Crisis Critic

An increasing number of people seem to want to know what Michel Foucault is saying, even though the news has gotten around that he makes it very hard to find out. The reviewer’s first message to these brave spirits must be a negative one: do not begin here. The Archaeology is an appendix to his earlier work, and especially to The Order of Things (Les Mots et les choses, published in 1966, translated 1970, and reviewed by D. W. Harding in these pages, August 12, 1971). Without some knowledge of that work the new book must seem almost unintelligible, since it is primarily an attempt to describe and qualify the method of argument there used—as the author acknowledges—without adequate justification. Foucault has always been a repetitive as well as an obscure writer, prone to a kind of self-intoxication that can, at times, produce prose resembling erudite poetry. The new book—admirably translated—has such moments, but it is for the most part an elaborate set of methodological doodles in the margins of the old, and one easily grows impatient.

Some would argue that a conviction of the extreme importance of one’s own insights ought to promote gravity and clarity, and a determination to say no more than one means; but this is not Foucault’s way. I don’t want to waste space complaining about this, and in any case could not improve on Harding’s account of the way he diffuses “his meaning very thinly throughout an immense verbal spate, no part of which is quite empty of meaning, redundant, or merely repetitive.” He would probably say much the same thing of the new book. Defenders of modern French opacity would reply that we ancient champions of lucidity are craftily concealing a desire to “recuperate” a disquietingly revolutionary body of thought—to domesticate it, make it fit our own obsolete intellectual procedures.

Just as we are troubled by what seem wanton neologisms and gratuitous syntactical inventions—though they seem to their makers appropriate to the novelty of their discourse—so we are troubled by what seems a xenophobic narrowness of reference. Foucault is by no means the only contemporary French writer who attracts this criticism, but his subjects are so interesting that he may be thought especially tiresome.

Much of what he says has to do with periodization, revolutionary change in the history of science, and the nature of scientific hypothesis and anomaly. Yet he never mentions the names of Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, or Paul Feyerabend. Still there are surely enough resemblances, however superficial, between his “epistemes” and the “paradigms” of Kuhn—to say nothing of the “galaxies” of McLuhan—for him at least to tell us at what level they begin to differ. He uses Russell’s well-known logical crux—“The present king of France is bald”—without mentioning Russell, and flirts with a theory of illocutionary acts without naming Austin. My own lack of acquaintance with the thinkers he most admires—for …

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