Discipline and Punish:

Background: never read Foucault, not even for my prelim, where I (correctly) guessed that limited time and question space meant he was not going to be a subject of discussion. Lumped him into a category of 'postmodernism' or 'FoucaultandDerrida,' as though the two were one person. As an undergrad who first got his taste of the culture wars in academia from the conservative side, Foucault was something of a demon responsible for this thing called 'theory' that had somehow ruined English departments, the humanities, and the university more generally. I've come around on postmodernism--they write such good novels!--and similarly made my peace with critical theory, which is a useful corrective to much of what is wrong with international law--it's healthy to remember that international law is an example of social construction par excellence. He does seem to inspire a fervent distate on some parts of the right so, given my contrarian impulses, it seemed time to give him a read.

And I'm here to tell you: it's a completely typical work of social history. As an academic work, there's nothing objectionable about it.

That is to say: I find it to have the problems I find all social history to have, but it's not especially or particularly loaded with additional problems. To employ a metaphor re: my feelings on social history, a pile of bricks is not a building. Foucault assembles his argument from a large number of extensive quotations in which people say the things he claims people in that particular historical period were saying about various topics. The intellectual history critique is that he gives no real context for those quotations: were these texts important or influential? how were they read? why should we take them as representative? The political theory critique is that he divorces his quotations from their context within the works from which they are taken: how is the reader to know that the quotation is a representative sample of a primary argument? Without some sense of how the particular text was constructed, it's hard to know for sure.

To extent the metaphor further, if it's true that a pile of bricks does not make a building, it's especially true that a pile of bricks from 18th century France does not make a house today. That is to say: Foucault has a historical argument he believes relevant to the present day, but makes no particular argument to link the two. Instead, he relies on his reader's sense or feeling of a link. When it happens in conservative political theory (where I also dislike it) this move is done by the use of an adverb: 'properly,' 'rightly,' etc. (This is, I am told, a murky or cagey quality regarding the implications of Foucault's arguments that is present elsewhere in his work.)

The rest is a mix of the obvious and the uncontroversial. The obvious: hierarchies turn actions unrelated to anything into rituals to ensure power and submission; e.g. removing your shoes and belt at the airport without being told. The uncontroversial: punishment used to be public and gruesome, and is now private and focused on reforming (or punishing) the inner life of the convict through isolation.

So I'll read on in his work to see if there's anything else of interest, but it's nice to save some of that precious academic dislike for someone who actually deserves it.


FLG said...

I picked up Discipline and Punish relatively recently, maybe last summer, and came away with a similar impression. Nothing objectionable. He leads the reader in interesting directions but there's something questionable about the linkages. Not offensive, just questionable. But still makes you think.

Nicholas said...

Yeah, my distinct feeling is that the objection is not so much over the content but the implication of the argument; ie not that it's wrong, but that some people just don't like those conclusions. I am told The History of Sexuality and The Order of Things are a bit more controversial: I suppose I'll see whenever I get around to them.