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worth it for the introduction alone
on 23 June 2016
Foucault is certainly not an easy read, but the book is worth it for the introduction alone, by the editor, Paul Rabinow.
Some key insights from Foucault:
- it is not possible to reach an absolute understanding of anything, because one cannot stand outside history and/or society. There is no such thing as (an idealised) human nature.
- therefore there are no universal truths or models (neither Marxism nor Christianity nor science), and there is no point in trying to find them (as this leads to oppression in one form or another)
- but we can at least interrogate ruling 'norms' and power, to unmask the domination and political violence which is usually going on beneath the surface
- sexual behaviour through the ages is another place where these things are played out. And there are three poles of sexual behaviour: acts, pleasure and desire. Christianity put the 'accent on desire and tries to eradicate it', in distinction to the Graeco-Roman focus on 'acts'. The 'modern formula is [also] desire, which is theoretically underlined and practically accepted, since you have to liberate your own desire. Acts are not very important [hence the boom in internet porn], and pleasure - nobody knows what it is!'
- modernity is 'the will to heroise the present' (as against the past). Modern man is not trying to discover himself but to invent himself.
- Western history since the Enlightenment has been characterised by 'different modes by which .... human beings are made subjects', and this goes back to 'dividing practices' (eg separating out delinquents, immigrants etc) and 'scientific classification'
- the 'human sciences' are part of the problem because they objectify the subject through power and knowledge structures (measuring, judging etc) which take power and autonomy away from the ordinary person.
- Foucault does not reject reason but rather 'refuses to see reason as either our hope or our nemesis'. It is merely a tool.
- the growth of the nation-state led to a concern to control increasingly almost every aspect of citizen life, starting with issues of economy and order. And this disciplinary 'bio-power' is focused on the human species and more particularly on the human body. This is linked to the rise of capitalism, which requires this mechanisation of humans. The result is the drive to isolate, control and 'normalise' everything.
- So, what is to be done? Foucault explicitly rejected political labels and was unpopular with both left and right. He disdained prescription or advocacy, but he did indicate generally that the problem of our time is 'to liberate us both from the state and from the type of individualisation which is linked to the state. We have to promote new kinds of subjectivity through refusal of this kind of individuality which has been imposed on us for several centuries.'
So he identifies problems but not solutions, because his whole approach is to undermine and expose totalising 'solutions'. He did not sentimentalise the past but committed himself to a rigorous analysis of modern rationality, organisation and subjectivity. Like Weber, he saw 'a form of critical historicism as the only road to preserving reason' and an ethic of responsibility.
I might put it thus: he pointed out that the new Emperor - modernist reason - is equally guilty of oppression (as the old God of religion and absolutism). All we can do is to be continually aware of the historic forces which control us, and which are often manipulated (consciously or unconsciously) by those with power, whether they are politicians, intellectuals or scientists.
I think that Foucault failed to see that financial capitalism would grow to become the monster which it is today, and therefore underplayed the role which the state or state-type power must exercise to moderate the de-personalising oppression of massive-scale corporatism. One might add that the contemporary obsessive drive to digitise everything is the logical conclusion of a terrible de-humanising ideology which masks itself as a neutral 'technology'. What is the end purpose of technology? It seems to be only to isolate and 'normalise' (ie mechanise) people, while facilitating infantile (static, purely visual) entertainment and convenience (though it does enhance communication).
(Foucault died in 1984 at the young age of 57, so he did not live to see the unleashing of almost unbridled globalising capitalism nor its necessary twin, distance-banishing technology. Nor did he foresee or understand the potentially major new force of environmentalism.)
The old problem remains: 'quis custodiet custodes?'