” that took place in “the field of exercise of power itself”—the “institutional incitement to speak about it, and to do so more and more; [the] determination on the part of the agencies of power to hear it spoken about, and to cause it to speak through explicit articulation and endlessly accumulated detail” (he discusses at length the significance of the confessional, and of the new theoretic discourses concerning women’s sexuality, childhood onanism, population control, sexual “perversities” like homosexuality and sodomy, etc.)—this “steady proliferation of discourses,” which demanded that individuals and families monitor themselves, discipline themselves, divert their sexual energies into normal reproductive functions, surely fostered a tremendous anxiety about sexuality. Whether the anxiety was caused by enforced silence/censorship/prohibitions (which Foucault denies) or by excessive “multiplication of discourses” (which Foucault affirms) seems less important than the fact that there was this anxiety, this “repression” (which he seems to deny). (Anyway, the anxiety was obviously caused by both the silence/prohibitions and the discourses. The two went hand-in-hand: had there not been so many discourses, there wouldn’t have been so many prohibitions, and vice versa.) No doubt Foucault is mostly right in his history of the “scientia sexualis” that overtook Europe with the onset of capitalism; but, if anything, his history supports the “repressive hypothesis”—or the “anxiety hypothesis,” as I’d prefer to call it, since the word “repression” has overtones of silence.

 

Still, there has been and still is a shroud of silence concerning sex, despite what Foucault says in the last pages of his book. The “proliferation of discourses” doesn’t negate the fact that most people are still somewhat uncomfortable talking about sex, that many women tend to consider it a shameful secret (whence, in part, their insecurities), that coquettish sexual games that lead nowhere are ubiquitous in our civilization. There is far more sexual frustration and anxiety in the West than in the remaining “archaic” societies, not to mention extinct prehistoric societies.

 

As for Foucault’s idea that “sex” is simply a historical fabrication, an “imaginary element” that is subordinate to sexuality and power-relations: it’s perverse. “The theory [that there is such a thing as sex] performed a certain number of functions that made it indispensable. First, the notion of ‘sex’ made it possible to group together, in an artificial unity, anatomical elements, biological functions, conducts, sensations, and pleasures, and it enabled one to make use of this fictitious unity as a causal principle, an omnipresent meaning, a secret to be discovered everywhere: sex was thus able to function as a unique signifier and as a universal signified.” (Yes, there we go again with the poststructuralist obsession with signifier/signified.) First of all, I fail to see how the unity thus constructed is “artificial,” and in any case, Foucault hasn’t argued for his claim. Second, this passage hints at the favorite—fallacy-saturated—method of postmodernists, which runs through Foucault’s book as a whole: to argue that because a certain theory or philosophy has a history and serves some function or other, it isn’t true. This conclusion is never stated explicitly, since it’s absurd, but the methods and rhetorical devices peculiar to postmodernists tend to derive their force from the implicit appeal to that argument. Foucault, Rorty, Derrida and all the others seem to think that by focusing attention on the process of philosophical creation—the vagaries and vicissitudes of it—and on a philosophy’s uses to a given power-structure, they can invalidate the philosophy itself. That just ain’t so. At most, it encourages the philosophy’s defenders to be extra-rigorous in their defense.

 

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Foucault’s value.— While I’m not a great admirer of him, I’ll admit that Foucault can be useful as a symbol of certain intellectual tendencies, somewhat like Marx is. The latter was not totally original, but he is useful in having brought together a mass of important ideas, some of which were already in circulation before him. Foucault is like a pale version of that. He draws attention to the modern state’s regulation of the body, of sexuality, of discourses, of social deviants and their punishment. More generally, he highlights the social construction of various features of life,[2] and the pervasion of power-relations throughout society. To an extent, all these ideas are truistic; moreover, they predate him. And his expositions of them are confused, obscure, and sloppy. Nonetheless, sure, it can be useful to associate them with a single thinker.

 

 

[1] In general, this setting up of straw man arguments is the postmodernist’s method of choice. Attribute a simplistic position to your opponent and then argue that it’s wrong.

 

[2] Let’s not forget to take this postmodernist logic to its self-defeating conclusion: the image of Foucault as enormously important, as very original, etc., is itself a social construction, in fact a myth. The academic discourse about him is indeed a much purer example of the tainted social construction of knowledge than contemporary science is! Magnificent irony.

NOTES OF AN UNDERGROUND HUMANIST

© 2014-2019 by Chris Wright