Foucault's reasons

Bill Woodrow, Untitled, 1992


The French philosopher was a multifaceted thinker whose interests changed frequently throughout his thirty-year career.

Suddenly everyone seems to have a lot to say about Michel Foucault. And much of what is said is not so favorable to him. After having enjoyed a decade long as an all-purpose point of reference in the humanities and social sciences, the French philosopher is being reevaluated by both right and left.

The right, of course, has long blamed him for paving the way for a host of leftist “pathologies”. Some conservatives have even made Foucault a scapegoat for evils ranging from lazy nihilism to active totalitarianism. But a new – and strange – respect for Foucault is emerging among some sectors of the right. Conservatives have flirted with the notion that the philosopher's hostility to confessional politics might make him a useful shield against "social justice warriors." This presumption was reinforced during the Covid pandemic, when Foucault's critique of "biopolitics" – his term for the political meaning assumed by medical and public health issues in modern times – provided a useful weapon for attacking the left's allegiance to knowledge. scientific.

As Foucault grew to the right, he fell to the left. A decade ago, its attention focused on whether Foucault's discussions of neoliberalism in the 70s suggested that his philosophical commitments harmonized with the emerging ideology of the free market: hostile to the state, opposed to disciplinary power, and tolerant of behaviors previously considered immoral. (I admit that I contributed to this debate.) Recently, the loci of leftist criticism, like its conservative counterpart, has shifted to cultural policy. Thus, social theorists Mitchell Dean and Daniel Zamora argue that Foucault's politicization of individuality inspired the confessional antics of the "culture of self-awareness" [orig. “woke-culture”, which seeks to overcome the ills of society by making the reform of the self the ultimate project. At the same time, Foucault's position has taken a hit following recent allegations that he paid underage boys for sex while living in Tunisia in the 1960s. These have brought into focus points in his work where – like some other radicals of his day – he questioned the need for a legal age of consent.

What's going on? Why does Foucault now seem to be our contemporary, almost forty years after his death? Why are some leftists turning against him? And why have some conservatives embraced it?

First, the current debate over the political implications of Foucault's thought is symptomatic of our mismatched politics, in which the right sees itself as countercultural. Second, our high-explosive public discourse is increasingly based on ideas that were previously confined to academia or rarefied intellectual circles. This is certainly true of progressive concepts—white privilege, gender theory, critical race theory—but it is also true of the right, as seen in young conservatives' growing familiarity with the canons of nationalist and even fascist thought. As academic culture infiltrates the political debate, it is not surprising that a thinker of Foucault's stature is placed in the circle.

Third, and most important, the beginning of the XNUMXst century has become Foucauldian. Consider the topics Foucault helped design as objects of philosophical reflection: mental illness, public health, gender and transgender identity, normalization and abnormality, surveillance, individuality. Once confined to the margins of political thought, these issues have become major concerns with important challenges in everyday life, in the Western world and beyond.

The problem is that it has become too easy to confuse the Topics foucauldians with the thought by Foucault. In the very discussions that invoke him, the depths of his philosophies are often ignored. As a result, Foucault seems both ultra-contemporary and – to use a term favored by his favorite philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche – curiously “anachronistic”, in the sense of outdated or inopportune.

Foucault's reputation is coated with thick layers of polemical interpretation and partisan appropriation. A century ago, Marx's theories found themselves in a similar situation, as his interpretation became a point of contention in the growing socialist movement. In the wake of the Bolshevik revolution, the Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukács felt compelled to ask: “What is orthodox Marxism? Strange as it may seem, a similar question is current for Foucault. What is orthodox Foucauldianism? What did Foucault really teach?


a multifaceted thinker

Foucault was a multifaceted thinker whose interests changed frequently over his thirty-year career. Although he had many opinions, we must not forget that he was, in essence, a philosopher – not a historian (despite the historical character of his thinking), ideologue or political commentator.

Aristotle began his Metaphysics with a statement, "All men by nature desire to know." First of all, Foucault sought to explore this statement – ​​not as an evident truth, but as an idea to be made strange and surprising. Foucault's inquiry is not the traditional problem of epistemology ("What is knowledge?") but a cultural question: "Why do we value knowledge?" In his essay “On Truth and Lies in the Extra-Moral Sense”, Nietzsche wrote: “In some remote corner of the universe, scattered and resplendent in innumerable solar systems, there was once a star about which intelligent animals invented knowledge. That was the loudest and most threatening minute in the 'history of the world' – but only one minute”. These words capture the spirit — if not the tone — of Foucault's quest. Why are so many human activities touched by our thirst for knowledge? What would it mean to live without being haunted by the will to know?

The origin of Foucault's questioning lies in his early involvement with what is known as German idealism. Beginning with Immanuel Kant in the late XNUMXth century, thinkers in this tradition have emphasized that consciousness shapes the world. If we can see a landscape, Kant maintained, it is because our consciousness is tied to a conception of space and time, and also of logical categories such as unity and plurality. Later idealists, and in particular Hegel, focused on the relationship between the “subject” (ie consciousness) and “objects” (external reality). While some idealists of other philosophical schools made extravagant claims of subjectivity, reducing objective reality to figures of the “I” imagination, the main concern of the German idealists was to understand what makes objects comprehensible to consciousness – how we can know our world .

