Thursday, April 05, 2007
With Apologies, a Little More Foucault
A few more brief notes about the discussion of Foucault are in order. Far from being tired, as Alex suggests, I think we should have more such conversations, and more frequently. As serious scholars, we should not concede the floor to sad spectacles of transparent cronyism, nor should we brook the claim that a frequently cited work—one whose title often appears to the immediate right of words like “seminal” and “magesterial”—is near-juvenalia. Critics of Madness and Civilization are not members of a committee maliciously conspiring to torpedo the career of a promising graduate student, but members of a scholarly community which (ideally) can discuss the relative merits of a work considered important.
Where Madness and Civilization fits into the Foucauldian corpus is, for the moment, irrelevant. Point of fact, the desire to defend Foucault from his own work—cutting his nose to spite his face—suggests an irrational investment in its inviolability. (This investment is made all the more irrational by the scapegoating by which its illusion is sustained.) If we ignore the historiographical problems with Madness and Civilization, Foucault remains for his acolytes what they desperately need him to be. But what if we mention, as I did, the problems Simon Goldhill identifies in The History of Sexuality? Will it be jettisoned too? I only ask because this reverential model leads to some supremely unintellectual waters, a frightful bilge we would do best to avoid. This is not, however, a post about the inbred thought of oblivious sycophants.
Following Foucault Blog‘s lead, this is a post about what I should have foregrounded in my initial one; namely, that I juxtaposed the Scull alongside “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” because I value the standards espoused in the latter, not to hoist Foucault by his own petard. To claim that only an unserious, derivative hack—like those fools who populate English departments—could express a preference for one Foucauldian period over another is profoundly myopic. Those who chose not to weld the blinders on can see where I’m headed here: Scull may not be able to differentiate methodology from the conclusions drawn through it, but we can; moreover, his review should compel us to question this issue as it relates both to Foucault’s work and our own. Methodological reflection should be part and parcel of academic study; declaring it anathema will neither preserve another’s reputation nor allow us to do the quality work required to build our own.
UPDATE: So if it isn’t clear, and it might not be, I found the previous comment thread helpful and illuminating, and I wouldn’t mind some rule about sticking to its critical-yet-productively-so tone being proposed and enforced. Wait a minute, I can do that ...
I just find debates such as these dull because they quickly descend into pointless polemics and shouting matches. This is because no one here really has the historical knowledge to actually judge who is right. Take the interchange between Scull and Gorman - who knows sufficent concerning the history of madness to decide on the matter, that is, hard evidence, citation of sources, mastery of the latest scholarship in the field etc. We simply don’t have the expertise to say what merits his work has historically. We might be able to perform thought experiements of the kind “what does it mean if Foucault is substantially historically inaccurate” but we cannot answer if this is actually the case.
If the discourse of history that friends of mine are involved with is anything to go by, there are always mistakes in history books. History moves on. History books become wrong. In a hundred years, perhaps all or much of what Foucault wrote as his history might be wrong, but the ideas behind it will probably remain influential.
For what it is worth, my view has always been much the same as yours - Foucault some interesting ideas and concepts that have some validity and tally with many other movements in history and really did change the discourse, might be a bit shoddy in other departments. As historians, particularly social ones, we are all Foucaultians now. Even by being anti him, the way in which the concerns of history are described owes him a debt.
As an undergraduate I once harboured a desire to re-write and update Foucault as a modern historian might.
The second sentence of your first paragraph is something I’ve also thought, Alex; but, then again, this is the internet, and this is how it’s done. Wouldn’t Feyerabend have admired Wikipedia, where fourteen-year olds can tell David Chalmers to fuck off because they didn’t like the way he formatted his “Consciousness” entry?
An unserious scholar with a vested interest, I remain yet unconvinced that changing of tacks will obviate the problems with your approach to Foucault. Firstly, I suspect that you are overrating the contemporary prestige of the book. I doubt that in history and history and philosophy of science departments, two places the history of psychiatry gets done, Foucault’s book is currently viewed as authoritative—or even assigned to students as seriously important background. The English and sociology holdouts who refuse to get with the program may be the bane of your existence; but what you are doing is attempting to liquidate the last remnants of an old order, not fighting the power.
Secondly, you are not being very careful about the periodization of Foucault’s works. The *History of Madness* is at least near juvenilia (*Mental Illness and Psychology*), chronologically and thematically; and that it, however magisterial, represents a transition between his existentialo-Hegelian student views and his mature work is a commonplace. But this is important because you are faulting Foucault for not drawing the consequences of his *later* principles in his early work, which isn’t usually a criterion of logical rationality or thoroughness. This later principle from the genealogy essay, lifted from Nietzsche’s *Streitschrift*, might be true, or even useful: but it’s an extra step to expect the results of all the early works to be subsumed by the genealogical method, a rather suspiciously Hegelian move. (But perhaps that would be fitting, as the definition of madness as “the absence of the work” reminds me quite a a bit of Hegel’s paint-by-numbers doctrine of the mentally ill in the *Encylopedia*.)
