Sunday 30 August 2009

Foucault and History

So far the radical divergence between Marxism and Foucault has been explored through their respective treatments and understandings of power. Crucially, the former has traditionally been interested in the capitalist state and the kind of body required by the working class to install its own socialist state. Foucault on the other hand has charted the emergence and rise of particular constellations of power/knowledge and how they produce subjects and knowledges through their ‘microphysical’ positioning of bodies in discourse.

The respective macro/micro notions of power flow from the different levels on which their methods operate. This chapter seeks to go beyond a simple recapitulation of more differences between Marxism and Foucault. We argue here that a discussion of methodology identifies the grounds for a possible convergence between the two camps. The aim is to map this out so the sophistication of Foucault’s approach can be embedded in a broad explanatory framework capable of theorising all levels of social formations, while avoiding a lapse into essentialism and reductionism.

The exploration of method begins with a more detailed discussion of Foucault’s genealogy, which appears to put even more distance between itself and Marxism. But at this point of radical divergence the possibility of convergence is raised by the place ‘abstraction’ occupies in Marx’s method. While recognising the implications of Marx’s use of this conceptual tool, the space between Marx and Foucault is too great for an unproblematic wedding of the two to take place. Here the discussion turns to Althusser and it is argued the way he theorised social formations and recast Marxism is capable of sufficiently transforming both Marx and Foucault into compatible entities while simultaneously disgarding essentialist and irrationalist moments of both. The possibilities opened up by this approach are discussed in the concluding chapter.

Foucault and Genealogy

Here we are concerned with a more in depth treatment of Foucault’s genealogical method centering on his important 1971 essay,
Nietzsche, Genealogy, History. Presenting a broad outline of the approach, Foucault’s "genealogy retrieves an indispensable restraint: it must record the singularity of events outside of any momentous finality; it must seek them in the most unpromising places, in what we tend to feel is without history – in sentiments, love, conscience, instincts; it must be sensitive to their recurrence, not in order to trace the gradual curve of their evolution, but to isolate the different scenes where they engaged in different roles. Finally, genealogy must define even those instances where they’re also absent, the moment when they remained unrealised" (Foucault 1977, in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, New York: Cornell, pp.139-40).

Foucault here privileges two heuristic devices: the methodological isolation of an occurrence from overarching historical explanatory frameworks (particularly evolution), and following Nietzsche Foucault calls for an historical investigation of ephemeral and ignored phenomena. For example, Nietzsche provided the beginning of such a history in his 1887 book
Genealogy of Morals. In his discussion of Nietzsche’s text in the original German, Foucault notes the word urspungs is deployed in two senses. First, it denotes origin. But Nietzsche makes an ironic use of it – he plays on its connotations of mystical and metaphysical origins (and the pursuit of them). Nietzsche made polemical use of this term for much the same reason Foucault found it useful for it undermines the metaphysics of origins, "what is found at the historical beginning of things is not the individual identity of their origin: it is the dissension of other things. It is disparity" (ibid p.142). That is to say a phenomena is not in its purest form at the point of its emergence but is born marked by the scars of its emergence, and it is these disparate conditions that genealogy seeks to unmask. Investigating what a discourse "forgets" (its marked Other) tends to undermine majestic and universalist pretensions by exposing their primitive beginnings. This can be visualised by the striking metaphor Nietzsche provided of a monkey that perpetually followed his reworking of the prophet Zarathustra.

Second, the name genealogy implies a study of a line of descent – in this case of a particular discourse/practice. In methodological terms this involves empirically winding back the film of history to the point where the discourse studied breaks qualitatively from what preceded it. For example, in
The History of Sexuality, Foucault notes the contemporary understanding of sex is rooted in the late 18th century at the point of confluence between the creation of a "class" body by the rising bourgeoisie and the growing perception of the population as a problem requiring management by the state. The discourses of sex grew along the axes of demography, pedagogy and medicine, producing a scientific (but discursive) apparatus. Prior to this point pre-industrial discourses of sex were very different and were for the most part embedded in Christian discourses of sin and tended to come under legislative rather than discursive regulation. Likewise the opening pages of Discipline and Punish contrast two very different forms of punishment, establishing a discontinuity between them that Foucault analyses.

Genealogy does not pretend to go back in time to restore an unbroken continuity that operates beyond the dispersion of forgotten things; its duty is not to demonstrate that the past actively exist in the present, this it continues secretly to animate the present, having imposed a predetermined form to all its vicissitudes. Genealogy does not resemble the evolution of a species and does not map the destiny of a people. On the contrary, to follow the complex course of descent is to maintain passing events in their proper dispersion: it is to identify the accidents, the minute deviations – or conversely, the complete reversals – the errors, the false appraisals, and the faulty calculations that gave birth to those things that continue to exist and have value for us; it is to discover that truth or being do not lie at the root of what we know and what we are, but the exteriority of accidents (Ibid p.146).
Keeping with the anti-epistemological and anti-teleological foundations outlined above Foucault is careful to rule out necessity as an explanation. Therefore this "effective history differs from traditional history in being without constants. Nothing in man – not even his body – is sufficiently stable to serve as the basis for self-recognition or for understanding other men. The traditional devices for constructing a comprehensive view of history and for retracing the past as a patient and continuous development must be systematically dismantled" (Ibid p.153). Furthermore the eschewal of totalising practice means the genealogist occupies the "low ground" of being close to an object without metaphysical baggage intervening. In Foucault’s empirical genealogies this low ground is invariably the body. Hence it is no accident that Foucault’s theory of power seizes hold of bodies – it is the expression of his methodological outlook. In sum, genealogy "painstakingly exposes the tiny influences on a body that, over time, not only produce a subject of a certain sort, a subject defined by what it takes to be knowledge about itself and its world, but a subject under the illusion that it is a substantial, autonomous unity" (Prado 1995, p.36).

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


HarpyMarx said...

Just been reading Screening Sex by Linda Williams, she references Foucault within her discourse on the contradictory nature of the representation of sex in film. Fascinating exploration I have to admit. Film interpretation uses, sometimes, a Foucauldian understanding of sex and sexuality.

Sorry if this seems a tad off topic....

Phil said...

That is quite interesting. Speaking of Foucault he might get a look in on a series of posts I'm planning to write on porn, especially concerning the disciplining of performers' bodies) if I'm feeling ambitious!

HarpyMarx said...

I really recommend Linda Williams esp. on the subject of the representation of porn. Her bk Hard Core is really invaluable and am waiting for a copy of (on order) Porn Studies.

Phil said...

I haven't got the time to read around it at the mo unfortunately so they'll just be incoherent thoughts I've been having. Might look into it more when the PhD is done and I've had chance to hook up with a mate who's doing a PhD on men and porn use.