Wednesday, 04 April 2007

The Warden Will See You Now, Mr. Foucault (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...
With Apologies, a Little More Foucault (X-posted) A few more brief notes about the discussion of Foucault are in order. Far from being tired, as Alex suggests, I think we should have more such conversations, and more frequently. As serious scholars, we should not concede the floor to sad spectacles of transparent cronyism, nor should we brook the claim that a frequently cited work—one whose title often appears to the immediate right of words like “seminal” and “magesterial”—is near-juvenalia. Critics of Madness and Civilization are not members of a committee maliciously conspiring to torpedo the career of a promising graduate student, but members of a scholarly community which (ideally) can discuss the relative merits of a work considered important. Where Madness and Civilization fits into the Foucauldian corpus is, for the moment, irrelevant. Point of fact, the desire to defend Foucault from his own work—cutting his nose to spite his face—suggests an irrational investment in its inviolability. (This investment is made all the more irrational by the scapegoating by which its illusion is sustained.) If we ignore the historiographical problems with Madness and Civilization, Foucault remains for his acolytes what they desperately need him to be. But what if we mention, as I did, the problems Simon Goldhill identifies in The History of Sexuality? Will it be jettisoned too? I only ask because this reverential model leads to some supremely unintellectual waters, a frightful bilge we would do best to avoid. This is not, however, a post about the inbred thought of oblivious sycophants. Following Foucault Blog‘s lead, this is a post about what I should have foregrounded in my initial one; namely, that I juxtaposed the Scull alongside “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” because I value the standards espoused in the latter, not to hoist Foucault by his own petard. To claim that only an unserious, derivative hack—like those fools who populate English departments—could express a preference for one Foucauldian period over another is profoundly myopic. Those who chose not to weld the blinders on can see where I’m headed here: Scull may not be able to differentiate methodology from the conclusions drawn through it, but we can; moreover, his review should compel us to question this issue as it relates both to Foucault’s work and our own. Methodological reflection should be part and parcel of academic study; declaring it anathema will neither preserve another’s reputation nor allow us to do the quality work required to build our own.

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