Swinging on Foucault’s pendulum, part 1

One of the courses I’m taking this fall is An Introduction to the Professional Study of History. You can find more or less the whole outline of the semester here; it is a “Welcome to the IU History Department” course, mandatory the first semester of matriculation for History grad students, and part of the point is so that each new cohort has a part set of texts and concepts in common. This is the course where we read Freud and Marx and the impact of each on how history is discussed, we talk about Said’s Orientalism, we discuss The Return of Martin Guerre and Hémardinquer and how each one constructs a different narrative, we talk about how economic history isn’t really about economics, and so on. You’ll notice already that there’s a big ol’ assumption that you’re a modern historian, and the readings are predominantly focused thereupon. That said, there have been a couple of things that are of direct interest to the pre-modern historian (the first chapter of Feeney’s Caesar’s Calendar, for example, was the right thing for me to read at just the right time, and I expect it will prove highly influential over the next few years), and regardless, this is perhaps the one time in my graduate career where I’ll have any reason to read this kind of thing, so… why not?

A couple of observations before I move on to the meat of this post. One, there’s a fundamental way of thinking about history for the person who works in later periods that I think makes it difficult for them to relate to what we in the earlier periods do. Something I’ve heard a lot, from faculty and student alike, is that it’s all well and good what the educated, wealthy elite may have done or thought, but what about the person lower on the totem pole? How did they actually understand the world around them? That is a much more complicated question the earlier one goes, for the simple fact that literary sources, by virtue of being written, are already going to be produced by and for educated elite classes, particularly in earlier periods. I’ve already heard one modern historian sort of toss off the point that they’re not going to be too terribly disposed to care much about any argument an ancient or medieval historian might make, for that very reason.

Two, there’s a fundamental skepticism and cynicism about everything that is permeating much of what we read and that is evident in how many of my colleagues are processing what we read. There’s a very real assumption that people, communities, institutions, states, and so on are rotten to the core, filled with nasty people you can’t trust, and having a document that says something almost by definition constitutes proof that the opposite is true, because why else would somebody need to make ironclad certain that it was in writing unless they had some other interest that needed to be served? This problem was summed up by our professor in our last class meeting, when she said that what has everybody tearing their hair out in the field right now is that if you have a document that provides a count of pigs in some part of France from the seventeenth century, we’re past the point where we can just take the document at face value and say, “Look, there were 547 pigs there that year.” But neither is anybody, the mainstream of the field at least, comfortable with what seems to be the opposite extreme, which is to say, “Look! The state was counting pigs! That’s evidence of domination in a power relationship!”

Which brings me to Michel Foucault.

Surely some of you already guessed that Foucault would be mandatory reading for such a class. I had never read him before, and had never had a reason to read him, and the “Two Lectures” in Power/Knowledge were my first direct exposure to his various approaches to things.

How I will do this, as I mentioned in my last post, is that for now I will post the response paper I handed in to the professor. In a subsequent post, I will expand on a number of points, points which could not be appropriately elaborated either in a six-page response paper or in class. It will be clear why this is once I’ve posted those points.

As I said to my professor, this is not the kind of thing I typically write in an academic setting — I’m actually distinctly uncomfortable with how I said what I had to say, since it really was more in my “blogger voice” than my “scholar voice”, and I was responding as a scholar. Nonetheless, I had to say something, and I didn’t know any other way to say it. So, here it is, and more to come.

The Problem of Foucault


Foucault’s Problems

It is difficult for this particular Late Antique historian with somewhat obscure interests, having heard rumblings about “Foucault” and “theory” and “power relationships” and “discourse” for some years (and, curiously, seeing The History of Sexuality I cited in, of all things, a book on Ancient Greek oratory[1]) without ever particularly feeling the need to investigate further for my own ends, to know exactly how to respond to the initial exposure to the thinker who is, evidently, “the most-cited academic author.”[2] Nonetheless, however wide-ranging my immediate response may be, a response is demanded. Demanded by which agent acting through what instrument, one may well ask? Demanded by Foucault himself, I reply – by means of a worldview, a set of premises, and consequences to his ideas that leave me, in all honesty, quite puzzled about how they are in fact productive, or even if they represent themselves in an honest manner.

