Michel Foucault

Reviews of Michel Foucault's Earlier Books

Articles About Michel Foucault

Edward W. Said Reviews Power. Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984: Volume Three (Dec. 17, 2000)

First Chapter: 'Power"



Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (1965)

"His book belongs, both by reason of its content and its profundity, in the class of such treatises . . . as Norman O. Brown's 'Life Against Death' . . . The translation faithfully conveys the glistening but astonishingly opaque intellectual texture which is fashionable in French philosophical discourse . . ."

The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences,
reviewed by George Steiner (1971)

"[T]he mandarin of the hour is Michel Foucault . . . an honest first reading produces an almost intolerable sense of verbosity, arrogance and obscure platitude . . . This is no confidence trick. Something of originality and, perhaps, of very real importance, is being argued in these often rebarbative pages."

The Archaeology of Knowledge (1972)

"[The usefulness of Foucault's method] lies in its opening up a rather chaotic domain and in its implicit challenge to the neat but abstract categories of the history and economy of ideas. This usefulness, however, is seriously damaged by a kind of conspiracy of unreadability between author and translator."

The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception,
reviewed by Christopher Lasch (1974)

". . . continues his brilliant history, not of ideas as such, but of the structures of perception. . . . Foucault's work is indispensable for cultural historians, amply rewarding the effort required to understand it."

I, Pierre Riviere, Having Slaughtered My Mother, My Sister, and My Brother . . .: A Case of Parricide in the 19th Century, edited by Michel Foucault (1975)

". . . [a] remarkable autobiography, composed in prison [and] a collection of modern essays on Riviere by members of a seminar at the College de France directed by the eminent psychiatrist and historian Michel Foucault . . ."

Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1978)

". . . innovative and controversial . . . the most accessible of all of Foucault's writings . . . clearly a tour de force that makes it impossible to think of prisons as distinct from the rest of society . . . But however significant this accomplishment, there remains problems of method and policy that are deeply disturbing."

'The History of Sexuality: Volume One: An Introduction' (1979)

"[Foucault] is a difficult writer for the same reason that he is an instructive one. . . . [F]or all the intellectual tenacity and passionate rhetoric he brings to this task, it is not the most original or interesting aspect of his work. What is special to him . . . is his demonstration of how institutions create the concept of illness, crime, insanity or sex."

'This Is Not a Pipe,' with illustrations and letters by Rene Magritte. (1983)

"[I]n the French philosophe Michel Foucault, himself no mean practitioner of the oddball, Magritte's looking-glass pipe has found its Lewis Carroll, as the reader of this book will discover."

The Use of Pleasure: The History of Sexuality, Volume Two,
reviewed by Martha C. Nussbaum (1985)

". . . both mediocre and a departure from views about the inseparability of ideas from social institutions that have been his most valuable legacy to modern philosophy."

The Care of the Self: Volume Three of The History of Sexuality (1987)

"The book's central argument . . . is an ingenious, if not original, formulation, and there is much to it. . . . carefully constructed, exquisitely reasoned and internally cogent, but oblivious of and irrelevant to the ordinary human beings whose sexuality it purportedly treats."


Michel Foucault, on the Role of Prisons (1975)

In an interview, Foucault says that "Prison is a recruitment center for the army of crime."

In the Cage (1978)

Richard Locke considers the work of Foucault, Christopher Lasch and Herbert Marcuse, all of which, he says, portray "modern life as a prison or a fascist supermarket."

Michel Foucault, French Historian (1984)

The obituary of Foucault, who died at the age of 57, quoted Pierre Mauroy, the Prime Minister of France, who praised Foucault as "one of the great French contemporary philosophers."


August 22, 1965
Sick, Sick, Sick?

A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason
. By Michel Foucault.
Translated by Richard Howard.

For the past several years, the name of Thomas Szasz has been associated with the most radical criticism of the concept of mental illness. He denies that the minds of people called, in our society, "mentally ill" or "emotionally disturbed" suffer from any disorder that may properly be regarded as medical. The fact that they are defined as sick people, moreover, makes it possible to control their behavior, and often to confine them; even though they have done nothing illegal and would otherwise have to be allowed to go on living their own messy lives and sometimes making a nuisance of themselves.

Yet, most of the mentally ill have, indeed, nothing wrong with them that any diagnostician could observe-apart from the social behavior that forms the basis of complaint against them. And that behavior, which teachers, relatives, or administrative officials call "problem" behavior is a problem to the people who complain about it; not to the individual who is said to have the problem. For him, in his own life situation as he knows it, his behavior is functional. To call him "neurotic" or "psychotic," and the benefits he derives from his particular style of life "secondary gains," is to pass a moral-not a medical-judgment against him. It is true that such persons may well be able to lead richer and more satisfying lives if they can be brought to consider alternative ways of responding to situations and to abandon those which have become barren and costly, and that they may desperately need psychoanalytic help in changing their lives. But such help is fundamentally educational rather than clinical in character.

Dr. Szasz, who is a practicing psychoanalyst and a more orthodox Freudian than most, does not in any way reject the basic psychoanalytic theory or minimize the influence of the unconscious on human behavior. But he forcefully rejects the use of personality theory to conceal value judgments and impose them on the patient. And he condemns, with justifiable indignation, the increasingly common use of psychiatry to cloak administrative actions and justify intervention into the lives of individuals who, however offensive they may be to their fellows, are not demonstrably ill.

The mentally ill, the narcotics addict, and the disturbed juvenile are defined as medical problems precisely because this definition provides society with more convenient access to them and weakens the defenses they might otherwise make against its efforts to administer their affairs. This is one of Szasz's principal points in "The Ethics of Psychoanalysis," but his work lacks the confirmation of precedent. This, unhappily, is just what Michel Foucault's extraordinary historical study, "Madness and Civilization," provides. Foucault traces the conception of madness as it changes from the comparatively easy acceptance of the mentally deranged characteristic of the Renaissance, through the attitude of smug terror with which the 18th century justified the confinement of the mad under conditions of brutality not really much worse that those Jules Henry found in the contemporary nursing homes he describes in "Culture Against Man."

Though the madman came at this time to replace the leper as the essence of non-being, he was not regarded as ill and his confinement expressed no tenderness. The mad were lumped in with the poor and indigent as a basic threat to the social values on which a mercantile economy rested. They were confined, brutalized, but not concealed-instead, they were exhibited as examples of the inhumanity of brute nature. As such, they were beyond the reach of morality and, though treated with utter cruelty, they were not punished. Only in the 19th century did society begin to take a moral attitude toward the insane, not, certainly, from compassion, but as Szasz's work would lead us to expect, to provide itself with a base of operations.

The industrial revolution changed the status of the poor by making them the base on which the wealth of society rested. So long as they were content to remain poor they were useful, and were soon to be established in the lower reaches of the social order. It was precisely from the demoralizing influence of the mad, with whom they had previously been confined, that they needed to be rescued. The mad, however, were more refractory; their persistence in an unnatural and disorderly mode of life, attributable to excesses of luxury and self-indulgence, was now viewed as a moral defect.

At this point, the final step in the evolution of the modern concept of insanity as mental illness became necessary. "To perpetual judgment," Foucault observes, "we must add a fourth structure peculiar to the world of the asylum as it was constituted at the end of the eighteenth century: this is the apotheosis of the medical personage. Of them all, it is doubtless the most important , since it would authorize not only new contacts between doctor and patient, but a new relation between insanity and medical thought, and ultimately command the whole modern experience of madness... The physician, as we have seen, played no part in the life of confinement. Now he becomes the essential figure of the asylum... within the asylum itself, the doctor takes a preponderant place, insofar as he converts it into a medical space.

"However, and this is the essential point, the doctor's intervention is not made by virtue of a medical skill or power that he possesses, in himself, and that would be justified by a body of objective knowledge. It is not as a scientist that homo medicus has authority in the asylum, but as a wise man. If the medical profession is required, it is as a juridical and moral guarantee, not in the name of science... For the medical enterprise is only a part of an enormous moral task that must be accomplished at the asylum, and which alone can ensure the care of the insane."

This still does not bring us quite to the point at which we meet Dr. Szasz. To reach there, we must note the further extension of medical authority beyond the walls of the asylum-though retaining the power of commitment as its ultimate sanction-into the lives of patients deemed healthy enough to remain at large and fulfill their social responsibilities, but not healthy enough to be trusted to make an autonomous appraisal of their own existential state.

As medical authority has become more extensive, it has necessarily become more diffuse as well; so that moral and medical categories are now thoroughly and probably inextricably confused. How far Western civilization has come along this path to achieve its present position can be estimated perhaps, if we can imagine how astonished Socrates would have been to be told that both the feelings Alcibiades aroused in him, and his need to rebel against authority, were symptoms that showed him to be a very sick man, rather than aspects of his being that made him what, for better or worse, he was.

By sketching in a few hundred words the central theme of an argument of great subtlety and originality, I have certainly done Foucault injustice. His book belongs, both by reason of its content and its profundity, in the class of such treatises-at once historical, scientific and ethical-as Norman O. Brown's "Life Against Death." Stylistically, no. "Madness and Civilization" is not only difficult, but often irritating reading. When he is dealing with the classical, pre-scientific view of natural phenomena, Foucault is much too detailed for my taste; when he is dealing with the subtly inflected moral issues from which he weaves his argument he is sometimes too abstract for my comprehension.

The translation faithfully conveys the glistening but astonishingly opaque intellectual texture which is fashionable in French philosophical discourse-even Genet sometimes forgets that stone walls do not a salon make-and if there are times when Foucault's elegance and irony set his subject off, there are others when he is visibly accomplishing a tour de force et des grands hospices Francais. The tour, however, is well worth taking.

Mr. Friedenberg is professor of sociology at the University of California at Davis and author of the recent "Coming of Age in America."

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company


February 28, 1971
The Mandarin of the Hour-Michel Foucault

An Archaeology of the Human Sciences
. By Michel Foucault.

French intellectual life is a scenario. It has its stars and histrionic polemics, its claque and fiascoes. It is susceptible, to a degree remarkable in a society so obviously literate and ironic, to sudden gusts of lunatic fashion. A Sartre dominates, to be followed by Levi-Strauss; the new master is soon fusilladed by self-proclaimed "Maoist-structuralists." The almost impenetrable soliloquies on semantics and psychoanalysis of Jaques Lacan pack their full houses. Now the mandarin of the hour is Michel Foucault. His arresting features look out of the pages of glossy magazines; he has recently been appointed to the College de France, which is both the most prestigious of official learned establishments and, traditionally, a setting for fashionable charisma.

Foucault has had an idiosyncratic, often solitary career. He has produced monographic studies of the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness from the 17th to the 19th centuries. These books took for their pivot the conception that mental health and illness are variables, conditioned by history and the model on which a given society operates. Sanity and madness determine each other in a constant dialectical reciprocity. The idea is not new, but Foucault brought to it an intense learning and breadth of philosophic suggestion. His name carried a deepening, though esoteric, resonance throughout the early sixties. But it was with "Les Mots et les Choses," published in Paris in 1966 and now published here as "The Order of Things," that Foucault assumed his current eminence.

The translator (whom, with maddening disregard for human effort and responsibility, the publisher leaves anonymous) has striven hard. Nevertheless, an honest first reading produces an almost intolerable sense of verbosity, arrogance and obscure platitude. Page after page could be the rhetoric of a somewhat weary sybil indulging in free association. Recourse to the French text shows that this is not a matter of awkward translation. The following is a crucial but also entirely representative sample:

"Philology, biology, and political economy were established, not in the places formerly occupied by general grammar, natural history, and the analysis of wealth, but in an area where those forms of knowledge did not exist, in the space they left blank, in the deep gaps that separated their broad theoretical segments and that were filled with the murmur of the ontological continuum. The object of knowledge in the nineteenth century is formed in the very place where the Classical plenitude of being has fallen silent. Inversely, a new philosophical space was to emerge in the place where the objects of Classical knowledge dissolved. The moment of attribution (as a form of judgment) and that of articulation (as a general patterning of beings) separated, and thus created the problem of the relations between a formal apophantics and a formal ontology..."

Faced with almost four hundred pages in a similar vein, one must ask oneself, "Why bother?" I s this the kind of thing to be taken seriously, or does it belong, with a good deal else that has come out of recent French "post-structuralism" and German "hermeneutics," to "the murmur of the ontological continuum"? Is anything being said here, which can be grasped and verified in any rational way? Does the statement that "The law of nature is constituted by the difference between words and things" signify anything beyond its oracular sound? Is one to pay sober regard to propositions about phenomena as complex, as differentiated, as the Renaissance or the Enlightenment, in which Foucault invariably uses the words "all feeling," "the whole of thought," and to which he assigns dramatic, sharply-edged beginnings and endings (history as a series of curtain-calls)? What is one to make of such grandiloquent misstatements as that which proclaims "literature" to be a very recent concept, when we know that the specialization of language for literary purposes was thoroughly understood by Thucydides and Plato and formalized as early as Cicero?

One asks these questions because Foucault's claims are sweeping, and because, one supposes, he would wish to be read seriously or not at all. His appeal, moreover, to contemporaries of exceptional intelligence both at home and in England (this book appears in a series edited by R. D. Laing) is undeniable. This is no confidence trick. Something of originality and, perhaps, of very real importance, is being argued in these often rebarbative pages. Can it be hammered out, though necessarily in a simplified, abbreviated form? (Even as one tries to do the job, one is haunted by the picture of what such masters of lucid depths as Russell or Quine would make of Foucault's uses of language and of proof.)

"Les Mots et les Choses"-the original title ("Words and Things") is much preferable-sets out to provide "an archaeology of the human sciences," or more simply, an account of how the organizing models of human perception and knowledge have altered between the Renaissance and the end of the 19th century. The particular models chosen by Foucault, who regards them as central and interrelated, are those of biology, linguistics and economics. In that they formulate and comprehend such vital notions as meaning, exchange and the critical discriminations between the organic and the man-made, these three disciplines are the "human sciences" par excellence. Understand their idiom and altering presuppositions, and you will obtain systematic insights into the ways in which Western culture has structured both its image of the personal self and of reality.

But why "archaeology"? The word has its aura of depth and genesis, outside its normal field, since Freud. Foucault uses it to establish the differences between his enterprise and that of intellectual history and phenomenology in the usual sense.

What concerns him, as he seeks to demonstrate in a long opening chapter on Velasquez's painting "Las Meninas," is the spatial mapping within which knowledge becomes knowledge rather than accidental array of facts and objects. We only perceive that which the conventions of significance lead us to see. A science, a philosophic doctrine, a linguistic and grammatical code can be regarded as "spaces of ordered and exploratory experience." The conventions of perspective and the stylizations of three-dimensionality in the graphic or plastic arts offer a rough analogy to what Foucault is after.

It is not, he argues, any autonomous logic inherent in a given body of knowledge, it is not the accident of individual genius in the thinker or scientist, which account for the true substance and history of "knowing" and inferentially, of feeling. It is the available terrain and network of relations, some highly arbitrary, within which the sensibility of a given epoch and society will recognize a rational order.

The aggregate of significant spaces, the underlying stratigraphy of intellectual life, the whole set of the presuppositions of thought, is what Foucault calls episteme. It is, precisely, a new "archaeology of discursive consciousness" that is required to excavate this vital, but profoundly internalized, partly unconscious terrain. The history of ideas and of the sciences, as normally pursued, is condemned to superficiality and to explanations that are merely willful constructs after the fact.

Having formulated his methodological image-and one wonders whether "topology" would not have been more apt than "archaeology"-Foucault sets out to analyze the principal changes in the episteme, in the "knowing of knowledge," in Western thought since the Renaissance. At each stage of the argument, an all-inclusive philosophic and psychological framework is tested and made explicit by reference to the study of living forms, of speech and of economic relations. These are the three cardinal classifiers in the total set.

The thesis goes something like this. The episteme of the 16th century was founded on similitude. All phenomena and designative modes were based on a manifold mirroring and interplay of analogies and affinities. The Renaissance world was a kind of weave, folding upon itself, forming a chain of vital resemblances through which alone individual facts or objects could find a meaningful location. This principle of analogy made of the eye both a receptor and source of light, almost tangibly threaded to the object contemplated. It was thought that language works first because it is a system of autonomous signs and second because it is a kind of "organic mirror" in which every named or inferred thing has its exact counterpart. A perfectly comparable system of emblematic similitudes obtained in Renaissance biology and in the 16th century view of the inherent, one might well say magical, worth and singularity of gold.

