An open door to odyssey

May 25, 2001

John Dunn lends his ear to Foucault - a singularly charismatic thinker.

Among the grand political intellectuals of the 20th century's fading second half, Michel Foucault, 17 years after his death, has kept his charisma best of all. It is far from clear quite why this should be so. Certainly not because he voiced a simple and evocative message that has grown in cogency or strengthened in allure as the years have gone by. Not because he either claimed or wished to offer solutions to the endless problems of human life today, on any scale from the individual mind or body, to the global economy or to the unnerving political framework or menaced ecological setting that sustains it so precariously. It is not because he dramatised the role of the intellectual or clarified its significance by anything more substantial or enduring than personal example. Indeed, he not only rejected the pretensions to Mastery of Truth and Justice inherent in the role of a universal intellectual, which he saw as simply superannuated, let alone the versions of it that he attributed so contemptuously to many of his counterparts (terrorists of theory, bureaucrats of the revolution, civil servants of truth). He was also too impatient and too sceptical to go to great lengths to clarify for others the site and source in his own case of the specific expertise that might partially replace such bogus mastery, at least as a basis from which to draw something worthwhile to say.

This was not because he was lazy. (Laziness, cruelty and cowardice are almost the only vices of which he speaks with real loathing.) Rather, it was because he trusted in that expertise and cared about it almost exclusively as it came to be embodied in his own work, in the inquiries to which he devoted himself and in the books and lectures through which he strove to convey to others what he had learnt from those inquiries. In that respect, Penguin's third volume of Foucault's Essential Works , Power , is as dubiously titled as its two predecessors. On its own evidence, it seems unlikely that Foucault himself would have endorsed the view that these uneven and often fairly casual texts, and not the striking array of historical studies that he took the trouble to complete and publish himself as books in their own right, were his essential writings. They may often present later, and in some respects fuller, versions of his views than any of those that he issued himself. They cover some of the most important topics to which he came relatively late and did not live to analyse on a comparable scale in the medium of print. But they never in any plausible sense supplant the earlier historical studies; and what they show about Foucault's own conception of his work makes it clear that they simply could not have done so.

The series title may be simply an error of tone. But it corresponds to more consequential limitations. As he himself repeatedly emphasised, Foucault was an intensely reactive thinker, densely involved with the broader life of the society to which he belonged, and endlessly provoked by intellectual disagreements and deeply felt gulfs in taste between himself and his contemporaries. He thought and felt with extraordinary energy and passion, and thought about his feelings, and felt about his intellectual explorations, with a vitality and flair that made him a most singular companion. One way of viewing his intellectual methods and discoveries as a whole is to see these as reflecting and embodying a systematic recognition of the radically contextual character of all human thought and feeling, a projection onto the life of the species as a whole of his own spectacularly idiosyncratic manner of being in the world. This was both a personal odyssey and an opening of self as much as society to a process of endless interrogation. It was not a pseudo-academic or pseudo-devotional doctrine preached to others to compel their belief. Its brilliant heuristic promise was there for anyone to take or leave.

Foucault himself was very much an academic; and it was fitting that he should have ended his career not just as a keenly admired visitor to the University of California at Berkeley and other more or less enticing US campuses, but also a professor at the Coll ge de France, professing an appropriately portentous subject matter: the "history of systems of thought". But he was never a mere scholastic - always struggling against "a sort of abiding oppression in everyday life", and permanently obsessed, and usually very much at odds, with one or other very unacademic modality of power. To understand what happened in his thinking, on his own terms or any that could hope to do it justice, can only be to understand both what happened to his thinking and what happened to him: what prompted it, what it was wrestling against, what problems elicited it, what questions it struggled to answer. To do this effectively requires the closest attention to the circumstances of intellectual, political and social life in France at the time, and sometimes elsewhere too (Poland, Tunisia, Iran, Algeria). It requires the densest and most precise contextualisation, as well as a sensitivity and responsiveness to a highly distinctive temperament.

