Posts Tagged 'the problem of theory'

Embracing paleostructuralism

It is late afternoon on Wednesday, and I have somehow managed to accomplish everything I needed to accomplish by this time. On Friday, this seemed like a goal that was unattainable, so I am reasonably pleased.

Somebody mentioned to me this last Saturday, “I occasionally read your rants against post-structuralism.” It had not been explicitly discussed in class that Foucault and company actually constitute an “-ism”, so I’m sure I was a deer in the headlights for a second while I figured out what my friend meant. Flesh of My Flesh has been explicitly exposed to more theory than I have, so I’ve been hearing about the supposed difference between signifier and signified for some time, but again, that this movement had a name was new information for me. A couple of things clicked once I understood the label; this is the same friend who a few years ago overheard me saying that it made no sense to me to read modern ideas of sexual equality and identity into texts for which those ideas would be anachronistic, and consequently chided me for “not believing in gender theory,” adding, “Applying theory is not ‘reading something into’ anything. That’s just you having an ideological problem.”

For all I know, maybe he’s right. He’s in the English department, and maybe there’s a way these things actually make sense from the standpoint of literature. Maybe, too, this is the difference between a “scholar” and an “intellectual” — I do not give a fat, furry, flying rat’s hindquarters about theory. I have not entered an academic discipline because I am interested in the “isms” which seem to plague the humanities right now. (I am told that “thing theory” was rather well-represented at last week’s Byzantine Studies Association of North America conference, which makes me want to tear out my own teeth with a rusty screwdriver.) I have entered an academic discipline, because, funny and naïve and idealistic as it may sound, I am actually interested in, and even like, my subject of study.

What does that make me? A paleostructuralist? If so, then so be it. (“Paleostructuralist” sounds cooler and more dignified than “anti-post-structuralist” anyway.)

I still have more to write on Foucault in this space, but it’s going to have to wait a bit yet while I finish some other things. In the meantime, my most recent (and last) response paper for my “Introduction to the Professional Study of History” course starts to sketch out some of the thoughts that will show up there. Certain elements will be no surprise to those who visit here somewhat regularly, there are a couple of moments where it will be evident that I just got through watching all of Christopher Nolan’s movies in chronological order (which merits its own post), and the couple of somewhat coy suggestions that certain things should be discussed elsewhere will be developed in my final paper for this course.

The Safe Retreat into Omniscient Third-Person:

The Problem of Historicizing Oneself


A Response to Kate Brown’s “A Place in Biography for Oneself”

(As Well as a Number of Other Bits and Pieces from the Fall 2009 H601 Course)

“Historians,” writes Kate Brown in her essay “A Place in Biography for Oneself,” “expose other people’s biographies, not their own.”[1] How can this be, however, when according to Marx, “[m]en make their own history” [2]? How, ultimately, may historians be their own agents of history while being true to their own profession? How might historians assume the first person voice in their own work, that is to say, our own work, or still more to the point, my own work – honestly?

To expand Marx’s quote, men make their own history, “but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past.” Brown certainly did not choose her circumstances. She is from a small Midwestern town whose economic history could have stepped out of the pages of The Marx-Engels Reader; in her home town of Elgin, Illinois, as she tells it, the beginning of her life intersected with a narrative of Western expansion, labor strife, industry flight, economic redevelopment, and gentrification.[3] Her own retelling of the story gives significant credibility to Marx’s claim that “[t]he tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living”[4]:

From Elgin… I came to understand how closely one’s biography is linked to one’s place… I recognized the impulse to bulldoze and start over, to push on toward a brighter, cleaned-up destiny, which meant abandoning some places and people and losers of an unannounced contest.[5]

The past – that is to say, one’s history – and its relationship to location are a weight that one must learn to carry or learn to jettison. Perhaps this can be understood as an inversion of the opening line of Pat Conroy’s novel The Prince of Tides – rather than the wound being geography, the anchorage, the port of call, it is geography, and the confluence of circumstances that one encounters in that geography, that is the wound.