The episteme of the 17th-18th century Classical period is radically different. It involved "an immense reorganization of culture," a literal re-orientation of the space in which Western consciousness perceived subject and object, reality and dream. The old kinships between knowledge and divination, the mirroring reciprocities of language and fact, break off. Now, instead of similitude, the crucial instrumentality is representation. Foucault seems to mean by this that words are now entirely transparent and arbitrary counters. Thus, to say things, to name them, is to put them in a kind of necessary order. The "necessity" seems to derive from the fact that Classical man now sees objects in a logical space or framework.

The language of the Classical age is caught in the grid of thought, woven into the very fabric of its unrolling. It is not an exterior effect of thought, but thought itself." In other terms, knowing and speaking are interwoven. Every speech act, every mental proposition "down to the least of its molecules" becomes an exact way of naming. Grammar is a kind of tracing-paper laid across the ordered contours of the world. Hence the primary impulse of Classical thought and science toward taxonomy. The classificatory genius of the great botanist Linnaeus represents the true spirit of the age.

Neither the natural history nor the economic doctrines of the 17th and 18th centuries can be dissociated from a fundamentally linguistic matrix. The zoology of Buffon, the botany of Tournefort, are inwoven with a theory of words, with the axiomatic presumption that the true naming and analytic representation of nature ipso facto establishes a rational order. The 17th century reverses the Renaissance conception of money and exchange value: instead of possessing an intrinsic quality of preciousness, currency now has a purely formal, representational role. It too has become a classifier.

The Classical episteme breaks down in turn. Henceforth, the central pulse of language and thought "resides outside representation... in a sort of behind-the-scenes world even deeper and more dense than representation itself." Pure knowledge becomes isolated and divorced from particular, empirical disciplines; these, however, become fatally enmeshed with problems of subjectivity, with the uncertainties that personal consciousness insinuates into every act of perception. Words cease to intersect with representation or to provide an immediate grid for the knowledge of things. They acquire an autonomous, enigmatic being of their own, interposing themselves, as it were, between self and object. Indeed they are the most resistant, fascinating of objects in their own right.

Dialectics, historicity and energy are the key terms of the new phase. They characterize the emergence of modern science after Cuvier, of modern economic theory after Ricardo, of the new linguistics first discernible in Bopp's celebrated studies of Sanskrit. "We speak because we act, and not because recognition is a means of cognition. Like action, language expresses a profound will to something." Foucault's choice of terms here is deliberate: it reflects Nietzsche, in whom he sees one of the two principal witnesses of the new episteme. The other is Malarme, supreme experiencer of the opacity of words.

As to the future: "As the archaeology of our thought easily shows, man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end." The mode of individuation and "outside reality" which has dominated the past centuries of our civilization, especially in the West, may yield soon to new spaces of perception. If I understand Foucault, he is saying that "man" himself is a symbolic product of the ways in which certain men have, over a very short period of history, thought about themselves and human knowledge.

In a grossly abbreviated form (the style of this book is intensely repetitive), this is, I think, a fair outline of Foucault's "archaeology." What does it amount to?

The first point worth making is that similar ideas have been put forward as long ago as Lovejoy and Whitehead. In its gloss on the reciprocities and symbolic codes of the Renaissance, Foucault's account agrees largely with that given in the brilliant, pioneering works of Frances Yates. But Miss Yates's investigations of the 16th-century intellectual world are far more incisive and animate with a sense of magic. The notion of the episteme strikingly recalls Thomas Kuhn's well-known definition of "paradigms." By these Kuhn meant the projective models, part intuitive, part programmatic within and through which scientific revolutions occur. Joseph Mazzeo of Columbia and a host of other scholars have been investigating the interactions between the development of the biological sciences and the surrounding "world-picture." The close bracketing of linguistic communication and economic exchanges is, of course, the hallmark of Levi-Strauss. The choice of Nietzsche and Malarme as archetypal of the modernity of consciousness is, in current intellectual history, almost routine.

This is as it should be. A serious work of scholarship and intellectual analysis must draw, at many points, on the work of predecessors and contemporaries. The trouble is that Foucault speaks as if he were a solitary explorer, opening up silent seas. Where allusion is made to fellow-scholars or thinkers, it is usually anonymous and abusive. The unwary reader of "The Order of Things" will hardly realize how often Foucault's theses have been anticipated or been prepared for by detailed scholarly investigations elsewhere. In this lofty indifference, Foucault is, unfortunately, representative of the current French vein. Parisian intellectual movements have, over this past decade, "discovered" the legacies of Freud, of Roman Jakobson, of Malinowski, of Saussure, as if these epochal contributions had passed unnoticed in the rest of the world. The consequence is, at moments, a kind of breathless parochial grandeur.

As to the substance of Foucault's case, only detailed examination by scholars in the relevant fields will finally establish its strengths and defects. At decisive junctures, the choice of material looks very arbitrary. A glance at a standard work, such as H. Aarsleff's "The Study of Language in England 1780-1860," suggests that Foucault's readings of Locke and of the background to modern linguistics are, to put it mildly, willful. In the light of editorial and analytic work now in progress, his observations on Newton and Voltaire seem slapdash. One can but wonder how much at home he is in the very intricate matter of the vocabulary of the exact and descriptive sciences in the 16th and 17th centuries. Nor does his tone of peremptory obviousness help: "Only those who cannot read will be surprised that I have learned such a thing more clearly from Cuvier, Bopp, and Ricardo than from Kant or Hegel."

But this is not to say that there are not brilliant strains in this book. Foucault seems at his best not when asserting grand designs, but when working close to a defined text or focus. His interpretation of "Don Quixote" as a document in which we see language breaking off its old kinship with things-"Don Quixote reads the world in order to prove his books"-is witty and penetrates deeply. Though, like much of the French intelligentsia, he greatly overrates the importance of de Sade, he has fresh observations to make on de Sade's role in the evolution of linguistic feeling. He is surely right when he sees in the insane loquacities of "Juliette" a desperate attempt by language to "name," and thus enact exhaustively, those finalities of desire and violence which always chide it.

The parallel discussions of the ways in which the dissolution of the classical notions of grammar and taxonomy can be traced in speech habits are the organic sciences, are richly stimulating. Though I am scarcely competent to judge, Foucault does not seem to say acute and important things about Lamarck, a figure who plays a somewhat shadowy but fascinating part in modern biological thought. As not very many have before him, Foucault recognizes the sheer philosophic force and pivotal role of Ricardo's contribution to the theory of money. Indeed, time and again, a local observation in these pages will arrest one by its liveliness or suggestive paradox.

A thinner, more scrupulous book is struggling to emerge from this oracular corpus: a book that deals not with the allegedly dramatic metamorphoses of all Western consciousness from Francis Bacon to the surrealists, but with key moments in the history of language-studies and scientific logic during the 18th and early 19th centuries. Whether it be Spenglerian or "sociological," the whole idea of a visible "Consciousness" appearing on Monday mornings or at the start and end of centuries, is a fatal simplification. It is a part of the enormous but also indistinct task he has set for himself, that so many of Foucault's generalizations are too nebulous to be tested, while a good number of his particulars are too esoteric or devoid of context to be truly representative.

Foucault has better to offer. His previous work on the mythologies and practices of mental therapy is of undoubted stature. It shows a superb gift for intellectual mimesis. He is able to re-experience the idiom, the identifying reflexes of a past. He can master large masses of often recondite and technical documentation. He has a writer's eye for the incisive quote, for the nerve-center of a social attitude. He fixes on questions of intense interest.

"Les Mots et les Choses" opens with a discussion of one of the arcane, humorous fables of Borges. There is no finer craftsman of understatement and generous attribution. It is these one misses in Michel Foucault's enterprise. Yet even where its sybilline loftiness is damaging, one is left with a sense of real and original force.

Mr. Steiner is an Extraordinary Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge University. His new book, "Extraterritorial: Papers on Literature and the Language Revolution," will be published in June.

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company


October 22, 1972
An Immense Density of Systematicities

By Michel Foucault.
Translated by A. M. Sheridan Smith.

Michel Foucault is one of a handful of French thinkers who have, in the last 10 years, given an entirely new direction to theoretical work in the so-called "human sciences," the study of language, literature, psychiatry, intellectual history and the like. He is best known for "The Order of Things" ("Les Mots et les Choses"), a rich and controversial work in which he introduced an "archaeological" method of great originality and, I believe, importance. This method, or rather its presuppositions, is the subject of "The Archaeology of Knowledge." It involves an attempt to decide just what it is about certain utterances or inscriptions-real objects in a real world which leave traces behind to be discovered, classified and related to one another-that qualifies them as "statements" (enonces) belonging to various bodies of knowledge (biology, economics and so on).

What is the reality of such bodies of knowledge? How do we arrive at them from the "statements"? How do these bodies of knowledge change over time? By Foucault's own admission his method is more an exploratory series of questions and reflections than a finished theory; its usefulness lies in its opening up a rather chaotic domain and in its implicit challenge to the neat but abstract categories of the history and economy of ideas. This usefulness, however, is seriously damaged by a kind of conspiracy of unreadability between author and translator. Foucault's career began with an essay on a relatively limited topic, the work of Roussel. Since then he has taken on bigger and bigger subjects: the origins of psychiatric practice, the general problem of madness in Western civilization, the evolution of humanistic discourse since the Renaissance. Unfortunately, as the subject-matter of Foucault's writing has become more diffuse, its style has become more intricate, not to say contorted. Never a man to use one word where five will do, or to say straightforwardly what can be said obliquely or figuratively, Foucault has, confronted with the genuinely difficult task he has set himself in "The Archaeology of Knowledge," produced an extravagantly and self-indulgently rhetorical text, full of asides on his own development, other people's reactions to his work and so on, many of which I found downright embarrassing.

Now in French this is not so bad as I have made it seem. Almost everybody does it; stylistic showing-off, even of the most narcissistic kind, is something people get accustomed to, so that it does not get in the way of the ideas that are being expressed. But in English it is thoroughly distracting and very hard to stomach. It is rather like the ends of letters: the French will write, without thinking twice about it, "I beg you to acknowledge, dear Sir, the assurance of my most distinguished sentiments"; that sort of flourish is now merely ridiculous in English, and a competent translator will render it "Yours very sincerely" and let it go at that. What Foucault needed was somebody to do this for him, somebody moreover who really understood what he was up to. Instead, his most baroque formulations are brought over inflexibly into English, and matters are made even worse by two tendencies of the translation: on the one hand to resort to awkward or archaic or recondite equivalents instead of plain circumlocutions, and on the other to make outright mistakes about the sense of what is said.

The result is often bewildering, and people who look for clarity in philosophical discourse will no doubt-and quite understandibly-put the book down in large numbers as completely hopeless. What is to be made, for example, of the subject's being "situated at an optimal perceptual distance whose boundaries delimit the wheat of relevant information," of "preterminal regularities in relation to which the ultimate state, far from constituting the birth-place of a system, is defined by its variants"? Three fourths of the book reads like this. Foucault has a strong spatial imagination, and things are always happening behind or under the façade or the surface of discourse-for example, "an immense density of systematicities" lurks there. Working at such a disadvantage to begin with, he really does not need a translator who introduces spatial distortions of his own-yet consider "operates between the twin poles of totality and plethora" as a translation of "est placee sous le double signe de la totalite et de la plethore." All this is a great shame. Good ideas ought not to be encumbered with bad prose; readers ought not to have to endure such linguistic torture to get at them.

Things are a little better in "The Discourse on Language," Foucault's inaugural lecture at the College de France, printed here as an appendix. This is an extremely important work-much more so, in my opinion, than "The Archaeology of Knowledge"-which gives reason to hope that Foucault may have successfully survived his self-referential methodological turn and be opening a new line of inquiry even more interesting than the old ones-an investigation of the institutionalization and the politicization of discourse. But the English title is all wrong: something of rather sinister significance has been reduced to meaningless neutrality. The lecture was entitled "L'Ordre du discours," not simply "The Discourse on Language" but "The Order of Discourse," by which Foucault meant to indicate the constraints, even the repressions, that institutions impose on what can be said. His hypothesis is "that in every society the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organized and redistributed according to a certain number of procedures, whose role is to avert its powers and its dangers." His discussion of these procedures, which apart from obvious cases of censorship tend to be invisible to us, is penetrating and provocative. They include more or less overt suppression of forms of discourse (especially those dealing too explicitly with sex or politics) that are considered to overstep acceptable boundaries; the dismissal of other forms as the product of insanity; the neutralization of others by commentators who inscribe them in "traditions" and "disciplines" (or dismiss them, again, because they refuse such pigeonholing); and the positive insistence that the speaker or writer should be properly certified as a competent authority. In these and other ways society manifests a kind of fear of the word, against which it seeks to protect itself by such strategies of exclusion and limitation. From now on, as a result of Foucault's perceptions, an analysis of these strategies in their historical development will have to complement any analysis of the bodies of discourse that have survived them.

This is a new and potentially invaluable way of approaching the whole domain of intellectual history. But here again Foucault is made to sound silly by careless translation. "I would have preferred to be enveloped in words," he says, for example, at the beginning-an odd desire whose satisfaction it is difficult to envisage. The French, however, reads "Plutot que de prendre la parole, j'aurais voulu etre enveioppe par elle," which, given the meaning of "la parole" in the context of public lectures at the College de France, makes much more sense. In this context, too, a certain amount of self-reference is as inevitable as the required eulogy of the previous occupant of the chair, in this case Jean Hyppolite. A salient feature of Foucault's preoccupation with his own image continues to be his extraordinary sensitivity to any hint of a suggestion that he might be a structuralist, and by now one is inclined to concede the point: if he minds so much, other words can certainly be found. The term "structuralism," as Roland Barthes puts it, "has become uncertain," and while it has its place among the artifacts, we should allow Foucault to be the practitioner rather than the object of archaeological inquiry. But like so many practitioners he is really much better at doing it than at talking about it.

Peter Caws is professor of philosophy at Hunter College.

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company


February 24, 1974
After the Church the Doctors, After the Doctors Utopia

An Archaeology of Medical Perception
. By Michel Foucault. Translated

by A. M. Sheridan Smith.

Michel Foucault's new book (published in France 11 years ago but only now translated) returns to the history of medicine, the subject also of his first book, "Madness and Civilization" (1961). In continues his brilliant history, not of ideas as such, but of the structures of perception. In the earlier study, Foucault analyzed the origins of the insane asylum, a development that paralleled the "birth of the clinic." Both originated in the upheavals of the late 18th century, specifically in a rejection of earlier medical theory, in a criticism of the hospital, and in a generalized fear of contagion.

Foucault himself does not emphasize these connections between this book and his other works. As usual, his writing is difficult, the argument hard to follow, the arrangement of chapters seemingly arbitrary and the whole very difficult to summarize. In the limited space at hand, I can do no more than sketch in the main lines of the complicated argument presented in "The Birth of the Clinic," without attempting to suggest how that argument modifies our understanding of other facets of 18th-century history or of history in general. By this time it should be unnecessary to add that Foucault's work is indispensable for cultural historians, amply rewarding the effort required to understand it.

In the years immediately preceding and during the French Revolution, according to Foucault, men began to assign to medicine a central role in the reconstitution of society. A growing interest in epidemics and their prevention had focused attention on the connection between health and social conditions, giving rise to the hope that the Societe Royale de Medicine, chartered in 1778 and charged, among other things, with the study of epidemics, would diffuse throughout society a generalized medical consciousness.

The medical profession was seen as the successor to the church, with this difference, that the spread of medical knowledge, the abolition of poverty and the general improvement of society would eventually make the church unnecessary. The Jacobins postulated a world without doctors or hospitals: "No more indigents, no more hospitals." In a community "entirely dedicated to the happiness of possessing health," Foucault writes, "the face of the doctor would fade, leaving a faint trace in men's memories of a time of kings and wealth, in which they were impoverished, sick slaves."

These utopian fantasies quickly faded, and with them the dream of a society no longer dependent on hospitals; but the hospital and the medical profession both underwent lasting changes at this times. Even before the Revolution, academic medicine had come under criticism by the proponents of the new, "socialized" medicine, as we might call it. The Revolution gave added impetus to this criticism, in the form of an attack on all types of corporate privileges.

