(X-posted from the Valve ... and speaking of disciplining and punishing, the person who has been leaving inappropriate comments; signing me up for every spam mailing list imaginable; and sending me emails of unquestionably threatening content—I would like that person to know that I've logged his address; have filters many and mighty to stem that tide; and laughed when I saw that the emails had been sent from a work account.)
Andrew Scull’s review of the new translation of Madness and Civilization is on more than a few people’s minds, and why not? Its relentless criticism of Foucault’s shoddy historiography is meant to provoke:
[History], consequently, requires patience and a knowledge of details, and it depends on a vast accumulation of source material. Its “cyclopean monuments” are constructed from “discreet and apparently insignificant truths and according to a rigorous method”; they cannot be the product of “large and well-meaning errors.” In short, [history] demands relentless erudition.
Sorry, wrong window—that there is Foucault extolling the virtues of a rigorous genealogy, not Scull criticizing him for his “isolation from the world of facts and scholarship.” I quote it now to dispel the notion that minor historical inaccuracies in Foucault’s work are of little consequence. Put bluntly, they matter; a little more argumentatively, they matter more than their counterparts in conventional histories, because the “effective history” Foucault champions in “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” approaches “events in terms of their most unique characteristics, their most acute manifestations.”
Foucauldian genealogy sweats the small stuff, as it’s in the minutiae that metahistory reveals the limits of its teleology. To say—as some have and others surely will—that the questionable citations and historical inaccuracies in Madness and Civilization in no way challenge the larger theory built upon them is powerfully stupid. Of course they do. Anyone who employs the Foucauldian theory of madness (however defined) must now seriously reconsider whether their work remains structurally sound. Perhaps the evidence they cited meets evidentiary standards; they are not only safe, their work helps validate the utility of the Foucauldian account. Even there, the problem of whether researchers found what they were looking for persists, i.e. had Foucault not coined his theory, they wouldn’t have found what they weren’t looking for.
Still, the most dire of Scull’s critiques is that
much of [Foucault’s] account of the internal workings and logic of the institutions of confinement, an account on which he lavishes attention, is drawn from their printed rules and regulations. But it would be deeply naive to assume that such documents bear close relationship to the realities of life in these places, or provide a reliable guide to their quotidian logic.
As anyone who’s read a blurb of Discipline & Punish knows, the difference between formal, institutional strictures and lived experience is of central importance to his thought. As he writes in “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,”
Rules are empty in themselves, violent and unfinalized; they are impersonal and can be bent to any purpose.
Exactly right, Michel, which is why basing your first book on an idealization instead of the who and how of its enforcement is so problematic. You know how a warden wanted his asylum run—or, perhaps more importantly, how he wanted other people to believe he wanted his asylum run—but that in no way reflects how it actually was. This situation is similar to the one Simon Goldhill anatomizes in Foucault’s Virginity; namely, that for all his debasing of teleology, Foucault often runs roughshod over archival material in order to prove his world-historical point. (Goldhill accuses him of being of an unsophisticated reader, perhaps unattuned to the subtleties of classical prosody, perhaps unwilling to listen, too eager is he to draw a “purposeful trajectory from Plato to the Church.")
I understand this is a cheap shot, uncleverly performed, but the lady-doth-protest-too-much feel of his anti-teleology complaints seems ever more important. Moreover, a shot across the bow is a terrible way to close a post, yet here I am ...