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Foucault: A Very Short Introduction by Gary Gutting

Foucault: A Very Short Introduction
by Gary Gutting


"Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same," wrote Michel Foucault; a brilliant transdisciplinarian whose work spanned philosophy, history, social theory and literary criticism. He mined past ways of thinking so as to see present-day assumptions and practices afresh, explains the philosopher Gary Gutting.

Interview by Charles J. Styles

Foucault: A Very Short Introduction by Gary Gutting

Foucault: A Very Short Introduction
by Gary Gutting

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Could you start by saying a bit about who Michel Foucault was?

Well, at the beginning of my Very Short Introduction, I pose this question and give Foucault’s own answer from his The Archaeology of Knowledge: “Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write.”  I think, in fact, that for an intellectual like Foucault, the most important story of his life is the story of the books he wrote.

That story begins—after some initial existentialist stutters that didn’t turn into his true voice—with his great History of Madness, which was followed by a difficult and under-appreciated study of the origin of modern medicine (The Birth of the Clinic).  Next, he made his name with The Order of Things, a remarkably ambitious and erudite effort both to rewrite the intellectual history of the West from the 18th to the 20th century and to provide a new way (“archaeology”) to write the history of thought.  (The Archaeology of Knowledge, which I just quoted, was a difficult meta-commentary on this new method.)  Of these earlier works, the book on madness is the one that I think will best reward most readers coming to Foucault.  It’s much more readable than The Order of Things, and far more relevant to Foucault’s later and most influential work on the relation of knowledge and power.  The abridged version (translated as Madness and Civilization, with the cuts approved by Foucault) will do well enough if you don’t have the time or patience for the complete text, which runs over 700 pages.  This group of books comprises what is often called Foucault’s ‘archaeological’ period, devoted to unearthing the deep structures of past epistemes (roughly: conceptual frameworks).

His next book, Discipline and Punish, appeared six years later in 1975, quickly followed by the first volume of his History of Sexuality.  They define his so-called ‘genealogical’ period, in which he seeks the causes of changes from one episteme to another.  This effort leads him to the intimate interplay between power and knowledge that becomes explicit and central in his genealogical writings.  Those reading Foucault with a view to appreciating and evaluating his influence on various human sciences should start with these two books.  (They should also keep in mind that Foucault referred to these ‘sciences’—psychology, sociology, etc.—as “dubious disciplines”.)

“Foucault hurried to finish them before he died, and some have suggested that he didn’t have time to be obscure”

Foucault presented his last two books, The Use of Pleasure and The Care of the Self, as volumes two and three of his History of Sexuality.  But readers should be warned that they are by no means continuations of volume one.  They are about sex among the ancient Greeks and Romans, and are at the most distant prequels to volume one, which deals with the 19th and 20th centuries.  Also, their central focus is not power/knowledge but self-development as an ethical/aesthetic project, which is why schematising commentators often see them as belonging to a third and final ‘ethical’ period.  The books are short and very readable—Foucault hurried to finish them before he died, and some have suggested that he didn’t have time to be obscure.  In any case, they are engaging reads for anyone interested in ancient ethics and its striking differences from later views of the moral life.

Finally, I need to emphasise the value of Foucault’s essays and interviews for understanding his life’s work.  Essays such as ‘What Is an Author?’ and ‘What Is Enlightenment?’ are of major importance, and the interviews, in addition to being more accessible, can provide helpful historical and biographical background.  Here the key resource is Paul Rabinow (ed.), Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984, three volumes: I. Subjectivity and Truth; II. Aesthetics, Method and Epistemology; and III. Power

Foucault’s influence is palpable in so many disciplines, whether it is philosophy, history, political theory, sociology and so on, yet he is a thinker that is difficult to straightforwardly categorise. Why do you think that is?

Foucault was trained as a philosopher at the famous École normale, where most of the important 20th century French philosophers—Bergson, Sartre, Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty, Derrida—studied.  But he turned out to be an intellectual historian, employing his philosophical skills for the interpretation of the past rather than his own engagement with the great philosophical issues.  Moreover, his histories were always what he called “histories of the present”.  This meant that he did not try to develop the most complete and accurate account of how our ancestors thought.  Instead, he mined the past for examples of thinking that would challenge current assumptions supporting what he saw as ethically intolerable practices.

