With the death of Michel Foucault the end of another era of French philosophy suddenly seems imminent. Jean-Paul Sartre died long after the Existentialist era had dwindled, and that phase of his philosophical work had been absorbed. Like Jacques Lacan’s death, however, Foucault’s comes at a point where debate has not settled the question of either the viability of his vision or the importance of the Post-Structuralist period. Foucault’s life, like Merleau-Ponty’s, ended prematurely, before the completion of a final systematic statement of his conception of philosophy and too soon to see clearly what the influence of his thought would be. Just as French philosophy was once divided between Merleau-Ponty and Sartre, it recently seemed to be going in two different directions, one exemplified by Foucault and the other by Jacques Derrida. With Foucault’s absence the French scene may suddenly appear less vital, perhaps because the Parisian stage requires a dramatic confrontation between alternative philosophical methods.
Of course, terms like ‘French philosophy’ and ‘Continental philosophy’ are peculiarly Anglo-American. These labels are convenient fictions for designating a way of thinking radically different from what is done at Cambridge or Princeton, Oxford or Pittsburgh. Books like those edited by Alan Montefiore or Tzvetan Todorov remind us that French philosophical and literary theory includes many more contenders than Foucault and Derrida. Montefiore asked philosophers to reflect on their own career and importance, and the overall impression their responses give, besides their understandable embarrassment at having to do this, is that there is no univocal understanding of philosophy among those who would be canvassed under the title Philosophy in France Today. While commendable for its intention of giving a more inclusive picture of French thought, this title is misleading because the selection of ‘great men’ is not impartially representative. For one thing, the variety of French work in logic and what used to be called analytic philosophy is not readily apparent. Furthermore, no women are included, yet French feminism is of growing interest to like-minded Anglophone thinkers.
This latter, presumably unconscious exclusion also occurs in Todorov’s otherwise excellent collection of French literary theorists, compounded by Todorov’s choice of a conceit for classifying different areas of poetics. After identifying discussion of the grand principles of poetics with the drawing-room, analysis of particular hypotheses about poetics with the kitchen, he then says that with the notion of genre ‘we now come to the bedroom, where the really important things happen, and we are face to face with Literature herself.’ In the ‘drawing-room’ of a collection in which ‘we’ includes only males, the place of women is once again tacitly circumscribed. If this marginalisation of gender does not deconstruct the anthology, it can be praised for its selection of essays, including particularly fine ones by Gérard Genette, Roland Barthes, Michael Riffaterre, and Todorov himself.
A substantive collection that is not similarly guilty of sexism is Peter Caws’s issue of Social Research entitled ‘Current French Philosophy’.In addition to exemplary essays such as Sarah Kofman’s on Kant and respect for women, it contains a representative deconstruction by Derrida of the philosophical notion of representation. In ‘Sending: On Representation’ Derrida uses the technique of treating the term as if it were part of a dead language, and then tries to show that it could not be understood by that language’s philologists. Since the implication is that philosophical terms like ‘representation’ do not genuinely refer to or represent anything real, the essay models both the method and the anti-realist doctrine of Deconstruction.
To explain what is current in Continental philosophy is perhaps more to explain the Anglophone perception than the Continental reality. The question usually asked here about the current scene there is: who is the next Great Philosopher after Heidegger, or after Sartre? Do Foucault and Derrida really measure up to the earlier two? With Foucault’s passing, moreover, Paris-watchers are bound to be asking who the next star will be. While Foucault and Derrida knew about some aspects of Anglo-American philosophy, a major influence on their thought has been from Germany, particularly Heidegger. So there is the further question of whether their work is as substantial as that of recent German contenders, such as Habermas or Gadamer.
This type of questioning, though, suggests a bias, and implicitly condemns the Continental tradition for being subject to swiftly changing fashions, not to be taken seriously. But there are major issues separating Foucault and Derrida, issues that are not simply matters of style. Of course, style is significant. The obscurity of much recent French philosophical prose is no less deliberate than the clarity of English philosophical writing. A remarkable feature of Foucault’s style is that it became less and less obscure. However opaque the theory may have been in Discipline and Punish and Power/Knowledge, the statements were not hard to understand. The historical writing of the new volumes on sexuality is readily accessible, and readers who have become accustomed to prolixity may find it prosaic.
