Sunday, December 03, 2006

Michel Foucault: magnificent bastard

Different philosophers' writings strike me very differently. I want to say there's a certain feel to their work, and I want to say that that particular feel is the feeling of their thought. At the same time, I have grave reservations about saying that. If it's folly to declare what some philosopher is really saying, then it's even sillier to say how some philosopher thinks. My ascription of these feelings to the philosophers' works and thoughts might mainly be a description of my experience of reading and thinking about what they wrote. I could make the weaker claim that I'm only describing my experience, but nah, that doesn't sound right. There really appears, somewhere in the relation between the words, my brain, and the brain of the author, something like that philosopher's thinking. We really do get glimpses of that, and it's pretty thrilling when we do. (And some philosophers thrill us more than others for that reason. For me, it's G.W.F. Hegel, Aristotle, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Michel Foucault. As much as I love J├╝rgen "Mad Dog" Habermas and Edmund "Fast Eddie" Husserl, I don't get that thrill from reading them.)

I'm reading Foucault this afternoon, prepping for Monday night's Theory of Knowledge class. I selected a couple chapters in the first section of Archaeology of Knowledge to read, because I love that book, because most people don't pay as much attention to it, and because I haven't read it in a while. I may be alone in this assessment, but I've always thought it was Foucault's most Foucauldian book. At some points he literally out-Foucaults himself (oooh, but couldn't that be a multi-layered pun), for instance, when he criticizes his own earlier work for being somewhat naive. He gets there by doing the thing that makes me so excited about Foucault, a feeling I describe sometimes as walking a tightrope, and sometimes as perversion. And if that says more about me than about Foucault, I'm fairly sure he'd think that was highly amusing, and so would I.

The tightrope: Foucault uses the phrase "neither... nor" a bajillion times in this book, tracing out the narrow path he's following. His attempt to account for discourses of knowledge requires him to deny himself ground, foundation, or, really, justification. He lays bare how discourses follow immanent rules in forming objects, but the complex relations that lead to those objects' formation are not to be confused with the objects themselves. So he's not performing a kind of Marxist de-fetishizing of objects. He also denies himself the phenomenological option of returning to the things. He also denies himself the option of linguistic analysis. It's not clear he has a method, or could have a method, for doing this. In the book, he is attempting to say what that method is, but it's more of a denial of method than a theory.

Perversion: If you apply that non-method to his own work, it becomes evident that either it's impossible for Foucault to explain how he does it, or it's impossible for him to actually be doing it, or both. And he leaves you there. This is rather alarmingly like certain kinds of SM play, and it thrills me immensely. It does feel to me very playful, about as playful as a philosopher can get, and not only perfectly in keeping with the content of this book, but also with what I ascribe to Foucault as his way of approaching his work and his life. That self-consistency, and the way that self-consistency impels him to be self-inconsistent in this book, is nothing short of kinky. (It's well-documented that Foucault was a pervert. I'm not referring to his homosexuality, but to his very bizarre sexual practices, which, sadly, almost certainly led to his early death. And yes, I adore the fact that Foucault was a pervert, and adore him for having been a pervert. That means I like perverts, I suppose - at least, those who don't deliberately harm anyone.)

One of the oddest things about Foucault's work, and one that led me to pick Archaeology of Knowledge instead of the more likely suspect The History of Sexuality is that The History of Sexuality is less kinky. In fact, it's hardly kinky at all, in the way Archaeology of Knowledge is. I think by then he'd formulated a more theoretically grounded method, and although it's also a great book and fun to read, to me it's just a little less of a thrill.

Foucault would reject all this, of course. To analyze his discourse as though it were his would make very little sense to the author of Archaeology of Knowledge. To him, discourse isn't a phenomenon of expression but of discursive relations that issue subject positions in the context of various institutional sites. As an occupant of such positions, there may be a "Foucault," but that's not to be confused with the French pervert who died in 1984. So you see, Foucault - the Foucault that Foucault would want me to say I'm describing - really is a bastard. Woo-hoo! Cheezy Petes, I love this stuff!

No comments: