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Amend and Deny: On to Foucault



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The typical pattern, when a work of postmodern scholarship is examined, is for defenders to hastily concede that “trivial errors were present” but that the “larger conclusions are still unquestionable.”

Take, for example, the mere title of a recent New Statesman Terry Eagleton review of a work on Edward Said “Edward Said got many things wrong, but his central argument was basically right.” The emphasis here is of course never on how much was wrong, but on whether an argument was “basically right.” “Basic rightness” stands as the highest test of any modern theory, a defense designed to repel all assailants. Coming of Age in Samoa, I Rigoberta Menchu, Orientalism? They all pass the test. Even if they’re well, not quite entirely true, or accurate… well, we know they’re Basically Right!  The latest example is the questioning of Foucault’s scholarship surrounding the recent translation of Madness and Civilization, which reveals, in English, vast problems of research. The “many things wrong – but Basically Right” argument has been flowering. Scot Eric Kaufman, at The Valve, provides an apt response: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.

More importantly, Kaufman echoes another critique in the original TLS review:

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 book on an idealization instead of the who and how of its enforcement is so problematic.  You know how a warden wanted his asylum run—or, perhaps more importantly, how he wanted other people to believe he wanted his asylum run—but that in no way reflects how it actually was.
As we well know, though, books on idealizations are among the most prized possessions of the academy. All errors are venial as long as a thesis is Basically Right. And who could possibly deny the truth of Orientalism? Or the sinister hypocrisy of Enlightenment Civilization? If anyone does, I certainly don’t want to meet them!


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