“The old ways of punishment assaulted the body, but the new ways took control of the soul”

Typically, these assumptions were based on the allegedly objective results of human sciences.  So, for example, psychologists’ and psychiatrists’ concept of ‘mental illness’, although in some ways an advance on earlier understandings of madness, gave rise to unacceptable domination of those confined to asylums.  Similarly, he argued that the allegedly more ‘enlightened’ punishment of imprisonment, which has replaced tortures and bloody executions, was, for all its lack of spectacular violence, far more coercive.  The old ways of punishment assaulted the body, but the new ways, guided by the so-called science of criminology, took control of the soul.  Foucault aimed to show that modern practices we see as required on humanitarian grounds in fact involve their own forms of horrors.  He hoped that his books would provide a toolbox of concepts and arguments that would help activists oppose these horrors.

Given this project, Foucault needed a serious grasp not only of history and philosophy but also of all the human sciences that served as unwitting masks for ethically unacceptable practices.  This explains the difficulty in categorising his work, although, as suggested, I think it’s most accurate to regard him as a philosophically guided intellectual historian.

Just before we move on to your list, can I first ask about the sort of considerations  that shaped your choice of five books here?

I first decided not to include any of my own books, since I don’t think anyone can be a fair judge of his own work.  Then I decided not to include any of Foucault’s own books, since for most people getting into him with depth requires considerable help from secondary sources.  Finally, I aimed at books that were not primarily addressed to academics who work on Foucault, since they’re generally not accessible to general readers.

I’ve noticed that your book choices are quite modern, with the oldest book on the list being written a decade after Foucault died. Was that a conscious decision?

I wasn’t consciously thinking that way.  But on reflection I suspect I gave more recent books preference because they typically incorporate most of the helpful interpretation of earlier works and also provide their own new ideas, often based on things by Foucault that were published posthumously and have only recently been available.  Foucault left the firm instruction: “No posthumous publications.”  But his executors decided that, although he had not put into print the many lectures he gave in the 1970s and 1980s at the Collège de France, he had authorised their tape-recording, which they took to be a form of publication.

Let’s take a look at your choices. Your first book is How to Read Foucault (2007) by Johanna Oksala. I am very fond of this series—they are very short but the quality of engagement and exposition is very high.  Can you say a bit about why you have recommended this one in particular?

First of all, Oksala is one of the most informed, balanced, and perceptive Foucault scholars, and writes clearly without over-simplifying.  Also, the series format of fairly extended selections from Foucault, with Oksala providing detailed context and commentary, provides a very effective access to his thinking.

And would you say that the picture of Foucault and his work painted by Oksala here is well-rounded or does she place specific emphases?

She gives a comprehensive account of Foucault’s major books and covers all of his central themes.  The book is an excellent starting point, since readers get to plunge right into Foucault’s own texts, but with an expert guide.

Next on your list is Todd May’s The Philosophy of Foucault (2006). What do you think is May’s starting point regarding Foucault here? Is he seeing him first and foremost as a philosopher and therefore looking at all of his work in that light? Or is it a case of singling out distinctively philosophical contributions made by Foucault throughout his diverse work?

I’d put it this way: May is a philosopher who sees Foucault’s work as dealing throughout with a single philosophical question.  This question is: ‘Who are we?’  May is interested in studying Foucault’s treatment of this question because he thinks Foucault rightly understands it as both social and historical.  The question is not who I am but who we are, and Foucault seeks an answer not in a fixed essence but in the temporal processes that have led to who we are now.  In that sense, May is seeing Foucault as first of all a philosopher, although one whose project requires the skills of an historian and an extensive engagement with the disciplines that study social phenomena.

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May is a wonderfully lucid expositor of Foucault, but this book goes beyond a mere introduction.  It’s May’s personal philosophical reflection on Foucault’s work and seeks not only to passively “understand” Foucault but also to see how we might think along with Foucault.  As some reviewers have said, you may not want to make May’s book the first thing you read about Foucault—although it can provide a fine introduction—but you definitely should turn to it once you’re a bit further along.

If you, personally, were to talk about Foucault’s work in terms of branches of contemporary philosophy, which area would seem most appropriate? For instance, could he legitimately be considered a forerunner of social epistemology?

