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Foucault among the Humanists

Review of Eric Paras, Foucault 2.0: Beyond Power and Knowledge (Other Press, 2006), 240 pp. ISBN: 1-59051-234-0 [ISBN-13: 978-1590512340]

Corey McCall

Eric Paras, Foucault 2.0, cover image
Other Voices, 3.1 Recycling Culture
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Readers of Foucaultís texts have long been perplexed by the apparent shift his writings underwent in the late 1970s. Following the appearance of the first volume of The History of Sexuality (Le volunté de savoir, translated as The History of Sexuality: An Introduction) in 1976, Foucault's investigations inexplicably change focus: from an investigation of the prison and the mechanisms of power that produce the modern individual in Discipline and Punish, the second and third volumes of the History of Sexuality focus on practices of the self in ancient Greece and Rome. Indeed, at the time of his death, Foucault was at work on a fourth volume examining the practices of the self in the Christian era.1 How does one account for the fact that the thinker who had written in 1966 that the one could "certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand and at the edge of the sea" was suddenly writing about the various practices of the self prevalent in the ancient world, practices that were meant to ensure individual freedom and autonomy?2 This, after all, was the thinker that had famously feuded with Jean-Paul Sartre and labeled him an outmoded thinker of systems, better suited for the nineteenth century than the twentieth, who was now writing about themes seemingly much more at home in Existentialist writings than his own anti-humanist ones.

Eric Paras' book represents the latest attempt to come to terms with this perplexity. What sets Paras' work apart from previous attempts is the archival work that he marshals in support of his bold claim. Paras has done extensive research in the Foucault Archives, and he uses this research to claim that Foucault basically renounces his former, anti-humanist self in order to begin a project that resonates with certain core humanist values such as freedom and universal human rights. Foucault's work after 1976 until his premature death in 1984 represents not an attempt to reassess his former positions and provide them with more depth, as some have argued.3 Instead, Foucault's later writings enact a radical break from the doctrines he previously held. According to Paras, Foucault sought a position "beyond power and knowledge" and found it by delving into various ancient practices of self-cultivation. I am sympathetic to the more moderate claim that Foucault's later writings represent an attempt to make good on the genealogical claims of his earlier texts and thus are continuous with his previous work rather than an outright renunciation. In the review that follows, I will attempt to outline this case as an alternative to Paras' more radical claim. Despite the fact that I take issue with the author's central thesis in the review that follows, Paras' book stands as a worthy attempt to make sense of Foucault's sometimes maddening intellectual odyssey. I will outline the reasons for this as well.

For Paras, Foucault's works must be read under two separate and opposing headings. He designates the first "experience." This is the point from which Foucault begins, with the experience of madness, insanity, and those who were generally shunned as unproductive members of society.4 Subjectivity understood as the locus of experience also brings with it an idea of the subject as the locus of freedom, understood paradigmatically as the self-assured autonomous subject. Paras argues that Foucault's later texts, subsequent to the initial volume of The History of Sexuality, also must be read under this heading of experience. During the long intervening period (from approximately 1962-1976), Foucault was guided by the idea of "system," and he attempted throughout these years to undertake a rigorous deconstruction of this self-assured subject. Foucault's thought, then, must be understood as a pendulum, for in his later writings concerning ancient practices of the self he is returning to his origins in the idea of experience.

However this reading of Foucault's thought is an oversimplification. Although much better informed than certain critics who were dismissive of Foucault's later thought as an aberration in the years immediately following his death, Paras nonetheless reduces Foucault's thought to two distinct stages.5 The idea that Foucault's thought could be neatly separated into distinct periods—the most common distinctions are between the early archaeological period, the middle genealogical period, and the late aesthetics of existence period—does his thought a disservice. Indeed, Paras himself notes this difficulty in his concluding chapter when he points out that Foucault was constantly revising and reassessing the significance of his work. One of the pitfalls of Foucault scholarship is Foucault's Protean nature, and the constant temptation is to simply divide Foucault's thought into distinct periods, or, as in Paras' case, the trajectory of an arc or pendulum. Could not one just as easily and just as plausibly argue that there was only one term that guided Foucault's entire career and that was an elaboration of the idea of the subject? During his long middle period, Foucault was writing a series of studies on the idea of the subject as an effect and product of various anonymous relations of power and knowledge: the insane subject, the medical subject, the disciplined subject, and so on. It was only during his later period that he returned to the idea of the subject as an individual in charge of her own fate. On this unitary reading, Foucault's texts would evince an unerring exploration of the two dimensions of subjectivity: the subject understood as an effect of power relations to which the individual is subject, and the subject understood as the autonomous individual that contests this identity. To be sure, this interpretive strategy has its own pitfalls, but the virtue of such a strategy is that it does not transform Foucault's early work into a long prelude that will simply be renounced once Foucault has grown out of his early fascination with the "bad boys" of French literary theory that seek the dissolution of the subject, individuals such as Georges Bataille and Maurice Blanchot.

Such a reading would resolve an apparent difficulty that Paras points out at the end of Chapter Four of his study:

Discipline and Punish had described a process in which individuality and subjectivity were literally manufactured by an institutionalized and pervasive process of domination. No individual received the choice of whether or not to undergo discipline; and only through discipline did one become an individual. In contrast, the Foucauldean subject of 1980 was a free individual. It had the ability to pursue (or not pursue) techniques that would transform its subjective modality—but which would not, one way or the other, disrupt its status as an independent locus of experience. Foucault Christian disciple was a strong subject: the kind that, in years past, he had done his best to vanquish from the philosophical scene.6

Paras' reading here suffers from a couple of defects: First, he tends to read the Weberean notion of the "iron cage" of power upon Foucault's treatment of power. Foucault never asserts that individuals are only passive and inert epiphenomena shaped by power relations. Throughout his writings, he is adamant that there is no power without resistance. Indeed, his notion of power does evolve, from one based on conflict between adversaries to one based on the more subtle understanding of governmentality as the "conducting of conduct," but the constant throughout these various transformations is the idea that power relations are always questionable and contestable. The reading of Foucault's understanding of power proposed here would resolve the difficulty Paras raises elsewhere of self-fashioning without a prior self—the self is always already constituted by heteronomous power relations in the face of which the individual attempts to assert her own autonomy.7 Secondly, Paras fails to see that Foucault's investigations were part of a larger project, a genealogy of biopower in the West. Before he died, Foucault was investigating how modern liberal regimes foster the governance of life, both on the macro level (that of populations) and on the micro level (that of the individual).8 Paras' interpretive strategy blinds him to the continuities at work across Foucault's texts and reduces his later texts to something of a death bed conversion to the time-honored values of liberal humanism. I find this approach to Foucault's later texts to be wrongheaded.

Still, Paras' text is not without its merits, and it is due to these that I can recommend this text to scholars who have attained at least some amount of familiarity with Foucault's work as a whole. First, Paras takes Foucault's writings on the Iranian Revolution seriously. Unlike Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson (who mistakenly see Foucault as seduced by the charms of Neo-Romantic Islamic revolutionary fervor), on Paras' account Foucault sees the Iranian Revolution as simultaneously the rejection of Western modernization and the collective demand for a regime that guarantees human rights.9 "Its legitimacy as a force for liberation was established, in Foucault's eyes, by the fact that it was not Marxist, not revolutionary, not political, not even philosophical. It was a Sorbibor—a collective uprising from within the walls of the concentration camp—and Foucault was determined to stand with it."10 Alas, history did not align with Foucault's optimism on this point.

