The Foucault Reader. Edited by Paul Rabinow. Pantheon, 391 pages, $9.95 (paper).

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Michel Foucault, who died in June of 1984, was that rare phenomenon: a philosopher superstar, a prophet honored in his own time. Except perhaps for Sartre, he was the most widely respected French thinker in an age that did not lack for distinguished — or at any rate celebrated — ones. Even during his (sadly foreshortened) life, he was often ranked with Freud, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger among the pre-eminent figures of the 20th century.

Foucault wrote one enormous history of the origins of psychiatry (published in English as ‘Madness and Civilization”), another of the origins of clinical medicine (“The Birth of the Clinic”), yet another of the origins Of modern philology, biology, and political economy (“The Order of Things”), still another of the origins of prisons and penology (“Discipline and Punish”), and finally, another (multivolume and unfinished) of the vicissitudes of sexual theory and ideology (“The History of Sexuality”). He wrote a short, dense book explaining his methodology (“The Archaeology of Knowledge”) and many literary and philosophical essays. He was also a prolific interviewee. “A Foucault Reader” is the first anthology drawn from this large, idiosyncratic oeuvre, and it is hard to imagine a better one. No middle-sized anthology (and, a fortiori, no brief review) can hope to give an adequate account of Foucault’s work, but the reader places the emphasis where it ought to be: on his later, more political phase. And Paul Rabinow’s introduction is excellent. (Ambitious readers can consult “Michel Foucault: The Will to Truth”, by Alan Sheridan, the best book-length exposition in English.)

“History” is actually not quite the right word for what Foucault was up to. He himself labeled his activity “archaeology” (sometimes “genealogy” in homage to Nietzsche’s “The Genealogy of Morals”). That is, he aimed to excavate the epistemological foundations of the “human sciences” (the French term sciences de l’homme includes psychology, linguistics, and cultural history as well as the social sciences). The historical development of these sciences may well seem, at first glance, to have been gradual and linear, a matter of continual growth and refinement, with a genetic relation between the problems and techniques of one age and those of the next. This seemingly natural view rests on and reinforces some deep assumptions: that the history of the sciences is a history of progress and that these disciplines are autonomous — i.e., that they have an intrinsic, not merely an instrumental, criterion of truth.

Foucault challenges these assumptions. His richly (though erratically) documented studies try to prove that new stages in the human sciences result not from the gradual transformation of preceding stages but from changes in the underlying “conditions of possibility” of knowledge in an era, a sort of epistemological deep structure that Foucault calls an episteme. “By episteme, we mean…the total set of relations that unite, at a given period, the discursive practices that give rise to epistemological figures, sciences, and formalizable systems…It is the totality of relations that can be discovered, for a given period, between the sciences when one analyzes them at the level of discursive regularities.”

Foucault’s early work, especially “The Order of Things”, is a staggeringly detailed yet dizzyingly abstract attempt to articulate these “discursive regularities.” He divides up Western history since the Middle Ages into several broad epochs: the Renaissance, the Classical period (from the mid 17th century to the end of the 18th), the modern period (from the end of the 18th to the middle of the 20th century), and the postmodern period. Each is characterized by distinctive modes of representation, relations between signs and their objects, rules of inference and concept formation, and other subtle but profound differences in intellectual structure. For example, the 17th- and 18th-century predecessors of philology, biology, and economics were called, respectively, “general grammar,” “natural history,” and “the analysis of wealth.” These three fields shared certain “rules of discourse,” including the notion that all knowledge was classificatory in nature and could therefore be arranged in the form of a table. In the 19th century, however, the world was seen differently, as made up “not of isolated elements related by identity and difference, but of organic structures, of internal relations between elements whose totality performs a function.

