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Foucault’s Life and Hard Times

The Passion of Michel Foucault

by James Miller
Simon and Schuster, 491 pp., $27.50

Michel Foucault

by Didier Eribon, translated by Betsy Wing
Harvard University Press, 374 pp., $14.95 (paper)

To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life

by Hervé Guibert, translated by Linda Coverdale
Atheneum, 246 pp., $18.95


When Michel Foucault died in June 1984, he was the most famous intellectual figure in the world. It was, one might say, a title he had inherited on the death of Jean-Paul Sartre in April 1980. This was not because his intellectual stature was uncontested—rather the reverse: admirers thought him a genius, detractors thought him a charlatan, and the precariousness of his reputation added to the excitement. His French colleague, the philosopher Gilles Delcuze, declared that this would be “the century of Foucault,” while English and American critics were prone to accuse him of “diffusing his meaning very thinly through an immense verbal spate,”1 and of rendering entirely opaque issues that were intrinsically merely very difficult.

The fame of Foucault’s ideas rests on what makes them hard to accept—his talent for stating them in such extreme terms that they were literally incredible. Thus The Order of Things (1966) claimed that biology did not exist in the eighteenth century because “life itself did not exist,” while the same text announced “the death of Man,” and described the individual as merely a “rift in the order of things.” None of these claims is exactly plausible. Does he really mean there was no life in the eighteenth century? How could personal identity be just an illusion?

When they are made plausible by paraphrase, the claims lose their fizz. It may be that until the rise of modern biology, nobody thought of a science of life—but that is a plausible point about the use of “life” as an organizing concept, not a discovery about life itself. Foucault’s announcement of the “death of Man” offers the view that nineteenth-century theories of human nature, and political theories built around the idea of liberating that “human nature,” are obsolete or incoherent; mankind as such is left in much the same state as before. Once again, plausible claims about concepts and theories have been set out in a misleading fashion as if they were claims about the world.

The reduction of individuals to mere rifts in the order of things seems to boil down to the claim that individual thinkers and actors matter less to the “archaeology” of ideas than the systems of description and explanation and justification that they employ. But Foucault’s program for intellectual archaeology amounts to a process of uncovering and describing systems of ideas with little or no reference to the role of individuals in their creation; it was not a discovery but a prior (and highly contestable) methodological decision that there was no room for individuals in this inquiry. The views that most of us entertain of ourselves are left entirely untouched.

A different implausibility infects Foucault’s moral positions. Madness and Civilization (1961) characterizes the humane reforms of nineteenth-century psychiatrists as retrograde, and claims that we treat the insane more cruelly than ever because we try to work on the souls of the mentally ill, and treat their strangeness as a moral offense. Discipline and Punish characterized the reformative aims of the prisons of modern liberal societies as more illiberal than the torture and physical mutilation practiced in earlier societies for much the same reasons. Both seemed to imply that liberal democratic societies were more oppressive than the despotisms of earlier ages and even than their totalitarian contemporaries.

Here it is hard to suggest a less exciting but plausible paraphrase. Critics have for thirty years complained that it is mad or wicked to suggest that liberal societies are really worse than totalitarian ones, and that judgment seems right. Those impeccable liberals John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville said over a century ago that democratic societies ran the risk of doing just what Foucault says they do—contriving a new form of despotism and controlling each of us in a silent, unobtrusive fashion by working on our fear of being at odds with our fellows. But one cannot imagine either of them agreeing that liberal societies were anything but a vast improvement on their competitors and predecessors.

If Foucault had only engaged in rhetorical overkill, he would not have had the impact he did. Part of his magic was that readers always felt that there was real substance beneath the flash and glitter—though they disagreed on whether it was worth the effort it took to unearth it. Foucault worked on three kinds of intellectual projects; they were at the same time very different from one another and yet quite naturally connected, and all were fascinating. Madness and Civilization (1964), published in English in 1965, and Discipline and Punish ten years later examined society’s treatment of what sociologists have labeled as “deviance”—behavior and beliefs that violate our notions of “normality.” The first contrasted three stages in the history of the modern notion of mental illness: in the background lay the medieval acceptance of the insane as a familiar feature of the human landscape, to be followed by what Foucault termed “the Great Incarceration” around 1650, when ancien régime France locked up the unemployed, the mad, and the otherwise irritating in the “general hospitals,” the process ending in the creation of modern mental hospitals in the nineteenth century. The contrast that gives the book its rhetorical impact is the contrast between a society that accepts “fools” and one like our own that practices “out of mind is out of sight.” This claim has been much disputed, but it has provoked a lot of interesting work on just who did get locked up by whom and when and for how long.

