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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 example Canguilhem and Jean Hippolyte—does little to allay my suspicion that criticism and comparison matter less to this writer than what Harding called “a romantic rhetoric of the intellect.”

Though I would argue that Foucault himself is, in part, the unconscious victim of a historical myth he would despise, and that the dazzle of his text serves to conceal this from him as well as to bewilder us, I no more think he should be ignored than that he should be imitated. If he adds anything to our understanding of the character of lost systems of discourse, of how the set of one period’s intellectual operations is transformed into that of another’s, he deserves our attention. If, for example, it is the case that in a new intellectual epoch, dominated by linguistics, the role of the subject, the thinker himself, dwindles because he has discovered that his cherished creativity is constrained by systems that antedate and will survive him, we should try to understand the implications of this without being unduly bothered by the slogans about the Disappearance of Man that accompany Foucault’s demonstration. No doubt one loses something by throwing away the package, but the success of this author does seem to be that after reading him everybody remembers, within certain limits, not the hard sell but the product.

This is best examined in The Order of Things, which is an inquiry into “the laws of a certain code of knowledge”—the laws, that is, that govern the discourses of a particular period. Foucault speaks of three such periods: the one that ended in the mid-seventeenth century; the Classical, which lasted till the beginning of the nineteenth; and the Modern, which began then and is now being transformed into something else. He is not, he emphatically claims, writing history of ideas, or indeed history of anything. Unlike historians, he seeks not origins, continuities, and explanations which will fill in documentary breaches of continuity, but rather “an epistemological space specific to a particular period.” He attempts to uncover the unconscious of knowledge, the network of resemblances and discontinuities that constitutes a systematic constraint on what, at a given period, may be said to be the case. This is the episteme; and since it is expressly unconscious it lies below Kuhn’s paradigm, which is made up of assumptions dependent on conscious, though blinkered, observations.

Nevertheless, the two have something in common: for example, each is a system that makes anomalies hard to recognize. Thus Foucault speaks of Mendel, who made no sense in one episteme but in another came into his own; and Kuhn of Priestley’s refusal to accept oxygen theory and Kelvin’s block on electromagnetics. But Kuhn explains such resistance, and the ultimate acceptance of the rejected theory, in psychological and social terms, whereas Foucault has a much more abstract model of the constraints that act within discourse itself. In a sense, he offers a negative version of Michael Polanyi’s “tacit knowledge.” He emphasizes that constraints on discourse make it wholly impossible for anybody who could think the taxonomy of Linnaeus to think in Darwin’s way; the former belongs to an unconscious system which absolutely excludes the latter. Polanyi’s point is that great intimacy with a system of knowledge confers the power to move with ease in a field, a power that defies specification in explicit rules. Foucault stresses the negative implications of this, namely that it is ordinarily impossible to move outside the tacit system. In so far as he also believes that we can understand the modern episteme only because we are some way into a new one, Foucault resembles McLuhan.

The Order of Things studies the ways in which people accept the taxonomies of an epoch without questioning their arbitrariness—as if their coherence were transcendentally warranted, and not a chance condition; as if the grid of rules which came inexplicably into existence, and would inexplicably be replaced by another, were a “natural” condition. Foucault focuses on three “positivities”—the theories of life, money, and language—that prevail at a given time and constrain those who live at that time. If he can describe the “space of order” in which these cultural codes, in their differences and resemblances, are constituted, he will have replaced history with what he calls archaeology. He claims that the differences between one epoch and another are so great that “classical” theories of language can be understood only in relation to other forms of knowledge in the same episteme; they are not continuous with “modern” theories. “The history of knowledge can only be written in terms of what was contemporaneous with it.” Eighteenth-century natural history did not develop into modern biology, though this is not to say that alterations in the conditions of discourse imply progress; they are simply changes.

Language is at the root of the argument. In the preclassical system language was considered simply as a significant part of the creation, part of the interlocking system of universal resemblance and analogy—the Book of Nature. The purpose of study was then to repair the ruin of Babel, and to aspire to a transparency that enabled the signatures of God’s universe to show through it. But the classical period separated sign and signified; the “profound kinship of language with the world” was dissolved.