What then are the major questions raised by Michel Foucault’s work and still left unanswered at his death? The new volumes on sexuality provide another history of another major concept that moulds our lives. So we know how he understood the history of medicine, of the prison, of the mental asylum, and now the history of sexual ethics. The details of these newest books will be debated by other scholars. But as usual for Foucault, the importance of his history does not depend on digging up new facts but on finding an unusual vantage-point that manages to reorganise our understanding of both the past and the present. Foucault has intentionally focused here, for instance, on arcane Hellenistic figures as well as famous Platonic texts.
Those already familiar with Foucault’s work will expect the arcane, and will know that the real surprise lies instead in what is not discussed in the new volumes. During the period when Foucault and his critics were reflecting on the implications of his study of the prison, his novelty and importance depended on his conception of social power. By the time these new books on sexuality finally appeared, he had changed direction once again. There is little about power in these new volumes, and in a late lecture entitled ‘Why study power: The Question of the Subject’, appended to the Dreyfus/Rabinow book, he appeared to back away from dealing with the problem of articulating a theory of power. ‘The goal of my work during the last twenty years,’ he said, ‘has not been to analyse the phenomena of power, nor to elaborate the foundations of such an analysis.’ Instead his interest was in how human beings objectify or transform themselves into subjects, in the sense not only of how they let themselves become subject to social institutions but also of how they experience and think of themselves.
So the questions that most preoccupy theorists who take Foucault seriously can be put in three groups. First, there is the question of how to interpret Foucault’s work. His thought went through distinct phases, and identifying the unifying core of his work is not a straightforward task. Second, however the central and most valuable features of his work are characterised, how do they differ from other methods used by other theorists? Is his work significantly different, for instance, from the Structuralist, or Marxist, or Annales schools of historiography? His disagreement with doctrinaire Marxist modes of explanation gives him a certain kinship with sociological interpretations of culture, such as those of Max Weber or the Frankfurt School.
These two groups of questions are concerned with placing Foucault and his work in context. Wanting to know how he is best interpreted, or how he differs significantly from others, is finally an indirect way of getting at the third group of questions. These address his method, and whether his work systematically presupposed an uncommon conception of human beings as caught up in social and historical matrixes of power relations. Given that for Foucault detailed historical analysis undermines our belief in constants of human nature and in universal patterns or principles of moral and social comportment, what then is social power, and what is it to be a human subject?
There are many new secondary sources that clarify the first two groups of questions and some go on to address the philosophical questions of the third group. None surpass the book by Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, the first edition of which I reviewed in these pages in November 1982. This book should be obtained in the American paperback edition that contains Foucault’s ‘On the Genealogy of Ethics’, a lucid interview that is now our best source for seeing how he construed the whole project of the history of sexuality. Rabinow has also put together a comprehensive reader of Foucault’s best and most representative studies, essays and interviews, available soon from Pantheon. Books that may not be as useful to the general reader because they have more idiosyncratic lines of interpretation or a specific technical vocabulary of their own are those by Karlis Racevskis, Pamela Major-Poetzl, and the co-authors, Charles Lemert and Garth Gillan. These books represent interestingly different ways of interpreting Foucault’s work, but by attempting this while Foucault was still productive, they knowingly ran the risk of becoming outdated. For those who think Foucault’s concept of power is his most significant contribution, no exposition of it is clearer or more helpful than that by Barry Smart in Foucault, Marxism and Critique.
But now that Foucault has de-emphasised his conception of power and shifted his attention to sexual ethics, all three groups of questions must be reconsidered. Does the story Foucault tells in the newest volumes alter our understanding of his thought? We have had the introductory volume to the history of sexuality since 1976, with an English translation since 1978, and Foucault had given us reason to expect the projected volumes much sooner than this. But at the beginning of the second volume he explains that his original expectations of how the work would develop were changed when he started doing the research. This is a perfectly acceptable reason for the delay, but it calls into question the interpretative hypotheses and the framework advanced in the introductory volume. In the ‘Genealogy of Ethics’ interview and in the introduction to L’Usage des Plaisirs he says there were many errors in Volume One, and he now wants to explain the relation of power and sexuality differently.
