Stir Crazy

Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison

by Michel Foucault, translated by Alan Sheridan
Pantheon, 333 pp., $10.95


Michel Foucault erupted onto the intellectual scene at the beginning of the Sixties with his Folie et déraison, an unconventional but still reasonably recognizable history of the Western experience of madness. He has become, in the years since, a kind of impossible object: a nonhistorical historian, an anti-humanistic human scientist, and a counter-structuralist structuralist. If we add to this his tense, impacted prose style, which manages to seem imperious and doubt-ridden at the same time, and a method which supports sweeping summary with eccentric detail, the resemblance of his work to an Escher drawing—stairs rising to platforms lower than themselves, doors leading outside that bring you back inside—is complete.

“Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same,” he writes in the introduction to his one purely methodological work, L’Archéologie du savoir, itself mostly a collection of denials of positions he does not hold but considers himself likely to be accused of by the “mimes and tumblers” of intellectual life. “Leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order,” he states. “At least spare us their morality when we write.” Whoever he is, or whatever, he is what any French savant seems to need to be these days: elusive.

But (and in this he differs from a good deal that has been going on in Paris since structuralism arrived) the difficulty of his work arises not from self-regard and the desire to found an intellectual cult only the instructed can join, but from a powerful and genuine originality of thought. As he intends nothing less than a Great Instauration for the human sciences, it is not surprising that he is more than occasionally obscure, or that when he does manage to be clear he is no less disconcerting.

Foucault’s leading ideas are not in themselves all that complex; just unusually difficult to render plausible. The most prominent of them, and the one for which he has drawn the most attention, is that history is not a continuity, one thing growing organically out of the last and into the next, like the chapters in some nineteenth-century romance. It is a series of radical discontinuities, ruptures, breaks, each of which involves a wholly novel mutation in the possibilities for human observation, thought, and action. Foucault first referred to the “precarious splinters of eternity” these mutations produce as épistémès (i.e., “epistemological fields”), later on as historical a prioris, and most recently as discursive formations. Under whatever label, they are to be dealt with “archaeologically.” That is, they are first to be characterized according to the rules determining what kinds of perception and experience can exist within their limits, what can be seen, said, performed, and thought in the conceptual domain they define. That done, they are then to be put into a pure series, a genealogical sequence in which what is shown is not how one has given causal rise to another but how one has formed itself…

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