In August, 1791, the "Gothic universities and aristocratic academies" were closed in order to open the learned professions to competition, experiment and the unobstructed flow of ideas. The immediate result, so far as medicine was concerned, was an influx of poorly trained doctors, some of them outright charlatans. The problem was to reconstitute the profession and establish some uniform means of certification without re-establishing the closed corporations of the old regime-to "requite proof of capacity," in the words of a contemporary, without "re-establishing guild-masterships," in short to "reconcile the rights of individual liberty with those of public safety."

The solution was found to lie in a new institution, the clinic-more precisely, in a restructuring of an older institution so thorough that the result was wholly original. The clinic dated from the late 17th century. It was a means of teaching, of demonstrating medical principles by enabling students to observe their workings in specific cases, selected to illustrate those principles in action. Faced with the crisis of certification in the 1790's and faced with the fact that the closing of the universities had forced many doctors, in effect, to teach themselves medicine in the hospitals, reformers began to realize that the clinic could be used not to demonstrate old truths but to discover new ones.

Instead of handing down esoteric knowledge derived from learned treatises, the clinic could serve to unite theory and practice and to use the latter to modify the former, thereby combining a new kind of teaching-based on the precept, "read little, see much, and do much"-with what we would call medical research. Not only that, but the clinic, because it encouraged a new naturalism-revealing the connections between the human organism and the material conditions of existence-would serve as "the point of contact between the art of healing and the civil order," according to an official report of the Year III (1795).

The clinic thus became the primary instrument of medical instruction and of the advancement of medical knowledge. It embodied a new grammar of medical perception. Freed from the need to catalogue and classify, observation now concerned itself with the history of the disease; the world laid bare by clinical observation was intelligible because its structure was regarded as analogous to that of language, each fact taking its place in a series of facts or events, the course of the disease "speaking" through its characteristic signs and symptoms. The rise of the pathological anatomy-observation of corpses in order to trace the history of a given disease-completed the destruction of the old classificatory medicine.

In time a new esotericism grew up in place of the old, based not on the need to surround corporate privileges with mystification but on the need for a medical language increasingly precise and refined but unintelligible, for these reasons, to all but the initiate. The full consequences of this last development-far beyond the scope of Foucault's book-and the consequences, more broadly, of the waning of the revolutionary expectations surrounding the emergence of the new medicine, confront us squarely today.

Christopher Lasch is professor of history at the University of Rochester and author of "The New Radicalism in America" and other books.

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company


May 18, 1975
The Prisoner's Confession Was a Verboballistic Invention

I, PIERRE RIVIERE, HAVING SLAUGHTERED MY MOTHER, MY SISTER, AND MY BROTHER... A case of Parricide in the 19th Century. Edited by Michel Foucault.
Translated by Frank Jellinek.

On June 3, 1835, a 20-year-old Normandy peasant named Pierre Riviere went to his mother's house and murdered her with a pruning hook; he then killed his sister and a little brother with the same weapon. Leaving the house, he told a neighbor, "I have just delivered my father from all his tribulations. I know that they will put me to death, but no matter."

Riviere took refuge in the forest, where he lived for months on plants and roots. He then allowed himself to be arrested. This book presents three viewpoints on the question: what is to be done with a person who commits a brutal and apparently perverse crime? We are given the dossier of the contemporary legal proceedings in Riviere's case; then his remarkable autobiography, composed in prison; finally a collection of modern essays on Riviere by members of a seminar at the College de France directed by the eminent psychiatrist and historian Michel Foucault, author of "Madness and Civilization."

To the Prosecutor, Riviere's aberration stemmed from his refusal to accept the discipline that an organic society necessarily imposes on its members: "Solitary, wild, and cruel, that is Pierre Riviere as seen from the moral point of view; he is, so to speak, a being apart, a savage not subject to the ordinary laws of sympathy and sociability." The prosecution's psychiatrist confirmed that Riviere was not mad, merely possessed of a "bilious and melancholic" temperament and "over-excited" by a long conflict with his parents. At first this view prevailed, and Riviere was condemned to death; but the King commuted the penalty to life imprisonment, perhaps in response to an unusual intervention by a group of the leading Paris psychiatrists. These pronounced the criminal mentally deficient, and added that he "ought to have been placed in confinement" long before the crime, since he was "too ill to have been left at large."

While the law was taking its course, Riviere wrote his own version of the story. Though his education had been rudimentary, he was able to express himself with a force and clarity that amazed his judges and far surpassed anything said of him by those outside his mental world. His father had married to escape military service, in 1813; the couple were never compatible and lived apart, his mother with relatives and the father three miles away with Pierre. According to his son, the elder Riviere was of "mild and peaceable disposition," but perpetually oppressed by a wife who was expert in the art of ingeniously tormenting. Whatever the justice of this view, it is certain that the French legal system required that even unhappy couples like the Rivieres should remain inextricably yoked together; so that their feud--ver cabbages, a sack of wheat, pieces of furniture-was bound to continue until one of them was dead.

Caught between implacable parents-once they even fought for physical possession of him, when he was 3-Riviere developed a classic schizoid personality. In one role he was the typical village idiot: he terrorized younger children, was furtive and obstinate, constructed machines for the torture of frogs and birds. To an outside view, his life was sordid and despicable; but he has a secret compensation. Out of the occasional books that came to hand he constructed a grandiose intellectual system to vindicate his father's prerogative and justify a bloody revenge on his mother.

From his reading of Scripture, he told his interrogators, "he had conceived the greatest horror of incest and bestiality... he feared there was an invisible fluid which, despite himself, might bring him into contact with women or female animals when he was in their presence." Since the Revolution, he believed, women had taken command of society; whereas to his mind the best rule was that of the ancient Romans, who gave the father the power of life and death over his family. If times had changed, so much the worse: "I knew the rules of man and the rules of ordered society, but I deemed myself wiser than they."

Riviere's final cue for passion was an incident at the village church, when his father's singing moved the congregation to tears: "I said in my heart: if strangers who had nothing to do with it weep, what should I not do, I who am his son." He determined to kill his mother, then go directly to the judges and defend his act; but when the victims indeed lay dead before him he felt the "courage and idea of glory" that had inspired him pass away. Hiding in the woods, he came to his senses and wept for what he had done. "I therefore await the penalty I deserve," he concludes, "and the day which shall put an end to all my resentments."

The criminal, then, wished to die; the state prescribed for him life imprisonment; the doctors, invoking the new judicial doctrine of "extenuating circumstances," wanted to claim him as a case for treatment. But before he could be disposed of, he had to be described; each side had its own terminology, creating "a battle among discourses." Yet how could any form of words be commensurate with the bitter, 20-year combat between Riviere's parents, and the bloody deeds that resolved it? The traditionalists, indeed, scarcely troubled themselves with this problem: their rebuttal to behavior like Riviere's was simply the guillotine.

At the other extreme is the feverish rhetoric of Foucault's seminar participants Jean-Pierre Peter and Jeanne Favret, who argue what might be termed a Sadean Maoist approach to the crime. They exalt Riviere as an articulate rebel against the misery and oppression of peasant life, while at the same time endorsing his demand to the state that it "kill him fairly and not let him rot." The villain of the piece for them is a hypocritical bourgeois humanism whose "clumsy psychiatry" and "paternalist reasonings" cheat Riviere of the death he desires.

The other essays, fortunately, are more sensitive to the general dilemmas posed by such a case. Foucault himself speculates on the influence of the sensational popular literature of crime: a literature showing, he believes, that the very idea of crime-as a transgression against natural law-had been rendered ambiguous by France's political history in the 40 years since Robespierre and Saint-Just. Riviere's autobiography, he points out, both justifies and forms part of his crime: it is a "verboballistic invention" offered in contradiction to the laws of ordered society.

Certainly, whether or not he was "mad," Riviere had defied all the received moral categories of his time. But he had also acted at a moment when the categories themselves had been called into question, so that there was no social consensus on how the damage he had inflicted should be repaired. When the balance was finally struck he was neither executed nor given psychiatric "treatment"; rather, he was consigned to the silence and restraint of an ordinary prison. There, five years later, he again became "mad," saying he wanted his head cut off, "which would not hurt him at all because he was dead." Placed in solitary confinement, he was found hanged: at last he had achieved his wish, to be his own judge and executioner.

Paul Delany teaches English at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, B.C.

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company


February 19, 1978
Society and Its Prisons

The Birth of the Prison
. By Michel Foucault.
Translated by Alan Sheridan.

The texts for Michel Foucault's imaginative, illuminating yet troubling discourse are two penalties meted out in Paris less than 100 years apart. The first: the execution of the would-be regicide Damiens in a public square in 1757. The court sentenced him to be conveyed to the scaffold where "the flesh will be torn from his breasts, arms, thighs and calves with red hot pincers, his right hand... burnt with sulphur, and on those places where the flesh will be torn away, pour molten lead, boiling oil... and then his body drawn and quartered by four horses and his limbs and body consumed by fire, reduced to ashes." (The penalty was carried out, but with such ineptitude as to increase the victim's agony.) The second, some 80 years later: "The prisoners' day will begin at six in the morning... At the first drum roll, the prisoners must rise and dress in silence, as the supervisor opens the cell doors." After receiving a ration of bread, "they form into work-teams," to spend the day in steady labor. In the evening, "the cell doors are closed and the supervisors go the rounds, in the corridors, to ensure order and silence."

Foucault's analysis of these two modes of punishment, public execution and torture as against the timetable of a prison, is of a very special sort that does not belong to one or another academic discipline. He has a fundamental concern for the principles of thought that underlie the creation and operation of social institutions, principles that he has traced out on the most abstract epistemological level (in such a difficult and not altogether rewarding book as "The Birth of the Clinic"), and with a penetrating sensitivity to broad cultural values (as in "Madness and Civilization"). He is often interested in origins, the first appearance of the mental hospital or the medical clinic, but he is not really a historian. There is more of the anthropologist about him, a greater attention to the fit of institutions in a society than to the dynamics of change. Further, a philosophical radicalism permeates his writings, an intense dissatisfaction with bourgeois culture and institutions, all of which means that "Discipline and Punish" is bound to be innovative and controversial.

This volume, let it quickly be noted, is the most accessible of all of Foucault's writings, the most straightforward in prose and argument, the most cultural in orientation. Foucault, at points brilliantly and never falsely, "reads" the ceremonies of punishment in such a way as to anchor them firmly in their social setting.

Foucault opens with a stunning explication of the "theatre of terror" of a public execution. To the spectators, the occasion was a holiday (shops were closed, taverns were filled), and a fully satisfying one-in the most visible fashion, the spirit of retribution was appeased, right triumphed over wrong. But an execution was also a "scaffold service," for the speed with which the tortured died was taken as a sign of God's judgment. A quick death was His mercy. At the gallows, onlookers could decipher ultimate guilt and innocence, giving them a glimpse of justice as dispensed not merely on earth but in hell. Moreover, the ceremony had a carnival air about it, particularly in offering an opportunity to mock authority. Spectators could hear the victim curse judges, laws, government and religion, and then, by contagion, the spectators would often heap abuse not only on the offender, but on the soldiers and the executioner as well.

To the authorities, the ritual promised to deter crime. Indeed, at the scaffold some victims "confessed" to their errors, warning others not to follow in their footsteps, and these confessions were frequently published and distributed. But the authorities' ultimate stake in the ceremony was in the very excess of the punishment over the crime. Since every violation of the law had an aura of treason to it, representing an attack on the body of the sovereign, the spectacle assumed something of the character of a coronation, reaffirming the supremacy of the crown. In all, public torture and execution was part Mardi Gras, part liturgy and part investiture.

Foucault moves next to "read" the prison, to locate each of its seemingly idiosyncratic features in the premises and practices of other institutions, particularly the school, the factory, the military and the hospital. Foucault seems unaware of the work of the American sociologist Erving Goffman and of the research among American historians linking these institutions; his findings are not altogether novel. An inmate in an American prison once exclaimed to a visitor that he would like to meet the dude who dreamed up the prison system, for he must have been born on Mars; Foucault makes it eminently clear that the inventors of the prison were very much the products of modern society. He constructs his arguments not by mapping precise lines of influence from one institution to another but by defining broad similarities of approach. It is not process but identity of style that interests him.

Schools, factories, hospitals and armies-as well as prisons-all divide space into distinct units (by wards, classrooms, by battlefield disposition); all connect time to stages of accomplishment (promotion in rank or grade); all classify (by skill or function or disease). At the most general level of similarity, all "normalize," that is, allow for individual differences along a pre-established continuum. They acknowledge personal peculiarities and yet assign them to set categories. Each of these systems, in other words, recognizes distinctions precisely in order to homogenize them.

The creation of these systems, as Foucault persuasively demonstrates, expanded the scope of discipline and legitimized it. It turned the individual into a "case," which simultaneously helped to explain his actions and to control them. The very concept of the individual as a case represented a "thaw" that liberated scientific knowledge (to think of the patient as a case was the beginning of medical innovation), and at the same time expanded institutional means of control (for example, the right of the hospital to confine the mentally ill). Thus, a case approach "at one and the same time constitutes an object for a branch of knowledge and a hold for a branch of power."

In the instance of the prison, this case orientation encouraged the expansion of knowledge in such disciplines as criminology, psychology and eventually psychiatry. Concomitantly, it legitimized incarceration in the name of treatment. Since the institution could cure, it was proper to confine. Foucault is correct in noting that the birth of the prison is at one with the use of the rehabilitative ethic and the appearance of the dossier. Punishment moved from "the infinite segmentation of the body of the regicide" to "an investigation that would be extended without limit to a meticulous and ever more analytical observation... a file that was never closed."

"Discipline and Punish" is clearly a tour de force that makes it impossible to think of prisons as distinct from the rest of society, as an aberration in form. But however significant this accomplishment, there remains problems of method and policy that are deeply disturbing. Foucault subtitles his book, "The Birth of the Prison." Yet, aside from a few remarks that aggregations of populations and capital were the relevant historical forces, his analysis is entirely static. It is not simply that an elevated concern for the spirit of a culture prevents Foucault from descending to locate the actors who actually promoted the prison system. Rather, his approach compels him to overgeneralize to the point where the prison at all times and places becomes a constant and unvarying form of discipline-which is simply not true.

Prisons, like punishments, do have a history, although Foucault's mode of discourse cannot illuminate it. The models upon which prisons organize themselves, for example, do change over time-in shorthand form, from museums of order and quasi-utopian communities in the 19th century (as at Auburn, N.Y.) to replications of normal communities in the 20th (as at Norfolk, Mass.). Moreover, Foucault does not allow us to enter prisons themselves to examine the translation of models into practice. He is more involved with the idea of steady labor than with the fact that prisons have never been able to enforce it. He is more devoted to the order in the concept than to the disorder in the reality.

Even more important, Foucault's analysis overdetermines the place of the prison in modern society. The fit is too tight, too secure; there is no room for tension or disparity. Why is it that industrial societies, which are so very frugal with time, and measure it in seconds and minutes in the factory, abandon this is criminal justice and mete out sentences of five to ten years with remarkable casualness? Why is it that societies that are typically so impatient with failure tolerate the obvious inadequacies of prisons?

Foucault recognizes something of this problem in his closing pages. Having described the "structure" of the prison in modern society, he turns finally to the matter of its "function." From the moment that the prison came into being, observers recognized that incarceration did not reduce crime or rehabilitate criminals. And yet, again and again, even the most enlightened critics (at least until the 1960's, I would note) called for bigger and better prisons, more effective classification and treatment programs. How then reconcile failure with persistence? How understand the institution's longevity, given so poor a record?

Foucault's answer comes quickly: the prison endures because it performs a critical function in capitalist society. By turning criminals into "cases," into abnormal types of one sort or another, it separates the criminal from the body of the working class. The ultimate purpose of the prison, Foucault declares, is to divide the outlaw from the proletariat, thereby reducing lower-class solidarity and protest. The illegalities of the dominant class survive through the confinement of the illegalities of the lower class.

