Avoiding Common Misconceptions about Foucault

1. He's a leftist; he's a right-winger.

What's interesting to me about Foucault is the way he always prided himself on not being able to be pinned down on a right-left spectrum: supporting prison reform AND Solidarity in Poland for instance. I think it comes down to this: by insisting on studying power outside the state form he disappointed those in the old left who were intent on seizing state power. But by equally insisting that the mere presence of liberal political institutions didn't prevent the spread of disciplinary power relations he disappointed those on the right who restricted their model of power to government power and so were content with guarantees on the limitation of government power as the extent of their interest in analyzing power. But for another turn of the screw he further disappointed the old left and some in the new left by (perhaps implicitly) maintaining that while liberal institutions were not sufficient for a just society, they were necessary to avoid the totalitarian worst of the twentieth century. That he identified the French Communist Party and Stalinism in general as totalitarian from the mid 50s on is the one constant in his career. (In biographical terms this hatred of the PCF began as distaste for the thought police of party-dominated student politics in Paris, plus the moralism of the old left contra his homosexuality) . 

2. At least we can say that Foucault was anti-liberal.

Not at all. At the end of his life Foucault turned to the study of liberal thought. Here's a typical quote from that period, at the very end of his life. In the middle of an interview in which he explained his distaste for polemic, he says "In the serious play of questions and answers, in the work of reciprocal elucidation, the rights of each person are in some sense immanent in the discussion. They depend only on the dialogue situation... the polemicist, on the other hand, ... is not a partner in the search for the truth ..." [FR 381]. Habermas couldn't have said it better! 

3. So Foucault was a closet liberal.

But let's not go too far: "to say that [consensuality] is a regulatory principle, that's going too far ... I would say rather that it is perhaps a critical idea to maintain at all times ... The farthest I would go is to say that perhaps one must not be for consensuality, but one must be against nonconsensuality" [FR 379]. 

4. Foucault, the champion of discontinuity, couldn't account for historical change.

In fact, this was what obsessed him. The infamous "discontinuity" is not a hole in history, but a speed-up, a transformation. The link of discursive and non-discursive practices in genealogy is all about explaining historical change. He simply refused a monocausal model: neither the march of the world spirit nor class struggle satisfied him as the "motor of history". 

5. Foucault was part of the anti-psychiatry movement.

Madness and Civilization was indeed used by the anti-psychiatry people, but it itself doesn't examine contemporary practice. Foucault had no relation to a-p, and little sympathy for the results of their actions as emptying asylums. 

6. Foucault supported the Khomeini regime in Iran.

Foucault wrote some articles trying to make sense of the way the late 70s Iranian revolution was inexplicable in Cold War terms. He never "supported" Khomeini. 

7. Foucault's radical perspectivalism is self-contradictory.

Some argument like the following is sometimes put forth: Foucault claims that all universalist truth claims are perspectival and hence can't really be universally valid; this statement is itself a universal truth claim and is hence perspectival; thus if it's universally valid and all truth claims are perspectival and hence not universally valid, it cuts the ground out from underneath itself. But if it's false that all universal truth claims are perspectival, then his initial claim is false. And so on. 

I would uphold the following theses on this issue: 

ĄD Foucault's claims about the historical variability of social mechanisms for producing statements socially recognized as "true" are indisputable on the level of historiography. 

ĄDThis doesn't of course mean that there is no "truth" [in fact there's lots of truth all around us, constantly being produced] nor that some systems of production of truth claims have not in fact produced truth claims in certain areas of study that are in principle "transportable" across cultural borders [e.g., some modern hard science claims]. Of course in turn this doesn't imply that what gets studied in contemporary hard science is not analyzable in terms of social power, both between sciences [e.g., funding struggles between physics and medicine, or certain diseases rather than others] and between science and other public policy funding [e.g., "basic science" research vs. public health, and so on.] 

ĄD Foucault is fundamentally Nietzschean regarding the relation of truth and power: truths are that which increases the power relations a body maintains with others. So if claiming that truth and power are interwoven increases your power [your productivity as a scholar and political activist], then go with it. 

8. The universality of power relations eviscerates political action.

Only if your idea of politics is to escape power. Foucault was an experimentalist, a pragmatist: "it's not that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous" he once said. "So my position leads not to apathy but to a hyper- and pessimistic activism" [FR 343]. Or on another occasion: "It seems to me power is 'always already there', that one is never 'outside' it, that there are no 'margins' for those who break with the system to gambol in. But this does not entail the necessity of accepting an inescapable form of domination or an absolute privilege on the side of the law. To say that one can never be 'outside' power does not mean that one is trapped and condemned to defeat no matter what." [P/K 142].

9. Surveillance/Panopticism is the key principle of contemporary power.

Foucault was always very careful to say that Discipline and Punish had a restricted historical scope and that contemporary power mechanisms have other strategies as well as surveillance. "But the procedures of power that are at work in modern societies are much more numerous, diverse and rich [than panopticism]. It would be wrong to say that the principle of visibility governs all technologies of power used since the nineteenth century." [P/K 148]