A Short Aside on Foucault

Now quite how these themes [which we were discussing  here] fit together in Foucault's work is the subject of some scholarly dispute. Dreyfus and Rabinow take the view that Foucault's books should be seen sequentially, as he works through various 'methods' ('approaches' or even 'paradigms') to get to grips with the issue -- and each book tends to emphasise a particular existing 'method'. Thus, very briefly the 'prediscursive' elements are stressed in one book (The Archaeology of Knowledge as a way of critically employing the hermeneutic method -- the uncovering of hidden meanings -- see file), while The Order of Things takes a more 'structuralist' line on the connections between linguistic elements in discourses. The ones most popular with sociologists and marxists are works like Birth of the Clinic and Discipline and Punish, where Foucault comes close to a more conventional way of seeing a discourse as dominated by the social power to control and regulate people under the guise of some 'scientific' terms, classifications and practices ( mental illness for the one, and behaviour modification for the other). We explore Discipline and Punish  a bit in the monitorialism file as well). It is clear that no easy classification of the whole of Foucault's work is possible, and that it is easy to be misled into thinking you have him pigeonholed if you only read one book. Dreyfus and Rabinow see the whole thing as still uncompleted, and try to get Foucault to answer some simple questions so they can finally pigeonhole him -- typically, his own answer to their book ( in the Afterword) sets off on another track altogether - -he claims to be interested in:


'neither a theory  nor a methodology...not to analyze the phenomena of power. My objective, instead, has been to create a history of the different modes by which, in our culture, human beings are made subjects. My work has dealt with three modes of objectification which transform human beings into subjects...the first is the modes of inquiry which try to give themselves the status of sciences, for example the objectification of the ... subject  who labours, in the analysis of wealth and of economics...In the second part of my work, I have studied the objectivisng of the subject in what I shall call "dividing practices". The subject is either divided inside himself or divided from others ...Examples are the mad and the sane, the sick and the healthy, the criminals and the "good boys"...Finally I have sought to study...the way a human being turns him- or herself into a subject. For example, I have chosen the domain of sexuality -- how men have learned to recognise themselves as subjects of "sexuality" ( Dreyfus and Rabinow page 208).

Foucault admits he is 'interested in power', although he claims his  work is all about 'the subject'. Nevertheless, he is concerned to intervene in the (then current) 'anti-authority' struggles in France -- for gay rights, prisoners' rights and so on. These issues are connected with his interest in the subject since they are struggles focused on 'a production of truth -- the truth of the individual himself' (page 214). I suppose we would call these struggles in the 'politics of identity' in our crude Anglo-Saxon way. Foucault spends much of the rest of the Afterword clarifying how this sort of power works, and how it might be resisted. In my humble view, for what it is worth, this is a predictable turn in the public lives of famous French intellectuals -- their head leads them into radical scepticism and doubt about matters like 'power' and  'rights' -- but their heart makes them want to comment on political issues of the day nevertheless, hence the need for some clever wordplay to make it all seem to fit together coherently ( found in Derrida as well -- see Fraser's excellent critique)

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