Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Marx vs Foucault

In Robert Resch's masterful 1992 survey of Althusserian Marxism, Althusser and the Renewal of Marxist Social Theory responds to Poster’s concerns by developing a wide-ranging Marxist critique of Foucault. Starting from Foucault’s archaeological ‘period’ (in which Foucault's work focused on the formation and transformation of discourses independently of questions of power), Resch argues Foucault's failure to theorise a link between the autonomous laws of discourse and their organisation into an episteme is imported into his genealogical work via his refusal to theorise the connections between what is being studied and the total ensemble of social relations.

But strangely, even though it went untheorised the 'connective' issue was contradicted in Foucault's scholarly practice. For example, he writes "this class [the bourgeoisie] must be seen rather as being occupied, from the mid-18th century on, with creating its own sexuality and forming a specific body based on it, a ‘class’ body with its health, hygiene, descent and race: the autosexualisation of its body, the incarnation of sex in its body, the endogamy of sex and the body" (1978, p.124). This suggests there is indeed a relationship between the capitalist class and the particular kind of body it favoured, that the concerns of ‘health, hygiene, descent and race’ which became leitmotifs of 19th century medical discourse had its origins in the bourgeois body, and these discourses multiplied as capitalism became more dominant. Even more explicitly:

Bio-power was without question an indispensable element in the development of capitalism: the latter would not have been possible without the controlled insertion of bodies into the machinery of production and the adjustment of the phenomena of population to economic processes. (Ibid, pp.140-1)
While Foucault can point to linkages he cannot explain them because the genealogical method rules it out of court. The emphasis on discontinuity, anti-teleology and refusal to factor the wider social formation into his method is dangerously one-sided, erecting a barrier to any approach that tries to theorise and explain social complexity while avoiding foundational and essentialist thinking.

For Resch, this mystifying moment is also present in Foucault’s fusing of power/knowledge. It does have the value of recognising knowledges are the production of material apparatuses (institutions etc.) and are stamped by the circumstances of their birth. But Foucault does not explore this with all due sensitivity. He merely collapsed knowledge into power reducing the former into an expression of the latter. If knowledge is only the expression of certain power networks, then resistance and subjugated knowledges stand implicitly condemned for articulating alternate networks of power. Resistance, while not futile, will only ever replace one set of power networks with another.

This impasse, Resch argues, would have been avoided if Foucault had theorised a separation between power and the effects of knowledge. But perhaps Foucault is only guilty of bending the stick too far in one direction – he recognises power does not necessarily invalidate the truth of a knowledge and his genealogies do not deny the efficacy of knowledge. What Foucault says of his method is "it is really against the effects of the power a discourse that is considered to be scientific that the genealogy must wage its struggle" (cited in Jon Simons (1995)
Foucault and the Political. London: Routledge, p.93). Despite conceptually fusing power and knowledge, Foucault does leave a space for epistemological investigations of a discourse’s truth claims.

Resch’s final argument against Foucault concerns the conceptualisation of the social field. Recognising power is dynamic and conflictual, Resch notes types and degrees of power cannot be conceptualised by Foucault’s model. From this perspective, the micro-foundations of power are writ large by Foucault and generalised across social space. While this may be the case on one level, Foucault inadvertently provides a model analogous to Hobbes’ general war of all against all. In other words, at this level of abstraction little or nothing can be said about wider social processes. An appropriate biological analogy for Foucault's method of analysing power would be an attempt construction of a theory of the cardio-vascular system from the study of a single red blood cell.

In sum, Poster’s Foucauldian critique established an opposition to Marx's method, taking him to task for relying too heavily on a metaphysics of narrative and reason. However, Marx’s dialectics themselves are not critiqued. In turn, Resch’s criticised Foucault’s method and the conception of power that flows from it. The actual studies of the prison, sexuality, etc. are left untouched.

Do their respective silences denote a space in which work toward a theoretical convergence can take place?

Perhaps. To bridge the gap between the dialectical and genealogical methods, abstraction as derived from Ollman's discussion of dialectics is more than a free-floating analytical technique magically capable of fusing incompatible methods. It must be wedded to a materialist approach that is dynamic, open to revision and has the potential to conceptualise a wide range of phenomena, encompassing the macro and micro levels of social movement that Marx and Foucault respectively address. The re-reading of Marx and particularly the reconstruction of the Marxist method by Althusser may have fallen out of academic fashion, but contains within it important methodological procedures that could potentially allow for a productive Marx-Foucault relationship, and offer a way of realising the promise of abstraction.

The whole contents of Toward a Marxian/Foucauldian Encounter can be viewed


T said...

Interesting stuff. Perry Anderson's critique of Foucault and French Marxisms in "In the Tracks of Historical Materialism" has also a lot of interesting things to say on this topic as well...

Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...


Phil BC said...

I wished I'd looked at that now.

I haven't reread this stuff for almost seven years and I can see a number of glaring problems with it. I'll probably write a retrospective after the last installment has been posted.