The second virtue of this text is that Paras does an excellent job of situating Foucault's work within its intellectual milieu and discussing thinkers that may be unfamiliar to an American audience, thinkers from the French anti-Communist Left such as Andre Glucksmann and Bernhard-Henri Lévy. Although I believe that he ultimately overemphasizes the significance of these thinkers for Foucault's work, it is nonetheless an illuminating discussion. His conclusion explains the wane of Foucault's reputation in his native country and its simultaneous waxing in the United States.

Although his interpretive strategy suffers from the major flaws that I have outlined above, the archival details that Paras presents at least partially redeem the work. It is well written, and it proves that Foucault's work remains significant beyond the narrow confines of literary theory and Continental philosophy. It may even contribute to the debate about the contemporary relevance of Foucault's work for a new generation of scholars and readers, which would certainly be a most welcome event.

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1. An in-depth examination of this fourth volume is provided by the articles contained in a special issue of The Journal of the History of Secuality, Volume 10, nos. 3/4, July/October 2001. See also Michel Foucault, Religion and Culture. Ed. Jeremy R. Carette (NY: Routledge, 1999), esp. Part III, "Christianity, Sexuality, and the Self: Fragments of an Unpublished Volume," pp. 154-197.

2. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (NY: Vintage, 1970), p. 387.

3. For example, see Thomas Flynn's insightful study of the relationship between Sartre and Foucault, Sartre, Foucault and Historical Reason, Volume 1: Toward and Existentialist Theory of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997) and Volume 2: A Poststructuralist Mapping of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005). Flynn proposes an "axial reading" of Foucault's texts along the three axes of knowledge/truth, power/governmentality, and ethics/self-constitution). Flynn argues that each of Foucault's texts, from the early History of Madness to the volumes that comprise the unfinished History of Sexuality project can be read according to these various axes. Furthermore and unlike Paras, Flynn sees the category of experience as a theme running across Foucault's oeuvre. My sympathies with Flynn's interpretive strategies should become apparent in what follows.

4. See Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Trans. Richard Howard (NY: Vintage Books, 1965, esp. Chapter VIII: The New Division, pp. 221-240.

5. Paras discusses the Neoliberal critics of Foucault's thought in general and Ferry and Renaut in particular in his conclusion, Foucault 2.0, pp. 149-158, esp. pp. 150-153.

6. Ibid., p. 123.

7. I owe this framing of Foucault's project to Dr. Kevin Thompson of DePaul University.

8. For the clearest statement of this, see Michel Foucault, "'Omnes et Singulatim': Toward a Critique of Political Reason," Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954-1984, Volume Three: Power. Ed. James D. Faubion (NY: New Press, 1997), pp. 298-325. In these two Tanner Lectures from 1979, Foucault traces the roots of the reason of state back to the pastoral power exercised by early Christianity. Far from representing a break from Foucault's earlier genealogical investigations, this text proves that they are in fact of a piece.

9. Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005). The virtue of this book is that it brings together all of Foucault's texts on the Iranian Revolution; however, its interpretation of Foucault's relationship with revolutionary Islam is deeply flawed.

10. Paras, 97.


About the Reviewer:

Corey McCall is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Elmira College in upstate New York. He received his Ph.D. from Southern Illinois University, and he is currently researching various topics concerning the relationship between ethics and aesthetics in the work of thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Walter Benjamin, and Stanley Cavell. His dissertation examined the significance of curiosity in the work of Martin Heidegger.

Citation Styles:

MLA Style Citation:
McCall, Corey. "Foucault among the Humanists." Other Voices 3.1 May 2007. September 24, 2017 ‹http://www.othervoices.org/3.1/cmccall/index.php›.

Chicago Style Citation:
Corey McCall, Foucault among the Humanists. Other Voices 3, no. 1 (2007), ‹http://www.othervoices.org/3.1/cmccall/index.php› (accessed September 24, 2017)

APA Style Citation:
McCall, Corey. (2007, May). Foucault among the Humanists. Other Voices, 3.1. Retrieved September 24, 2017, from http://www.othervoices.org/3.1/cmccall/index.php


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