All well and good — but how real is this confluence of circumstances? How objectively may its existence be assumed? Per Benedict Anderson and his analysis of how seemingly disconnected events make up the front page of a newspaper, perhaps not much:

Why are these events so juxtaposed? What connects them to each other? Not sheer caprice. Yet obviously most of them happen independently, without the actors being aware of each other or of what the others are up to. The arbitrariness of their inclusion and juxtaposition… shows that the linkage between them is imagined.[6]

What, then, is the difference between one’s life and the front page of a newspaper? Do they both represent a constructed – that is to say, not objectively real – and affected way of arranging events? For the historian, how does that construction and that affectation influence how they read history, view history, and write history? How does understanding how one’s life interacts with one’s work impact either, for better or for worse?

As a scholar, I have been carefully trained to avoid using the first person in my work. “Don’t ever say things like ‘We can see the following…’ in your research,” I remember being told in one undergraduate course. “This is not a journey ‘we’re’ going on together. It’s a research paper.” My training in languages also tends to inform how I view texts – “Read what it says, not what you think it means,” my first Greek instructor repeatedly told our class. My research goal, therefore, is typically to state a clear, impersonal thesis and then get the hell out of the way of my own argument, simply letting the facts and the observations speak for themselves as much as possible. If I present it as something that “I” think, then I will have fundamentally devalued and undermined my argument – why should anybody care what I think?

Naturally, there is far more to it than a hope to rest comfortably on objectivity. Why should anybody care what I think, indeed. I’m a nobody, a college dropout from nowhere, a first generation college graduate at the age of 29, having taken eleven years to finish a four year degree (a B. Mus. at that, not a liberal arts degree), who then, even with good grades and test scores, still had to do three years of coursework as an unmatriculated student before there was any way to be competitive for graduate schools, all the while hearing from a chorus of professors, “I’m more than happy to write you a letter of recommendation, but I’m not sure you’re going to be able to get there from here.” Why should anybody care what I think? Good heavens, I will need to make sure I publish under a pseudonym just to be taken at all seriously. Better yet, I should somehow indicate on my C. V. that I simply sprang forth fully-grown from the head of Zeus with my PhD already in hand.

But there is still more to it than that, surely. I’ve been at Indiana University in one capacity or another since 2003, somewhat ironically making it the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere. My family bounced around a lot for reasons best recounted elsewhere, and even now, they live, quite dispersed, in places I have never lived, in houses I never called home, in zip codes I never visited until they moved there. Brown can rely on her connection with the place of Elgin, Illinois as an anchor for where she is now, but I am literally from nowhere, in the sense that I have had to construct my notion of “home” from different raw materials than place and family, and I find it very difficult to relate to concepts of home that do center around place and family. If my family moved around for reasons having to do with the military or career development, than I might be able to legitimately claim – as a friend of mine, the son of a prominent Russian History scholar, does – to be a “citizen of the world,” to be from everywhere. Alas, I can claim nothing quite so romantic or interesting. Robert Frost once said that home is where, if you have to go there, they have to take you, but the places where that is even marginally true are places that have never actually been a part of my life. If Brown is correct that one’s biography is closely linked to place, than I truly am the Nowhere Man – so again, why should anybody care what I think?

But, of course, there is still more to it than that.

“In my quest to explore the human condition,” writes Brown, “I have hidden behind my subjects, using them as a scrim to project my own sentiments and feelings.”[7] There is an undeniable connection between who somebody is and what interests them; for her own part, Brown describes this connection by saying, “I believe that I was able to see stories that had not yet taken shape for other historians because of the sensitivities I acquired in my past.”[8] My advisor, Professor Edward Watts, is potentially an example; he is an academic raised in a family of academics. His parents are both academics, and his sister is an academic. What was the subject of his dissertation? Rhetorical education in Late Antique Alexandria and Athens. As I told him after I read the book, it is difficult to not see his work as having an aspect of meta-commentary on the academic life. He chuckled and said, “You wouldn’t necessarily be wrong.”

