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Review: Foucault: His Thought, His Character

Foucault: His Thought, His Character, by Paul Veyne (Polity), £15.99/$22.95 (pb)

foucoultthought200Philosophy should not be a matter of fashion, concerned as it is with weighty matters of truth. But fashions do come and go in philosophy, and Michel Foucault appears to have gone out of fashion. Certainly Foucault’s influence in philosophy might not ever have been strong; however, his strange historical reconstructions – what he called, after Nietzsche, “genealogies” – of punishment and especially of sexuality were deeply influential in the broader world of the humanities. What Foucault demonstrated, to put it simply, was that our ways of talking and dealing with something like “sex” changed historically in profound ways, so profoundly that we may not even be talking of the same “thing”. Foucault was an ironic victim of his own success. Once it was accepted that our thinking is radically historical in nature Foucault’s own work became consigned to the past. Like Wittgenstein’s ladder, it could be safely kicked away once climbed.

Paul Veyne’s quirky and engaging book is an attempt to redress this situation by insisting that we have not yet truly taken on the depth of the scandal of Foucault’s style of thinking. Veyne is well positioned to make this argument; a close friend of Foucault’s and a renowned historian and archaeologist of Ancient Rome and Greece, Veyne disarmingly admits his own perplexity and difficulty in really grasping the stakes of Foucault’s radical intervention. For Veyne the key to understanding Foucault is to regard him as a sceptic.

Veyne formulates this problem in terms of the “goldfish bowl”. We are fish who swim within a bowl, which is the metaphor for the conditions under which we think. The sceptic, for reasons it doesn’t seem to me Veyne fully establishes, gains the ability to historicise and so “see” the bowl, or even get outside it (which would seem to leave us with a dead goldfish…). Also, we don’t stay in the same bowl but historically “jump” from bowl to bowl, as conditions of thought mutate and change, again for reasons which Veyne, and Foucault, leave more than a little mysterious. Certainly Veyne is insistent that this does not mean disregarding historical facts, but rather implies a radical empirical attention that does not subsume such facts under baggy abstractions (the zeitgeist, class struggle, society, etc.). The difficulty is that the metaphor tells against this. If we gain access to something like “sex” only through a particular set-up, discourse, or goldfish bowl, how can we be certain that there really is something called sex outside the bowl? Aren’t historical facts part of the bowl?

Certainly Veyne is faithful to the fact that Foucault did not think so. Foucault characterised his own work as a “happy positivism”. This kind of “positivist” is sceptical about universals, and not about everything. Instead of analysing “Truth”, with a capital “T”, we instead step back to examine the production of “truth”, through historical and variable “truth games”. Perhaps, as Veyne seems to exasperatedly concede at points, this can never satisfy a philosopher, but we could also say that a little more precision in putting the case might have made it more convincing.

The second element of Veyne’s book is a study of Foucault’s character. If his thought is grasped through the metaphor of the “goldfish”, his character is grasped through the metaphor of the “samurai”. This is something of an Orientalist cliché, and the theorist Julia Kristeva wrote a notoriously bad roman à clef called The Samurai in which thinly-veiled representatives of French theory, including Foucault, were characterised in this way. For Veyne, the “samurai” refers to the cutting precision of Foucault’s writing, and it is true, I think, that Foucault’s style, especially in his genealogies, does not conform to the usual clichés of “theory” as deliberately obfuscatory. It also refers to Foucault’s own personal style, which Veyne characterises as fiercely individual, while generous to others. For those looking for gossip Veyne provides some choice anecdotes, especially around Foucault’s own sexuality – he was gay and would die of an AIDS-related illness. He records finding that Foucault had spent the night with a woman, and Foucault’s disbelief that Veyne himself was not gay (“A man like you, open and knowledgeable, yet who prefers women!”). How informative this is, especially as Veyne notes Foucault’s own stress on “depersonalising” the self, or getting free of the self, could be debated.

Although this book treats Foucault as a sceptic it is unlikely that it will convince any sceptics about Foucault, although perhaps no book can do that. What it does provide is an idiosyncratic and personal tribute, which is obviously, and movingly, deeply felt. With the recent publication in English of Foucault’s lecture courses, which present a more tentative “Foucault in progress”, it might well be time to go against fashion and return to Foucault now that the disputes that marked his work (which Veyne addresses) have started to fade.

Benjamin Noys is reader in English at Chichester University and author of The Persistence of the Negative (EUP)

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2 comments for “Review: Foucault: His Thought, His Character”

  1. I always suspected that Foucault’s historical research, about madness, about sexuality, about parrhesia, etc., is distorted to fit his conclusions.

    However, not being a historian,
    I have no real evidence against Foucault’s historical accuracy.

    Does anyone know if Foucault’s historical research is trustworthy?

    Posted by s. wallerstein (ex amos) | March 21, 2011, 2:53 pm
  2. Not so much inaccuracy as selectively seeing what he wants to see in the case of his work on madness. One illuminating remark he made was that he had simply applied Nietsche’s view of the will to power to various subject matters. So he sees the (abuse of) power of the medical profession as creating and enforcing the idea of madness and its supposed opposite, reason, but ignores their benevolence and professionalism (in a good sense).

    Posted by Stephen | March 21, 2011, 3:16 pm