“[W]e have two schemes for the analysis of power,” Foucault claims. “The contract-oppression schema… and the domination-repression or war-repression schema for which the pertinent opposition is… between struggle and submission.”[3] While musing that these schemes have perhaps been “insufficiently elaborated at a whole number of points,”[4] this does not stop him from outlining his objective in the same kind of language.

My general project over the past few years has been, in essence, to reverse the mode of analysis followed by the entire discourse of right from the time of the Middle Ages. My aim, therefore, was to invert it, to give due weight, that is, to the fact of domination, to expose both its latent nature and its brutality. I then wanted to show not only how right is, in a general way, the instrument of this domination – which scarcely needs saying – but also to show the extent to which, and the forms in which, right (not simply the laws but the whole complex of apparatuses, institutions and regulations responsible for their application) transmits and puts in motion relations that are not relations of sovereignty, but of domination.[5]

I scarcely know where to begin. With this quote as a representative sample, I am struck by what appears to be rather baldfacedly unapologetic leftist ideology claiming to be research – not that its ideological nature is itself problematic, for it is difficult to see how any historical writing could not be informed by the values and perspectives held by the particular scholar. A representative example of Foucault’s ideological opposite might well be Samuel Flagg Bemis’ “American Foreign Policy and the Blessings of Liberty,” which could fairly be described as rather baldfacedly unapologetic right-wing ideology claiming to be historical narrative.[6] The problem with Foucault, rather, is the sense that he believes himself to be objectively elevating the conversation above the vulgar, teleological conservatism of Bemis, but he does not seem aware of the traps inherent in presenting as “theory” his own ideology.

What are these traps? To begin with, as Engelstein suggests, Foucault is too focused on later, Western European models to be able to adequately theorize the workings of power in other times and places in the world.[7] More important, however, is Foucault’s utter failure to be able to discuss the agency of the individual in any terms beyond that of the power relationship that exists in order to dominate. “The individual is an effect of power,” he asserts, “and at the same time, or precisely to the extent to which it is that effect, it is the element of its articulation.”[8] To the extent that Foucault appears to acknowledge the agency of the individual, it appears to exist only insofar as the dominating parties in power relationships allow it to exist, and then only insofar as it may be an instrument of said power relationships – that is, individual agency as an illusion which is ultimately only a layer of control. As such, it also seems questionable that, following Foucault’s model, a community of any size can ever truly exist that has shared values. Rather, Foucault would appear to simply call such a community an expression of the power relationship of domination with a particular kind of sheen on the surface. Perhaps these are other points that have been “insufficiently elaborated.”

Most problematic, however, is the inability of Foucault to be able to break out of the very circle that he has constructed – to wit, to what extent is there a power relationship established between him and his students, him and his readers, him and those citing him, how may that power relationship be described in his model, and how does it itself influence his own research and conclusions? To be fair, it seems he acknowledges this problem when he notes the need for “some kind of arbitrating discourse… a type of power and of knowledge that the sanctity of science would render neutral.”[9] Regardless, the danger of this problem is demonstrated by Goldstein; she states that the “hysteric-demoniac equation… can be regarded as the politicized hysteria diagnosis,”[10] but this conclusion is drawn at the end of what can itself be seen as an article-length politicized diagnosis of hysteria. The irony at the impotence of “theory” to sufficiently get outside of itself is both startling and thick.

What Foucault appears to be attempting, at least to my eyes, is the solution to the problem of why people and governments are petty and nasty and cruel, which was hardly a distant abstraction in mid-twentieth century Western Europe. Still, it seems hardly revolutionary or insightful to solve the problem by, in essence, asserting that people and states are cruel because people and states have always been cruel and must be cruel by virtue of being people and states. Perhaps it is not hard to infer the context of the working out of Foucault’s “project” – after all, Marxism didn’t prevent two horrendous world wars or their concomitant circumstances, neither did science, and neither did the history seminar for that matter, nor did any other discipline or “-ism.” Perhaps there were those who sincerely believed that what this represented was a theoretical gap to be bridged. Unfortunately, Foucault’s model appears to trap history within the vicious circle rather than provide any kind of escape route or redemption.

