The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory, 1st edition.

Michel Foucault
overview of career

Michel Foucault (1926-84) took licences from the École Normale in both philosophy and psychology and spent several years observing in hospitals and writing about mental illness. In the mid-1950s he went abroad to teach first in Sweden, then in Poland, where he wrote his first major work, Madness and Civilization (1961). In 1970 he was awarded a chair in the history of systems of thought at the prestigious Collège de France, a post he held until his death. Although briefly associated with the French Communist party in the 1940s, Foucault did not actively participate in politics until after the events of May 1968. In the 1950s and early 1960s his work was associated with an emerging critique of psychology and medical practice in general that came to be known as the anti-psychiatry movement. With R. D. Laing in England and eventually Félix Guattari in France as the most prominent members, anti-psychiatry exposed hidden levels of domination in the practices and discourse of what appeared to be a humane science.

Beginning in the mid-1960s Foucault's interests turned to Structuralism, a relatively new intellectual trend that opposed "philosophies of consciousness" such as existentialism, Phenomenology, and humanist forms of Marxism and psychoanalysis. The tendency of structuralism to reject the vantage point of the author or subject in favor of that of the text or object may be found in Foucault's Order of Things (1966) and The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969).

The political upheaval of May 1968 had profound impact on all French intellectuals. Structuralists were compelled to rethink their rejection of the subject; Marxists and socialists in general could no longer base their critique on the unique suffering of the working class nor limit its scope purely to capitalism as a mode of production (Poster; Smart, Foucault, Marxism). Foucault's work reflected this change in intellectual mood: Discipline and Punish (1975) argued the imbrication of power with discourse and uncovered a new dimension of domination in modern society, "technologies of power." Volume 1 of The History of Sexuality (1976) rejected the Freudian-Marxist analysis of repressed libido in favor of a focus on the normalizing effects of discourses on sex. During these years Foucault participated in political movements concerned with the reform of prisons and gay liberation. His work and politics reflected a shift in radical movements to groups and concerns outside the traditional working class.

But the promised further volumes of The History of Sexuality did not immediately appear. They were published in 1984 in the urgent months after Foucault knew he was seriously ill. In the eight years from 1976 to 1984 his thinking underwent still another change. Without abandoning the political and epistemologically radical stance of the concept of discourse/practice, he moved on to a concern for the way subjects constitute themselves through these discourse/practices. In volumes 2 and 3, his emphasis shifted from the theme of sex to the theme of the constitution of the self in the "truth" of discourse. When he died, Foucault left behind manuscripts from volume 4, which was to cover the confessional of the medieval period.

Foucault's writing has had a remarkable reception in the humanities in the English-speaking world, especially by literary theorists. During the 1970s and 1980s his books were read as part of the general interest in French poststructuralism, a term that includes such disparate figures as Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, and Jean Baudrillard. These writers are connected more by their rejection of certain features of structuralism than by any positive intellectual commonality. Foucault has had as great an impact as has any of these figures, perhaps ranking second only to Derrida.

As we have seen, his writing embraced several distinct positions in the course of his career, and the implications of his theoretical work for literary criticism vary considerably depending upon which period of his writings the critic considers primary. Attention to Madness and Civilization leads to a reading of texts for silences and exclusions; The Order of Things suggests a search for épistèmes--unconscious, regulating structures that limit what can be written in any epoch; Discipline and Punish encourages a more political reading, one that stresses the power effects of discourse; volumes 2 and 3 of The History of Sexuality sensitize the critic to the textual problematic of self-constitution.

Given this diversity of interpretive strategies, it is nonetheless fair to say that the major theoretical tendency of Foucault's work is to regard the literary text as part of a larger framework of texts, institutions, and practices. The two most important examples of criticism associated with Foucault's ideas, those of Edward W. Said (Orientalism) and Stephen Greenblatt, are stunning examples of this kind of reading. Like other poststructuralists, Foucault urges the critic to complicate the interpretation, to reject the turn to the author's intention as the court of last resort, to look in the text for articulated hierarchies of value and meaning, above all to trace filiations of inter- and extratextuality, to draw connections between the given text and others, between the text and the intellectual and material context. Foucauldian readings are sensitive to the political impact of the text and the political unconscious behind the text, informing its statements and shaping its lines of enunciation.

Foucault has been a reluctant theorist, one unwilling to elaborate univocal concepts. Systematic theory opposes the interpretive strategy of this poststructuralist because it participates in a logic of representation. The concept is a sign that is "adequate" to the object ("reality"). The concept presupposes a transparency to language, one that allows words to represent things, to stand in their place, without introducing distortion. In addition, the concept empowers the rational subject as one who stands above and outside the representation, its creator and lord. Foucault opposes the concept because it implies the representationality of language and the rationality of the subject. In place of conceptual theories he has offered two methodological innovations: archaeology and genealogy.

Archaeology is a synchronic analysis of what Foucault calls the statements or enunciations in any discourse. Every discourse contains "rules of formation" that limit and shape what may be said. These rules of formation are not at the disposal of the author but come into play as the text is composed, out of phase with the consciousness of the writer. Archaeological analysis may be thought of as an elaboration of the figure of the épistème, which Foucault employed so effectively in The Order of Things. It may also be thought of as a sort of structuralist analysis, one that uncovers complexities within texts. The archaeological method, after all, was developed before Foucault turned to the problems of practice and power.

Genealogy is a diachronic method, one that attempts to reconstruct the origins and development of discourses by showing their rootedness in a field of forces. Genealogy is a Nietzschean effort to develop a critical method that undermines all absolute grounds, that demonstrates the origins of things only in relation to and in contest with other things. Genealogy disallows pure beginnings, those historical formations that deny their historicity by naturalizing themselves, absolutizing themselves, grounding themselves in some transcendent principle. From the vantage point of those who hold to absolute principles, genealogy appears as nihilist, relativist, amoral. Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow argue more convincingly that together with archaeology, genealogy constitutes "an analytic of finitude," one that undercuts metaphysical pretensions, overblown notions of reason's ability to ground discourse, but not ethical action in the best sense of the term.