The shift from subconscious social power to self-conscious sexual subjects is to be explained, not as an abrupt discontinuity in his thought, but, he says, as an extension of his general method of genealogy. Genealogy studies how we constitute ourselves as human subjects. So his first works on medicine and psychiatry examined how we constitute ourselves as subjects of knowledge – that is, how we make ourselves through our theoretical, discursive practices into objects about which we can make true statements. His study of the prison looked at the power relations in the disciplinary ways through which we made ourselves into subjects acting on others. Now his history of sexual ethics is a case study of how we make ourselves into moral agents. Here he does not study the history of the moral code containing the explicit prescriptions or commandments, since he thinks these are generally stable throughout the different historical periods. Like Hegel, who wanted to examine, not the moral rules, as Kant did, but the ‘ethical substance’, the shared assumptions of what it was to be a member of a community and thus to aspire to being a good person, Foucault thinks that to see what changed we have to look at another level than that of the articulated code. We have to find out how the conception of the self changed, for instance, between the Greco-Roman idea of taking care of the self and the Christian goal of self-renunciation; and similarly, how sexual subjectivity altered, for instance, between Greek aphrodisia and Christian desire of the flesh.
Whatever the best explanation is for the differences between his various histories at different times in his life, there are some evident strands of continuity. A persistent concern throughout his work, for instance, is with the historical malleability of ‘human nature’. Like Nietzsche, Foucault does not think there are any historical givens about human behaviour and cultural experience that remain constant. The prison and sexuality studies would show that even the human body (as it is experienced), which is the lowest common denominator throughout all historical change, is transformed over time by technologies of social power.
In the first volume, translated as The History of Sexuality, Foucault suggests that something as basic as sex is not a biological given. To think and act as if having certain organs determined gender and behaviour, or as if sexuality and personality were totally conditioned by an orientation toward particular ways of using these organs, is a recent way of conceiving (or at least of conceptualising) human beings. His history is intended to show us that what we mean by the term ‘sex’ is not obvious, and that we take too much for granted in assuming that our experience must be the way it has been always and everywhere for others. He plays with the thought that there has been ‘sex’ only since the 19th century, and that we would be better-off in the future not wanting to ‘have sex’. His view is that ‘sex’ is a socially and historically-conditioned concept, one formed by abstracting from the diverse and multiple phenomenal manifestations of ‘bodies and pleasures’.
In L’Usage des Plaisirs he underlines the thought that sexuality is a specific historical concept, a product of the 19th century, by contrasting Greek mores. He insists that the Greeks found sexual conduct as problematic as we do, but in different ways. For them it was not how or with whom you liked to have sex that was crucial, as it supposedly is now, but whether you were master or slave of your passions. So the Greeks could not have been opposed to what we call deviancy, only to the aesthetic ugliness of physical excess.
While Foucault’s architectonic explanation of this point gets complex, I take him to be making the general claim that physical acts such as bodily couplings are always construed under a particular mode of description. Furthermore, this mode of description or self-understanding will condition those physical acts. Finally, these self-understandings come to be codified into forms of knowledge (psychology for the normal and psychotherapy for the deviants) and into rules of practice. Only the forms of knowledge and the set of practical, moral precepts would have been self-consciously explicit to the agents, and the underlying background of self-understanding has to be re-created by the historian. This is an exercise in history of thought, but for Foucault ‘thought’ comes to more than what the agents might have said about themselves. It includes a larger background, or ‘system of thought’, that is never fully explicit. So while the moral rules change slowly, the background understanding of these rules can alter at a different pace. The knowledge the agents might think they have of why they behave as they do is thus incomplete, and not generalisable for other times. Over time these modes of self-understanding, and thus the kinds of experience people have, will change, not necessarily for the better.
Foucault treats the burden of proof for this historicist view of human action as if it fell on historiography rather than on philosophy. I doubt whether anyone will think Volumes Two and Three provide a complete proof, since they do not go into modern times. For the suggestions about our own times one should look closely at the cover of the paperback edition of the Dreyfus/Rabinow book, which shows Foucault’s own sketch on a classroom blackboard of different formulae of sexual conduct. The appended interview then compares the Greek, Chinese, Early Christian and modern configurations.