Here he makes the kind of point that is reasonably familiar, for example in studies of the early history of the Royal Society, but he places additional weight on the view that this dissociation culminated in the Leibnizian establishment of “mathesis” as a “general science of order.” Resemblance was replaced by identity and difference; the new episteme was no longer dominated by interpretation, but by order. Certain thoughts could no longer be thought. New forms—“probability, analysis, combination, and universal language system”—emerged as “a single network of necessities” under the control of which the epoch did its thinking. And, in due course, when language, life, and human need came to be emancipated from the constraints of that network, the modern episteme supervened. It was dominated—as our theorists of romanticism have long been telling us—by two new emphases: on the organic, and on the creative Subject. Or, as Foucault has it, “anthropology”—meaning the creative centrality of man—replaced “mathesis.”

In time, Nietzsche heralded the death of this “anthropological” era; his Death of God is a preliminary announcement of the Death of Man. Language now becomes an object, rather than a medium, of knowledge. The next step is that the study of language, independent of the subject, becomes the model for all knowledge; structuralism is a clear announcement of the epistemic conditions of a new postmodern epoch. What Don Quixote was to the classical, and Sade to the modern, Saussure is to the new. Man is a modern invention; archaeology, which proved this, also hints that he is on the way out.

In short, Foucault is convinced that he occupies a privileged position; he lives, fully aware, right in the midst of an epistemic shift, a moment of crisis. The weight of his thinking indeed rests on such points. He does not profess to know why, or even how, these seismic alterations come about. The enemy of conventional history, he positively embraces randomness and discontinuity. His archaeology undertakes merely to examine underlying conditions of thought which must be obsolete before they can become available to critical investigation. It should be noted that the scheme is explicitly anti-Hegelian, lacking any notion of dialectical progression, bracketing off all notions of origin or future. Furthermore, it is apolitical—Foucault even calls people who claim there is no philosophy without political choice “profoundly stupid.” The only way to a true understanding of man’s finitude—of his modern subjection to time and language—is this new archaeology, a science that works by abandoning “anthropological constraints” and ignoring the “synthetic activity of the subject.”

The inadequacy of this summary account makes it necessary to say that even scholars who are in a position to scold Foucault for his historical selectiveness as well as for the arrogance of his method and his language—Piaget, for instance—admit his brilliant ingenuity and scholarly resource. Piaget attacks him in general for keeping “only the negative aspects of contemporary structuralism” (Structuralism, 1968, translated by Chaninah Maschler, Harper and Row, 1971). But worse, he thinks that Foucault, like his own epistemes, provides an ill-defined network of affirmations and omissions, rather than a critique of the scientific and historical hypotheses he seeks to replace. Foucault’s choice of the elements constituting an episteme is arbitrary; inconvenient evidence, including evidence of epistemic incompatibility, is ignored.

Piaget mentions as examples Foucault’s arbitrary “homogenization” of a “classical” biology whose development was arrested at the level of taxonomy, and his references to a mathematical physics that includes Newton. The first case seems to fulfill Foucault’s rule of discontinuity, but the success of Newtonian physics beyond the limits of its episteme has to be discounted if the rule is not to be broken. The archaeological method is so protean as to defy serious examination, and its author cultivates the incomprehensible. He has invented “a structuralism without structures,” says Piaget, who values him only as a demonstration that a coherent structuralism must be “constructivist.”

Foucault may have had Piaget’s book in mind when he wrote The Archaeology of Knowledge. He again denies contemptuously that he has anything to do with the structuralists, but he does undertake to be more specific about his enterprises, to say more exactly how archaeology differs from history, and what exactly it does inquire into. Of course the process of “methodological signposting” throws up new ideas, and unattributed criticisms are answered; but I doubt whether much is elucidated. Foucault again argues for the abolition of “anthropological constraints,” and against the old notions of “tradition” and “influence,” which he gives short shrift as mere tricks to maintain comforting continuities. Instead one must “uncover the archive,” describe the relation between apparently discrete statements according to the underlying episteme: define, that is, the system of “enunciability,” map the “enunciative field.” And so new terminology proliferates; but only to support the enterprise to which he is already committed.

Foucault seeks to discover the “unthought” that constitutes the rules imminent in the practice of an epoch. Thus it is the discourse itself, complex, opaque, that concerns him, not a subject who synthesizes it. Discourse for him is not the manifestation of a thinking, knowing subject, but rather a totality in which “the dispersion of the subject and his discontinuity with himself may be determined.” The object of the inquiry is necessarily preconceptual. For this and other reasons, archaeology eludes the categories of history of ideas; for that discipline concerns itself with discoveries of truth, or with the humbler record of opinion, or with the uncovering of “the regularity of a discursive practice.” Foucault at one point mimes anxiety lest he should be, unawares, practicing exactly what he professes to have eschewed, namely history of ideas. This is only a stratagem, but perhaps it indicates a certain lack of confidence in the totality of the revolution he proclaims.

