Michel Foucault

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Peter Caws

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Michel Foucault is one of a handful of French thinkers who have, in the last 10 years, given an entirely new direction to theoretical work in the so-called "human sciences," the study of language, literature, psychiatry, intellectual history and the like. He is best known for "The Order of Things" ("Les Mots et les choses"), a rich and controversial work in which he introduced an "archaeological" method of great originality and, I believe, importance. This method, or rather its presuppositions, is the subject of "The Archaeology of Knowledge."

It involves an attempt to decide just what it is about certain utterances or inscriptions—real objects in a real world which leave traces behind to be discovered, classified and related to one another—that qualifies them as "statements" (énoncés) belonging to various bodies of knowledge (biology, economics and so on). What is the reality of such bodies of knowledge? How do we arrive at them from the "statements"? How do these bodies of knowledge change over time? By Foucault's own admission his method is more an exploratory series of questions and reflections than a finished theory; its usefulness lies in its opening up a rather chaotic domain and in its implicit challenge to the neat but abstract categories of the history and economy of ideas.

This usefulness, however, is seriously damaged by a kind of conspiracy of unreadability between author and translator [A. M. Sheridan Smith]…. Never a man to use one word where five will do, or to say straightforwardly what can be said obliquely or figuratively, Foucault has, confronted with the genuinely difficult task he has set himself in "The Archaeology of Knowledge," produced an extravagantly and self-indulgently rhetorical text, full of asides on his own development, other people's reactions to his work and so on, many of which I found downright embarrassing.

Now in French this is not so bad as I have made it seem. Almost everybody does it; stylistic showing-off, even of the most narcissistic kind, is something people get accustomed to, so that it does not get in the way of the ideas that are being expressed. But in English it is thoroughly distracting and very hard to stomach. (p. 6)

[Foucault's] most baroque formulations are brought over inflexibly into English, and matters are made even worse by two tendencies of the translation: on the one hand to resort to awkward or archaic or recondite equivalents instead of plain circumlocutions, and on the other to make outright mistakes about the sense of what is said.

The result is often bewildering, and people who look for clarity in philosophical discourse will no doubt—and quite understandably—put the book down in large numbers as completely hopeless…. Foucault has a strong spatial imagination, and things are always happening behind or under the facade or the surface of discourse—for example, "an immense density of systematicities" lurks there. Working at such a disadvantage to begin with, he really does not need a translator who introduces spatial distortions of his own—yet consider "operates between the twin poles of totality and plethora" as a translation of "est placée sous le double signe de la totalité et de la pléthore."

All this is a great shame. Good ideas ought not to be encumbered with bad prose; readers ought not to have to endure such linguistic torture to get at them. Things are a little better in "The Discourse on Language," Foucault's inaugural lecture at the Collège de France, printed here as an appendix. This is an extremely important work—much more so, in my opinion, than "The Archaeology of Knowledge"—which gives reason to hope that...

(This entire section contains 987 words.)

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Foucault may have successfully survived his self-referential methodological turn and be opening a new line of inquiry even more interesting than the earlier ones—an investigation of the institutionalization and the politicization of discourse. (pp. 6, 22)

His hypothesis is "that in every society the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organized and redistributed according to a certain number of procedures, whose role is to avert its powers and its dangers."

His discussion of these procedures, which apart from obvious cases of censorship tend to be invisible to us, is penetrating and provocative. They include the more or less overt suppression of forms of discourse (especially those dealing too explicitly with sex or politics) that are considered to overstep acceptable boundaries; the dismissal of other forms as the product of insanity; the neutralization of others by commentators who inscribe them in "traditions" and "disciplines" (or dismiss them, again, because they refuse such pigeonholing); and the positive insistence that the speaker or writer should be properly certified as a competent authority. In these and other ways society manifests a kind of fear of the word, against which it seeks to protect itself by such strategies of exclusion and limitation. From now on, as a result of Foucault's perceptions, an analysis of these strategies in their historical development will have to complement any analysis of the bodies of discourse that have survived them. This is a new and potentially invaluable way of approaching the whole domain of intellectual history.

But here again Foucault is made to sound silly by careless translation. (p. 22)

A salient feature of Foucault's preoccupation with his own image continues to be his extraordinary sensitivity to any hint of a suggestion that he might be a structuralist, and by now one is inclined to concede the point: if he minds so much, other words can certainly be found. The term "structuralism," as Roland Barthes puts it, "has become uncertain," and while it has its place among the artifacts, we should allow Foucault to be the practitioner rather than the object of archaeological inquiry. But like so many practitioners he is really much better at doing it than at talking about it. (p. 24)

Peter Caws, "An Immense Density of Systematicities," in The New York Times Book Review, October 22, 1972, pp. 6, 22, 24.


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