Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The importance of teaching Foucault in a time of conformism

Every time I teach a course on that inimitable “archaeological” and simultaneously “genealogical” thinker Michel Foucault I realise how important it is for students to be exposed to, and engage with, his unique mode of transformative thinking and praxis, or perhaps, thinking AS praxis. For make no mistake, to discover Foucault as a philosopher is to engage in a philosophical exercise in self-transformation — if you emerge from your acquaintance with his work unchanged, you have not really encountered it.

Contrary to what most “philosophers” today believe — those who still move within the ambit of the conception of philosophy as a theoretical discipline, operating strictly within the “transcendentally” demarcated boundaries of reason (founded by Kant in the 18th century) — in Foucault’s philosophical practice new philosophical possibilities have been actualised. These point forward to a time when, as more than one Foucault scholar has remarked, Foucault will probably be seen, like Kant before him, as having left his imprint on the very character of philosophy in the late 20th century and beyond.

To be sure, the strange, paradoxical poststructuralist “logic” that pervades his work is also found in that of other poststructuralists, like Deleuze, Lacan, Nancy, Kristeva and Derrida, but nowhere with more conspicuous suggestiveness regarding possibilities of “transformative” action.

Why should this be the case? Foucault did not formulate a programme of political action, as far as I am aware. But he did better than that. Unlike doctrinaire Marxists, for example, who believe that society must of necessity develop dialectically towards the telos of a classless society, Foucault (like Machiavelli) knows that a struggle for power in all human relations — social, political, institutional, personal — will never cease.

His unique contribution to the issue of power and transformation may be stated in different ways, for instance relating to his early “archaeological” work as well as his later turn to “genealogy”.

What Foucault dubbed his “archaeology” consists in a painstaking uncovering of the “epistemic” presuppositions of the thought of an age — that is, those (mostly tacit or unconscious) beliefs about the nature of knowledge, or of science, that underpin the more overt philosophical or scientific work during a certain historical period.

For example, for Darwin to have written The Origin of Species, the tacit assumption, that species can, and do (under specific circumstances) emerge at certain historical, developmental stages, has to be presupposed. Someone living in the medieval period (or, for that matter, a “creationist” in the American mid-West, today) whose thinking about the differences among living beings rests on the tacit assumption, that God created all existing species “ex nihilo”, simultaneously, at the dawn of creation, just cannot factor the historical appearance of different species, at different times, into their thinking. In Foucault’s terms, the thinking of these distinguishable people is underpinned by what he terms different, incompatible “epistemes”, each recognisable by distinct classes of “objects”, distinctive “concepts” to describe these, and new kinds of “authority” relating to the knowledge of the objects in question.

It may appear as if this approach, which Foucault adopted in his archaeologies of insanity, clinical medicine and the social sciences, doesn’t have anything to do with what I initially referred to as “transformative action” in his project. Although the emphasis on such transformation becomes more evident in his later, “genealogical” work, it is already at work here, too, however. By foregrounding the different, irreconcilable “epistemes” on which the treatment of the insane during the so-called “classical period” (+- 1650-1800), as opposed to the modern era (from 1800 onwards) is tacitly predicated, Foucault is intimating that, in human affairs, nothing is cast in stone. Things have periodically changed, fundamentally, and they can change again. This is revolutionary stuff.

As Foucault himself indicated, at this stage of his work he lacked a method to explain the causality involved in change, and hence thought it better to focus on the distinct epistemes underpinning the thought and practices of different historical epochs instead. It seems to me that it was in the course of investigating, together with his seminar group, the remarkable case of Pierre Riviére, a young peasant who murdered his mother, sister and brother in the early 19th century that Foucault discovered a way of understanding the causality involved in such change. The case constituted the arena, he indicated, in which what would become characteristically “modern” discourses — such as those of psychiatry, of medicine and of law — squared off against each other, each claiming Riviére “for itself”, as it were, with the result that, when the court documents reflecting the perspective of each discourse on the case is examined, one can hardly believe that they refer to the “same” case. It confirmed, for Foucault, that “discourses” — which had been thoroughly theorised in his archaeologies — have to be reconsidered with regard to the power relations that are inseparable from the manner in which different discourses construe meaning.

No discourse, in other words, is innocent — be it that of a father, a mother, a child, a manager, a worker, an economist, a judge, a doctor — in each case the meaning of words is in the service of specific interests.

To be sure, in his monumental historical study of punitive practices — Discipline and Punish — Foucault added something in his “genealogical” understanding of how fundamental changes are effected from one recognisable era to the next. One might say that, while his archaeologies mapped the conceptual epistemic terrain of distinct periods, his genealogical study of modes of punishment foregrounds, in meticulous detail, the “material” changes, the developments in terms of micro-practices such as the way in which soldiers were taught to assemble a rifle in the 19th century, or children taught to use their pens in writing, or — most paradigmatically, perhaps — the “ideal prison” (or “panopticon”) was imagined, that eventually tipped the scales towards a radically new period.

Archaeological analysis still plays a role in Discipline and Punish regarding new objects, concepts and modes of authority, to which one may add another, viz, new avenues of strategic action (does that sound familiar?). But the genealogical moment is found in the material changes which, imperceptibly slowly while they are occurring, reach “critical mass” at a certain point, as it were, resulting in a recognisably novel state of affairs.

Again, how does this tie in with my claim, that Foucault is a “transformative” thinker? It should be even more evident than in the case of his archaeological thinking that the genealogical approach foregrounds radical, irreconcilable changes — the contrast between pre-modern and modern modes of punishment is striking, and undeniable, although the latter, while being ostensibly far less violent than the former, are far more efficient in their insidious subtlety.

What gives one pause is Foucault’s conclusion, that we live in a “carceral” society, today — prisons, he points out, exist to mask the fact that the whole of society is like a panoptical prison. But the message is clear: even this may, and can, be changed. For students who live in a social world which (given the growing “culture of compliance”) is increasingly less free — and I’m not talking about “economic freedom” — learning this from Foucault is invaluable. As Foucault pointedly indicates in Discipline and Punish, in the modern world, economic productivity goes hand in hand with political powerlessness and docility.

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