I’m leery of thinking of Foucault in terms of any of the standard areas of current academic philosophy (metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, etc.).  Foucault’s philosophizing was always embedded in an effort to understand specific historical events, like the confinement of the mad in 17th-century France or the birth of the prison in 19th-century England.  Even when he puts forward what seem to be philosophical theories (e.g., of power in The History of Sexuality I), he’s in fact just sharpening an intellectual tool that he finds helpful for making his historical points.  What might seem to be part of a philosophical edifice is just a bit of scaffolding that Foucault may well abandon as he moves to other projects.  Also, recall that the ultimate point of all Foucault’s studies is to question the knowledge-claims of some contemporary disciplines (psychiatry, criminology, etc.).  This is something quite different from a philosophical effort to provide answers to fundamental questions.  I can (just barely) imagine Foucault someday entering the pantheon of paradigmatic philosophers, but that could happen only if philosophy as an academic discipline became something quite different from what it has long been.

Your next choice is Bodies and Pleasures: Foucault and the Politics of Sexual Normalization (1999) by Ladelle McWhorter.

In contrast to Oksala and May, McWhorter focuses on Foucault’s studies of sexuality.  She’s an informed and lucid guide to the topic, but her book is most distinctive for the way she combines discussions of Foucault with her own experiences as a gay woman.  She has a lot to offer in the way of standard analysis and evaluation; for example, her defence of Foucault against critics who claim his studies of power lead to pessimistic apathy in the face of unstoppable domination.  She particularly responds to feminists such as Nancy Fraser and Linda Alcoff, who see Foucault’s thought as sapping the life-blood of the fight against oppression.

“Foucault was suspicious of norms derived from the human ‘sciences’ that were used as instruments of illegitimate control”

But, as she says, her ” primary purpose is not to prove to anyone that Foucault’s philosophical positions are the true and right ones”; her goal is to show how Foucault’s writing “has been able to excite, stimulate, enliven, and empower me for the greater part of my adult life”.  This includes an impressive autobiographical account of her struggle with a society that insisted she could in essence be nothing but a homosexual as well as engaging reflections on the pleasures she’s found in gardening and in line-dancing.

 A key theme throughout Foucault’s work is this focus on normativity. Could you say a bit about how Foucault looks at norms and values and whether his assessment of sexual norms fits neatly within this overarching suspicion?

The idea of what’s ‘normal’ has an important place in biological accounts of organism and in setting standards for life in society.  Foucault was, however, suspicious of norms derived from the human ‘sciences’ that were used as instruments of illegitimate control.  A simple example is the use of statistical averages to set norms of evaluation. A striking case (not discussed by Foucault) is the way American colleges use student surveys to evaluate teaching.  Students rate their professors on their overall pedagogical effectiveness and the results are averaged to provide a criterion that divides the teachers into those that are at or above the average and those that are below average.

All this would be just mathematics, but the average is then taken as a norm, setting a standard for good vs. bad teaching.  This gives college administrators a useful tool for controlling their faculty.  By definition, nearly half their professors will always be “below-average” and so subject to penalties (lower salaries, no promotions) and required training programs.  Such misuses of norms are widespread in many schools and workplaces.

“After the sexual revolution of the 1960s, some became burdened with their inability to overcome various hang-ups”

More serious examples arise regarding sex, as, for example, when 19th-century sexologists described various categories of ‘perversion’ that defined various forms of ‘abnormal’ sexual behaviour (e.g., homosexuality, nymphomania) as forms of mental illness.  Those falling into the abnormal categories were subject to medical treatment (or at least social disapproval) to remedy their deficiencies.

Foucault was particularly interested in the process whereby ‘defective’ individuals came to accept and internalise the negative judgment of their behaviour and so become their own guilty supervisors. He also noted that values of sexual freedom could themselves take on a negative normative role.  After the sexual revolution of the 1960s, some people became burdened with their inability to overcome various hang-ups, and throw off the shackles of conformity to traditional prohibitions.  This, of course, is just a reverse form of normative control. Or, as Foucault put it, “The irony of this . . . is in having us believe that our ‘liberation’ is in balance.”

Your fourth choice is The Cambridge Foucault Lexicon (2014). Again, the sheer scope of this work shows how Foucault has been taken up by scholars of all stripes in many diverse fields. This looks like quite a hefty reference book, so presumably you wouldn’t recommend this to be read cover-to-cover?

At about 700 pages and with entries on 117 topics, it’s a Foucault encyclopedia.  No one is going to read it straight through, but it’s invaluable to find brief explanations of unfamiliar points.  It’s also good for random browsing. The articles typically range from 3-8 pages and cover both terms and people relevant to Foucault’s work.  There’s also a very thorough index, and each entry has a list of suggested readings.  I count about 72 different authors, including most of the leading Foucault scholars of the day.