Again, he starts off with yet another self-interpretation, insisting that his topic of investigation is not conceptions of sex, but, more broadly, techniques for becoming a self: ‘Sex,’ he says, ‘is boring.’ Both Greeks and Christians valued the person who could be ascetic and restrain sexual desires, but Foucault maintains that their understanding of what asceticism meant was markedly different. Whereas for Christians it meant a renunciation of self, for the Greeks asceticism had to do with making the self aesthetically pleasing, with leading an estimable life. Foucault’s central theme in Le Souci de Soi is also asceticism in the larger sense of techniques agents practise on themselves in order to make themselves into the selves they want to be. Foucault hunts through ancient texts to see the ‘hermeneutics of the self’ in the strategies that both Greeks and Christians developed for restraining and directing sexual urges.
Unlike Nietzsche, however, Foucault does not engage in tirades against the Christian practices, probably because Christianity appears to him as historically dated. Although he intends us to realise that much of our contemporary understanding of sexuality as embodied, for instance, in psychiatric practice or liberationist rhetoric derives from Christian theories of the soul or the practice of confession (and is therefore supposedly suspect), he also acknowledges that the Christian formula for sexual behaviour is recognisably incommensurable with the modern formula. The former, for example, would eradicate desire whereas the latter wants to ‘liberate’ it.
The point of these contrasts is to call our own sexual ethics into question, but not by setting up any one historical conception of sexual ethics as the best alternative. He does not think that we should want to go back to the Greek formula, however much he seems to prefer some features of it. These historical modes of sexual experience and self-understanding are only different from ours, not better or worse. They are not even alternatives, since we could not go back to them given the radical difference in the background of beliefs and practices. But their difference is what makes us cognisant of what we unconsciously exclude. So if this history makes us aware of shortcomings in our own self-understanding and practices, it does not do so by constructing a completely different ideal to which we could aspire. Foucault constantly reminds us that the Greeks were troubled about sexual conduct, and that it was not a golden age of totally liberated bodies and pleasures.
Clearly Foucault’s interest has moved far from his earlier concerns with the way discourse constituted empirical reality, or even with the way power relations conditioned discourse. The focus now on the self as experienced throughout the history of sexual ethics seems to exhume the preoccupation with self-consciousness and subjectivity that Structuralists supposedly buried in the repudiation of Existentialism and Phenomenology. Foucault may have been reflecting on this in his last interviews and lectures, and in various drafts of the introduction to L’Usage des Plaisirs. He obviously wanted to explain to himself and others how his life’s work fitted together, and he was willing to say that he had learned from earlier efforts and mistakes. Precisely on the point of writing a history of modes of people’s experience (or of ‘mentalities’, although Foucault avoids the term), there is a significant advance. In the first edition of the subsequently much-revised (but still not completely translated) Madness and Civilisation, Foucault suggested he was trying to return, ‘in history, to that zero point in the course of madness at which madness is an undifferentiated experience, a not yet divided experience of division itself’. His book is thus a history of the period in which madness was first forcibly separated, institutionally and philosophically, from reason, particularly through the creation of mental ‘asylums’. Foucault seems to be attacking those like Descartes who, without reason (that is, without being able to give sufficient reason for thinking they are not mad), reject insanity as simply ‘extravagance’, as thinking that is totally incomprehensible and totally implausible. Reason can validate itself only by refusing to consider whether madness has its own measure of validity. Foucault implies that through writing a history of the techniques by which the insane have been removed and excluded from society, he may recapture the original experience of madness before the separation of madness and reason.
This puzzling project did not go uncriticised for long, and the best of the inquisitors was Derrida. Using an argument resembling Wittgenstein’s argument against the intelligibility of the idea of private, pre-linguistic experience, Derrida defended Descartes against Foucault’s critique, pointing out that philosophy as rational thinking cannot take seriously the possibility that it might be totally mad, incoherent or arbitrary. Such thinking would not be thinking at all, and he suggested the insane themselves realise the difference. Then Derrida showed that even if Foucault were right, he would not be able to recapture the true experience of madness through his writing. If to write and to represent is already to order and to organise, and if madness is the opposite of logic and order, accurately representing madness would also escape Foucault. The project is thus impossible, and the conception of it unintelligible.