I am not persuaded by Foucault's assertion, nor by its corollary that crime is essentially a form of political action. To dispute the point would take us far beyond the substance of "Discipline and Punish." Nor do I have any concise alternative formulation to offer here, except to say that a satisfactory explanation of the persistence of the prison system may well have to identify more actors than "society" and more elements than "capitalism." Yet, to suspend judgment on this point does have one critical implication. I would not despair, as it appears that Foucault does, of the prospects for genuine amelioration in the prison system short of a reordering of society. Change can be significant without being total. And yet, to any reformer who thinks that it will be easily accomplished, that the adoption of determinate sentencing or the abolition of parole or the expansion of prisoners' rights will transform the system in immediate and adequate fashion, I would be the first to cite Foucault. Whatever the disagreements, "Discipline and Punish" is that rare kind of book whose methods and conclusions must be reckoned with by humanists, social scientists and political activists.

David J. Rothman, the author of "The Discovery of the Asylum" and professor of history at Columbia University, is completing a study of incarceration and its alternatives in 20th-century America.


Jan 14, 1979
The Powerful Secret

Vol. I: An Introduction. By Michel Foucault.
Translated by Robert Hurley.

Michel Foucault, the French philosopher-historian of power, is a difficult writer for the same reason that he is an instructive one. He is celebrated for showing how certain ideas-of madness (in "Madness and Civilization"), of illness (in "The Birth of the Clinic"), of crime and delinquency (in "Discipline and Punish") and, in this latest book, of sexuality-are transformed to serve the tactical convenience of social systems. But for all the intellectual tenacity and passionate rhetoric he brings to this task, it is not the most original or interesting aspect of his work. What is special to him, and uniquely challenging to his readers, is his demonstration of how institutions create the concept of illness, crime, insanity or sex. Even the concept of man-our humanistic assumptions about human nature-"is an invention of recent date," he asserts at the end of an earlier work, "The Order of Things." He is not saying that human beings, or any of their attributes, did not exist before the 17th century. Rather he is pushing to a new limit the familiar proposition that to put anything into words-for example, to speculate on the nature of man-is automatically to limit it and to create thereby a species of fiction. For Foucault, man, sex, madness or illness are really no more than approximations of our experience, ideas that only appear natural within a given historical situation; they are fabrications of a larger, artificial system.

Foucault has to contend, therefore, with the presumptions of language itself, and his writing is filled with maneuvers that can be initially bewildering. Very often he will seem to commit himself eloquently to positions he intends to refute, as if to suggest that in order to resist the power of a given "discourse" it is necessary first to submit to it. "Discourse" is one of his essential terms. Put simply, it refers to any "running" argument, any systematic communication-psychoanalytic theory would be an example and so would the procedures for confession in the Catholic Church-wherein the rules for coherence have implicit in them strategies for social control. Foucault's writing dramatizes how a "discourse" is mobilized, deployed and sent into action by extraordinarily intricate and invisible conjunctions of impersonal power. Foucault minimizes the importance of individuals in history: For example, no single person or group invented the "discourse" (or system) of examination that links the clinic, the courtroom and the classroom.

Under these circumstances, Foucault's own prose style could not be expected to be casual. He wants simultaneously to demonstrate the power of discourse and to exorcise it. This is a rather large ambition, given the fact that in the process he must convince his readers that their claims to personal identity are tenuous at best: he argues that they exist as persons only by virtue of a discourse. He proposes to dispel the illusion of "man" while offering nothing in its place except the excitement of discovering how brilliantly the illusion has been foisted on us-and exposed by him.

Thus, in "Discipline and Punish," he can suggest that in fact "man" came into being only by virtue of those disciplinary methods, reputedly contrived to benefit society, which include not only prisons but all forms of schooling and investigative observation. Such methods evolved presumably from the demographic necessity to sort, differentiate and control a population that, beginning in the 17th century, was becoming too large and unruly to be governed any longer solely by external discipline, for example that administered by the army or militia. It was necessary to make discipline internal, to implant it in individuals who were, by that very process, made conscious of themselves as individuals. We are in a terrain made legible by Thomas Pynchon, and readers familiar with the creation and dispersal of Slothrop, the hero of "Gravity's Rainbow," are most of the way toward understanding Foucault.

The present book is meant to carry this remarkable enterprise into the realm of modern "discourse on human sexuality" in the Western world, beginning, again, in the 17th century. It is "an introduction and a first attempt at an overview" of what, at least at the time of writing, is projected as a six-volume study of sexuality. Once again, there is a disconcerting but ultimately compelling reversal of accepted ideas of cause and effect.

It is generally agreed that for centuries sex has been repressed by ecclesiastical, social and economic institutions that have wanted to regularize productive activities of all kinds. Quite the reverse, Foucault argues. Sex, in his view, is not an autonomous force; it is no more than an intellectual construction to which the body and its often chaotic sensations and pleasures have been reduced. Sex was made into a secret, a mystery, so that the word itself might encode all kinds of feelings that could then be studied and regulated under the pretense of discovering the secret. According to this scenario, the transformation of sex into discourse was initiated even before the 17th century made talk about sex into a requirement of the confessional. Beginning in an ascetic and monastic setting, the injunction to tell all moved from the Christian clergy into the work of Sade and on to psychoanalytical imperatives. "A censorship of sex?" Foucault asks derisively, "there was installed rather an apparatus for producing an ever greater quantity of discourse about sex, capable of functioning and taking effect." In a sentence the ironic paradox of which is worthy of Swift, he asks "What led us to show, ostentatiously, that sex is something to hide, to say it is something we silence?"

Sex, passing itself off as that hidden reality, that biological necessity to which we endlessly address the question of what we are, is to Foucault no more than a ruse. It has been contrived, in part, to delude us about the nature of social power, to make it seem as if that power were responsible only for taboo and repression. This delusion blinds us to the fact that the notion of "sex" is at once the most potent and clandestine means by which "power [maintains] its grip on bodies and their forces, energies, sensations, and pleasures." There have been robbed of their reality by a discourse that has successfully absorbed them into "sex." It could therefore be said, though Foucault doesn't go this far, that "sex" is in itself repression.

Here, as elsewhere in Foucault, there lurks a kind of sentimentality, a golden age or prelapsarian notion of "forces, energies, sensations and pleasures" existing prior to any definition of them. In his view, any definition is tantamount to the imposition of power and control. He describes a visible, surface network embracing canonical law, Christian pastoral practice, civil law, pornography and psychiatry, all of which work-as does the carceral system in "Discipline and Punish"-to codify the "forces, energies, sensations, and pleasures" of the body. The implantation of sex-as-mystery is part of this process.

It is possible to accept this argument while doubting that Foucault will manage to prove it in the proposed six volumes, much less in this first one. One difficulty is that sexuality does not have a history that organizes itself in a measurable way. There is no institution in relation to sexuality equivalent to the clinic in its relation to illness, or to the prison in its relation to crime and punishment, or to the asylum in its relation to madness. If there has been a "deployment of sexuality" in the interests of power, it has so far produced no summary image like the one that brings "Discipline and Punish" into focus-Jeremy Bentham's 1843 plan for the "Panopticon": A feature that was to become familiar in American prisons, the Panopticon is a tower placed within a multileveled circle of prison cells so that an observer can look out into the cells without himself being seen. Such an observer can easily be imagined as analogous to the teacher at his desk or the psychiatrist seated behind a patient.

Many readers can be persuaded that society creates or induces crime so as to permit the creation of elaborate hierarchies to measure and regulate whole populations. But not nearly so many people will agree that sex and sexuality can be located in the same way or produced by the same means. The trouble is that a method that worked well enough in earlier books is here imposed on a subject altogether more elusive, a subject in which every reader is a kind of expert. Having been deprived not too long ago of the mysteries of God and the soul, we are not anxious to be deprived of the mystery of sex. This is not the fault of Foucault's book. It is, instead, the result of the extraordinary mystifications that surround its subject and envelop even its most sympathetic readers.

Richard Poirier is the Marius Bewley Professor of English at Rutgers and the author of several books, including "The Performing Self" and, most recently, "Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing."

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company


January 23, 1983
Philosophical Paint

By Michel Foucault. With illustrations and letters by Rene Magritte.
Translated, with an introduction, by James Harkness.

I t's a pipe, a palpable pipe: not a painterly pipe, not an abstract pipe. Lord knows, it's not an Expressionist pipe; it isn't even a Freudian pipe. Beneath it in the obsequious copybook scrawl of a child, the subversive caption reads, "This is not a pipe." It is signed "Magritte." Here is paradox enough to sate the most perverse appetite. And in the French philosophe Michel Foucault, himself no mean practitioner of the oddball, Magritte's looking-glass pipe has found its Lewis Carroll, as the reader of this book will discover.

Doing a double take, one realizes that, of course, this is not a pipe; it's a picture of a pipe. Our philosophe is able to detect some significance in this precious banality, for does not Magritte's statement that the painting is not a pipe disturb the very illusion of presence that "realistic" representation pretends to effect? Perhaps the statement also curls in on itself to say, "This sentence is not a pipe."

Anyone familiar with Mr. Foucault's influential work, especially "Les Mots et les Choses" (the English translation was called "The Order of Things"), will immediately see that Magritte's work has everything to recommend it to a writer of Mr. Foucault's sensibility. Throughout a lifetime of philosophical labor, Mr. Foucault has been engaged in "excavating" the shifting notions of representation in the history of Western culture. The very distinction between representation and world (a distinction that supplants the one between self and world for Mr. Foucault) has been given many different colorings. To the Neoplatonists of the Renaissance, the world was an ensemble of signs pointing to a world of heavenly Ideas beyond the limits of sense. In that conception, the sensible world and thought were united as attempts to represent the same undepictable reality. Even for the scientists of the 17th century, the world was a book from which one could construe God's thought.

Descartes, however, radically changed that picture by claiming that the physical world is devoid of significance and that God communicates directly with rational creatures by inscribing various ideas (innate ideas) in the soul. After Descartes the Idealists sought to subtract the absurdly meaningless material world. They argued that we are familiar only with appearances; the appearances signify a world outside us, but it is a world that may or may not really be as it appears to us. The gap opened up by Descartes between representation and world was closed up again by the Idealists, but only at the cost of our losing contact with the real world: The knowable world, nature, was simply the world of appearances, and the self, being the creator of its world, must of course stand outside of it; reality and self were jointly exiled from nature.

This situation Hegel and the Romantics in the 19th century found intolerable, and perhaps we can here detect that great divide of sensibility that yawns between scientific or Positivist philosophy and those philosophies that have been circulating in Europe since Hegel and that have tried to put man, nature and reality back together again. The interesting thing about Mr. Foucault is that he has reopened the radically sceptical case, but his Idealism says not that we know only appearances but that we know only the projections of our language. There is, for Mr. Foucault, no such thing as absolute knowledge; such knowledge would have to transcend its own representational resources, whether those resources are verbal or pictorial. Moreover, like the American philosophers of science Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend, Mr. Foucault thinks that different eras occupy different worlds, worlds that are created by the thought of the period and that determine the limits of what its thinkers can possibly conceive.

NATURE, in Mr. Foucault's story, is simply the way each age represents the world to itself. The representational function must be outside nature since it produces nature. Thus there can be no natural science of man or thought. The appropriate stance for the mind in this predicament is to reject all pretensions to truth and to be available to the play of all possibilities, using each to cancel the claims of the others. And since different historical periods inhabit the diverse worlds of their own creation, and words and symbols can have no fixed reference across such distinct worlds, there is no possibility of understanding between periods. But Mr. Foucault is no solipsist: We're all in this predicament together, since our world is the projection of our common language.

What makes "This Is Not a Pipe" a book of such interest is that Magritte's art provides the perfect pretext for Mr. Foucault's sermon. Doesn't a picture that declares, "This is not a pipe," undercut our expectation that representation will give us the thing - in this case, the pipe - itself? The difficulty it presents is no accident. Magritte was perhaps unique among the visual artists of this century in the depth of his philosophical lore. Another of his pipe dreams contains a depiction of a pipe on a blackboard under which "This is not a pipe" is inscribed in a schoolmasterly hand. Floating above the blackboard Magritte depicts a kind of Platonic pipe. By virtue of its disproportionate size and free-floating dislocation, this utopian pipe is made to seem a mirage, while the depiction of a pipe, comfortably ensconced in its frame, enjoys a higher ontological dignity. The superficial contrast between the flat, two-dimensional blackboard pipe and the Platonic or transcendental overpipe is subverted, and it dawns on us that it is the picture of the pipe that we know, not the pipe in itself.

In "Personnage Marchant Vers l'Horizon," Magritte depicts a man in topcoat and hat, his back to the viewer; he is surrounded by blobs, and these blobs are festooned with names - "chair," "horse," "cloud" and so on. Language doesn't regiment reality but leaves it as slimy as ever. Still, language spreads itself on the world, and its projections are all we know.

From Mr. Foucault's reading Magritte emerges as a deeper Modernist than, say, Kandinsky. Magritte uses its own resources to undo realistic representation, unraveling the world in a series of visual puns, paradoxes and contradictions. His work proposes a critique not simply of depiction but of all "texts" that aim at the truth. In place of the sovereignty of truth, Mr. Foucault takes Magritte to recommend a free play of the imagination. But by what right Mr. Foucault can recommend this esthetic stance is a mystery to me. Although he may have a taste for the playful as against the authoritarian, what reason can he give to persuade others to accept his preference? None at all, since there can be no communication between worlds informed by different values: The advocate of any position either preaches to the converted or babbles meaninglessly. Thus does hyberbolic relativism induce conceptual claustrophobia. Mr. Foucault's is not an easy view to live with.

This essay not only proposes a new understanding of Magritte; it also constitutes a perfect illustration and introduction to the thought of the philosopher himself, France's great wizard of paradox. Magritte's respectful fan letters to Mr. Foucault, which are included in this volume, the useful introduction and splendid translation by James Harkness and the handy (though hardly sumptuous) black-and-white reproductions of many of Magritte's works combine to make this a document of extraordinary interest.

Flint Schier, who teaches philosophy at the University of Glasgow, has recently completed a book on pictorial representation, "Deeper Into Pictures."

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company


November 10, 1985
Affections of the Greeks

The History of Sexuality
, Volume Two.
By Michel Foucault.
Translated by Robert Hurley.

W hen a serious and courageous thinker has died an untimely death, it is difficult to report that his last work is not only disappointing, but also a retreat from the principles that defined his career. It is more difficult still when, as in the present case, the work deals with the thinker's deepest personal and political concerns, and when the reviewer shares his belief in the importance of those concerns. With sadness, then, it must be said that "The Use of Pleasure," the second of four volumes in Michel Foucault's "History of Sexuality," is both mediocre and a departure from views about the inseparability of ideas from social institutions that have been his most valuable legacy to modern philosophy.

Volume One of "The History of Sexuality," which appeared in 1976 in France, dealt with early modern (17th- and 18th-century) thought about sexuality. Foucault, who held the chair in History of Thought at the College de France from 1970 until his death in 1984, then came to believe that his genealogical inquiry into the origins of the modern idea that each human being has a "sexuality," in terms of which his or her identity is in some sense defined, had to begin earlier, with the ancient Greeks. He interrupted writing for several years, during which time he read Greek texts and conversed with historians of antiquity. The result was three further volumes, covering the period between the fifth century B.C. and the development of early Christian thought. Although Volumes Two and Three were in some sense completed for publication by Foucault, he wrote them while already dying. It is widely agreed that they do not fully represent his original intentions.

What moved Foucault to take this long detour away from periods in which he was more comfortable as a scholar? In his moving preface he tells us he believes a work of historical-philosophical scholarship can liberate us by showing the possibility of other ways of life. "The object was to learn to what extent the effort to think one's own history can free thought from what it silently thinks, and so enable it to think differently." What thought silently thinks, in this post-Christian era, is that homosexuality is perverse and against nature, a deformation of the structure of desire itself. Homosexuals are subjects of a different "sexuality."

By thinking with pertinacity and imagination about the Greeks we can, Foucault argues, discover for ourselves a society that treats erotic desire as a single undifferentiated longing for the beautiful in all of its forms, that sees the central ethical problem is not the separation of the normal from the perverse, but rather the elaboration of techniques - both mental and physical - by which all human beings can and should master their bodily desires. Foucault develops this picture in Volume Two by investigating arguments about appetite and its control in writings of philosophers and medical thinkers of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.; he focuses above all on Plato and Xenophon.