Alex: Whether or not it is possible to make judgements depends on how you approach the issue. If you want to take on Scull’s accusations of Foucault basically fabricating his evidence, then clearly you need access to his sources (and to be able to read French, which is the only kind of ‘expertise’ you need for such an investigation - more important is having the time and the inclination to do it). But if you want to asses his broader claims, it’s simply a matter of turning to some of the material which has been published on these subjects subsequently - and because of his influence, there is plenty.
Such investigations have frequently taken the form of minor interventions on particular issues, buried within books on related subjects - such is the historian’s modus operandi. But reading around on the issues he raises, it would not by any means be impossible to come up with some objections.
Jeff is absolutely right that this book is not “currently viewed as authoritative” in History of Science departments, and in general, nothing by Foucault appears on reading lists for such courses. It ought to be remembered, however, that someone like Roy Porter, who certainly was and is “viewed as authoritative,” and who also had problems with Foucault, was so keen to stress that he and many others in the field simply would not be asking the questions they were asking had it not been for Foucault.
So in this sense, noting that the book ‘is not considered authoritative’ and does not appear on reading lists, is not the same as proving that it is not very influential. Apologies to reiterate a point that has been made already in the course of these scattered discussions, but it is an important one.
Secondly, are we still missing the point here? Hasn’t Foucault’s use of sources in just about all his work been a point of friction with some historians? (Indeed, the objections to Discipline and Punish seem to have been much more vocal in this respect than those which The History of Madness attracted - if only becuase Foucault was by then better known. Weren’t there also plenty of objections from ancient historians about History of Sexuality vol. 2 on his descriptions of ancient Greece?)
I think Scott’s absolutely right: if we don’t read Foucault critically (the way we would read anyone else) we end up not taking him seriously. And that would be a big mistake. Sadly, there are still too many - especially historians - who would rather ignore Foucault than challenge his assertions; too many like Scull who would rather engage in journalistic polemic than academic critique; and too many who regard him as beyond reproach - in the same way as some years ago, in certain circles, a quote from Marx stood for itself, took on a self-evident truth that did not need proving - and so it is now with Foucault.
Clearly, none of these positions is going to get us very far. So yes, we certainly should continue rethinking these matters.
For me, one of the interesting things about this debate is how Foucault’s defenders have done so by lowering empirical standards. For instance, a commenter on the earlier post by Scott said that because Foucault is so interesting, we need not be so upset by his historiography. This is a double-standard, and I’ve seen it before. When Theory was going strong in the 70s and 80s, the biggest response by Theorists against traditionalists of various kinds was that Denis Donoghue, Meyer Abrams et al didn’t read Derrida, Foucault et al carefully. They didn’t cite their work accurately, and they were selective in their representations of Theory.
Here, now, we have Foucault accused of the same thing, and instead of going to the original evidence to judge the matter themselves, defenders contrive slack and soft rationales--"there are always mistakes in history books"--to explain it away.
It’s not so much that there are mistakes in history books, but that history books go out of date.
mark, precisely no one is doing what you are saying. Scull’s review is not just a review; it’s a hatchet-job. Scull’s intent is clearly not to say that “Madness and Civilization” is a dated work of history, his intent is to say that the book is a fraud. He doesn’t provide any evidence that it’s a fraud. Foucault did archival research using historical documents.
Scull is rejecting for Foucault a right I’m sure he would uphold for any other historian: the right to be wrong. There have been generations of historians that have advanced ideas about the past, many of which have been proven wrong. Yet Scull manages to not accuse any of them of fraud.
Against my instincts, I’ve been meaning to write something responsible after having carefully reading Scull and the various Valve posters. But instinct won.
Before all this happened, my attitude toward M&C (and the Foucault-Derrida controversy rising from it) was “?!?”. Most of M&C seemed pedestrian, whereas the ending seemed provocative but overdone, so I basically ignored it. The stuff I liked was The History of Sexuality, Discipline and Punish, Power/Knowledge, and (with reservations) The Order of Things. (Not the Archeology of Knowledge, BTW, which IMHO was a regrettable descent into methodologism). These all strike me as fruitful major works, head and shoulders above toehr supposedly-similar works.
But now after Scull, if I grant that M&C maybe wasn’t so good (as I’ve thought all along), I’m an acolyte trying to preserve Foucault’s inviolability? Come on.
There seems to be a subtext here saying that this is only the beginning, and that all of Foucault’s works are similarly vulnerable. Foucault shouldn’t be above criticism, but I don’t think that more Scull would be very illuminating.
I pity the fool who lives in a world where nothing of Foucault’s can be criticized and where M&C is regarded as a solid authority. But thank God (should He exist) I don’t live in that world, if it exists.
Mark: what I said was that I’m not impressed by people who write accurate studies which are completely lacking in interest, of which I have read many, and that the scope of what Foucault attempted meant that he would inevitably be found guilty of errors detail by people more familiar than he was with particular topics he touched on in his work.
I read more research than I want which avoids errors while accumulating detail, but without trying to say anything of value. Truth without interest or explanatory power is nothing much.
Um, not to be overly pedantic, but don’t you mean “juvenilia?” As a sometime classicist, and presently a rhetorician, I assume “juvenalia” would be a celebration of the works of Juvenal.