Where these “rules of discourse” come from, whether they apply universally in each period, and what causes the shift from one epoch and its episteme to another are matters that Foucault never makes fully clear. This is the most obscure and controversial aspect of his work; even some of his admirers have begun to wonder out loud whether his “archaeology of knowledge” is not, finally, a magnificent dead end. It should be said, though, that for all their theoretical difficulty, “Madness and Civilization” and “The Birth of the Clinic” are full of fascinating detail and are, in their way, literary masterpieces. Watching Foucault read obscure treatises on the theory of fevers as rigorously and perceptively as some New Critics used to read lyric, poetry, one can intuit the powers of the structuralist method, so often routinized or vulgarized by lesser thinkers. -

Unlike the New Critics (and many structuralists), however, Foucault was always sensitive — at least implicitly — to the interplay of social change and intellectual change. Late in his career, he remarked in an interview, “I now ask myself what I was writing about in “Madness and Civilization” and “The Birth of the Clinic”, if not power?” What came between those books and that remark was the worker/student revolt of May 1968 in France. The protagonists of the “May events” sought to broaden the traditional scope of politics — to raise questions about the “politics of everyday life,” about domination and liberation not only in factories but also in offices, schools, prisons, hospitals, families, and sexual relationships. The revolution failed, but its influence among French intellectuals, including Foucault, was vast. In the early 1970s, shortly after assuming a chair at the prestigious College de France, Foucault helped organize the Groupe d’Information sur les Prisons, a prisoners’-rights group that played a part in winning some important reforms. That experience, and the new political atmosphere in which it took place, brought to the fore an issue that had hitherto been latent in his work but was to dominate it thereafter: the question of power.

Foucault’s activity among prisoners led to “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison”, generally considered his best book and one of the premier works of social theory in recent decades. He asks: is it a coincidence that the word “discipline” means both “body of knowledge” and “technique of control”? By way of answer, he surveys the evolution of criminal. Under the Ancien Régime, social order was conceived in terms of sovereignty. Like God, a monarch possessed unlimited power and was owed unlimited obedience. Crime was thus considered, at least in principle, a species of cosmic rebellion. Punishment was the reassertion of cosmic order: an infinitely legitimate and powerful sovereign would publicly impose infinitely painful punishment, which simultaneously reassured and intimidated the populace. Punishment was theater, and as a result, criminal justice under the Ancien Régime was harsh but sporadic.

This cruelty and irregularity were among the prime targets of Enlightenment reformers. Unlike liberal reformers in every age, they argued that a more “rational” (i.e., methodical) approach would prove both more humane and more effective. The genius of “Discipline and Punish” lies in showing how “effective” swallowed “humane.” “The true objective of the reform movement…was not so much to establish a new right to punish based on more equitable principles, as to set up a new ‘economy’ of the power to punish, to assure its better distribution, so that it should be…capable of operating everywhere, in a continuous way, down to the finest grain of the social body.”

Social “science” came into being as a means of social control. The reformers claimed that more effective criminal justice required better knowledge — first of all about criminals, and then about the population and environment from which they had emerged. Knowledge about criminals meant isolating and observing them; hence the birth of the prison. But knowledge of the population meant something much grander and more ominous: a whole “disciplinary technology” of statistics, case histories, surveillance, training — in short, the sciences of administration. “Discipline and Punish” might well have been subtitled “The Birth of Bureaucracy”.

The implications of this new “disciplinary technology” are incalculable. In a way, Foucault suggests, it has altered the very nature of individuality:

“For a long time ordinary individuality — the everyday individuality of everybody — remained below the threshold of description. To be looked at, observed, described in detail, followed from day to day by an uninterrupted writing was a privilege. The chronicle of a man, the account of his life, his historiography, written as he lived out his life, formed part of the rituals of his power. The disciplinary methods reversed this relation, lowered the threshold of describable individuality and made of this description a means of control and a method of domination. It is no longer a monument for future memory, but a document for possible use…The turning of real lives into writing is no longer a procedure of heroization; it functions as a procedure of objectification and subjection.”