Writing the history of ancient Greek thought about sexuality is a delicate task, one that requires exacting scholarship. The surviving evidence takes many forms: texts from philosophy, history, medicine, poetry, oratory; erotic vase painting; inscriptions and papyruses that provide essential information about historical events and daily ways of life. This evidence is presented in Sir Kenneth Dover's masterly "Greek Homosexuality," to which Foucault acknowledges a great debt. But Sir Kenneth is not a philosopher; his study, focusing on popular thought, could certainly have been supplemented by one that presses the philosophical texts and issues harder and then asks Foucault's tough comparative questions. Can such a study be written, however, by someone who lacks all the usual scholarly tools, including knowledge of Greek and Latin? Foucault hopes that, with due "care, patience, modesty, and attention," it can. The result makes us doubt this.

To begin with, Foucault is automatically cut off from any evidence that is not translated (this includes some crucial evidence on women, to whom the book's attention is in any case uneven), and he is doomed to rely on the vagaries of translators for the rest. Pretty well ignorant of Greek political and social history and of the problems of scholarship surrounding the texts he uses, he cannot securely place what he does read. Thus, he seems to have no clear idea when the various medical treatises of the Hippocratic corpus might have been written; he uses the name "Hippocrates" at times as if he thought it referred to a single author - though it is well known that the works span several centuries and represent different social and intellectual backgrounds. The philosophers themselves are never placed concretely as to their social class, political orientation or relation to thinkers of other classes. Writings that would have supplied a contrasting political perspective on sexual matters - above all the comedies of Aristophanes -are inexplicably ignored. Even when he engages in textual interpretation, he makes little attempt to puzzle out in detail the argument of a single work or passage. Foucault plunders his sources for bits of evidence that will help him make a striking collage; the result is that he makes far too few distinctions, and no single piece is seen as a part of the historical whole from which it originally came. F OUCAULT excuses this procedure by pleading that his is "not the work of a 'historian.' . . . It [is] a philosophical exercise." This is not a legitimate distinction, as he should have been the first to know. The philosophical writing of an era cannot be fruitfully recovered or assessed without understanding it as part of a culture, in its complex relations with the institutions - social, literary, political, religious -of that culture. For years, Foucault had emphasized this point. It is sad to see him lose hold of it here.

His own methods constrain his treatment of philosophical issues in many ways. This is a book about Greek ideas concerning pleasure. But Greek thinkers who discussed pleasure did not assume, as Foucault (heir in this respect to empiricist-utilitarian assumptions) seems to, that pleasure is a feeling or sensation, having its source in activities but distinct from them. Helped to see different possibilities by a language that uses verbal locutions ("enjoy," "take pleasure in") more often than the noun, the Greeks passionately debated the question, What is pleasure? (For only when it is correctly defined, they believed, can we go on to ask what part it plays in the good life.) Is it, indeed, a feeling? Is it a kind of activity of the organism? Is it neither of these, but instead something that supervenes on activity? Here is an area where Greek arguments do help us to challenge our modern assumptions about pleasure and well-being. Foucault is not enough of a classical scholar even to perceive the issues.

This is part of a larger, enforced neglect in his discussion of the development of the Greek vocabulary of desire. Here, going beyond translations would have revealed a rich and complex debate about whether desire is a brutish push, or rather (as Aristotle argues) an orexis, a selective reaching-forward that actively interprets the world. The picture embodied in the Aristotelian vocabulary does indeed help us to think differently and to distance ourselves from portions of the Christian heritage; yet Foucault again misses the issue. Equally troublesome is his silence concerning the different strains of thought about desire's object - is it the whole person or some attribute of the person (beauty or nobility, for example) he or she might share with others? This too seems to be an urgent ethical issue, with implications for our own thought on such social habits as courtship, love and mourning.

In none of these essential areas can the job Foucault's project requires be done without real scholarship and careful analytical thought. Thus, his true and exciting claims regarding certain Greek thinkers' attention to questions of self-mastery get dragged down by the vagueness and incompleteness of the account as a whole. Books in philosophical history can liberate -this one remains a prisoner of its own haste in the face of death.

Martha C. Nussbaum, a professor of philosophy and classics at Brown University, is the author of the forthcoming study "The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy."

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company


January 18, 1987
Good Sex at Home in Ancient Rome

Volume Three of The History of Sexuality.
By Michel Foucault.
Translated by Robert Hurley.

A Critical Reader

Edited by David Couzens Hoy.

The Care of the Self is presumably the last whole work from Michel Foucault's hand to appear in English, although the remaining volume of his "History of Sexuality," unfinished at his death, may yet be brought out in both French and English. This is why "Foucault: A Critical Reader" can bill itself as "the first major assessment": edited by David Couzens Hoy, who teaches philosophy at the University of California at Santa Cruz, it is the first collection of essays based on the entire extant corpus of Foucault's work - including interviews in the press, a laudable innovation in scholarly research techniques, especially in this context.

Although Mr. Hoy's "Critical Reader" does not break much new ground, his introduction and 13 essays by scholars in fields ranging from philosophy to sociology do offer a good survey of the many epistemological controversies and approaches Foucault inspired or exacerbated. Some of the contributors were friends who agreed with Foucault; some were critics, who here continue long-standing opposition. The collection will enable long-time Foucault readers to condense and organize some of their thoughts and will help the uninitiated to appreciate the evolution of and context for difficult works like "The Care of the Self." Ultimately, however, the latter, adequately translated by Robert Hurley, may be a better introduction (and memorial) to the perplexities of Foucault's extraordinary genius than any critical assessment.

Initially, the reader of the third volume of "The History of Sexuality" will feel more at home in its social landscape than he did in those of the earlier volumes of the series. The culture of imperial Rome in the first centuries of the Christian era appears, through Foucault's eyes, almost uncannily familiar. Its population, like that of the industrial West in the 1980's, is obsessed with personal health and the care of the body. Pop medical authorities cater to this preoccupation by providing guides to diet, exercise, sex and regimen that seem surprisingly modern - down to such fine points as the recommendation to eat a lot of bran.

Unlike the disconcerting Greeks, whose philosophy is so provocative and whose domestic arrangements -with their cloistered wives and inexplicable penchant for homosexuality - seem so bizarre and alien, the Romans pose few ethical problems, and they idealize conjugal union and nuclear families as the norm of erotic fulfillment. (The problem presented by "boys" does not even appear in the book until the end, by which point its difficulties are easily contained and compartmentalized in Foucault's schema.) This world and its concept of sexuality are even introduced through the discussion of imperial manuals of dream analysis - a stunning parallel to Freudian erotic-dream analysis, which one might have thought uniquely modern.

The book's central argument is that Rome represented and effected a transition between the sexuality of the ancient world (Greece, discussed in the previous volume) and that of Christian Europe. In the former, sexual ethics and politics were organized around axes of social power and domination, and understandable largely in terms of hierarchical systems of interpersonal relation. Romans, by contrast, evince a more solipsistic focus. The issue for them is the self rather than the household or city or the demands of philosophy: how to employ sexuality so as to maximize the self's health, well-being, happiness. There are enough hints here about the unpublished fourth volume on early Christianity that one can reasonably infer its thesis: this preoccupation with the well-being of the self becomes the basis for a Christian ethics in which the salvation of the individual soul is the fulcrum of moral activity and thought; Roman advice about how to optimize health and happiness is transformed into absolute rules about how to behave to attain salvation.

This is an ingenious, if not original, formulation, and there is much to it. "The Care of the Self" is quite accurate in depicting a greater emphasis on conjugal eros and affection in imperial Rome than there had been in Europe before or would be long after (under Christian influence eros would hardly be allowed in marriage at all); and Foucault rightly affirms recent arguments by the French historian Paul Veyne and others that the apparent disjunction between Roman hedonism and Christian asceticism is an illusion.

"The Care of the Self" shares with the writings on which it draws the characteristic of being carefully constructed, exquisitely reasoned and internally cogent, but oblivious of and irrelevant to the ordinary human beings whose sexuality it purportedly treats. Apart from a reference to Pliny and a few others, its analysis is based entirely on learned writings by specialists in two fields, medicine and philosophy: the dream book of Artemidorus; medical texts of Galen, Aurelianus and Oribasius (who? even classicists might ask); philosophical writings of Epictetus, Musonius Rufus, and Plutarch; and the dialogue on love dubiously attributed to Lucian. It is ironic that this arcane and bloodless approach to sexuality should be adopted by the writer who so brilliantly persuaded his readers in the past that "what we take to be rational, the bearer of truth, is rooted in domination, subjugation, the relationship of forces - in a word, power," as Arnold I. Davidson, a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, puts it in his essay in "A Critical Reader."

One could perhaps make sense of this if Foucault argued that these authors represent the ruling classes, and that the socially powerful through their discourse and articulations shaped the sexual attitudes and experiences of the rest of the population; or that the particular texts chosen themselves reflected or determined some reality. But in fact no such argument is made, and at several points Foucault notes in passing that his texts are not even representative. This is true: despite its ostensible parallel to Freud, for example, Artemidorus' dream book had no influence either on the sexuality of the age or on subsequent discourse about it. The interpretation of dreams was a recondite specialty, about as influential as urology journals today.

To argue that this is the result of Foucault's intention to write intellectual history misses the point, as does the historian Mark Poster's observation, in his essay "Foucault and the Tyranny of Greece," that it results from the "brilliant manoeuvre" of focusing not on general codes of conduct but on the ways in which sex was "a problem for the individual in his or her effort to lead a moral life." In earlier works (for example, "Discipline and Punish") Foucault showed quite convincingly how the social manipulation of ideas and language affected individual lives. Here he offers no indication -not even his own conviction, much less evidence - that the trends he discusses affected either the society at large or any individuals other than the writers.

Is this then a "genealogy" of modern texts on sexuality? An "archeology" not of human sexuality but of writing about human sexuality? It would be hard to pin down, over the span of his writings, what Foucault meant by these characteristic and seminal terms. Most of the essays in the "Critical Reader" attempt to do so at some point; Ian Hacking (of the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, Victoria College, University of Toronto) and Barry Smart (of the Department of Sociological Studies, University of Sheffield) make it the focus of their articles, and Mr. Poster addresses it specifically in the context of history, all without a clear resolution - doubtless in part because Foucault's own meanings for them evolved over time. But "The Care of the Self" could hardly represent either, in any intelligible sense. The almost total absence of a female perspective in a study of human sexuality creates such a profound distortion that the subject becomes effectively incomprehensible, even if masculine myopia makes it difficult to recognize this. THE relationship between the reality of conjugal unions and both the Greek and the Roman power elite's discourse about them - cause? effect? parallel? tangent? - would have constituted a splendid subject for the kind of analysis of power and language at which Foucault was better than almost any other modern writer. But the opportunity is forsaken, as is the chance to analyze the relationship of taboo, cultural fear and biological necessity to learned philosophical and medical thought. I kept hoping that after credulously repeating the elaborate justifications and rationalizations of Hellenistic philosophers and doctors about medical and philosophical reasons for not having intercourse naked or during menstruation or in daylight, Foucault would note that these same taboos occur in many other cultures without such intellectual rationales, and that this raises interesting questions about cause and effect. But no: the rationales are simply reported, discussed and enshrined as if they sprang Minerva-like from the minds of philosophers, and the docile population, moved by their evident veracity, adopted them.

This is the more disappointing because, in the few places where Foucault chooses to address the broader context, he does so brilliantly (that is, in the very general and brief remarks on politics in Part Three, Chapter Two, or on the public aspects of marriage in Part Five, Chapter One). It would not be fair, indeed, to suggest that Foucault's own understanding of the sexuality of the period was based exclusively on the texts he discusses: he read widely and rarely makes an error of fact. But this hardly helps the reader to understand what sort of "archeology" is offered in a work treating "human sexuality" on the basis of a half-dozen specialized texts written by men about how men should organize their conjugal lives to maximize their happiness.

Two explanations occur to me. By canonizing these texts as a kind of "patristics" (both a sacred literature and a statement of the authority conferred by age and gender) of human sexuality, Foucault may have been making a wry comment on truth as a scholarly artifact; or the vastness and complexity of sexuality in Rome may have seemed to him not reducible to comprehensive treatment, so he simply excerpted and selected texts to make the points he considered important without even trying to explain their context. The two are not incompatible, and either or both would constitute a worthy epistemological riddle from the author of so many previous challenges to the way we understand thought, language, history and their interaction.

John Boswell, who teaches European history at Yale University, is the author of "Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality."


August 5, 1975
Michel Foucault, on the Role of Prisons

Following are excerpts from an interview with Michel Foucault, French philosopher, psychiatrist and historian, and author of "The Order of Things" and "Madness and Civilization." It first appeared in the Paris newspaper Le Monde, preceded by a commentary by the interviewer Roger-Pol Droit. This was translated by Leonard Mayhew.

Corporal punishment used to be carried out in a businesslike fashion. Bodies were branded, amputated, wrenched apart. From the stake to the scaffold, from the pillory to the gibbet, physical suffering was produced with elaborate theatricality as an example to all. Care was taken that no one should be unaware of it. All that came to a sudden end in the second half of the 18th century.

The monotonous tumbling of locks and the shadow of the cell block have replaced the grand ceremonial of flesh and blood. The condemned culprit's body is concealed rather than being placed on exhibition. We no longer want to cause the criminal pain; we want to train him; we want to reeducate his "spirit."

The change took place throughout Western civilization in less than a century. The Middle Ages had its prisons and jails but it was unfamiliar with anything resembling the rigid system of regimented, fastidious detention that developed between 1780 and 1820 as Europe and the New World became covered with penitentiaries.

It is not enough to say, with the 18th-century "reformers," that "humanization" and "progress" explained and justified this radical change in the penal system.

The shock of corporal punishment and the silence of reclusion are not simply two isolated and opposed phenomena; nor are their differences only on the surface. They stand for a change from one kind of justice to another, a profound change in the organization of authority.

Under absolute monarchy, the criminal defied the authority of the king, and the authority crushed him and dramatically reminded everybody of its unlimited power. For the theoreticians of the Enlightenment, someone who committed a crime broke the contract that bound him to his fellows. Society put him aside and reformed him by carefully regulating his every action and every moment of his life in prison.

Prison means a rigorous regulation of space, because the guard can and must see everything. It is also the rigid regulation of the use of time hour by hour. Finally, it involves regulation of the slightest bodily movements or change of position.

Prison is not unique. It is positioned within the disciplined society, the society of generalized surveillance in which we live. "What is so astonishing," Foucault asks, "about the fact that our prisons resemble our factories, schools, military bases, and hospitals-all of which in turn resemble prisons?"

Q. Prisons, in their contemporary form and functioning, may seem like an isolated invention that appeared suddenly at the end of the eighteenth century. But you show that, on the contrary, their origin should be traced to a much more profound social change.

A. When we read the great historians of the classic era, we can see that to a great degree the administrative monarchy-as centralized and bureaucratized as it could possible be-was, in spite of that, an irregular and discontinuing power structure that allowed individuals and groups a certain latitude to twist the law, to establish customs that suited them, to find a way of slipping around obligations, etc.

The Ancien Regime was loaded down with hundreds of thousands of ordinances, that were never enforced, rights that no one exercised, and regulations that masses of people ignored. For example, not only traditional fiscal fraud but also the most blatant smuggling was part and parcel of the economic life of the kingdom. In short, a perpetual give-and-take between legality and law-breaking was one of the conditions under which authority operated.

In the second half of the 18th century this system of tolerance changed. New economic conditions and the political fear of popular movements, which became chronic in France after the Revolution, demanded a different social arrangement.

The exercise of power had to become more refined, more clear-cut and between the centralized decision-making apparatus and the individual as continuous a connection as possible had to be formed. This occasioned the appearance of the police force, the administrative hierarchy, the bureaucratic pyramid of the Napoleonic state.

Long before 1789, jurists and "reformers" had dreamed of a society in which punishments would be uniform, where chastisements for law-breaking would be unavoidable and equal, with no exception or evasion possible.

Suddenly, corporal punishment, the grand ritual of chastisement designed to arouse fear and act as a deterrent-which, however, many criminals escaped-disappeared before the demand for a universality of punishment concretized in the prison system.

Q. But why prisons rather than some other systems? What is the central role of enclosing, cloistering, the "guilty" party?