The archaeological-genealogical method is best designed to explore the interplay between discourse and practice. As an interpretive strategy it is far less purely textual than Semiotics or Deconstruction. Unlike the work of Derrida and Barthes, Foucault's work is difficult for writers inured to New Criticism. Deconstruction and semiotics, claims to the contrary notwithstanding, are formalist enterprises, ones carried out comfortably without ever investigating the context. Foucault, on the contrary, rejects the haven of the text, literary or otherwise, on the grounds that the disciplines that have developed in the course of the past two centuries around such texts are themselves part of the problem that needs to be analyzed. For Foucault, disciplines such as language are not neutral tools or containers serving the pursuit of truth without interference. A major issue for interpretation is precisely the way disciplines constitute "rules of formation" for the regulation of discourse. And with regard to the disciplines of literary criticism, the first "move" has been to denigrate or place into obscurity the role of the discipline as context of discourse. In this sense New Criticism and deconstruction constitute a continuous line of development: in the one case, a disciplinary strategy of formalism and aestheticism; in the other case, a movement of subversion of hierarchies. Yet in both cases the traditional apparatus of textuality is affirmed and the sanctity of the kinds of things done under the rubric of literary criticism is reinforced.

Foucauldian criticism looks different from earlier forms of criticism. For better or worse, literary and nonliterary texts are placed on the same plane, subjected to the same analytic tools, and interrogated in relation to the same contextual landscapes. However, to give the impression of a monolithic Foucauldian strategy with regard to literary texts would seriously distort the picture. In This Is Not a Pipe (1973), Raymond Roussel (1963), and other essays, Foucault reveals another side to his treatment of the literary text and the theoretical issues that derive from the question of aesthetics (Carroll).

It is more than likely that Foucault's impact on literary criticism will take shape as a renewed form of Marxist interpretation, perhaps along lines recently developed by New Historicism. Foucault shares with the latter group an aversion to theory, in his case involving the paradox that he was read, in the United States at least, primarily as a theorist. Foucault's hostility to theory leads to several difficulties for those who attempt to practice his strategies of reading. First, Foucault's texts betray a continual shifting of the position of the author. Only in his late essays (such as "What Is Enlightenment?" in Foucault Reader) did he come to affirm the need for the writer to take responsibility for the act of writing by constituting him- or herself through writing in critical antagonism to the present. Second, Foucault's later works lead in the direction of a critique of the way discourse constitutes the self in "truth," but they fail to provide the criterion by which to distinguish the discursive effects of Foucault's own texts from those that confirm structures of domination. Finally, Foucault is unable adequately to justify his choice of topics, such as sex, prisons, and so forth. In "What Is Enlightenment?" he weakly contends that topics receive the "generality" of import from their historical repetition. The choice of the writer's topic is thereby divorced from his or her "responsibility" to take a critical stance toward the present, to strive for reflexivity by situating one's own project firmly in the context of the present conjuncture.

Mark Poster


Notes and Bibliography


Michel Foucault, L'Archéologie du savoir (1969, L'Ordre du discours, 1971, The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language, trans. A. M. Sheridan-Smith, 1972), Ceci n'est pas une pipe (1973, This Is Not a Pipe, trans. James Harkness, 1983), Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique (1961, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, trans. Richard Howard, 1965), The Foucault Reader (ed. Paul Rabinow, 1984), Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews (ed. Donald F. Bouchard, trans. Bouchard and Sherry Simon, 1977), Les Mots et les choses (1966, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, 1970), Naissance de la clinique: Une Archéologie du regard médical (1963, rev. ed., 1972, The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith, 1973), Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977 (ed. Colin Gordon, 1980), "Qu'est-ce qu'un auteur?" (1969, "What Is an Author?" Language, Counter-Memory, Practice), Raymond Roussel (1963, Death and the Labyrinth: The World of Raymond Roussel, trans. Charles Ruas, 1986), Le Souci de soi (1984, The History of Sexuality, vol. 3, The Care of the Self, trans. Robert Hurley, 1986), Surveiller et punir (1975, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan, 1977), L'Usage des plaisirs (1984, The History of Sexuality, vol. 2, The Use of Pleasure, trans. Robert Hurley, 1986), La Volonté de savoir (1976, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley, 1978).

David Carroll, Paraesthetics: Foucault, Lyotard, Derrida (1987); Michael Clark, Michel Foucault, an Annotated Bibliography: Tool Kit for a New Age (1983); Mark Cousins and Athar Hussain, Michel Foucault (1984); Gilles Deleuze, Foucault (1986, Foucault, ed. and trans. Sean Hand, 1988); Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics (1982); Simon During, Foucault and Literature: Towards a Genealogy of Writing (1992); Didier Eribon, Michel Foucault (1989, trans. Betsy Wing, 1991); Stephen J. Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (1980); David Couzens Hoy, ed., Foucault: A Critical Reader (1986); Charles Lemert and Garth Gillan, Michel Foucault: Social Theory as Transgression (1982); J. G. Merquior, Foucault (2d ed., 1991); James Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault (1993); Mark Poster, Foucault, Marxism, and History: Mode of Production versus Mode of Information (1984); John Rajchman, Michel Foucault: The Freedom of Philosophy (1985); Edward W. Said, Orientalism (1978), "Travelling Theory" (1982, The World, the Text, and the Critic, 1983); Barry Smart, Foucault, Marxism, and Critique (1983), Michel Foucault (1985).

 

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