Beyond that example, I saw with my own eyes how the personal connection between historian and subject might manifest with my colleagues during orientation and initial class meetings:

“Hi, I’m Roberto Arroyo, and I’m interested in Latin American history.”

“My name is Isaac Rosenbaum, and I do Holocaust history.”

“I’m Lakshmi Patel, and I’m studying the history of relations between India and Pakistan.”

The Late Antique Byzantinist whose last name is not “Ioannides” or “Sotiriou” is left at something of a disadvantage in such company. Yes, there is, in fact, a personal reason that connects me to my subject of inquiry, a personal reason that should not be too hard to surmise for the careful observer (but one that is best discussed in another setting), but a personal reason that is nonetheless internal, abstract, and conceptual rather than immediately and concretely constructed by place or family – that is to say, by the circumstances which I did not choose. I have personal stakes that led me to my areas of interest, but because they are of my own choosing I must be circumspect in how I speak in terms of “I”, “we”, and “our” if I am to be seen as having sufficient distance from my subject to be credible as a scholar. Edward Said and Dipesh Chakrabarty appear adamant that cultures and societies must define themselves, that to not allow such self-definition is cultural imperialism,[9] and yet this mandate of courtesy with respect to communal identity does not appear to extend to those who have embraced certain communities voluntarily.

Of course, I also have the problem that I am not interested in my subject from a critical point of view; I find it anachronistic to explicitly read whatever my own political beliefs and values may be – and, for today’s purposes, we may broadly describe them as uncomfortably conservative as Russell Kirk defined the word, which according to contemporary definitions probably makes me liberal – into my historical subject, but per Elizabeth Blackmar as quoted by Ted Steinberg, we historians are not supposed to evade the question of politics.[10] According to Steinberg, the role of the historian in the present day is evidently to explore “the history of oppression,”[11] and this attitude is one I see largely borne out in my cohort. Nonetheless, the reality is that such a history is not the history of the Late Antique Eastern Roman Empire I have any desire to write. I have better things to do than study something with the express purpose of tearing it down. I fundamentally believe it is possible to be more productive and constructive – but do I only believe that because of my other beliefs in the first place? Is my choice of the word “constructive” itself telling, possibly signifying that I would rather buy into the social constructions that historians are supposed to deconstruct? The 3rd person voice of objectivity keeps me from having to mess with such potentially treacherous questions.

If men make their own history, but not under circumstances they choose for themselves, and history is supposed to be the history of oppression, then must a historian writing their own history engage in self-hatred by definition? Brown does not appear to write a piece of self-hatred, but it is clear that she is uncomfortable with the implications of her own essay – “My palms sweat as I write this… The intimacy of the first person takes down borders between author and subject, borders that are considered by many to be healthy in a profession situated between the social sciences and the humanities.”[12] Chakrabarty suggests one possible way out, explicitly referencing autobiography and history as two separate and distinct genres[13] – so not only is autobiography, the history of oneself, not history, but history isn’t a discipline anyway, it’s a genre. But here is the rub – if history is a genre somewhere “between” the social sciences and the humanities, and a historian writing their own history must find a methodologically honest way to not engage themselves at the level of self-hatred, which then in fact moves the work into a different genre altogether, then the historian can never actually engage in a real work of self-historicization that is not self-mutilatory.

At any rate, can we claim objectivity anyway by avoiding biographical detail or the first person? In a post-structuralist world where we must assume a fundamental disconnect between signifier and signified, does it really matter to begin with? Or is a research paper written in the omniscient third person much like Bruno Latour’s depiction of the laboratory[14] or Bonnie Smith’s history seminar and archive[15] – a socially constructed, that is to say false, space of knowledge-based privilege that can assert authority it does not actually have simply because a particular group of people have become convinced that it does?