Foucault's editors are appreciably more successful at responding to the temperament than they are at recovering the context. The production of the book is splendid, even if the proof-reading has been a little careless. The introduction by Colin Gordon, like those to the two earlier volumes, is vivid, emphatic, engaged and quite illuminating. But the rest of the editing is relatively perfunctory. The texts do not appear in chronological order or in any articulated topical sequence. The reader is told extremely little about the setting of their publication, the wider political or social life of the society to (or at) which they were directed, or the dynamics of Foucault's own life, to which, on his own testimony, they must have related both directly and often quite tensely. If his editors are right to take his thinking as seriously as they do, this cannot be an intellectually adequate manner in which to present it. Those who still regard him as a more or less scurrilous fraud (an utterly irresponsible rhapsodist of recalcitrance in any shape or form, one of his own "characters out of Celine, trying to make themselves heard at Versailles") will scarcely regret this. But it is at the very least a major opportunity squandered.

How much should we regret this? How seriously should we take that thinking ourselves? The more seriously you take it, the less inclined you will be to suppose there could be a definite, general and self-commending answer to those questions. Foucault's quest privileged the interrogation of experience and the unstable and dynamic relations between thought and experience. He sought and revelled in a deliberate dislocation between self and experience, a blend of, or oscillation between, radical self-scepticism and exuberant self-curiosity. But he used this curious and potentially somewhat solipsistic, preoccupation with astonishing imagination and vigour to open up the entire domain of collective life in European societies over many centuries to unrelenting scrutiny. The theme of power was not the goal or end point of this urgent flurry of inquiry; but it was the broadest domain over which the inquiry ranged, the one that merged his concerns most thoroughly with those of immense numbers of other human beings over time and space, and the one that brought out most clearly his own personal allegiances, positive and negative.

You do not have to share his tastes - rhetorical, sexual, conceptual, political - to learn from his explorations. You do not have to endorse the discretion, imaginative, logical, moral, or once again political, of the ways in which he pursued his inquiries. Still less do you have to accept his findings about any of the matters into which he inquired or on which he held forth so magisterially in public: how to understand what truth or power or the self really are or mean, what madness or sanity are, what it is to govern or be governed, what it is to punish. Even his most historical inquiries (which he took extremely seriously) are unreliable guides to the Rankean past of anywhere in particular. To learn from Foucault, all you need to do is to listen closely to him, and look around afresh with renewed vigilance once you have done so. Whatever exactly may have been true about the history of imprisonment in the early 19th century, no one has written more deeply about what it is to punish. However untrustworthy its scholarship or melodramatic its dramaturgy, who in the past half century has written more strikingly of the presence of madness within, or over against, all our lives than he did in Folie et Déraison ? Who since Weber, or perhaps even Hobbes, has done as much to show why power is such a profound, elusive and treacherous presence throughout our experience, or why the hope of escaping or sanitising it is in the end so utterly inane?

Foucault's greatest gift was one of evocation, bred both of obdurate imaginative resistance and the most audacious exploration, the gift to carry others along in adventures unmistakably of his very own. It was a gift to enlarge the space of possible understanding, not to stake out and consolidate manageable patches of accumulated and dependably transmissible comprehension. His political posture was an unpromising model for anyone else, based, as he once said, on "a postulate of absolute optimism", but an optimism all but exhausted in rejecting fatalism, and just as suspicious of the successive social romanticisms of the left, as of more conservative imaginative torpor. As new Labour moves towards its long-cherished electoral consummation, he could scarcely be more actuel . Uniting the eyes of Argus with the ear of Rory Bremner, and perfectly on cue, he asks each of us: "What is going on now, and what are we? Do we wish to be governed thus, in this way, by these people?" And if perhaps not, "How have we come to be so? How have we caused ourselves to be so?" He reminds us sternly that we belong to a society of political thought, and that all social existence is a political task, but does so, as ever, in defiance of his own optimism, rather obviously too late.

John Dunn is professor of political theory, University of Cambridge.

Power: Essential Works of Michel Foucault, 1954-1984, Volume Three

Author - Michel Foucault
Editor - Paul Rabinow
ISBN - 0 713 99165 8
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 484
Translator - Robert Hurley et al

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments