Michel Foucault

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Alan Sheridan

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Foucault begins where all truly original minds begin, in the present. Such minds are not ahead of their times; it is the rest of us who are dragging our feet. His passion is to seek out the new, that which is coming to birth in the present—a present that most of us are unable to see because we see it through the eyes of the past, or through the eyes of a 'future' that is a projection of the past, which amounts to the same thing. Foucault's interest in the past is guided by that passion: there is nothing of the antiquarian about it. 'Why am I writing this history of the prison?', he asks in Surveiller et punir. 'Simply because I am interested in the past? No, if one means by that writing a history of the past in terms of the present. Yes, if one means writing the history of the present.'… [This] explains Foucault's early rejection of an academic career in philosophy, his exile and his silence. When Histoire de la folie was published in 1961, Foucault was thirty-five. He could already have been the respected author of three or four works of philosophy. He chose silence until such time as he could hear the voice of the present. (pp. 195-96)

[His] life's work has been an attempt to catch what the present was telling him over the din of the past still echoing in his ears.

Such a position bears a superficial resemblance to that of the dominant philosophical movement of his youth. What may broadly be termed 'existentialism' and 'phenomenology' had a similar commitment to the present, a similar desire to escape the tyranny of history and the past. But the resemblance ends there. Existentialism sought to escape a restrictive ethical inheritance in the free 'authentic' exercise of individual choice. Phenomenology placed acquired knowledge 'in parenthesis' and tried to return to a pure, unprejudiced apprehension of the world by the individual consciousness. Both were philosophies of the subject, while rejecting a unitary notion of 'man'. For a French philosophy student of the late 1940s and early 1950s the only other system of thought with any pretension of speaking to present realities was Marxism, at the time almost exclusively in the hands of doctrinaire Communist Party ideologues. Most French intellectuals of the time managed to combine a general theoretical allegiance to existentialism/phenomenology, which precluded full acceptance of Marxism, with tacit support, in practice, of the Party. By the mid-fifties, Foucault had outgrown this particular combination of options; he had not yet worked out a coherent alternative. (pp. 196-97)

Foucault was in a position analogous with that of thinkers living around, say, 1650 or 1800. Philosophy and psychology did not possess truth because they possessed a history. The search for their origins led him … to a common source, the establishment of reason as sole, undisputed ruler of the mind. The way forward … was to go back. This meant a return to history. It would, of course, have to be a new kind of history. But how was such a history to be conducted? (p. 205)

It would ill behove an analyst of Foucault's thought to impose on the succession of his books any such notions as causal development, underlying unity, common origin. On the other hand, Foucault is not, despite the latest edition of the Petit Larousse, 'author of a philosophy of history based on discontinuity'. One's task is to recognize coherences and differences where they occur. The coherence of Foucault's works does not extend to a Foucault 'system'…. In a sense, each book...

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arrives as a fresh start in a new world: methodology has to be adapted, new concepts forged…. But, above all, the deepest discontinuity occurs withHistoire de la folie, not only in relation to whatever Foucault had written previously, but also in relation to his own period. This book constitutes the first, essential stage in a radically new analysis of Western civilization since the Renaissance. Foucault's philosophical quest led him to psychology, the science of the mind, which led him to madness, the limit of the mind, which led him in turn to reason, to the will to knowledge and truth. To put it crudely—something Foucault himself never does—modern rationalism and science have the same ignoble origins as the lunatic asylum. (pp. 205-06)

[Histoire de la folie] provides the very foundations of Foucault's whole enterprise: the writing of the later books is inconceivable except by the author of Histoire de la folie. Similarly, the full extent of the book's originality can really only be measured retrospectively, in the light of the later work. It is quite clear, for example at so many points in the book, that Foucault knew exactly what his future achievement was to be…. [This] study was to be only the first, 'and no doubt easiest', of a long investigation carried out 'under the sun of Nietzsche's great search'.

