This commentary is part of The Atlas Society's 1999 online "CyberSeminar" entitled "The Continental Origins of Postmodernism."
Essays and Comments on Foucault's The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction
Summary of the Discussion
Foucault and Postmodernism, by Stephen Hicks
Despite the difficulties of grasping Foucault’s overall agenda--partly because of its being so alien to that of Objectivism and partly because of Foucault’s obscurantist style—I found the CyberSeminarians’ posts to date to be impressive: all of the major themes from Foucault have been nicely laid out and discussed. At the same time I sensed that Foucault was often being dismissed too quickly as either hopelessly confused or just wrong. He is confusing and he is wrong—but I would like to add to the discussion a way of viewing Foucault that both clarifies his position and makes him seem more worthy of our attention.
Foucault as Cynical Libertarian. Some libertarians with a subjective streak are sympathetic to postmodern thought, and in many of those cases it is Foucault’s thought that they find attractive. So let’s start by pretending for a few paragraphs that Foucault is simply an extremely cynical libertarian.
Think of how many libertarians view Washington, D.C. Inside the Beltway, they say, the reality of America is a distant phenomenon. To the Beltway mentality, what’s going on in Idaho and Oklahoma is mostly unreal. Washington is in fact a self-contained social world of power struggles. Power is the coin of the realm, and the coin is spent to get more power. The power struggles are a matter of who knows whom, who is cleverer than whom at reading the shifting currents of alliances and enmities, and whose spin-meisters are quickest to construct the truth of the week. Think Wag the Dog. Abstractions such as truth and rights and justice are meaningless; power is the reality of life inside D.C.
For Foucault, what we call reality is just [this situation] writ large.
Switching back to the libertarian in Washington: Such a libertarian also feels outrage that the power-players in Washington are playing their games at the expense of the average citizens in Idaho and Oklahoma. Huge portions of the Idahoans’ lives are dictated by distant power structures over which they have no control. And despite all the pious talk in Washington about free speech and respecting the individual, the voices of the Oklahomans are effectively silenced and their liberties squashed.
What is needed, then, is to unmask the hypocrisies and posturings to show the naked power struggles for what they are, to subvert the institutions that are oppressing individuals, to de-centralize the power that has been co-opted by Washington, and thus liberate new voices and untold energies.
For Foucault, what we call modern Western civilization is just Washington writ large.
Let’s put the above “libertarian” perspective in more abstracted philosophical language.
For human beings, knowledge is power. Human physical/biological power matters less than intellectual power in determining our destiny.
And we are social animals. Human society’s complex relations are constructed and maintained by abstract intellectual beliefs and practices. The form intellectual activity takes is linguistic: words are the tools we use in constructing and maintaining those social practices.
Subverting the power structure is necessary to liberate the individual.
If we add that the social realm is intensely competitive and marked by power struggles along key social dimensions, it follows that the key power struggles are going to be conducted by words. If we add that some individuals and social groups have more power than others, it follows, then, that in the social context the winners will be those who get to define the terms, set the agendas, and put their “spin” on events. Other individuals are going to lose the power struggles and be oppressed. Being in the losing position, they won’t have the voice or even the language to defend themselves.
Finally, if we add that liberating the individual is good, it follows that subverting the power structure is necessary to liberate the individual.
Foucault as Postmodernist. From the above to Foucault requires only a few radicalizing steps. To get to Foucault we have to strip away any sense at all that we think in terms of rational, objective, and autonomous individuals.
First, Foucault is more radical epistemologically. As several of the CyberSeminarians have noted, Foucault’s question is never whether discourses are true or accurate in representing reality but rather what role they play in the evolution of power.
Second, in metaphysics Foucault strikes me as radical but inconsistent. He often sounds like an antirealist, holding that to speak of what reality really is is meaningless. For example, a secondary source quotes Foucault as saying: “[I]t is meaningless to speak in the name of—or against—Reason, Truth, or Knowledge.” At other times he offers a Nietzschean ontology, holding that reality is a field of forces that flow into power relations. For example, in our reading Foucault defines power as follows: “the moving substrate of force relations which, by virtue of their inequality, constantly engender states of power, but the latter are always local and unstable.” Here we have an ontological substrate—forces—which because they are unequally distributed generate centers of power. Because the forces are moving, the centers of power change and evolve too. Foucault is thus either an antirealist or a process ontologist.
Third, the Nietzschean ontology fits Foucault’s analysis of human nature: Human beings are one of the power centers that emerge out of the flow of forces. Human beings then generate linguistic forms of power—“discourses.” The discourses are both generated by humans and partly form their social reality and also in turn formative of other humans and their social reality. A standard example here of the social linguistic construction of human beings is religion. A child born into a culture with a given religion almost inevitably adopts his parents’ religion. The parents drill into the child certain words and phrases which structure the child’s thinking and practices; that thinking and those practices are reinforced and added to by the child’s other authority figures and peers; and when the child becomes a parent the same process occurs again. The child is constructed socially and linguistically and in turn contributes to the social and linguistic construction of others. Here Foucault draws on and acknowledges a Marxist social determinism.
Because the distribution of forces is never perfectly equal, the discourses that are socially dominant evolve over time. But in any case the dominance of a discourse is due to that discourse’s usefulness in increasing or maintaining the power of some over others.
Fourth: This connects us to Foucault’s historical analysis of the modern world. Since the Enlightenment, our discourse has privileged reason, science, and technology. Here Foucault follows Heidegger’s attack on those dominant features of the modern world. (Foucault once said that his “entire philosophical development was determined by [the] reading of Heidegger.”)