I do not have answers to my own questions, posed at the outset of this musing. I am not certain where to go with them. My inclination is to say the various circumstances of my own life may appear as arbitrary as Anderson insists the front page of the newspaper actually is, but by virtue of the very fact that I in fact experience those circumstances in chronological order, I nonetheless perceive them as my own narrative. My inclination is to say that I cannot be forced to historicize my own life as a history of oppression any more than I can legally be required to self-incriminate in a court of law. My inclination is to say that nonetheless, I am better off keeping my arguments in the third person and keeping my “self” out of the voice of my own work, that regardless of what I think, we all know what a coffee table will feel like if we rap it with our knuckles, and that in saying that I am not privileging people who have hands or who do not have nerve damage. My inclination is to say that there must be a world outside of our own minds, and that there must be a way we can discuss it, even if our own minds tell us how we’re going to organize our perceptions of that world. Are these words and ideas too strong, too dangerous, too naïve, too uninformed? I do not know, but I do not know where else to start.

And perhaps that is why it is good I work in a period many people find irrelevant. It keeps me from becoming a danger to myself or to others.

Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. 2 ed. New York: Verso, 2006.

Blackmar, Elizabeth. “Contemplating the Force of Nature.” Radical Historians Newsletter no. 70 (1994).

Brown, Kate. “A Place in Biography for Oneself.” American Historical Review no. 114 (2009): 596-605.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks For “Indian” Pasts?” Representations no. 37 (1992): 1-26.

Latour, Bruno. “Give Me a Laboratory and I Will Raise the World.” In Science Observed: Perpsectives on the Social Study of Science, edited by Karin Knorr-Cetina and Michael Mulkay, 141-70. London: Sage, 1983.

Marx, Karl. “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.” In The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by Robert C. Tucker, 594-617. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1978.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1994. Reprint, 2003.

Smith, Bonnie. “Gender and the Practices of Scientific History: The Seminar and Archival Research.” American Historical Review 100, no. 4 (1998): 1150-76.

Steinberg, Ted. “Down to Earth: Nature, Agency, and Power in History.” American Historical Review 107, no. 3 (2002): 798-820.

[1] Kate Brown, “A Place in Biography for Oneself,” American Historical Review, no. 114 (2009), 603.

[2] Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1978), 595.

[3] Brown, “A Place in Biography for Oneself,” 600-3.

[4] Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” 595.

[5] Brown, “A Place in Biography for Oneself,” 604.

[6] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, 2 ed. (New York: Verso, 2006), 33.

[7] Brown, “A Place in Biography for Oneself,” 603.

[8] Ibid., 605.

[9] Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1994; reprint, 2003). Dipesh Chakrabarty, “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks For “Indian” Pasts?,” Representations, no. 37 (1992).

[10] Elizabeth Blackmar, “Contemplating the Force of Nature,” Radical Historians Newsletter, no. 70 (1994)., 4. Quoted in Ted Steinberg, “Down to Earth: Nature, Agency, and Power in History,” American Historical Review 107, no. 3 (2002), 804.

[11] Steinberg, “Down to Earth: Nature, Agency, and Power in History,” 802.

[12] Brown, “A Place in Biography for Oneself,” 603.

[13] Chakrabarty, “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks For “Indian” Pasts?”, 8.

[14] Bruno Latour, “Give Me a Laboratory and I Will Raise the World,” in Science Observed: Perpsectives on the Social Study of Science, ed. Karin Knorr-Cetina and Michael Mulkay (London: Sage, 1983). Accessed online at on 9 November 2009.

[15] Bonnie Smith, “Gender and the Practices of Scientific History: The Seminar and Archival Research,” American Historical Review 100, no. 4 (1998).