Nietzsche may have provided the inspiration; he could not provide what is nowadays called the 'methodology'. There was no discipline, with its institutions, journals, internal controversies, conceptual apparatus, methods of work, within which Foucault could carry out the task he had set himself. Indeed, there was a sense in which, like Nietzsche's, his work would have to be carried on outside, even against, the existing academic frameworks. Not only would he have to create his own mode of analysis, his own operational concepts, even his own vocabulary; he would also have to create his own audience. His books would have to be addressed to the general educated public; it was a public of a kind that existed nowhere else in the world, but unlike a few thousand specialized students it was not a captive one. Foucault did conquer that audience and, through it, in the less rigid period after 1968, he was to win his academic audience as well. (pp. 207-08)

Foucault's relation to 'theory' is often misunderstood. Foucault does not have a theory of history, which he then sets about 'proving'. The mass of detailed analysis he brings to bear in his work is not material to support a theory, in the sense that this analysis would be 'invalidated' if the theory were proved 'false'. Foucault has always worked in quite the reverse way. In approaching a new area—and almost every book of his does this—he certainly has a number of prejudices and presuppositions deriving from his previous work and from the opinions of others in that field. However, he is not only on his guard against these 'given' theoretical notions, he subjects them, in the course of his detailed analysis, to the most rigorous scrutiny. What finally emerges is not theory, in the sense of a general statement of the truth as Foucault sees it, but rather a tentative hypothesis, an invitation to discussion, which, more often than not, is startlingly at odds with received opinion. For Foucault, theory does not enjoy the same status as detailed analysis, to which it is secondary, subservient. Histoire de la folie is not superseded or invalidated, therefore, when Foucault criticizes the conceptualization of 'madness' to be found in that book. Nor is the value of Les mots et les choses in any way diminished because it left a number of theoretical loose-ends and occasions of misunderstanding. However, Foucault regarded these shortcomings as sufficiently important to require full and detailed elucidation. L'archéologie du savoir reverses Foucault's usual practice: it is his only full-length book devoted primarily to theoretical and methodological problems—though even here, in the way it extends the concrete analyses of the previous book, it is not a matter of pure theory. (pp. 212-13)

[And] it was not until Surveiller et punir, which [Foucault] has called 'my first book', that his analysis of history really comes of age.

Foucault's 'political anatomy' constitutes a radical break with all previous conceptions of power, whether of the 'right' or of the 'left'. To begin with, power is not a possession, won by one class that strives to retain it against its acquisition by another. Power is not the prerogative of the 'bourgeoisie'; the 'working class' has no historical mission in acquiring it. Power, as such, does not exist, but in challenging existing notions of how societies operate, one is forced, in the first instance, to employ the same word. Power is an effect of the operation of social relationships, between groups and between individuals. It is not unitary: it has no essence. There are as many forms of power as there are types of relationship. Every group and every individual exercises power and is subjected to it. There are certain categories of person—children, prisoners, the 'insane'—whose ability to exercise power is severely limited, but few members of these groups do not find some means of exercising power, if only on each other. Power is not, therefore, to be identified with the state, a central apparatus that can be seized. The state is rather an overall strategy and effect, a composite result made up of a multiplicity of centres and mechanisms, so many states within states with complex networks of common citizenship. Factories, housing estates, hospitals, schools, families, are among the more evident, more formalized of such 'micro-powers'. It is the task of a political anatomy to analyse the operation of these 'micro-powers', the relations that are made between them and their relations with the strategic aims of the state apparatus. (pp. 218-19)

Foucault's 'political anatomy' is the clearest and most fully developed version of a new political 'theory' and 'practice' that is just beginning to emerge from the discrediting of both Marxism and 'reformism'. (pp. 221-22)

Foucault shows that truth does not exist outside power, still less in opposition to it. Each society has its own régime of truth: the types of discourse accepted as true, the mechanisms that make it possible to distinguish between truth and error. In place of the 'universal' intellectual, Foucault places the 'specific' intellectual who, like everyone else, is competent to speak only of what he knows and experiences. His task is not to enlighten, but to work upon the particular régime of truth in which he operates. He is called upon neither to reveal the truth nor to represent others. The will to the power of truth is a pitiless tyrant: it requires a singular and total devotion. It is a service that has tempted the European mind since Plato. Nietzsche gave the first signs of its possible end: he also provided a way out, which he called genealogy. Genealogy was a 'grey' activity, but it was also a gay science, a science of the hypothetical. That gaiety, that love of hypothesis, pervades all Foucault's work. He is the reverse of a guru, a teacher, a subject who is supposed to know, though he would, in all modesty, be flattered if, without excessive seriousness, he were compared to a Zen master, who also knows nothing. For him uncertainty causes no anguish: his prose is punctuated by such words and expressions as 'perhaps', 'no doubt', 'it may be', 'it is as if'. He advances hypotheses with the delight that others reserve for the revelation of truth. His last two books have been explorations of hypotheses. 'Can one draw up the genealogy of modern morality on the basis of a political history of the body?' he asks on the dust-jacket of Surveiller et punir. The whole of Volonté de savoir is a hypothesis, which irritates or angers those for whom a 'truth', however banal or ill-founded, is of more value than a hypothesis, however illuminating. As he remarks in an interview published in Ornicar?, the uncertainty is genuine, not a rhetorical device. He compares his last book to a Gruyère cheese, with holes in which the reader can install himself. (pp. 222-23)

