No. 10 : January-April 2014

Laurence McFalls

Foucauldian Scholarship

Academic Foresights

How do you analyze the present status of Foucauldian scholarship?

Foucauldian scholarship is a vast body of writing and thought that ranges from close exegetic readings of the oeuvre of Michel Foucault (1926-1984) to empirical research building on his concepts and insights. At its margins it can include scholarship that more or less gratuitously invokes Foucault’s name, some of his key concepts (notably “knowledge-power”), or his methods (usually discourse analysis). Foucault has become fashionable; less than thirty years since his untimely death from AIDS, he is the most cited author in the humanities, far outstripping rivals and contemporaries such as Jürgen Habermas, Noam Chomsky, or Jacques Derrida.

Foucault owes his posthumous fame and citation success no doubt to the same qualities that have also made him the bête noire of contemporary academia: his critical originality, his transcendence of disciplinary boundaries and his encyclopedic erudition. Foucault was probably the last of the great polymaths. His work spanned the history of science, philosophy, psychiatry, politics, classics, sociology, and art, to name but a few fields he mastered, and his contemporary influence covers everything from choreography to ethnography, queer studies to security studies, epistemology to criminology, neo-Hellenism to neo-liberalism. Foucault’s work aimed at nothing less than the problematization, in western culture, of the relations between power, truth, and subjectivity and the analysis of the discourses, practices, and techniques that condition them and that inscribe themselves in the human body and mind. His archaeological and genealogical methods respectively revealed the layering, ruptures, and resurfacings of different human experiences and retraced the contingencies of power struggles that gave rise to different truths. No wonder then that Foucauldian scholarship should constitute such a flourishing inter-/supra-/trans-disciplinary field at the same time as it challenges the teleological truths, institutionalized norms, and subjective certainties of established scientific disciplines.

In your opinion, how will the situation likely evolve over the next five years?

Foucauldian scholarship owes its success to a conjuncture that has been favourable for at least a decade and will carry on for several more years. The conditions for its success have lain in the on-going production of Foucauldian source materials, in their varied receptions in different cultural and scientific contexts, and in a political-historical context that has proven their relevance.

Much of the scholarly interest in Foucault’s work has been nourished by the on-going publication in French, and then in translation, of his massive oeuvre, including authorized books and articles, newspaper and magazine articles, interviews, radio and television broadcasts, and, perhaps most interesting of all, his annual lectures given at the Collège de France, where Foucault taught from 1970 until 1984. Following on the publication, in 1994, of a four-volume anthology of 364 of Foucault’s previously published articles and interviews, Dits et écrits, the on-going publication and translation, since 1997, of Foucault’s lecture courses at the Collège de France have proven a gold mine for Foucauldian scholarship.  Based on Foucault’s lecture notes and on transcripts from tape-recordings, these volumes offer easily accessible insights into Foucault’s research methods, thought processes, and imaginative originality. Of particular interest have been his lecture courses from the late 1970s and early 1980s that respectively elaborate on his previously published works on absolutist Reason of State and on liberal and neo-liberal governmentality and then on ancient Greek, neo-Hellenic, and early Christian concepts of care for the self. These lectures complement the volumes of his History of Sexuality and help make sense of the shift from “the political Foucault” to “the late, ethical Foucault.”

Making sense of the (in)coherence of Foucault’s oeuvre from the late 1950s to the early 1980s has varied within the different national/cultural contexts of its reception. Foucault has probably enjoyed the least success in his native France, where his foreign fame and clarity of expression and thought relative to his post-this-and-that rivals probably prompted posthumous jealousy in the Parisian salons. In the United States, the publication by Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow of The Foucault Reader in 1984, the year of Foucault’s death, assured an early and broad reception of Foucault’s work, in particular since Foucault was a frequent visitor to the San Francisco Bay area in his later years. The Reader’s inclusion of brief but important reflections on power and subjectivity contributed to Foucault’s lionizing, in a somewhat typically idealistic American reading, as a champion of resistance and as radical chic inspirer of feminism, subaltern studies, queer studies, and the ephemeral field of cultural studies. At about the same time, Foucault enjoyed an equally vigorous, more serious (not to say Teutonic) reception in Germany. Paradoxically, Jürgen Habermas’s attempt to discredit Foucault as a dangerous relativist descendant of Nietzsche, notably in two chapters of his Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (1985), invited German scholars resistant to Habermas’s hegemonic intentions to take Foucault’s scholarship seriously. Thus, German translations of Foucault’s works have been immediate and complete and spurred a significant body of German-language research on governmentality and an entire school of critical discourse analysis as an alternative to the normative Habermasian school. Meanwhile in Britain, the more fragmentary English translation of Foucault gave rise (in typical British fashion?) to a partial but pragmatic reception and fecund adaptation of his thought to highly original analyses of neoliberal social policy, such as those of Nikolas Rose, and of security issues, such as those of Mark Duffield and Mick Dillon.