German idealism provided Foucault with his central philosophical vocabulary. Its originality lies in transposing the framework of German idealism to historical and cultural concerns. In Madness and Civilization, Foucault showed that mental illness emerged as an object only with the development of a form of subjectivity rooted in empirical science. In The Birth of the Clinic, he examined the type of subject needed for modern medicine to arise specifically – a subject who would be able to understand disease as immanent in mortal bodies. According to Foucault, both the subject and the objects – consciousness and external reality – are shaped by history. Although he was often mistaken for a relativist, he never claimed that truth varies from one perspective to another. His point was that what counts as truth changes over time, although at any given moment the truth can assume a fixed and unassailable character. In his idiosyncratic way, Foucault was the last German idealist.

Foucault also embraced a distinct historical narrative, in which the advent of what he called “humanism” (or, in more technical terms, philosophical anthropology) was the decisive turning point of modern history – and a deeply problematic turning point. A somewhat hasty reading of Foucault leads many to conclude that, through this narrative, he denounced the false claims of universality made in the name of humanity (for example, the way in which “humanity” embodies ethnocentric or gendered assumptions), or suggested that humanism was a falsely emancipatory discourse, which astutely incorporated pernicious forms of power. Perhaps Foucault agreed with these statements, but they were not the reasons for his philosophical anti-humanism. In his books from the 1960s, Foucault's stories always begin with paradigms rooted in an essentially religious worldview (in the Middle Ages, say, or the Renaissance) and culminate with a modern scientific perspective, in which knowledge is confined to the limits of human understanding. . Contrary to the view that Foucault is a thinker of “discontinuities” (which Foucault, as if covering his tracks, encouraged), these narratives are often patently teleological. In fact, they follow the historical scheme popularized by Auguste Comte, the nineteenth-century apostle of positivism: we start with theological knowledge (reality as God's creation), move on to metaphysics (where reality is tied to an intangible world of rational entities), and finally we come to positive or scientific knowledge (reality as facts apprehended by the human mind). For this portrait, Foucault took advantage of the insights of Martin Heidegger, specifically his statement that scientific knowledge is conditioned to a conception of the human being as a “subject” whose comprehension capacities are essentially finite. A limited creature (and not an infinite creator) can only understand the world as a subject – that is, as a consciousness with necessarily circumscribed horizons.

What intrigued Foucault was that this apparent epistemological humility underpinned an enormous expansion of the cultural authority of knowledge: never was knowledge more important than when human beings lamented their inherent intellectual limits. And so, experiences previously seen as beyond the realm of knowledge became objects of scientific understanding – phenomena touched by human finitude rather than attributes of a transcendent universe. Madness became mental illness, death spurred the expansion of medical knowledge, language was seen as a navigable web only for the creature that had produced it. The fateful project of anchoring knowledge in human finitude paradoxically extended that “most threatening” moment in the history of the world well beyond the minute that was allotted for it.

Foucault wanted to break the addition of his culture to knowledge. This objective appears most clearly in his history of sexuality. Although he believed that sexuality is a social construct, his most fundamental insight was that modern sexuality had made a “Faustian pact” with truth. What we love most about sex is understanding it – talking about desire, analyzing it, dissecting it, exploring it. Foucault's assertion that the West embraced a "sexual science" while the East cultivated an "erotic art" indicates - despite, and perhaps because of, his crass Orientalism - his deeper interest in what it would be like to experience sex without seeing it. it as a clue to some elusive secret about ourselves. This is the basis of his programmatic statement that we must rethink ourselves with “bodies and pleasures”. Sex, Foucault speculated, could become a realm of experience emancipated from the will to know.

His pronouncements on policy were made along the same lines. It is commonly associated with a gloomy view of modern society, in which power, far from being confined to the state and the economy, is disseminated through a network of disciplinary institutions – schools, hospitals, social services, asylums and prisons, among others. . Many are familiar with Foucault's claim that the authority exercised by such entities derives from their claims to specialized knowledge, which he succinctly called 'power-knowledge'. But for Foucault, this argument was only part of a larger picture. He tirelessly insisted that even though power is a pervasive force in our collective lives, it always manifests itself in concrete struggles. He wanted us to see practices like the military regimentation of bodies or the relationship between therapists and patients as something akin to hand-to-hand combat games rather than exercises in Orwellian thought control. Power is always an effort to control one's conduct: finding the sweet spot, identifying vulnerabilities, creating incentives for submission.


Foucault and neoliberalism

Foucault was not a neoliberal, but he thought that neoliberalism raised important questions. Specifically, he wondered about the ability of the welfare state to make completely rational health care decisions about millions of people. In an interview in 1983, he reflected: “Take the example of dialysis: how many sick people are put on dialysis, how many others are deprived of access? Imagine what would happen if someone exposed the rationale for these choices, resulting in a kind of unequal treatment. Scandalous rules would be brought to light”! Foucault's point is not that science is not true or that it is false (or merely "constructed"), but that invocations of science will rarely resolve political disputes - because even issues as seemingly grounded in science as public health are in fact full of unscientific assumptions and interests.