There is also a more localized issue that leaves me scratching my head. Given Foucault’s apparent dependence on a Western Europe from the Middle Ages up to the present, as well as on power of institutions and the domination they practiced through various instruments of that power, I find the question of Foucault’s applicability to Late Antiquity, and my particular areas of focus within that period, to be doubtful. To put it one way, Foucault does not seem able to address what I might broadly call “the God question” – that is, how might a belief in the efficacy of divine agency, at an individual, communal, institutional, and societal level, be analyzed and expressed using Foucault’s tools? Must it be reduced to questions of power relationships between those entities? Or is there a way, focusing strictly on that efficacy, not as a theological reality necessarily, but rather as a belief that is a historical force on its own, to take such a construction on its own terms without imposing Foucault’s theoretical model on it? If there is not, how might the historian who is not prepared to be cynical about every institution throughout history better use Foucault in discussing these matters?

I hate to conclude on a negative note, so what points of agreement (or, at least, points of less than total disagreement) might I see, and/or what might I advocate as a way forward? I am certainly not altogether unsympathetic to the view that science, knowledge, and their consequences do not exist in an ideological vacuum and are not morally neutral. In terms of a way forward, I see the utility of being able to discuss how power functions within a relationship – whether between individuals, institutions, communities, states, or some combination thereof – but I would want to see a theoretical model that does not define power and its exercise as a prerequisite of the existence of said relationship. Such a prerequisite is an opening for abuse, that is, it may be used too easily as a blunt instrument by the historian against entities with whom there is ideological disagreement.[11] I would argue that theoretical models, in order to meet Foucault’s desire for an “arbitrating discourse,” should endeavor to minimize their own enabling of a historian’s ideological agenda. Alternately, if it is simply not possible to achieve such an “arbitrating discourse,” then ideally we historians would simply be up front about our own personal biases, rather than enshrining them in something we conveniently refer to with a name that has the ring of objectivity, like “theory.”


Bemis, Samuel Flagg. “American Foreign Policy and the Blessings of Liberty.” American Historical Review 67, no. 2 (1962): 291-305.

Engelstein, Laura. “Combined Underdevelopment: Discipline and the Law in Imperial and Soviet Russia.” American Historical Review 98, no. 2 (1993): 338-53.

Foucault, Michel. “Two Lectures.” In Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977, edited by Colin Gordon, 78-108. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980.

Gill, John. “Giddens Trumps Marx but French Thinkers Triumph.” Times Higher Education, 03/26/2009 2009.

Goldstein, Jan. “The Hysteria Diagnosis and the Politics of Anticlericalism in Late Nineteenth-Century France.” Journal of Modern History 54, no. 2 (1982): 209-39.

Ober, Josiah. Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Stern, Alexandra Minna. “Buildings, Boundaries, and Blood: Medicalization and Nation-Building on the U. S.-Mexico Border, 1910-1930.” Hispanic American Historical Review 79, no. 1 (1999): 41-81.

[1] Josiah Ober, Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 368.

[2] John Gill, “Giddens Trumps Marx but French Thinkers Triumph,” Times Higher Education, 03/26/2009 2009.

[3] Michel Foucault, “Two Lectures,” in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977, ed. Colin Gordon (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), 92.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 95-6.

[6] Samuel Flagg Bemis, “American Foreign Policy and the Blessings of Liberty,” American Historical Review 67, no. 2 (1962).

[7] Laura Engelstein, “Combined Underdevelopment: Discipline and the Law in Imperial and Soviet Russia,” American Historical Review 98, no. 2 (1993).

[8] Foucault, “Two Lectures,” 98.

[9] Ibid., 107.

[10] Jan Goldstein, “The Hysteria Diagnosis and the Politics of Anticlericalism in Late Nineteenth-Century France,” Journal of Modern History 54, no. 2 (1982), 237.

[11] Alexandra Minna Stern, “Buildings, Boundaries, and Blood: Medicalization and Nation-Building on the U. S.-Mexico Border, 1910-1930,” Hispanic American Historical Review 79, no. 1 (1999). How else is one to read this?


2 Responses to “Swinging on Foucault’s pendulum, part 1”

  1. 1 Jim of Olym 10 October 2009 at 8:27 pm

    I appreciate your essay on Foucault, as I am an amateur history buff (not a historIAN!) Only question I have is: If Mr. Foucault never had tenure anywhere, would he have held the same views on power etc.?

  1. 1 “Why are you here?” as a research paper « Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist Trackback on 20 December 2009 at 12:37 am

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