Are there particular entries, off the top of your head, that you would direct specific attention to?

There are excellent pieces by the editors Leonard Lawlor and John Nale, as well as the authors of our first three books (Oksala, May, and McWhorter). There are also notable entries by other distinguished Foucault scholars: Amy Allen (politics), Judith Revel (power), Colin Koopman (problematisation), Alan Schrift (Nietzsche), and Thomas Flynn (Sartre)—among many others.

Finally, we have The Lives of Michel Foucault (1993) by David Macey. I’m curious that the title of this biography pluralises Foucault’s life. Why do you think that is?

For one thing, Macey wants to emphasis the complexity of the story he’s going to tell.  On his first page he says Foucault had lives “as an academic, as a political activist, as a child, as a lover of men”.  He goes on to note that the standard—and admittedly useful—division of his intellectual work into the successive stages of archaeology, genealogy, and ethics errs in suggesting limiting it to “a uniquely philosophical dimension”.  This, Macey says, ignores the important phases of political activism and literary studies in Foucault’s biography.

“Macey cites a much deeper issue: Foucault had a horror of any fixed identity”

But Macey also cites a much deeper issue.  Foucault had a horror of any fixed identity.  He told a journalist in 1982, “I don’t feel that it is necessary to know exactly who I am.  The main interest in life is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning.”  He also insisted that every one of his books was an effort to put on a new mask.  He wrote, he said, “in order to have no face”.

Foucault, of all people, was sensitive to how one’s social and intellectual commitments are affected by our historical situation. In what way do you think that Foucault’s life—both the events of his own life but also his wider milieu – influenced his writing?

Of course, we can always make the usual sort of guesses about why Foucault wrote what he did.  Perhaps he wrote about the history of concepts because that was the approach his teacher, Georges Canguilhem, took as an historian of science.  Perhaps he wrote The Order of Things to give the coup de grâce to Sartre and his existentialist humanism, perhaps the books on sexuality were an effort to come to terms with his homosexuality.  But it’s not clear that we ever know enough about any writer—not to say one as complex as Foucault—to provide any but the most jejune accounts why they wrote what they did.

“It’s not clear that we ever know enough about any writer to provide any but the most jejune accounts why they wrote what they did”

In any case, Foucault the archaeologist would insist that for understanding any text, the events of the author’s life are far less significant than the unconscious conceptual and discursive formations that structure our thought and speech.  But these structures—what he called the episteme of a culture—are in principle not knowable to those who live in the culture.  A serious account of the ‘influences’ on Foucault’s writing would, therefore, have to wait until our contemporary episteme is long gone and can be subjected to the sort of retrospective analysis Foucault himself offered for the thought of earlier centuries.

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And despite Foucault’s critical eye, did he have noteworthy prejudices that remained unexamined?

I think he, like many French intellectuals from Flaubert to Sartre, had an instinctive hatred for the conventional values of bourgeois society.  For Sartre this mostly manifested itself in a naïve support of even disreputable radical causes.  For Foucault it mostly corresponded to a fascination with what he called ‘limit-experiences’—e.g., psychotropic or sexual experiences that push to or beyond the boundaries of acceptable behaviour.  Some make far too much of this tendency—James Miller puts it at the centre of his biography of Foucault.  But it’s important for understanding some aspects of Foucault’s life and work.

Interview by Charles J. Styles

May 22, 2017

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Gary Gutting

Gary Gutting

Gary Gutting (1942-2019) was a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. He was one of the leading Foucault experts and wrote extensively on French-European philosophy, philosophy of science, and the philosophy of religion. Gutting also published articles for The New York Times and The Stone. His book Talking God: Philosophers on Belief (2016) contains interviews with twelve distinguished philosophers–believers, agnostics, and atheists—on the concept of God and understandings of religion.

Gary Gutting

Gary Gutting

Gary Gutting (1942-2019) was a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. He was one of the leading Foucault experts and wrote extensively on French-European philosophy, philosophy of science, and the philosophy of religion. Gutting also published articles for The New York Times and The Stone. His book Talking God: Philosophers on Belief (2016) contains interviews with twelve distinguished philosophers–believers, agnostics, and atheists—on the concept of God and understandings of religion.