A. You ask where prisons come from. My answer is "from practically everywhere." Something was "invented," to be sure, but it was an entire technique of surveillance: the control and identification of individuals, the regulation of their movements, activity, and effectiveness.

This took place in the 16th and 17th centuries in the army, colleges, schools, hospitals and work places. It boiled down to a technology that made possible exact, day-by-day power over bodies. Prison is the ultimate embodiment of that age of discipline.

The social role of internment is to be discovered in terms of a person who begins to emerge in the 19th century: the delinquent. This establishment of the criminal world is absolutely correlated with the existence of prisons. Within the masses, a small core of people became, so to speak, the privileged and exclusive licensees of criminal activity.

In the classic age, on the contrary, violence, petty thievery and embezzlement were extremely common and, in the long run, were tolerated by everyone. The malefactor, it seems, was able to melt very easily into society. If he happened to get caught, penal procedures were swift and definitive: death, life in the galleys, banishment.

The criminal world was not so closed in on itself, something that developed essentially out of the existence of prisons, out of the "marinade" of prison society that forms a microsociety in which men find real solidarity that will provide them, on their release, with mutual support.

Prison is a recruitment center for the army of crime. That is what it achieves. For 200 years everybody has been saying, "Prisons are failing; all they do is produce new criminals." I would say on the other hand, "They are a success, since that is what has been asked of them."

Q. Nevertheless, over and over we hear that prison, at least ideally, should "cure" or "readapt" the criminal. It is-or should be, we say-more "therapeutic" than punitive.

A. Criminal psychiatry and psychology risk becoming the ultimate alibi behind which the prevailing system will hide in order to remain unchanged. They could not possibly suggest a serious alternative to the prison system for the simple reason that they owe their origins to it.

The prisons established immediately after the penal code presented themselves from the outset as an instrument of psychological correction. Prison was a medico-judicial remedy. Placing every single prisoner under the care of a psychotherapist would in no way change the power system built on generalized surveillance established at the beginning og the 19th century.

Q. There remains the question of what "benefit" the ruling class derives from the establishment of this army of crime of which you speak.

A. Well, to begin with, it makes it possible to break up the continuity of accepted lawbreaking. In effect, it isolates a small group who can be controlled, kept under surveillance, and thoroughly known. They become the object of hostility and distrust of the very classes from which they come. For the poor are the most frequent victims of most everyday crimes.

The result in the final analysis is gigantic economic and political profit: Economic profit from the fabulous sums derived from prostitution, drug traffic, etc. Political profit in that the more criminals there are the more readily the population will accept police controls.

Not to mention that this system provides a work force for the lowliest political jobs: putting up posters, poll-watching, strike-breaking. Under the Second Empire, the workers were quite aware that the "scabs," as well as Louis Napoleon's antiriot forces, were all ex-prisoners.

Q. Then, all the talk and activity about prison "reform" and "humanization" is just subterfuge?

A. It seems to me that whether the prisoners get an extra chocolate bar on Christmas or are let out to make their Easter Duty is not the real political issue. What we have to denounce is not so much the "human" side of life in prison but rather their real social function-that is, to serve as the instrument that creates a criminal milieu that the ruling classes can control. Q. How do you define this "managing" of lawbreaking? Doesn't the very phrase presuppose a strange conception of law and society?

A. It would be pure illusion to believe that laws are made to be respected, or that the police and courts are intended to make them respected. Only in disembodied theory could we pretend that we have once and for all subscribed to the laws of the society to which we belong. It is common knowledge that laws are made by certain people for other people to keep.

But we can go further. Lawbreaking is not an accident, a more or less unavoidable imperfection. Rather, it is a positive element of the functioning of society. Its role is part of a general strategy. Every legislative arrangement sets up privileged and profitable areas where the law can be violated, others where it can be ignored, and others where infractions are sanctioned.

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company


March 26, 1978
In the Cage

In recent months three leading radical intellectuals-Michel Foucault, Christopher Lasch and Herbert Marcuse-have published new books that express the disenchantment of 60's writers in the grim and frivolous 70's. Although their books are very different in scale and subject, they all portray modern life as a prison or a fascist supermarket where docile consumers prowl the aisles listening to mental Muzak piped in by the authorities, trapped in the delusion of free choice. For these writers, our "advanced industrial capitalist society" is a jail; our social scientists and psychiatrists are the jailers; our cultural habits and artifacts are the bars of our cells, our padded walls and tranquilizing drugs; our very thoughts-even our most liberal or liberated visions-are our invisible chains.

Such notions and images are familiar: they run back two hundred years and more to the Enlightenment, to Rousseau and the fall of the Bastille, to Marx, to Dickens's "Little Dorrit" and its prison, and culminate in the magnificent conclusion of Max Weber's "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism," where the great sociologist and historian writes: "The puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so... When asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order... In [the puritan] view, the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the 'saint' like a light cloak... But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage... Material goods have gained an increasing and finally inexorable power over the lives of men as at no previous period in history...

"No one knows who will live in this cage in the future, or whether at the end of this tremendous development entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals, or, if neither, mechanized petrifaction, embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance. For of the last stage of this cultural development, it might well be truly said: 'Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.'"

This dark prophecy was written in 1904, before World War I, before Hitler, before Stalin, before the appearance of what Marcuse in 1964 called "one-dimensional man." In Michel Foucault's new book, the French cultural historian gives us a new pejorative description of the modern world: we live in a "disciplined" or a "surveillance" or a "carceral" society, he writes. Foucault is a star second only to Jean-Paul Sartre as an intellectual celebrity in Paris. His first book, "Madness and Civilization," traced the rise of the modern concept of insanity and of modern mental institutions; it became something of a 60's classic. Now, after nearly half a dozen other books, he has published "Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison," which has won universal praise.

Foucault has ransacked 18th and 19th-century documents-such as prison manuals and treatises on modern military discipline-to discover the origins of modern social control. In one of these documents, written as early as 1767, he finds such prophetic "origins of totalitarianism" as this: "A stupid despot may constrain his slaves with iron chains; but a true politician binds them even more strongly by the chain of their own ideas... On the soft fibres of the brain is founded the unshakable base of the soundest of Empires."

Foucault traces the lineaments of such mental totalitarianism in the ostensibly "enlightened" creation of the modern prison, which was thought to be much more "humane" than the bloody spectacle of public torture and execution. His main and oft-repeated point is that while the 18th century was creating modern liberty and the rule of law, democratic government, modern education, welfare, medicine and the "human sciences" of psychology, anthropology, sociology, it was creating the all-pervasive rule of disciplinary surveillance: the compilation of vast amounts of minute, controlling data about every citizen, the basic tools of bureaucracy-and of modern authoritarian systems. The 18th-century reformers invented our modern treatment of deviants as individual "cases" that require "cure" and "adjustment" to a norm, instead of mere retributive punishment.

Foucault follows this "progress" from the punishment of a criminal's body to the ostensible cure of his deviant soul-by physical imprisonment for a variable length of time determined not only by the gravity of his offense itself, but also by his "previous record," by his conduct in jail, and by the prognosis of experts in psychiatry and social welfare. In great and often repetitious detail Foucault describes the emergence of the modern disciplinary universe, which is based on fantasies of social control developed by men like Jeremy Bentham with his model prison, the Panopticon, and which is felt by each of us today as we are continually enjoined not to fold, spindle or mutilate.

"Discipline and Punish" joins the work of Hannah Arendt, Herbert Marcuse, the American sociologist Erving Goffman (with his description, in "Asylums," of "total institutions") and of the American historian David Rothman in "The Discovery of the Asylum." Foucault overstates his case-there is more conflict and inwardness and human agency in our world than he allows-but his book reverberates in the mind.

If Foucault gives us the history and the architecture of what he sees as our modern prison society, Christopher Lasch-an American historian well known for his study "The Agony of the American Left"-provided a devastating critical survey of the methods and self-justifying ideologies of our jailers. For Lasch, in his new "Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged," American social scientists, the self-styled "experts" of our mental and social welfare, "the guardians of public health and morality," have "expropriated" the rights and functions of the traditional bourgeois family, have "socialized reproduction," have destroyed our last private refuge from the vicious inhumanity of modern capitalist culture. These "experts" have prevented the development of truly healthy, autonomous, moral citizens, and have created instead "well-adjusted," tranquilized human cogs for the social machine.

According to Lasch-who condemns the left as roundly as the right-the bourgeois family was the crucible for the psychoanalytically mature personality; in his account, American reformers-anthropologists, psychiatrists, sociologists from the late 19th century to the present-have advanced theories and engineered social reality in a way that prevents the proper (i.e. Freudian) socialization of children through the Oedipus complex. In place of the Freudian working-through of the necessary and intense ambivalence toward parents, Lasch argues, these reformers (unwitting agents of predatory capitalism) have promoted mindlessly optimistic, hygienic programs that substitute peer-group approval for parental authority and encourage "adaptation" to the status quo (this is called "being realistic"). Under the guise of health, education and welfare, and to the tune of enlightenment and liberation, the traditional family has been destroyed and we are left with swinging "alternative life-styles," empty consumerism, a sense of helplessness before the arbitrary powers that be.

For Lasch, then, we live in a state of "chronic mild depression"; we are deadheads who think we're free and "open," when in fact we're chained inside a repressive social and mental system. Most of Lasch's text is devoted to a sardonic and often condescending survey of 20th-century social theories about the family. Without more evidence than he provides, Lasch's faith in Freud seems willful and his belief that the bourgeois family once did us proud seems a fantasy of the Golden Age. Though his critique of family theorists is intelligent and strong-the psychiatric reformers and cultural relativists and advocates of "nonbinding commitments" do come off as a sorry lot-Lasch is vague and grandiose when he portrays all modern family life as blighted, all Americans of all ages as lobotomized robots of consumerism and "expert authority." He writes as if all conflict, all passion, all intelligence had vanished from the American scene. He is cranky and abstract when he should be nuanced and precise. And he never really gets down to cases-he just rattles his chains. Like Foucault, Lasch counts the bars but doesn't see the spaces in between.

It seems ironic that the most optimistic volume of recent cultural criticism should come from one of the most notoriously pessimistic radical critics of contemporary society: Herbert Marcuse, whose ideas, particularly in "One-Dimensional Man," seem a major source of so much of Lasch's (and other American radicals') newly conservative pessimism. In Marcuse's brief new book, published this month, "The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics," the Red professor of 60's California, the philosopher-dragon of the New Left, has written once again a love letter to literature and art (as he did in 1955 in "Eros and Civilization"). It is a vigorous rejection of Marxist blather about art as counter-revolutionary, escapist, or-if in the service of the revolution-necessarily "socially realistic" and for (or about) the proletariat.

Though he has by no means abandoned his perception of society as a perfect prison, or a seamless web of coercion-co-opting any movement for change, extending "repressive tolerance" that nullifies dissent-Marcuse in this book praises the transcendent power of art, its revolutionary potential for showing us prisoners the true nature of our bondage. By transforming reality through esthetic form, he writes, art gives us a vivid, concrete experience of our condition, preserves the memory of our true gratifications and sorrows, and thereby offers us an invigorating hope of liberation. For Marcuse, although the "culture industry" still turns out pop items, cheap goods and novelties that drug us and divert us from the weight of our chains, the truths of high culture, literature and the arts can transform our imprisoned consciousness and point the way toward freedom. In its enthusiasm, this volume achieves a quality Marcuse rarely showed in his many works of distinguished critical theory or his jeremiads of the 1960's-an awkward, German-pedantic charm. This from a cultural critic. An elephant dances!

Yet when one returns to the origins of such discourse-in the philosophers of Enlightenment, in the great 19th-century novelists and social theorists, in the tradition to which Max Weber's prophecy belongs-how diminished, how paltry, how academic most of this seems. There is something of a paradox here. Though I doubt that life is ever as orderly and as absolutely dehumanized as these cultural critics-perhaps out of private discontent or ideological disappointment-have made it out to be, our situation is no doubt worse in many ways than the bad situations of the past. But these critics' powers of describing the extremity of our predicament cannot be compared to the powers of their predecessors. Such a disparity may indeed be sad proof of their contention that we live in the worst of times-if not in a prison, at least in the shadow of its image.

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company


June 26, 1984
Michel Foucault, French Historian

M ichel Foucault, one of France's most prominent philosophers and historians, whose writings explored society's reaction to deviants, died yesterday in the Pitie-Salpetriere Hospital in Paris. He was 57 years old.

Mr. Foucault was hospitalized earlier this month for a neurological disorder, but the cause of his death was not immediately disclosed.

With his books on language, mental illness, crime and sexuality, Mr. Foucault earned wide recognition among philosophers and social scientists and gained a considerable following among European and American intellectuals. He argued that certain ideas, such as madness, delinquency and sexuality, are transformed by society to serve the convenience of social systems. Since 1970, Mr. Foucault had occupied the chair of History of Thought at the College de France in Paris, and had lectured frequently on both sides of the Atlantic. Born in 1926

Born in Poitiers, France, in 1926, the son of a physician, Mr. Foucault was educated in psychology and philosophy. In 1961, his first widely discussed book, "Madness and Civilization," was published. In it he argued that insanity was less a medical problem than a way in which societies categorized acceptable and unacceptable forms of behavior. Insane asylums, he said, were institutions of exclusion.

"Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison" traced the historical development of prisons and the principles of thought that grew with them. Mr. Foucault said that as modern society developed, the institution expanded its ability to discipline individuals, and, in turn, intellectually legitimized incarceration as a form of treatment or rehabilitation.

His other works included "The Order of Things," "The Birth of the Clinic," and "The Archeology of Knowledge." His death came less than two weeks after the publication of the third volume of his series "The History of Sexuality." Associated With Structuralism

Mr. Foucault's name is most often associated with the philosopical school known as structuralism. His writings, as those of French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, reject the view that man's knowledge of the universe is based on observation of the external world. The structuralists argue that man is essentially a thinking animal who lives in a world that is intelligible to him only because he imposes his own order upon his experiences.

In addition to his academic work, Mr. Foucault was active in numerous social causes, including groups that advocated abolition of prisons. He also spoke out against human rights abuses and in favor of homosexual rights.

In a statement released yesterday, Pierre Mauroy, the Prime Minister of France, praised Mr. Foucault as "one of the great French contemporary philosophers."

"This great researcher," he said, "was also a teacher whose lessons extended far beyond the borders of our country."

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company


December 17, 2000
Deconstructing the System

In the final volume of his writings, Foucault explores the nature of power.

First Chapter: 'Power' (below)

Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984
: Volume Three.
By Michel Foucault.
Edited by James D. Faubion.
Translated by Robert Hurley and others.
484 pp. New York: The New Press.

When he died of AIDS in 1984 Michel Foucault was 57, perhaps the most celebrated public intellectual in Europe and extremely well known elsewhere. He had been an itinerant professor of philosophy in places like Tunis, Uppsala and Warsaw until 1970, when he gained one of the chairs at the Collège de France, the most sought-after and elite teaching positions in the country. Though without registered or degree-seeking students, the Collège is where 50 professors lecture formally to anyone who wants to listen without questions or discussion. Although his first book, "Madness and Civilization," has still never been fully translated into English (only an abridgment), Foucault has benefited from an extraordinarily attentive audience of academic readers in the United States for whom the long, unbroken succession of his many books has been a resource of quite seminal theoretical and historical importance.

In such works as "The Order of Things," "The Archeology of Knowledge," "Discipline and Punish" and "The History of Sexuality," plus several volumes of essays and interviews, Foucault propounded fascinating, highly original views about such matters as the history of systems of thought, delinquency, discipline and confinement, in addition to introducing into the vocabulary of history, philosophy and literary criticism such concepts as discourse, statement, episteme, genealogy and archaeology, each of them bristling with complexity and contradiction such as few of his imitators and disciples have ever mastered or completely understood.

Of Foucault's work it is, I think, true that it leaves no reader untouched or unchanged for two main reasons. One, because, as he has said, each book was an experience for him of being enmeshed, imprisoned in "limit-experiences" like madness, death and crime, and also of trying rationally to understand "this involvement of oneself" in those difficult situations. Second, his books were written "in a series: the first one leaves open problems on which the second depends for support while calling for a third. . . . They are interwoven and overlapping." Even those readers in whom he has produced a distaste that goes as far as revulsion will also feel that his urgency of argument is so great as to have made a lasting impression, for better or for worse.

