After Foucault

David Hoy

  • Philosophy in France Today edited by Alan Montefiore
    Cambridge, 201 pp, £20.00, January 1983, ISBN 0 521 22838 7
  • French Literary Theory Today: A Reader edited by Tzvetan Todorov, translated by R. Carter
    Cambridge, 239 pp, £19.50, October 1982, ISBN 0 521 23036 5
  • Histoire de la Sexualité. Vol. II: L’Usage des Plaisirs by Michel Foucault
    Gallimard, 285 pp, £8.25, June 1984, ISBN 2 07 070056 9
  • Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics by Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow
    Chicago, 256 pp, $8.95, December 1983, ISBN 0 226 16312 1
  • The Foucault Reader edited by Paul Rabinow
    Pantheon, 350 pp, $19.95, January 1985, ISBN 0 394 52904 9
  • Michel Foucault and the Subversion of Intellect by Karlis Racevskis
    Cornell, 172 pp, £16.50, July 1983, ISBN 0 8014 1572 1
  • Michel Foucault’s Archaeology of Western Culture: Toward a New Science of History by Pamela Major-Poetzl
    Harvester, 281 pp, £22.50, May 1983, ISBN 0 7108 0484 9
  • Michel Foucault: Social Theory as Transgression by Charles Lemert and Garth Gillan
    Columbia, 169 pp, £8.50, January 1984, ISBN 0 231 05190 5
  • Foucault, Marxism and Critique by Barry Smart
    Routledge, 144 pp, £5.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 7100 9533 3

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.

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[*] Vol. 49, No 2, Summer 1982.