That foucing Foucault

I know I promised a report on my essay for the Philosophy of Science course, but before that I promised to go Foucault on your ass. So here goes [1].

As mentioned earlier, I started reading a book on Michel Foucault. I won’t lie to you: I haven’t finished it yet. I have, however, read most of it, and I think I’m able to discuss it without stepping in dog doo. Here’s the book:

This is my version, but instead of the flying androgynous person...

This is my version, but instead of the flying androgynous person...

...I <em>could</em> have gotten the much cooler Scary Author look

...I could have gotten the much cooler Scary Author look

The book is divided into two parts, a hundred-page segment called “Truth and Method” and a 250-page one called “Practices and Knowledge”. The first part in part lays out Foucault’s views on how social science should be done, with writings about the philosopher’s difficult task in divulging something true about the world while at the same time staying away from the traps that language sets out for us. It also contains a very interesting bit about his debt to Nietzsche in his views on history and the historian’s method, genealogy. The second part details some of the historic work done by Foucault on different institutions of power in the history of (French) society: a history of madness, of crime and criminal institutions, of discourses of sexuality and control and some on the ethics of the ancient Greeks. The first part is definitely the most difficult of the two, but ultimately the most rewarding in terms of concepts.

I especially like the discussions of his method, which is basically historical in nature. In amounts to collecting large amount of source materials and meticulously tracing the changing meanings and evolutions of concepts that we deem central today. However, it’s important to note that this means specifically avoiding any linear form of explanation. History does not move “forward” in that sense. Nietzsche opposed the search for “origins”, and so should we, according to Foucault. To avoid this it is important to highlight the contingent nature of concepts, the little accidents and interferences that accompany any conceptual evolution. There are clear traces of this is in much contemporary thinking, and constructivism leans heavily on it.

The second part is also good, but more like case studies. Interesting throughout, and very convincing, I still wonder if his conclusions are what everyone would have made given the same source material. The increasing importance of control and discipline from the middle ages to modern late capitalism seems plausible enough to me, but maybe there are other possible views.

To me, this all makes good sense. There are, however, two things to keep in mind when assessing this. One is the problem of the source material. Foucault has been criticized for making arbitrary methodological choices, and it’s easy to see why. He presents no explanations as to why these sources can tell us something about this theme, and not others. As the literary professor teaching the course on Foucault admitted, it’s all somewhat based on intuition. Of course, all method is, ultimately. But that’s why it’s usually accompanied by an explanation as to why the chosen sources seem pertinent to the researcher. The other problem is the historical nature of this. While there is nothing wrong with looking at history (in fact, it’s essential), this is not a method for analyzing the present. Naturally, it could be argued that a thorough examination of the past gives us pointers as to how the present should be understood, but it still has its limits.

Overall, I actually find the interviews to be most enlightening, if only because they force our man to express himself concisely and clearly without the protection of a long text editing process. The best way to get a quick idea of how Foucault thinks and works is to read these interviews. I’m also impressed by his immediate and very extensive knowledge about a wide specter of subjects. The only thing I don’t understand is why he has to be such a smug, self-satisfied asshole[2] while explaining things to us. But that’s maybe one of the dangers of having professorships created for you…

As usual, on the end of a long Serious Post I throw you some candy. Check out what those usually lame skater videos can look like with a professional director: Spike Jonze directs skateboarding.

[1] This just means I have more stuff for blog posts later. Yay!

[2] “The rest of the world has spent so much time figuring me out”, “I don’t fit into your stupid categories”, “I transcend your conceptions” and so forth. NOTE: these are not actual quotes, just somewhat insulting approximations.

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2 Responses

  1. I came across this thing that I thought was pretty interesting in relation to what our friend, the arrogant litterature proffessor, said about Fouccaults views on power: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kawGakdNoT0

    He comes across as pretty critical, doesen’t he? More in line with the foccault they thaught me to know at the sociology-department (“re-read, and read it better”)

  2. This is actually quoted in part in the introduction to the book, as an example of how “underrated” poor Foucault is, and how the stupid structuralists are stupidheads. Very interesting conversation, though.

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