While it is probably too early to say that Foucault is as radical and strong a figure as Nietzsche, the revolutionary German philosopher is the writer closest to him. During much of his career, Foucault studied, commented on and took up Nietzsche with a rare affinity of spirit. "Power" contains a long essay, "Truth and Juridical Forms," whose best section is also a remarkable meditation on Nietzsche's thought.

This volume is the latest addition to the list of Foucault's posthumous writings to appear in average (in some cases somewhat below average) English translation. Shortly after his death, two of Foucault's closest friends collected all his miscellaneous shorter works in four large volumes that were published by Gallimard as "Dits et Écrits, 1954-1988." Three English-language volumes have been selected and compiled from the Gallimard edition. They have been arranged, according to the series' editor, the Berkeley anthropology professor Paul Rabinow, quoting Foucault, as follows: Volume I, "Ethics," about "the way a human being turns him- or herself into a subject," that is, a self or ego; Volume II, "Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology," "organized around Foucault's analysis of 'the modes of inquiry which try to give themselves the status of the sciences' "; and now "Power," about "the objectivizing of the subject in dividing practices," or, Rabinow adds, "power relations." I would guess that "dividing practices" means the way by which, for instance, psychology is distinguished or divided from biology as a science, and the way the thinking ego or individual scientist in one case is a different persona in different situations.

Camera Press

Featured Author: Michel Foucault

To the untutored reader even the introductory notes to this collection, while somewhat helpful, require decoding, since they depend on familiarity with a whole world of philosophical investigation inherited and assumed by Foucault. Take "the subject." Classical European philosophy from Descartes to Kant had supposed that an objectively stable and sovereign ego (as in "cogito ergo sum") was both the source and basis for all knowledge. Foucault's work not only disputes this but also shows how the subject is a construction laboriously put together over time, and one very liable to be a passing historical phenomenon replaced in the modern age by transhistorical impersonal forces, like the capital of Marx or the unconscious of Freud or the will of Nietzsche. Each of these explanatory forces can be shown to have a "genealogy" whose "archaeology" Foucault's histories provide.

Foucault's studies furnish the evidence for this dismantling, in addition to showing how various powerful social institutions like the church, the public health and medical professions, the law and the police, as well as the processes of learning themselves, actually have built and administer the power that rules the modern Western state. For him, what matters is not the individual writer or philosopher but an impersonal, continuing activity he calls discourse, with its rules of formation and possibility. Those rules mean that users of the discourse must have qualifications and academic accreditation -- plus a specialized technical knowledge -- that not just anyone can either possess or provide.

Thus, to contribute to early-18th-century medical discourse one would have had to think in very specific, even confining terms and be able to form statements according to prescribed lines, rather than freely making direct and immediate observations that correspond to a patient's actual physical malady. Foucault's interesting idea is that "health" and "disease" are never stable states, or matters of truth and reality, but are always constructed to suit the type of medical "gaze" that the doctor has, whether that is therapeutic, punitive, providential or charitable.

Truth is not a fixed absolute, Foucault says provocatively, but an effect of the scientific discourse, which sets up a working, albeit contingent, distinction between true and false. And all of that depends on how the socially constructed networks of hospitals, clinics, laboratories, medical schools and governmental administrations function together at various historical moments, which Foucault's work strives painstakingly to describe and demystify, moment by moment, step by step. The net result is nothing less than a history of truth seen, in the final analysis, as an art of government.

It is quite evident from this brief summary that Foucault's interest in such things as penology or mental illness or even sciences like philology and economic theory can be traced back to his lifelong fascination with confinement, punishment and the micromanagement of details by an at times insinuating, at other times dominating power. "Power" is full of essays and interviews that show in often compelling and ingenious terms the way a Renaissance sovereign personality like the king or cardinal slowly disappears, in order to reappear as the legal minutiae of a penal code administered by impersonal committees, theoreticians of surveillance and punishment like Jeremy Bentham or guilds of scholars and experts who guard their "fields" with jealous alertness against intruders. Whereas Louis XV had a would-be regicide slowly tortured to death before his impassive gaze, the modern wielders of power are scattered along many strands of the social fabric, invisible, impersonal, but just as cruel when they deal with transgressors and delinquents. No one more than Foucault has studied the workings of these systems of power, and the way in which we have all become "governable." No one more than he has understood the dangers posed to the system by renegades and rebels like Sade, Nietzsche, Mallarme and other great transgressive artists.


"French intellectual life is a scenario. It has its stars and histrionic polemics, its claque and fiascoes. It is susceptible, to a degree remarkable in a society so obviously literate and ironic, to sudden gusts of lunatic fashion. A Sartre dominates, to be followed by Levi-Strauss; the new master is soon fusilladed by self-proclaimed 'Maoist-structuralists.' The almost impenetrable soliloquies on semantics and psychoanalysis of Jaques Lacan pack their full houses. Now the mandarin of the hour is Michel Foucault.

". . . an honest first reading produces an almost intolerable sense of verbosity, arrogance and obscure platitude. Page after page could be the rhetoric of a somewhat weary sybil indulging in free association. Recourse to the French text shows that this is not a matter of awkward translation. . . .

"One asks these questions because Foucault's claims are sweeping, and because, one supposes, he would wish to be read seriously or not at all. His appeal, moreover, to contemporaries of exceptional intelligence both at home and in England (this book appears in a series edited by R. D. Laing) is undeniable. This is no confidence trick. Something of originality and, perhaps, of very real importance, is being argued in these often rebarbative pages."

-- George Steiner's review of "The Order of Things," (Febr. 28, 1971)

There are many problems and questions that come to mind as one reads Foucault, but one thing is never in doubt: he was a prodigious researcher, a man driven by what he once called "relentless erudition." Perhaps the most riveting extract in "Power" is "Lives of Infamous Men," a short introduction he wrote to a collection of early-18th-century records of internment (police blotter entries most likely), about quasi-anonymous men and women convicted of particularly horrible crimes -- infanticide, cannibalism, incest, dismemberment and the like. These minimal biographies, he says, are "singular lives, transformed into strange poems through who knows what twists of fate -- this is what I decided to gather into a kind of herbarium." In other words, they are gems gathered by him from the leavings or excess of his bibliophilia. These not-quite-anonymous people "were able to leave traces -- brief, incisive, often enigmatic -- only at the point of their instantaneous contact with power," a convergence that produced a "blend of dark stubbornness and rascality . . . lives whose disarray and relentless energy one senses beneath the stone-smooth words." Just as their memorialist Foucault displays remarkable literary flair, responding brilliantly to the grisly semi-secrecy of their lives, their macabre presence on the fringes of society, simultaneously menacing and gripping.

It is that exercise of imagination focused on the marginal and shadowy, harnessed to a formidably ascetic work ethic, that so distinguished Foucault as a philosopher and historian. I saw him lecture once at the Collège de France in the early spring of 1978, when he addressed a very large and quite motley crowd drawn from the beau monde all the way through the academic ranks down to the clochards (or tramps) who had wandered in for shelter. Dressed in a white shirt buttoned to the very top, tieless and in a black suit, his completely bald (perhaps shaven) head glistening in the poor light, he strode in quickly, sat down and began to read from his redoubtably well-prepared text. No jokes, small talk, hemming and hawing. His performance that day was an exercise in stark, concentrated asceticism, his severity of learning and dedication keeping every word taut and in place. The subject was "governmentality," and the lecture is in "Power," where it is identified as part of a yearlong course on "Security, Territory and Population." Though this was just before he had openly espoused the gay politics and self-experimentation of his last years (probingly investigated by James Miller in "The Passion of Michel Foucault"), one could sense in his lecture a coiled-up energy as he surveyed the pastoral and police element in modern government that, I now feel, he was highlighting in order to undermine later.

Unfortunately, not all of the material in "Power" is of equal merit, neither in the way it is presented nor in its substance. In order to make shorthand generalizations about major social and epistemological shifts in several European countries, Foucault resorts to maddening, unsupported assertions that may be interesting rhetorically but cannot pass muster either as history or as philosophy. Too often, grand statements about society as a whole or at its extremes are presented without evidence or proof (Foucault seems to have had an addiction for the beginnings of centuries, as if history ran in hundred-year periods, of which the first part was usually where the important events occurred), while at other times complicated interviews that were conducted with him about a specific situation in Iran or Poland are left to stand gnomically, without explanation or context, and, sad to say, seem very dated. At other times, a lamentably literal translation, as in "One of the great problems of the French Revolution was to bring an end to this type of peasant plunder," delivers approximate meanings that may be funny but aren't very helpful. Can you imagine an energetic bureaucrat called "the French Revolution" bustling around like the March Hare trying to do something about a "problem" called "peasant plunder"?

Some of these difficulties have to do with editors, translators and a publisher who out of a worthy respect for Foucault's memory and achievement probably thought they should leave the great man's words as they were, even when they were delivered hastily or far too allusively. While this assures completeness of texts, it doesn't help the reader, who is left to flounder unnecessarily in passages that could have been eliminated altogether or improved considerably with useful notes. On the other hand, to footnote a passage from an untranslated essay in an unobtainable source by way of assisting the reader is, finally, a silly conceit. That occurs too. But despite these flaws there is no doubt that at least half of "Power" is well worth having and making the effort to understand.

What I found specially valuable in the collection were the unexpected pleasures of essays like "Lives of Infamous Men" and a magnificent long discussion, "Interview With Michel Foucault," originally published in Italy around 1980. Not only can one hear him elaborate on the continuity of his thought and its relationships with the Frankfurt School, Freud, Marx, Gaston Bachelard and Georges Canguilhem (his main teacher, the eminent French historian of science), but we are also given a rare opportunity to see how a great and original mind produces its work as well as itself at the same time, clarifying issues while discovering new problems in thought and in life. Foucault's extraordinary blend of energy and pessimism gives a remarkable dignity to his work, which is anything but an exercise in professorial abstraction.

Rather, as Foucault puts it, his thinking is animated by the frightening realization that "the Enlightenment's promise of attaining freedom through the exercise of reason has been turned upside down, resulting in a domination by reason itself, which increasingly usurps the place of freedom." This impasse is the real core of Foucault's work. Even more dramatically, it also illuminates the impasse that his astonishingly intense, compacted life seems on some level to have exhibited.


Edward W. Said, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, is the author of the forthcoming book "Reflections on Exile."


Excerpt from
Power. Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984: Volume Three
Translated by ROBERT HURLEY.
The New Press


* * *


What I would like to tell you in these lectures are some things that may be inexact, untrue, or erroneous, which I will present as working hypotheses, with a view to a future work. I beg your indulgence, and more than that, your malice. Indeed, I would be very pleased if at the end of each lecture you would voice some criticisms and objections so that, insofar as possible and assuming my mind is not yet too rigid, I might gradually adapt to your questions and thus at the end of these five lectures we might have done some work together or possibly made some progress.

Today, under the title "Truth and Juridical Forms," I will offer some methodological reflections to introduce a problem that may appear somewhat enigmatic to you. I will try to present what constitutes the point of convergence of three or four existing, already-explored, already-inventoried series of inquiries, which I will compare and combine in a kind of investigation. I won't say it is original, but it is at least a new departure.

The first inquiry is historical: How have domains of knowledge been formed on the basis of social practices? Let me explain the point at issue. There is a tendency that we may call, a bit ironically, "academic Marxism," which consists of trying to determine the way in which economic conditions of existence may be reflected and expressed in the consciousness of men. It seems to me that this form of analysis, traditional in university Marxism in France, exhibits a very serious defect--basically, that of assuming that the human subject, the subject of knowledge, and forms of knowledge themselves are somehow given beforehand and definitively, and that economic, social, and political conditions of existence are merely laid or imprinted on this definitely given subject.

My aim will be to show you how social practices may engender domains of knowledge that not only bring new objects, new concepts, and new techniques to light, but also give rise to totally new forms of subjects and subjects of knowledge. The subject of knowledge itself has a history; the relation of the subject to the object; or, more clearly, truth itself has a history.

Thus, I would especially like to show how a certain knowledge of man was formed in the nineteenth century, a knowledge of individuality, of the normal or abnormal, conforming or nonconforming individual, a knowledge, that actually originated in social practices of control and supervision [surveillance]. And how, in a certain way, this knowledge was not imposed on, proposed to, or imprinted on an existing human subject of knowledge; rather, it engendered an utterly new type of subject of knowledge. The history of knowledge domains connected with social practices--excluding the primacy of a definitively given subject of knowledge--is a first line of research I suggest to you.

The second line of research is a methodological one, which might be called "discourse analysis." Here again there is, it seems to me, in a tradition that is recent but already accepted in European universities, a tendency to treat discourse as a set of linguistic facts linked together by syntactic rules of construction.

A few years ago, it was original and important to say and to show that what was done with language--poetry, literature, philosophy, discourse in general--obeyed a certain number of internal laws or regularities: the laws and regularities of language. The linguistic character of language facts was an important discovery for a certain period.

Then, it seems, the moment came to consider these facts of discourse no longer simply in their linguistic dimension, but in a sense--and here I'm taking my cue from studies done by the Anglo-Americans--as games, strategic games of action and reaction, question and answer, domination and evasion, as well as struggle. On one level, discourse is a regular set of linguistic facts, while on another level it is an ordered set of polemical and strategic facts. This analysis of discourse as a strategic and polemical game is, in my judgment, a second line of research to pursue.

Lastly, the third line of research that I proposed--and where it meets the first two, it defines the point of convergence where I will place myself--is a reworking of the theory of the subject. That theory has been profoundly modified and renewed, over the last several years, by a certain number of theories--or, even more seriously, by a certain number of practices, among which psychoanalysis is of course in the forefront. Psychoanalysis has undoubtedly been the practice and the theory that has reevaluated in the most fundamental way the somewhat sacred priority conferred on the subject, which has become established in Western thought since Descartes.

Two or three centuries ago, Western philosophy postulated, explicitly or implicitly, the subject as the foundation, as the central core of all knowledge, as that in which and on the basis of which freedom revealed itself and truth could blossom. Now, it seems to me that psychoanalysis has insistently called into question this absolute position of the subject. But while psychoanalysis has done this, elsewhere--in the field of what we may call the "theory of knowledge," or in that of epistemology, or in that of the history of the sciences, or again in that of the history of ideas--it seems to me that the theory of the subject has remained very philosophical, very Cartesian and Kantian; for, at the level of generalities where I situate myself, I don't differentiate between the Cartesian and Kantian conceptions.

Currently, when one does history--the history of ideas, of knowledge, or simply history--one sticks to this subject of knowledge, to this subject of representation as the point of origin from which knowledge is possible and truth appears. It would be interesting to try to see how a subject came to be constituted that is not definitively given, that is not the thing on the basis of which truth happens to history--rather, a subject that constitutes itself within history and is constantly established and reestablished by history. It is toward that radical critique of the human subject by history that we should direct our efforts.

A certain university or academic tradition of Marxism has not yet given up the traditional philosophical conception of the subject. In my view, what we should do is show the historical construction of a subject through a discourse understood as consisting of a set of strategies which are part of social practices.

That is the theoretical background of the problems I would like to raise.

Among the social practices whose historical analysis enables one to locate the emergence of new forms of subjectivity, it seemed to me that the most important ones are juridical practices.

The hypothesis I would like to put forward is that there are two histories of truth. The first is a kind of internal history of truth, the history of a truth that rectifies itself in terms of its own principles of regulation: it's the history of truth as it is constructed in or on the basis of the history of the sciences. On the other hand, it seems to me that there are in society (or at least in our societies) other places where truth is formed, where a certain number of games are defined--games through which one sees certain forms of subjectivity, certain object domains, certain types of knowledge come into being--and that, consequently, one can on that basis construct an external, exterior history of truth.

Judicial practices, the manner in which wrongs and responsibilities are settled between men, the mode by which, in the history of the West, society conceived and defined the way men could be judged in terms of wrongs committed, the way in which compensation for some actions and punishment for others were imposed on specific individuals--all these rules or, if you will, all these practices that were indeed governed by rules but also constantly modified through the course of history, seem to me to be one of the forms by which our society defined types of subjectivity, forms of knowledge, and, consequently, relations between man and truth which deserve to be studied.