The equation of “writing” with “objectification” (developed in detail in “Discipline and Punish”) is one of those dazzling imaginative leaps that make Foucault’s work well worth its many difficulties. Here is another, from his discussion of Jeremy Bentham’s notorious “Panopticon,” an architectural plan meant to permit total surveillance in prisons, hospitals, schools, factories, and barracks:

“Bentham was the complement to Rousseau. What in fact was the Rousseauist dream that motivated many of the [18th-century] revolutionaries? It was the dream of a transparent society, visible and legible in each of its parts; the dream of there no longer existing any zones of darkness, zones established by the privileges of royal power or the prerogatives of some corporation, zones of disorder. It was the dream that each individual, whatever position he occupied, might be able to see the whole of society, that men’s hearts should communicate, their vision be unobstructed by obstacles, and that the opinion of all reign over each.... This reign of “opinion,” so often invoked at the time; represents a mode of operation through which power will be exercised by virtue of the mere fact of things being known and people seen in a sort of immediate, collective, and anonymous gaze. A form of power whose main instance is that of opinion will refuse to tolerate areas of darkness.”

This description of the “transparent society” can be read, with 20th-century hindsight, as a genealogy of totalitarianism. When one reflects on the root of the term Enlightenment, the irony is unbearable. In passages like these, Foucault approaches Nietzsche and Weber in stature, as one of the greatest critics of modernity. Foucault’s last project was the unfinished “History of Sexuality”. It is, once again, not a history; and it is not primarily about sex. It is about power — more precisely, about the intimate association between power and knowledge. The conventional wisdom (Foucault calls it “the repressive hypothesis”) holds that the “natural” sexuality of rural societies was repressed in the interest of the capitalist work ethic. The 19th-century bourgeoisie, especially, imposed silence and shamefulness upon sex. In this view, sex is a mute, biologically given, potentially subversive force awaiting its liberation by a true, unashamed discourse, such as psychoanalysis once gave promise of being.

Foucault argues that, on the contrary, no epoch was more voluble about sex than the 19th century. The period witnessed an avalanche of theories about female, child, and “deviant” sexuality. Among the notions invented and elaborated in this period: the concept of chronic female hysteria; a campaign against childhood masturbation; the medicalization of homosexuality and other nonprocreative sexual behavior; the first systematic social policies regarding population, birth control, and sexual hygiene. The purpose of all this discourse was not, however, the liberation of sexuality; it was the rationalization, the “normalization,” of sexuality. Sexual “science,” like the rest of the social sciences, originated as a mode of social control, as an aspect of “disciplinary technology.”

“Rationalization” — that profoundly ambiguous word— is in fact one way to sum up Foucault’s lifelong theme. He once proposed this definition of the “central issue” in modern thought: “What is this Reason that we use? What are its historical effects? What are its limits, and what are its dangers? How can we exist as rational beings, fortunately committed to practicing a rationality that is unfortunately crisscrossed by intrinsic dangers?” No one who has pondered Foucault’s epic investigations will ever again be quite without ambivalence about “this Reason that we use.”

But does all this relentless demystification of progress, of science, of Reason itself, leave room for any hope of our ultimate emancipation? To have exposed the penetration of disciplinary bureaucratic power down to “the finest grain of the social body” is an invaluable achievement. But if that power is truly ubiquitous, if it’s constitutive of our very individuality, as Foucault suggests, then how can we escape it? If power relations are universal, then there is no transhistorical Reason — or truth or human nature. And if we can appeal to no such transcendental standard, how can we ever transcend power relations?

Foucault never answered that question. He might have tried, if he’d lived longer (or he might not). The closest he came was an occasional ambiguous pronouncement like this:

“The political, ethical, social, philosophical problem of our days is not to try to liberate the individual from the state, and from the state’s institutions, but to liberate us from both the state and the type of individualization which is linked to the state. We have to promote new forms of subjectivity through the refusal of the kind of individuality which has been imposed on us for several centuries.”

The mind reels at the difficulty of interpreting, much less implementing, this program.

There’s no gainsaying that Foucault was a negative thinker: his rigorous determinism can make B.F. Skinner seem almost pollyanna-ish, and his infrequent radical affirmations are, as often as not, half-hearted, provisional, ironic. But the energy and subtlety of his negativism is itself a precious resource. Whatever the shape of our liberation may finally be, we now know a good deal more, thanks to Foucault, about the many shapes of domination.


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George Scialabba