In the revised and expanded edition of the book Foucault published an appendix replying to Derrida. He accuses Derrida of being a traditional philologist who believes in close reading of texts, but who cannot see this particular passage correctly even when he looks at it closely. Foucault’s view, held more strongly then than now, is that what individuals can think, and what they think they can know, is conditioned by a framework or system that permits certain things to be significant and excludes other possibilities. So he says there is a system that obstructs Derrida’s reading, ‘a system of which Derrida is today the most decisive representative in its final éclat’. He thus thinks of Derrida as a ‘textualist’ who leaves out the social dimensions of the discursive practices. In Foucault’s view these practices, and not simply the texts, are what is important (although as discursive practices they are available to the historian only through texts, or documents of some sort).
Foucault apparently never changed his mind about this assessment of Derrida, for he makes a similar criticism in the 1983 Dreyfus/Rabinow interviews. There he challenges Derrida’s reading of Plato’s metaphor for writing as a pharmakon in the Phaedrus. Again, one must keep in mind the difference between Derrida’s method of metaphilosophical deconstruction and Foucault’s method of writing concrete histories of practical attempts to gather social, psychological and moral knowledge. Also, what this criticism brings out is that Foucault does not think of himself as an opponent of truth, for Foucault thinks Derrida’s practice of bracketing questions about textual truth blinds him to the fact that Plato’s critique of writing is really about truth and not about the difference between writing and speech: ‘If you read the Phaedrus, you will see that this passage is secondary with respect to another one which is fundamental and which is in line with the theme which runs throughout the end of the text. It does not matter whether a text is written or oral – the problem is whether or not the discourse in question gives access to the question of truth.’ On Foucault’s reading of the Phaedrus, the decisions about how to understand the relation of writing, speech and truth cannot be understood apart from a more enveloping concern with techniques for the art of living.
This exchange serves to illustrate Foucault’s conception of the differences between philosophy as it was for the Greeks and as it is for us now. He believes that at the beginning of philosophy there is not a sharp separation between epistemology or theoretical philosophy, on the one hand, and moral and social, or practical philosophy, on the other. Truth and goodness are considered distinct and unrelated matters only later, and the Early Modern period understands them differently. Rather than restrict interpretations to a purely syntactic and textual level, as he thinks Derrida does, Foucault looks for the social practices that the text itself both reflects and employs. By linking the question of writing with ‘the technical and material framework in which it arose’, he is not claiming to be giving just a more accurate historical interpretation, for he also wants to make us aware of the extent to which similar or different practices today are political. That is, by becoming aware of practices that are so common that we forget to think about them, and then by seeing that they perpetuate attitudes and self-understandings we ought to question, we may want to consider whether there is not too great a discrepancy between our ideals and our practices.
For Foucault, then, Derrida’s deliberate decision to refuse questions about the extent to which the text arises out of and reflects underlying social practices itself reflects a social practice. Derrida’s practice thus appears to be methodologically deficient because it cannot consider the question of evaluating textual analysis as a social and political practice, which it also is. Since this practice serves to blind interpretation to the social and political dimension, it is also politically deficient. Derrida’s method would preclude questions about truth in normative, social and political matters, and thus simply perpetuate the social status quo.
Foucault did significantly revise the way he understood his method, and thus may well have learned from Derrida’s critical reading, however much of a misreading he thought it was. A longer draft of the introduction to L’Usage des Plaisirs than was actually used, but which appears in part in the Rabinow reader, shows Foucault reflecting on how to formulate his conception of experience in order to avoid the confusions of the study of madness. Foucault admits that his earlier conception of experience was ‘floating’. Whereas ‘experience’ was left undefined in Madness, he now tries to define it as consisting of three levels that can be studied empirically by the historian: first, a field of knowledge (connaissances) with concepts, theories and diverse disciplines; second, a normative collection of rules (for instance, those operant in distinguishing the permitted and the forbidden, the natural and the monstrous, the normal and the pathological, or the decent and the indecent); and third, a mode of relation to oneself (for instance, by which one recognises oneself as a sexual subject among others). These three levels can be found together in any of his works, but the study of the asylum focuses on the first and the study of the prison on the second.