Discipline and Punish works in a similar way. Its great contrast is between a penology that aims to make the authority of the state visible and tangible in its effects on the body of the criminal and one that incarcerates criminals in order to work upon their minds. Its unnerving feature is not this contrast but the thought that the prison is an apt image of modern society. In the modern world, power operates on us not only at dramatic moments such as public executions, but always. The French title of the work, Surveiller et Punir, conveys more neatly than the English the implication that modern society is a vast mechanism of supervision and inspection, more completely unfree than any other. Few readers have been wholly persuaded. Discipline and Punish opens with a prolonged and gruesome account of the execution by torture of Damiens, the incompetent would-be assassin of Louis XV. He was sentenced to be torn to pieces by six horses, to be stabbed and have his wounds salved with burning sulphur and molten lead, and a good deal more in the same vein, and many critics have wondered what could lead anyone to suggest that Bentham’s proposals for prison reform were actually worse than what was inflicted on Damiens.

Foucault’s purpose was not to draw up a moral scorecard. It was philosophical, or as he called it, archaeological”; he wanted, as he wrote later, to ask, “What are the games of truth by which man proposes to think his own nature when he perceives himself to be mad; when he considers himself to be ill; when he conceives himself as a living, speaking, laboring being; when he judges and punishes himself as a criminal?” The reference to “thinking his own nature” is important; the target of Foucault’s inquiry was always the ways in which our patterns of thought impose on us a particular idea of the nature of whatever we are studying, whether the nature of madness or the nature of criminality.

That sentence from The Use of Pleasure refers obliquely to the works just mentioned, and to one of the books in which Foucault articulated this philosophical program. The Order of Things and The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969) display the second kind of project to which Foucault devoted himself. They spelled out the claim that we make sense of experience only by using ideas that we take on trust; we never look at the world directly but always through the lens of such ideas. The thought is itself neither novel nor alarming. Foucault’s own concerns were both. The main one was to show how forms of knowledge supported various forms of power: the power of doctors over lunatics, of police over civilians, of experts over laymen, and, in the last resort, the power of society over all its members. It is a thought that has become a cliché in radical intellectual circles.

It is also the thought that underlies Foucault’s skepticism about the intellectual and political role of the individual. His belief that structures of thought—what he called epistemes or “knowledges” and later “discursive practices”—dictated the nature of experience leads to the view not merely that the objects of science exist only where the science exists—hence the claim that there was no “life” before biology—but that our identity as individuals is part of our “subjection.” Western liberal society prides itself on its individualism, but Foucault thought this was absurd. The “individual” was, so to speak, created to facilitate the needs of our tidy-minded society. He said in The Archaeology of Knowledge that his notorious evasiveness as an author was part of a strategy to escape this subjection. “I am no doubt not the only one who writes to have no face. Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to the police and bureaucrats to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write.”

Such claims were part of the linkage between power and knowledge whose assertion made Foucault famous. Foucault never identified knowledge with power, never said that ideas were “true” if and only if some person or institution could get them accepted, and he became indignant when commentators suggested that he had. Nonetheless, he went out of his way to suggest that the idea of a “disinterested truth” with no implications for the exercise of power belonged in the realm of fairy tales. If power and knowledge are not identical, they are Siamese twins.

In talking of “archaeology,” he drew a distinction that readers ignore at their peril. What he offered was not a history of ideas; history is, or offers, a connected account of change, a story about the way one thing leads to another. Foucault deliberately did not. He wanted to uncover discrete layers of human thinking and acting, just as the archaeologist uncovers different levels of Troy, say. How successful he was is another matter. Critics have complained that his periodizations are unthinking and banal—he talks of “the classical age,” “the modern age,” and so on as though thought patterns fall neatly into such boxes and turn up with the beginning of a new century to expire at the end of it or the next. Others have complained that his “facts” are contestable—for instance, that he writes in Madness and Civilization of the incarceration of the mentally ill in modern hospitals and compares it to the isolation of lepers in the Middle Ages, without ever mentioning that most mental patients are short-stay patients who go home after a few weeks or months and are anything but incarcerated.

  1. 1

    D. W. Harding, The New York Review, August 21, 1971, p. 21.

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