A love of hypothesis, of invention, is unashamedly, a love of the beautiful. What drew Foucault to the case of Pierre Rivière [which Foucault discusses in Moi, Pierre Rivière, ayant égurgé ma mere, ma soeur et mon frère … (I, Pierre Rivière, Having Slaughtered My Mother, My Sister and My Brother …)] was not the mass of official documentation, but 'the beauty of Rivière's memoir', a beauty that shamed the dreary prose of the educated experts who busied themselves around him. It was a daring, provocative remark, suggesting that beauty of expression is an indication that what is being said is worth listening to. The question of Foucault's own style is not insignificant. It is not so much that Foucault writes well—there are still academics who do that, though few contemporary writers of history, philosophy, or literary criticism give the pleasure of a Michelet, a Berkeley, or a Coleridge. It is rather that he writes with ostentatious brilliance: his writing betrays a quite shameless delight in its own skill that calls to mind the sumptuous prose of our own pre-Classical period, that of a John Donne or Thomas Browne. To write in this way is no affectation or self-indulgence. It is, if it requires justification, functional. Like all style, it is both natural and cultivated: a natural mode of expression for a writer striving to renew contact with a pre-rationalist world of communicating Reason and Folly and a conscious rejection of the language of Reason that seeks by its grey, measured, monotonous tones to give an impression of authority, objectivity, and truth. (pp. 223-24)

There is no 'Foucault system'. One cannot be a 'Foucaldian' in the way one can be a Marxist or a Freudian: Marx and Freud left coherent bodies of doctrine (or 'knowledge') and organizations which, whether one likes it or not (for some that is the attraction), enjoy uninterrupted apostolic succession from their founders. If Foucault is to have an 'influence' it will no doubt be as a slayer of dragons, a breaker of systems. Such a task should not be seen as negative; indeed it is the system-building that is the real negation. Its positive achievements may be measured by the range and variety of its effects, not by some massive uniformity. Nietzsche's 'influence' has been of this kind: Futurism, Dada, Surrealism; Freud, Mann, Hesse; Gide and Malraux; Shaw, Yeats, Wells, the two Lawrences; Ibsen and Strindberg—all acknowledge that influence. Nietzsche was felt, instinctively, to be part of the new age that was ushered in by the twentieth century—a new age that found its fullest expression, perhaps, in the 'modernist' movements in the arts. During several decades of total politics, Nietzsche suffered at the hands of his Fascist admirers, his Communist revilers, and 'liberals' who saw his books as a Pandora's box, better left unopened. Now that influence is once more at work in our thought. If it seems strongest in France, it is due in some measure to Foucault (and Deleuze). In England, where intellectual life so often appears to be in the grip of a narrow, smug, mentally lazy (il)liberal consensus, threatened on its fringes by a small band of Marxists, it is almost non-existent. Here, too, Foucault falls on the stoniest of grounds. The English reviewers' evident inability to read his books is seen, everywhere else, as a scandal. In America, which benefits from a more pluralist culture and the devotion of Walter Kaufmann, a German émigré, Nietzsche is widely read—so, too, is Foucault. To assimilate one to the other would help neither. Only those who know both can appreciate their profound kinship and differences, but their destinies do seem, in some subterranean way, to be entwined. It is difficult to conceive of any thinker having, in the last quarter of our century, the influence that Nietzsche exercised over its first quarter. Yet Foucault's achievement so far makes him a more likely candidate than any other. When one considers what is yet to come, one may well feel the ground stirring under one's feet. (pp. 225-26)

Alan Sheridan, in his Michel Foucault, 1980. Reprint by Tavistock Publications, 1981, 243 p.


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