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Foucault and the Political by Jon Simons

Peter Benson considers the politics of Michel Foucault.

This book is one of a series published by Routledge on the political thought of various modern philosophers. Volumes on Heidegger and Derrida have already been published. In the case of those two philosophers, serious doubts can be raised as to whether their work has any political relevance whatever. Michel Foucault’s writings, on the other hand, have always been concerned with power relations and with the historical roots of our present social institutions. That his work is fully engaged with political issues is undeniable, but it is less certain whether any specific political project (any recommended social action) can be deduced from Foucault’s analyses. Lenin wrote a famous book called What Is To Be Done? Foucault spent most of his career deliberately avoiding answering this question. He was suspicious of intellectual gurus who sought to provide a complete political programme for others to follow, and the events of the past century must surely justify his suspicions.

With the decline in the intellectual authority of Marxism, Foucault’s very different analyses of the historical development of contemporary society become ever more attractive. Although he does not tell us what we should do about our current situation, he frequently puts his finger very precisely on the sources of our discontent. These he locates, neither in class divisions, nor in economic relationships, but in the pervasive institutions of discipline and social control which severely limit the horizons of our lives.

Unlike many contemporary European philosophers, Foucault’s writings (with one or two exceptions) are not difficult to read. Their wealth of historical detail gives his arguments a vivid and tangible force. For anyone completely new to his work, reading Discipline and Punish would be the best possible introduction. The opening pages of Simons’ book, by contrast, may appear very abstract and their trajectory difficult to grasp, without a prior familiarity with the concepts involved. However, Foucault did write an enormous amount – the bibliography at the end of Simons’ book runs to six closely printed pages – and few of us could read our way through all of it. Thoroughly familiar with all this material, Simons ably extracts the most pertinent passages. What is lost in this process is the concrete density of historical detail with which Foucault provides the persuasive evidence for his often startling reversals of our ingrained assumptions. For that, one would have to return to his own books.

Simons’ major and substantial achievement is to sketch the outlines of a Foucauldian politics, and to face the question “what is to be done?” from a Foucauldian perspective. For this, his primary material comes from the writings and interviews of the last years of Foucault’s life. Here, a positive project appears to take over from the negative critique of society in his earlier and more familiar work. Rather than studying the effect of restrictive institutions on the formation of individual subjectivity, Foucault began to investigate how people could shape their own psyches through freely chosen disciplines of life. His death from AIDS in 1984 abruptly cut short these new developments, leaving others to unravel the implications of his investigations.

Simons’ approach to this task is to read backwards from the later work, seeking its origins in earlier and more extensive essays. There is a problem with this procedure, however. Foucault characterised philosophical thought as a practice through which we detach ourselves from our current ways of thinking and begin to think differently (p.88). It would be surprising, therefore, (in fact, would be a mark of failure on Foucault’s part) to find complete consistency of ideas throughout his works. Hence his early writings on literary aesthetics will not necessarily provide a key to his later thoughts on life itself as an art of self-creation.

In one of those early essays, Foucault had explored the notion of ‘transgression’ in the writings of Georges Bataille. Simons elevates this concept to a central place in Foucauldian politics. Yet it is an idea completely absent from the arts of selfcultivation which were practised in ancient Greece and Rome, to which Foucault devoted his last two books.

The implications of these books is typically oblique. By discussing texts which can have no immediate application to our lives today, Foucault avoids endorsing any specific recommendations as to how we should live. He is more interested in the potential for choice among possible ways of living. As Simons recognises (and as Foucault must have been aware) there are today numerous codes of life competing for our acceptance, many of which are similar in kind to those which proliferated in antiquity. Indeed, some of them (those derived from Indian philosophies such as Yoga) are at least as ancient in their origins as the texts discussed by Foucault. Simons brusquely dismisses these ways of life (despite the considerable commitment many of them require) as ‘merely’ consumerist lifestyle options (p.74).

Though a few of Foucault’s own remarks might seem to support such a view, he made no extensive comments on this question. There would be a great deal of scope for an enquiry, written from a Foucauldian perspective, into the burgeoning contemporary literature of self-help books, New Age cults, and religiopsychological disciplines. As far as I’m aware, no such investigation has yet been made.

A viable Foucauldian politics would engage in the active promotion of diverse, plural, new and ever-evolving modes of living. This is quite different from the meagre tolerance currently grudgingly offered to already existing communities, justified in terms of their history (their past) rather than in terms of their possibilities (their future). Foucault’s enthusiasm for “new subjectivities” (p.78) might suggest a purely individual project, but as Simons realises, only an enabling social structure can make such exploration possible.

Foucault’s work is highly distinctive, both in the methods he employs and in the topics he discusses. It is therefore not easy to locate his position in relation to the prevailing strands of political philosophy. A central concern of Simons’ book is to situate Foucault with respect to Liberalism. Hence he discusses at length the criticisms of Foucault by liberal thinkers (while somewhat neglecting the comments of Marxist critics). He also provides a very useful summary of Foucault’s own critique of the liberal tradition (this material is not well known, as it has only been published in the form of transcripts of lecture courses). His conclusion (with which I would agree) is that Foucault’s politics can be characterised as a form of Radical Liberalism, because “radical liberal democracy constitutes the appropriate political conditions of possibility for his aesthetics of existence” (p.116).

This particular focus of the book inevitably excludes the investigation of other lines of connection between Foucault and his intellectual context. There are distinct affinities, for example, between aspects of Foucault’s thought and Situationism, which became so influential in France around 1968. Equally, the relationship between Foucault and Sartre deserves to be studied. We know that Sartre vehemently denounced Foucault’s early work. But Foucault’s later advocation of a practice of freedom, in which self-formation becomes a deliberately adopted project, has much in common with Sartre’s thought. In Saint Genet, Sartre describes how society made Genet a criminal, but Genet made himself into an artist. Foucault might well have endorsed that subtle balance between inescapable social pressures which yet leave a precarious space for individual freedom.

© Peter Benson 1998

Peter Benson is a philosopher and writer with an interest in Alfred Hitchcock’s films.

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