In the name of reason, science, and technology, modern humans are raised and constructed. Those thoughts and behaviors that can’t be squeezed into the powerful’s preferred social framework are marginalized as “other.”
Human beings are one of the power centers that emerge out of the flow of forces.
For example, reason and science applied to education yielded the following: students sit in their desks, the desks are organized in straight rows, the teacher is the authority figure, the students listen and memorize the facts, there is a set amount of time for each class and activity, the students are given the same standardized tests, they are graded and ranked hierarchically, and so on. When the students graduate and enter the economic world, reason and science applied to production yielded the following: workers punch in and out with time clocks, they stand before the machine, they are told what to do and when; or they sit in the corporate version—the cubicle farm.
Those who don’t fit the mold are either deemed criminals, in which case they are turned over to the legal system (the physical police), or they are deemed insane, in which case they are turned over to the psychiatric system (the mental police). In the legal realm, Foucault was struck by Bentham’s Enlightenment project the Panopticon, an ideal prison in which the prisoners could be continuously monitored (omniscient reason), studied and analyzed (science), and their behavior continuously shaped and rehabilitated (technology and engineering). In the psychiatric realm, Foucault was struck by how quickly slightly different behaviors—women who liked sex, homosexuals, and so on—were defined by enlightened scientists of human behavior as threatening aberrations and how wide a range of engineering techniques were used on them—confinement, shock therapy, drugs, and so on (David Potts’s mentioning of Thomas Szasz in this connection is right on target).
Hence Foucault’s remark about modern society: “in this society that has been more imaginative, probably, than any other in creating devious and supple mechanisms of power” (HS 86).
Fifth: As Heidegger and Foucault both put it, this reason/science/engineering way of looking at everything is only one way of doing so. It is not true or in any way superior. It is simply the one that happens to have come to dominance. And for a variety of reasons, that is the system they feel alienated from and which they wish to destroy.
For both, the strategy for subverting it is by focusing on that which has been marginalized and made “other.” For Heidegger, the Enlightenment exalted reason and progressive optimism—so he focuses on feeling, specifically negative feelings of dread and dissolution. For Foucault, the Enlightenment is defined by what it takes to be “normal,” “sane,” and “moral”—so his focus is on deconstructing the conceptual scheme that opposes “normal” and “abnormal,” “sane” and “insane,” “moral” and “criminal.” Celebrating the insane, the abnormal, and the criminal—or at least making them equal contenders—is accordingly part of a philosophical strategy to undermine oppressive modern Enlightenment society.
Is Foucault Right? Several CyberSeminarians raise at this point the question of the accuracy of Foucault’s reading of history on several points and whether he is logically consistent. Those are the right questions to ask and to hammer away at, and Foucault’s response illustrates the fundamental importance of the epistemological issues. To all such questions, postmodernists have learned from Foucault to respond as follows. In asking whether my reading is true, you are missing the point: there is no truth, no fixed reality which my theories have to mirror or correspond to; words are part of the power struggle for dominance; so the question to put to my reading is not whether it is true but whether it is effective in changing the social discourse. For Foucault, the purpose of his writing is not to say something true but to influence our conceptual framework. “Discourses are tactical elements or blocks operating in the field of force relations; there can exist different and even contradictory discourses within the same strategy” (HS 102). As to the lawyer who wants to win the case at any cost, the question isn’t whether his arguments are true or consistent but whether they are successful. That Foucault and the lawyer both know that their opponents insist on reading everything they say as either true or false only adds, from their perspective, an amusing ironic element to their presentation.
The Philosophical is the Personal. Our reading focused on Foucault’s presentation of sexuality as illustrating his theory. In addition to the above-discussed themes, The History of Sexuality also incorporates Freudian themes of unmasking non-rational sexual energies. But I picked this reading also because it fits tightly with Foucault’s personal psychology. As postmodernist, Foucault would insist that there is no distinction between the personal and the social, that everything is political. So it is fitting that his personal life also illustrated his philosophy.
There is a nihilistic streak that is characteristic of much of postmodernism, one that exists in tension with postmodernists often-professed concern with liberating the oppressed and empowering the marginalized. In Foucault one finds that tension very markedly: Foucault is among those postmodernists who emphasize the liberation and empowering themes, but in his writings one also finds strong nihilistic themes.
In speaking of humans in general, Foucault sometimes speaks almost happily of the erasure of the species. In Words and Things, for example, he writes: “Man is not a stable thing, but a point where social, linguistic, economic, psychological, etc. forces happen to converge for awhile. Man is a recent invention that will soon disappear, like a face drawn in the sand.” God is dead, wrote Hegel and Nietzsche. The Enlightenment killed God and exalted man, but man too will be dead, Foucault hopes.
In speaking more personally about his motivations for writing, Foucault speaks about his desire to erase himself. In his “Introduction” to The Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault speaks at one point in the first person: “I can lose myself and appear at last to eyes that I will never have to meet again. I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face.”
Finally, there is Foucault’s preference for sado-masochistic gay sex. That lifestyle certainly is an expression and stylization of social relations of naked power. Whatever one’s views of sado-masochistic gay sex, the disturbing fact is that Foucault was diagnosed with AIDS in 1982, and after learning of this diagnosis continued to frequent San Francisco’s bathhouses and sex clubs, realizing that he was probably passing the disease on to others.
The connection of philosophy and practice doesn’t get any clearer than that.