Conceptualizing the “liberal bias” of academia

Have I mentioned I’m glad I’m not a modern historian? Seriously. So much of the scholarship of modern history I’m reading in my “Introduction to the Professional Study of History” course is angry, ultra-liberal work that arrogates to itself a point of view of objective correctness, using theory as a blunt instrument against people, institutions, and events with which/whom they might disagree politically. Anything that might discuss an event or institution without criticism is nationalistic, conservative, anti-intellectual nonsense. There’s a strain I perceive among some of my cohort of choosing to be a historian because of a particular anger about a particular issue — colonialism, nationalism, treatment of one group or another, and so on.

But hold on. Is that really what’s happening? What is the “liberal bias” of academia, really? Does it actually exist? Would those whom conservatives accuse of having a liberal bias actually see it that way themselves (and, alternately, would those conservatives recognize a corresponding conservative bias)? What’s really going on?

What I’m starting to wonder is this — is what some perceive as a “liberal bias” not much more than the very human reaction to the horrible things of the 20th century, but that reaction occurring in a post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment, postmodern world? Is it as simple as a group of well-meaning, intelligent people saying, very understandably, “These are awful, evil things! How do we explain them, understand them, and prevent them?” Except with the caveat that the structures that might exist to help explain them, understand them, and prevent them, are no longer seen as reliable?

Perhaps we’re in an age where what we’ve got is “choose your own adventure humanity” — there’s no reason for society to assent to a particular religion, but you go ahead if you want. There’s no reason for society to recognize as legitimate any particular power of the state, but you go ahead if you want. There’s no reason for society to acknowledge and privilege any of the constructs society used to acknowledge and privilege, but go ahead if you want. Don’t agree with X? Great, don’t do it, but don’t tell somebody else they can’t, because there’s no legitimate framework to do so. As a consequence of these points, there’s no reason for any particular group of people to have any particular advantage or privilege, perceived or real, over anybody else; not only that, but there is no legitimate definition of a difference of function that asserts a lack of difference of privilege, because there is no institution privileged to make that distinction, and any institution that would assert the privilege to make that distinction must automatically be seen through the lens of power relationships.

The end result is very well-meaning, very humane people trying to solve humanitarian problems out of context, which winds up being perceived as “liberal bias”, but it isn’t, really. It’s just that they’ve backed themselves into a theoretical corner. From a Christian standpoint, what we might say is that these people can perceive — and quite unmistakably so — the effect of the Fall, but they don’t have any means of actually discussing it meaningfully. The anger I sense in the scholarship I’m reading and in some of my colleagues is maybe not poorly motivated, but the only way they have to talk about it is to say is in terms of historical constructs like colonialism, nationalism, racism, gender inequality, and so on — Foucauldian language regarding power and domination emerges as a seemingly sensible way to discuss historical problems.

Christians also wind up being backed into the same corner, and have to at least discuss problems that are a result of the Fall as though the Fall never happened. Even Christianity has to function according to the rules of a postmodern, post-Christian world, in other words.

Is this an impasse? Perhaps to some extent. Bad things continue to happen; people continue to have a very human response to said bad things. It’s not a liberal vs. conservative problem; the problem with conservatives is that the potential is there to go to the opposite extreme — “Oh well, it’s a fallen world, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, nothing you can do about it except be thankful if you’re on the winning side and hope the Second Coming happens before things get much worse,” being how I might broadly sketch out such an extreme.

Understanding the problem as a liberal bias is not ultimately going to be helpful, I don’t think. I think we can assume more often than not that people take certain positions in good faith and with good intentions (although by their fruits shall ye know them, of course). Kicking against the goads of a perceived liberal bias isn’t going to change anything; what might change some things — and more importantly, what might change some minds and hearts — is providing well-reasoned persuasive arguments for alternative theoretical understandings, and doing so within the context of a genuine Christian witness. At times that may very well mean having to be a witness in the sense of “martyrdom,” but it’s hard to deny that that can be necessarily part of the deal.

Which reminds me — I still have more to say about Foucault. I haven’t forgotten about that, and I’ll talk about that reasonably soon.

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?

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