Indeed, probably the greatest conjunctural source of Foucault’s posthumous prowess has been the prescience of his political analysis. In particular, his concept of biopolitics, the governmental management of populations understood as species-life, as an alternative to geopolitics, the sovereign control of territory, has proven remarkably productive for understanding domestic and global politics in the post-Cold War era.  Although Foucault’s scholarly work rarely addressed contemporary issues (with the notable exception of his 1979 lectures on the Birth of Biopolitics, which took up neo-liberalism), his analyses of how the life sciences and social sciences have, since the 18th century, made possible the indirect government of individuals and population segments through the manipulation of their environments have inspired contemporary studies of everything from early childhood education policies to refugee flows. The medicalization/ therapeutization of social and security policies have radicalized biopolitics in ways that today retrospectively make Foucault a dystopian prophet.

What are the structural long-term perspectives?

The breadth and depth of Foucault’s œuvre in themselves mean that future scholars can and will continue to draw on his insights in different contexts for many years to come. His œuvre, however,  also contains an interesting reflection on the longevity potentially inherent to an author’s work, namely his 1969 lecture “What is an author?” Responding to critiques of his programmatic work, The order of things (1966), and to the reproach that he was there merely mimicking structuralism’s proclamation of the death of the author, Foucault, after genealogically establishing the conditions of possibility for the birth and death of the author as a metonymy for the modern subject, proposes a typology of authors in ascending order of the longevity of their productive literary or scholarly receptions: derivative authors, paradigmatic authors, and “founders of discursiveness.” Foucault held up Marx and Freud as examples of the latter category, for their works do not establish a paradigm that subsumes their oeuvres as well as those of derivative authors. Instead, their works generate competing paradigms, in particular when the discovery of a new text or an original interpretation calls into question the coherence of any and all previous interpretations.

In an earlier attempt to apply Foucault’s typology of authors to assessing the long-term legacy of Max Weber’s oeuvre (McFalls 2007), I further elaborated on what I called Foucault’s conception of “author-ity” through a cross-reading of Foucault and Weber, two authors who share more than their Nietzschean epistemological inspiration. In brief, I argued that derivative authors enjoyed traditional author-ity by evoking a longstanding author-ity; that paradigmatic authors created and drew upon legal-rational author-ity; and that founders of discursiveness were charismatic author-ities.  Formally, Weber’s typology of legitimate authority distinguishes between a personal and ordinary, or enduring, form (traditional authority); an impersonal and ordinary form (legal-rational); and a personal and extraordinary form (charismatic). Implicit in his typology is an impersonal and extraordinary form, which I assimilated to the authority of scientific revolution, claiming that Weber’s author-ity corresponded to this fourth form. I described him as a “founder of the conditions of possibility of scientific discourse” because Weber in his epistemological writings (and in his empirical research practice) constantly called into question the ultimately arbitrary, violent conditions of possibility for any claim to truth. This Weberian formal act of ruthless reflexive criticism explained why his oeuvre has to-date not become paradigmatic or the source of competing (proto)paradigms, but has given him a  status as a sort of meta-founder of discursiveness. Weber has thus escaped the fate of Weberianism(s) and instead been an author whose thought can provide a source of critical reflexive inspiration for an endless array of scholarly endeavours.

Like Weber, Foucault is an author whose work offers no single or competing paradigms. Instead, his method of “problematization” not only recalls Weber’s Nietzschean relativism and its revelation of the power behind “truth,” his empirical practice exemplified the critical stance that must precede any truly scholarly effort. In this sense, we can only hope that Foucault’s oeuvre will continue to inspire Foucauldian scholarship, even if it be only implicitly so.

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Laurence McFalls is Professor of Political Science at Université de Montréal. He recently co-organized a conference on “Foucault in and on the Post-Political Global Present”.

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