Thus, while for Foucault power and knowledge were always intertwined, he also maintained that one must de-intellectualize power. This is one of the many reasons he was skeptical of Marxism. Instead of challenging Marxism's claim to to be a science, Foucault argued that the problem with Marxism was want be a science. His argument was not that knowledge has no place in political struggles, but that politics is always, irreducibly, about power – and frankly acknowledging this fact is preferable to believing that knowledge somehow cleanses us of the stain of power.

This view is often seen as cynical, but it surprises me that it is not more often seen as overly optimistic: for Foucault, the necessary corollary to the claim that all relationships are saturated with power is that all of them are, in principle, also transformable. As Hegel showed, there are no master-slave relationships in which masters, simply by dominating their slaves, do not jeopardize their authority. Furthermore, Foucault's conclusions about power are articulated with his insights about sex: just as bodies and pleasures must avoid being used for endless analyzes of sexuality, we must, in politics, seek open struggles for power as an alternative to knowledge of power.

If someone had ever asked Foucault bluntly if he was a relativist, he might have replied: “If only it were possible to overcome the will to truth…”. He invites us to see truth not as a fabric of reality but as a cultural artifact, something humans construct. This does not mean that truth does not exist: science reveals the laws of the physical universe; statistics identifies the regularities in large numbers; art can present a picture of the world or express inner emotions. Indeed, Foucault's discomfort with truth is precisely the fact that it exists – and exists so intensely. Although you can read the Confessions of the Flesh Foucault recently published as condemning confessional practices, he also shows that confession was widespread among early Christian ascetics because it was exciting. Truth is not imposed on us only by power relations; we get excited about it.

A friend of Foucault's, Paul Veyne, once observed that, while Heidegger was concerned with the ontological basis of truth, and Ludwig Wittgenstein with the meaning of truth, Foucault's question was why truth is so false. No doubt this refers to Foucault's recognition that truth is contaminated by power and that its criteria change over time. But what is at stake in this statement is greater. Foucault demands that we question the value that we ascribe to truth—whether truth allows us to lead the lives we wish to live.


Foucault's legacy in the present

Which brings us back to the present. In many ways we are all Foucauldians now – in the ways we think about gender, normalization, psychiatry, confinement, surveillance. But rarely has politics seemed so truth-intoxicated as it is today, on both sides of the spectrum. As offensive as they are to left-wing sensibilities, right-wing conspiracy theories like QAnon all participate in real politics. This does not mean that their claims are plausible, but rather that their efficacy aspirations are assumed to be "right". In a more academic sense, Jordan Peterson also puts truth at the center of political debate when he accuses social justice fighters – inspired by what he absurdly calls Foucauldian “postmodernism” – of disrespecting the brute justice of natural hierarchies identified by science. evolutionary.

This will to truth is by no means limited to the right. If we on the left aspire to a broader understanding of mental health, if we value transgender identities, and if we promote institutions that embrace heterogeneity, it is usually because they seem to us true, as justified by the What do we know. Even the underlying metaphors of the term “conscious” [orig. “woke”] are imbued with notions of truth – a dash of born-again Christianity mixed with an Enlightenment recognition of the world as it is. “Believe in science”, the mantra of the pandemic left, is also based on the view that the truth should be able to resolve major political disagreements once and for all. It is striking that the contemporary left resorts to almost all forms of truth – Christian, enlightened, scientific – on which Foucault turned his critical eye.

Insofar as one can even speculate about such things, however, I imagine that Foucault would have supported initiatives like the Project 1619 [which seeks to recognize, in the US, the centrality and persistent consequences of black slavery] and would have seen them as competing with its genealogies of power, not to mention its politics of liberation. He was, as is commonly acknowledged, acutely aware of how historical narratives often exclude particular individuals, and he recognized the power of narrating history from the point of view of marginalized groups.

But Foucault's deeper project, to wean us from our addiction to truth, is as alien to our present as it is to his own time. “Speaking truth to power,” an idea that seems more relevant than ever, seems to have a pleasantly Foucauldian vibe. Indeed, Foucault's lesson is more precisely (if somewhat tautologically) expressed as "fighting power with power". As social organizers realize, knowledge only takes them so far: the task of organizing is to confront power where it manifests itself, such as the workplace or housing regulations, and limit its effects through the strategic multiplication of collective force. As the crypto-Foucauldian Saul Alinsky once observed, “Nobody can negotiate without the power to compel negotiation.” If politics is fundamentally about power, what good is it to say that it is also about power? we are right?

These questions are as difficult to ask today as they are at any time. And so, while we continue to argue about a semi-fictionalized Foucault, the genuine philosopher remains more of a nuisance than ever.

*Michael Behrent is professor of history at Appalachian State University (USA). Organizer, with Daniel Zamora, from the book Foucault and Neoliberalism (Policy Press).

Translation: Antonio Martins for the website Other words.


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