Here, and also in disclaiming any connection between his work and the quest for Weltanschauungen, Foucault’s new book may convey a sense of genuine, though disguised, uncertainty. He has to explain how the aim of archaeology differs from Hegel’s, and also (tacitly) how it differs from Popper’s; first, it is concerned with discontinuities; second, it is not concerned with scientificity. As to Hegel: an episteme is un-Hegelian, in that it collapses, part by part, in unpredictable order; the movement is not dialectic, moves to no higher level. As to Popper: “discursive practice,” governed by unstated and unstatable rules, is un-Popperian in that it is merely the background against which the sciences operate. Foucault is not concerned with the changes brought about in formal science by the process of conjecture and refutation. His is simply

…the total set of relations that unite, at a given period, the discursive practices that give rise to epistemological figures, sciences…. The episteme is not a form of knowledge…it is the totality of relations that can be discovered, for a given period, between the sciences when one analyses them at the level of discursive regularities.

What if it should be true, as Piaget holds, that each period abounds in evidence that cannot be fitted into Foucault’s epistemic patterns? The convenient, if evasive, answer is that archaeology does not guarantee that it can be so fitted. The episteme is merely the discoverable relations between such “positivities” as present themselves for inspection. And Foucault even says, boldly but obscurely, that other positivities which don’t fit merely confirm the relationship of those that do; one feels some of the exasperation expressed by Shaw at the methodological resourcefulness of Pavlov. For Foucault has, after all, spoken more than once of the totality of the relations which constitute the episteme; he has not formerly suggested that in any given period there are a great many intellectual activities that are not governed by it.

Is Foucault trying to do for styles of knowledge what Wölfflin tried to do for artistic style: “to prove that its forms do not say anything in their language that is not also said by the other organs of the age”? E. H. Gombrich calls this, in his farsighted little book In Search of Cultural History, an attempt “to salvage the Hegelian assumption without accepting Hegelian metaphysics.” And he rightly associates this attempt with an older triadic and progressive myth of history, the Eternal Gospel of Joachim of Flora. Joachim, the patron of all subsequent apocalyptism and crisis-thinking, divided history into three periods, adjusted to fit the numerology of the book of Revelation, with a transition period between each. The influence of this medieval theory on subsequent thought was enormous; everybody who supposes that from the privileged moment of his own crisis he can divide history into epochs, as Joachim did, is his heir.

Foucault speaks precisely at what he takes to be the critical moment of man’s disappearance. With extraordinary learning and ingenuity he finds the evidence, arranges the method, dismisses the counterexamples, preserves his privilege. He expels Hegel, glorifies chance, yet does not abandon the primitive crisis-philosophy, the foundation of his excited conjectures. Gombrich touches skillfully on very similar stratagems in Huizinga and Lovejoy, suggesting that all such “syndromes,” however sophisticatedly permissive, require the patient and skeptical attention of the historian who does not despise detail. Further, he asserts an old-fashioned belief in the human being, the person who does the new thinking and starts the new movement.

Is it reasonable to discover in Foucault an almost unrecognizably transformed Hegelian, a disciple who disowns almost all the master’s thinking except its Joachimite core? To suggest that the argument for the recent appearance and imminent disappearance of man is not a rhetorical or decorative extra, as D. W. Harding suggested, but rather Foucault’s hidden point of departure? He cannot, in any case, keep the subject out: the names of Cervantes, Sade, Freud are associated in his work with epistemic ruptures; and so, with due modesty, is his own, and those of his friends.

In these circumstances, where it is so obviously called for, one cannot help regretting the absence of professional criticism from the outside; of a dialogue with a different philosophy, even if it served only to define the relation between two postmodern “positivities,” or the degree to which Foucault has shifted himself out of the current epistemic situation. The motivation of this writer, and of his readers, may, paradoxically, have its basis in a Joachimite historical myth remarkable precisely for its continuity, for its ability to re-establish itself in situations that, according to the premise, ought to be unrelated.

The existence of such a continuously potent element in many epistemes would be a severe test of Foucault’s methodological agility. I don’t think it at all likely that he would want to submit to it; he professes to “understand stand the unease” of people who don’t want him to dispossess them “of that discourse in which they wish to be able to say immediately and directly what they think, believe, or imagine,” and don’t want to see that their beliefs and intellectual practices “are governed by rules that are not all given to their consciousness.” Perhaps, in return, we should understand that he is here involuntarily expressing the causes of his own unease.

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