There you have a general view of the theme I intend to develop: juridical forms and their evolution in the field of penal law as the generative locus for a given number of forms of truth. I will try to show you how certain forms of truth can be defined in terms of penal practice. For what is called the inquiry--the inquiry as practiced by philosophers of the Fifteenth to the eighteenth century, and also by scientists, whether they were geographers, botanists, zoologists, or economists--is a rather characteristic form of truth in our societies.

Now where does one find the origin of the inquiry? One finds it in political and administrative practice, which I'm going to talk about; one also finds it in judicial practice. The inquiry made its appearance as a form of search for truth within the judicial order in the middle of the medieval era. It was in order to know exactly who did what, under what conditions, and at what moment, that the West devised complex techniques of inquiry which later were to be used in the scientific realm and in the realm of philosophical reflection.

In the same way, other forms of analysis were invented in the nineteenth century, from the starting point of juridical, judicial, and penal problems--rather curious and particular forms of analysis that I shall call examination, in contradistinction to the inquiry. Such forms of analysis gave rise to sociology, psychology, psychopathology, criminology, and psychoanalysis. I will try to show you how, when one looks for the origin of these forms of analysis, one sees that they arose in direct conjunction with the formation of a certain number of political and social controls, during the forming of capitalist society in the late nineteenth century.

Here, then, is a broad sketch of the topic of this series of lectures. In the next one, I will talk about the birth of the inquiry in Greek thought, in something that is neither completely a myth nor entirely a tragedy--the story of Oedipus. I will speak of the Oedipus story not as a point of origin, as the moment of formulation of man's desire or forms of desire, but, on the contrary, as a rather curious episode in the history of knowledge and as a point of emergence of the inquiry. In the next lecture I will deal with the relation of conflict, the opposition that arose in the Middle Ages between the system of the test and the system of the inquiry. Finally, in the last two lectures, I will talk about the birth of what I shall call the examination or the sciences of examination, which are connected with the formation and stabilization of capitalist society.

For the moment I would like to pick up again, in a different way, the methodological reflections I spoke of earlier. It would have been possible, and perhaps more honest, to cite only one name, that of Nietzsche, because what I say here won't mean anything if it isn't connected to Nietzsche's work, which seems to me to be the best, the most effective, the most pertinent of the models that one can draw upon. In Nietzsche, one finds a type of discourse that undertakes a historical analysis of the formation of the subject itself, a historical analysis of the birth of a certain type of knowledge [savoir]--without ever granting the preexistence of a subject of knowledge [connaissance]. What I propose to do now is to retrace in his work the outlines that can serve as a model for us in our analyses.

I will take as our starting point a text by Nietzsche, dated 1873, which was published only after his death. The text says: "In some remote corner of the universe, bathed in the fires of innumerable solar systems, there once was a planet where clever animals invented knowledge. That was the grandest and most mendacious minute of `universal history.'"

In this extremely rich and difficult text, I will leave aside several things, including--and above all--the famous phrase "that was the most mendacious minute." Firstly and gladly, I will consider the insolent and cavalier manner in which Nietzsche says that knowledge was invented on a star at a particular moment. I speak of insolence in this text of Nietzsche's because we have to remember that in 1873, one is if not in the middle of Kantianism then at least in the middle of neo-Kantianism; the idea that time and space are not forms of knowledge, but more like primitive rocks onto which knowledge attaches itself, is absolutely unthinkable for the period.

That's where I would like to focus my attention, dwelling first on the term "invention" itself. Nietzsche states that at a particular point in time and a particular place in the universe, intelligent animals invented knowledge. The word he employs, "invention"--the German term is Erfindung--recurs often in these texts, and always with a polemical meaning and intention. When he speaks of invention, Nietzsche always has an opposite word in mind, the word "origin" [Ursprung]. When he says "invention," it's in order not to say "origin"; when he says Erfindung, it's in order not to say Ursprung.

We have a number of proofs of this, and I will present two or three of them. For example, in a passage that comes, I believe, from The Gay Science where he speaks of Schopenhauer, criticizing his analysis of religion, Nietzsche says that Schopenhauer made the mistake of looking for the origin--Ursprung--of religion in a metaphysical sentiment present in all men and containing the latent core, the true and essential model of all religion. Nietzsche says this is a completely false history of religion, because to suppose that religion originates in a metaphysical sentiment signifies, purely and simply, that religion was already given, at least in an implicit state, enveloped in that metaphysical sentiment. But history is not that, says Nietzsche, that is not the way history was made--things didn't happen like that. Religion has no origin, it has no Ursprung, it was invented, there was an Erfindung of religion. At a particular moment in the past, something happened that made religion appear. Religion was made; it did not exist before. Between the great continuity of the Ursprung described by Schopenhauer and the great break that characterizes Nietzsche's Erfindung, there is a fundamental opposition.

Speaking of poetry, still in The Gay Science, Nietzsche declares that there are those who look for the origin, the Ursprung, of poetry, when in fact there is no Ursprung of poetry, there is only an invention of poetry. Somebody had the rather curious idea of using a certain number of rhythmic or musical properties of language to speak, to impose his words, to establish by means of those words a certain relation of power over others. Poetry, too, was invented or made.

There is also the famous passage at the end of the first discourse of The Genealogy of Morals where Nietzsche refers to a sort of great factory in which the ideal is produced. The ideal has no origin: it too was invented, manufactured, produced by a series of mechanisms, of little mechanisms.

For Nietzsche, invention, Erfindung, is on the one hand a break, on the other something with a small beginning, one that is low, mean, unavowable. This is the crucial point of the Erfindung. It was by obscure power relations that poetry was invented. It was also by pure and obscure power relations that religion was invented. We see the meanness, then, of all these small beginnings as compared with the solemnity of their origin as conceived by philosophers. The historian should not be afraid of the meanness of things, for it was out of the sequence of mean and little things that, finally, great things were formed. Good historical method requires us to counterpose the meticulous and unavowable meanness of these fabrications and inventions, to the solemnity of origins.

Knowledge was invented, then. To say that it was invented is to say that it has no origin. More precisely, it is to say, however paradoxical this may be, that knowledge is absolutely not inscribed in human nature. Knowledge doesn't constitute man's oldest instinct; and, conversely, in human behavior, the human appetite, the human instinct, there is no such thing as the seed of knowledge. As a matter of fact, Nietzsche says, knowledge does have a connection with the instincts, but it cannot be present in them, and cannot even be one instinct among the others. Knowledge is simply the outcome of the interplay, the encounter, the junction, the struggle, and the compromise between the instincts. Something is produced because the instincts meet, fight one another, and at the end of their battles finally reach a compromise. That something is knowledge.

Consequently, for Nietzsche knowledge is not of the same nature as the instincts, it is not like a refinement of the instincts. Knowledge does indeed have instincts as its foundation, basis, and starting point, but its basis is the instincts in their confrontation, of which knowledge is only the surface outcome. Knowledge is like a luminescence, a spreading light, but one that is produced by mechanisms or realities that are of completely different natures. Knowledge is a result of the instincts; it is like a stroke of luck, or like the outcome of a protracted compromise. It is also, Nietzsche says, like "a spark between two swords," but not a thing made of their metal.

Knowledge--a surface effect, something prefigured in human nature--plays its game in the presence of the instincts, above them, among them; it curbs them, it expresses a certain state of tension or appeasement between the instincts. But knowledge cannot be deduced analytically, according to a kind of natural derivation. It cannot be deduced in a necessary way from the instincts themselves. Knowledge doesn't really form part of human nature. Conflict, combat, the outcome of the combat, and, consequently, risk and chance are what gives rise to knowledge. Knowledge is not instinctive, it is counterinstinctive; just as it is not natural, but counternatural.

That is the first meaning that can be given to the idea that knowledge is an invention and has no origin. But the other sense that could be given to Nietzsche's assertion is that knowledge, beyond merely not being bound up with human nature, not being derived from human nature, isn't even closely connected to the world to be known. According to Nietzsche, there is no resemblance, no prior affinity between knowledge and the things that need to be known. In more strictly Kantian terms, one should say the conditions of experience and the conditions of the object of experience are completely heterogeneous.

That is the great break with the prior tradition of Western philosophy, for Kant himself had been the first to say explicitly that the conditions of experience and those of the object of experience were identical. Nietzsche thinks, on the contrary, that between knowledge and the world to be known there is as much difference as between knowledge and human nature. So one has a human nature, a world, and something called knowledge between the two, without any affinity, resemblance, or even natural tie between them.

Nietzsche says repeatedly that knowledge has no affinity with the world to be known. I will cite just one passage from The Gay Science, aphorism 109: "The total character of the world is chaos for all eternity--in the sense not of a lack of necessity but of a lack of order, arrangement, form, beauty, wisdom." The world absolutely does not seek to imitate man; it knows no law. Let us guard against saying that there are laws in nature. Knowledge must struggle against a world without order, without connectedness, without form, without beauty, without wisdom, without harmony, and without law. That is the world that knowledge deals with. There is nothing in knowledge that enables it, by any right whatever, to know this world. It is not natural for nature to be known. Thus, between the instincts and knowledge, one finds not a continuity but, rather, a relation of struggle, domination, servitude, settlement. In the same way, there can be no relation of natural continuity between knowledge and the things that knowledge must know. There can only be a relation of violence, domination, power, and force, a relation of violation. Knowledge can only be a violation of the things to be known, and not a perception, a recognition, an identification of or with those things.

It seems to me that in this analysis by Nietzsche there is a very important double break with the tradition of Western philosophy, something we should learn from. The first break is between knowledge and things. What is it, really, in Western philosophy that certifies that things to be known and knowledge itself are in a relation of continuity? What assurance is there that knowledge has the ability to truly know the things of the world instead of being indefinite error, illusion, and arbitrariness? What in Western philosophy guarantees that, if not God? Of course, from Descartes, to go back no further than that, and still even in Kant, God is the principle that ensures a harmony between knowledge and the things to be known. To demonstrate that knowledge was really based in the things of the world, Descartes had to affirm the existence of God.

If there is no relation between knowledge and the things to be known, if the relation between knowledge and known things is arbitrary, if it is a relation of power and violence, the existence of God at the center of the system of knowledge is no longer indispensable. As a matter of fact, in the same passage from The Gay Science where he speaks of the absence of order, connectedness, form, and beauty in the world, Nietzsche asks, "When will all these shadows of God cease to darken our minds? When will we complete our de-deification of nature?"

Second, I would say that if it is true that between knowledge and the instincts--all that constitutes, that makes up the human animal--there is only discontinuity, relations of domination and servitude, power relations, then it's not God that disappears but the subject in its unity and its sovereignty.

When we retrace the philosophical tradition starting from Descartes, to go no further back than that, we see that the unity of the subject was ensured by the unbroken continuity running from desire to knowledge [connaissance], from the instincts to knowledge [savoir], from the body to truth. All of that ensured the subject's existence. If, on the one hand, it is true that there are mechanisms of instinct, the play of desire, the affrontment between the mechanisms of the body and the will, and on the other hand, at a completely different level of nature, there is knowledge, then we don't need the postulate of the unity of the human subject. We can grant the existence of subjects, or we can grant that the subject doesn't exist. In this respect, then, the text by Nietzsehe I have cited seems to present a break with the oldest and most firmly established tradition of Western philosophy.

Now, when Nietzsche says that knowledge is the result of the instincts, but that it is not an instinct and is not directly derived from the instincts, what does he mean exactly? And how does he conceive of that curious mechanism by which the instincts, without having any natural relation with knowledge, can, merely by their activity, produce, invent a knowledge that has nothing to do with them? That is the second series of problems I would like to address.

There is a passage in The Gay Science, aphorism 333, which can be considered one of the closest analyses Nietzsche conducted of that manufacture, of that invention of knowledge. In this long text titled "The Meaning of Knowing," Nietzsche takes up a text by Spinoza in which the latter sets intelligere, to understand, against ridere [to laugh], lugere [to lament], and detestari [to detest]. Spinoza said that if we wish to understand things, if we really wish to understand them in their nature, their essence, and hence their truth, we must take care not to laugh at them, lament them, or detest them. Only when those passions are calmed can we finally understand. Nietzsche says that not only is this not true, but it is exactly the opposite that occurs. Intelligere, to understand, is nothing more than a certain game, or more exactly, the outcome of a certain game, of a certain compromise or settlement between ridere, lugere, and detestari. Nietzsche says that we understand only because behind all that there is the interplay and struggle of those three instincts, of those three mechanisms, or those three passions that are expressed by laughter, lament, and detestation.

Several points need to be considered here. First, we should note that these three passions, or these three drives--laughing, lamenting, detesting--are all ways not of getting close to the object or identifying with it but, on the contrary, of keeping the object at a distance, differentiating oneself from it or marking one's separation from it, protecting oneself from it through laughter, devalorizing it through complaint, removing it and possibly destroying it through hatred. Consequently, all these drives, which are at the root of knowledge and which produce it, have in common a distancing of the object, a will to remove oneself from it and to remove it at the same time--a will, finally, to destroy it. Behind knowledge there is a will, no doubt obscure, not to bring the object near to oneself or identify with it but, on the contrary, to get away from it and destroy it--a radical malice of knowledge.

We thus arrive at a second important idea: These drives--laughing, lamenting, detesting--can all be categorized as bad relations. Behind knowledge, at the root of knowledge, Nietzsche does not posit a kind of affection, drive, or passion that makes us love the object to be known; rather, there are drives that would place us in a position of hatred, contempt, or fear before things that are threatening and presumptuous.

If these three drives--laughing, lamenting, hating--manage to produce knowledge, this is not, according to Nietzsche, because they have subsided, as in Spinoza, or made peace, or because they have attained a unity. On the contrary, it's because they have tried, as Nietzsche says, to harm one another, it's because they're in a state of war--in a momentary stabilization of this state of war, they reach a kind of state, a kind of hiatus, in which knowledge will finally appear as the "spark between two swords."

So in knowledge there is not a congruence with the object, a relation of assimilation, but, rather, a relation of distance and domination; there is not something like happiness and love but hatred and hostility; there is not a unification but a precarious system of power. The great themes traditionally present in Western philosophy are thoroughly called into question in the Nietzsche text I've cited.

Western philosophy--and this time it isn't necessary to limit the reference to Descartes, one can go back to Plato--has always characterized knowledge by logocentrism, by resemblance, by congruence, by bliss, by unity. All these great themes are now called into question. One understands, then, why Nietzsche mentions Spinoza, because of all the Western philosophers Spinoza carried this conception of knowledge as congruence, bliss, and unity the farthest. At the center, at the root of knowledge, Nietzsche places something like hatred, struggle, power relations.

So one can see why Nietzsche declares that it is the philosopher who is the most likely to be wrong about the nature of knowledge, since he always thinks of it in the form of congruence, love, unity, and pacification. Thus, if we seek to ascertain what knowledge is, we must not look to the form of life, of existence, of asceticism that characterize the philosopher. If we truly wish to know knowledge, to know what it is, to apprehend it at its root, in its manufacture, we must look not to philosophers but to politicians--we need to understand what the relations of struggle and power are. One can understand what knowledge consists of only by examining these relations of struggle and power, the manner in which things and men hate one another, fight one another, and try to dominate one another, to exercise power relations over one another.

So one can understand how this type of analysis can give us an effective introduction to a political history of knowledge, the facts of knowledge and the subject of knowledge.

At this point I would like to reply to a possible objection: "All that is very fine, but it isn't in Nietzsche. Your own ravings, your obsession with finding power relations everywhere, with bringing this political dimension even into the history of knowledge or into the history of truth has made you believe that Nietzsche said that."

I will say two things in reply. First, I chose this passage from Nietzsche in terms of my own interests, not with the purpose of showing that this was the Nietzschean conception of knowledge--for there are innumerable passages in Nietzsche on the subject that are rather contradictory--but only to show that there are in Nietzsche a certain number of elements that afford us a model for a historical analysis of what I would call the politics of truth. It's a model that one does find in Nietzsche, and I even think that in his work it constitutes one of the most important models for understanding some of the seemingly contradictory elements of his conception of knowledge.

Indeed, if one grants that this is what Nietzsche means by the discovery of knowledge, if all these relations are behind knowledge, which, in a certain sense, is only their outcome, then it becomes possible to understand certain difficult passages in Nietzsche.

(C) 1994 Editions Gallimard All rights reserved. ISBN: 1-56584-257-X






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