The history of sexual ethics is especially concerned with the last of these, because in Western society sexuality is a major way in which one relates to oneself or understands oneself. Here Foucault is no longer claiming access to a realm of private experience that is in principle inaccessible to articulation and analysis, as he did in the Madness preface. He will look instead at the social and textual manifestations where sexuality did get discussed and articulated, and to which historians have access.
An objection, or at least a question, is why it should follow that the historian is really discovering the experience of the self from the investigation of both public, cognitive discourse about sex and social ways of institutionalising its practice. Maybe the way individuals experience sexuality or insanity is historically invariable, or at least different from the way public discourses and institutions interpret it. In response, one could say this objection presupposes the view Foucault questions. Foucault thinks instead that experience is not a given that is then interpreted, but is itself already highly interpreted, so that changes in interpretation are the same as changes in experience. I think it is important to realise that for Foucault self-understanding is not the same as self-consciousness.
Like Heidegger, Foucault does not think self-understanding is revealed through introspection, through access to a private, subjective domain. Self-understanding is revealed through actions, and particularly through patterns of action. Although these patterns of action may appear to the practitioners to be coherent, intelligible and tolerable, a critical history may show that the practices are not as rational or as inevitable as they were taken to be. The result neither of explicit, autonomous, self-conscious decision-procedures, nor of biological programming, self-understanding is itself a function of a matrix formed by the interaction of social and discursive practices. To the extent that these practices are shown to be historically variable, self-understanding will be correlatively variable.
Now that Foucault has shifted our attention from social power back to human subjectivity and the self, more needs to be done to come up with a complete assessment both of his most recent work and of his entire written corpus. This evaluation will have to include asking whether Foucault was right to distance himself from the method of Deconstruction, for instance, as exemplified by the Derrida essay on representation. Further, was he entitled to say that Deconstruction necessarily underestimates the social and historical reality of beliefs in truth and norms, and that it lacks the means for criticising social institutions, moral ideals, and historical configurations of the self? In self-defence Deconstructionists could suggest that Foucault himself lacked such means, but more positively they could also develop the thought that Deconstruction, too, depends on treating our present discourses and standards as if they were degenerating or dead, and thus has an equally important critical role in contemporary culture.
Foucault’s Anglo-American critics have accused him all along of skirting normative issues about how to criticise social practices or moral norms. Reconstructing how he could consistently argue for his criticisms of present moral and social practices given his abstention from belief in universal truths or norms is a complex assignment he now leaves to his interpreters. He gives them some help in his last self-interpretations through a deliberate attempt to falsify some standard characterisations of his position by his critics. His critique of Deconstruction for abandoning truth claims shows he is not an avowed relativist. Now that he has taken the problems of ethics as serious questions and tried to show that morals do have a substantive cultural basis, the label of ‘nihilist’ is also inappropriate. Finally, from his earlier account of historical discontinuity he was accused of being a fatalistic functionalist who believed that all aspects of society and culture are tied together in such a way that no part can be changed or improved independently of others. In contrast, his sexual history sees some aspects of the ethical substance changing while others persist, and he believes sexual ethics could be changed without simultaneously changing all political and economic structures. So functionalism and holism are avoided, and that fatalism is not the conclusion he draws is clear from the corrective value he thinks the study of the history of sexual ethics can have. In contrast to his previous books, individuals here have more practical capacity to influence their own self-formation.
However his work is reconstructed and assessed, it should be acknowledged as a serious and continuing effort, not only at social criticism, but also at self-criticism and self-creation. His various histories constitute an effort to create in writing a life that showed the ‘care for the self’ which his last books were recovering from the past. With his death, the task for Post-Post-Structuralist theorists will be to face and assess the implications of his multiple, critical perspectives on the present. His favourite targets were our tendencies to take the present as in every way progressive, and to think that our present modes of thought are the only possible ones, or that our social institutions are inevitable and necessary. In line with a tradition of great cultural critics and satirists, his rhetorical stance depended on depicting the present as if these tendencies had completely triumphed, when his own dissenting voice showed they had not. His voice was thus paradoxical, but not unintelligible. With its silence we will now be spared its disconcerting provocations. Unfortunately for us, though, the repressive, inhibiting social tendencies he satirised will not thereby disappear.