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Michel Faucault and Modernity

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Michel Faucault and Modernity: A critique
  41 Postmodern Theory - Chapter 2Foucault and the Critique of Modernity Is it not necessary to draw a line between those who believe that we cancontinue to situate our present discontinuities within the historical andtranscendental tradition of the nineteenth century and those who are making agreat effort to liberate themselves, once and for all, from this conceptualframework? (Foucault 1977: p. 120)What’s going on just now? What’s happening to us? What is this world, this period, this precise moment in which we are living? (Foucault 1982a: p. 216)[T]he impression of fulfillment and of end, the muffled feeling that carries andanimates our thought, and perhaps lulls it to sleep with the facility of its promises ... and makes us believe that something new is about to begin,something that we glimpse only as a thin line of light low on the horizon - thatfeeling and impression are perhaps not ill founded (Foucault 1973b: p. 384).Foucault’s critique of modernity and humanism, along with his proclamation of the ‘death   of man’ and development of new perspectives on society, knowledge, discourse, and power, hasmade him a major source of postmodern thought. Foucault draws upon an anti-Enlightenmenttradition that rejects the equation of reason, emancipation, and progress, arguing that aninterface between modern forms of power and knowledge has served to create new forms of domination. In a series of historico-philosophical studies, he has attempted to develop andsubstantiate this theme from various perspectives: psychiatry, medicine, punishment andcriminology, the emergence of the human sciences, the formation of various disciplinaryapparatuses, and the constitution of the subject. Foucault’s project has been to write a‘critique of our historical era’ (1984: p. 42) which problematizes modern forms of knowledge,rationality, social institutions, and subjectivity that seem given and natural but in fact arecontingent sociohistorical constructs of power and domination.While Foucault has decisively influenced postmodern theory, he cannot be whollyassimilated to that rubric. He is a complex and eclectic thinker who draws from multiplesources and problematics while aligning himself with no single one. If there are privilegedfigures in his work, they are critics of reason and Western thought such as Nietzsche andBataille. Nietzsche provided Foucault, and nearly all French poststructuralists, with theimpetus and ideas to transcend Hegelian and Marxist philosophies. In addition to initiating a postmetaphysical, posthumanist mode of thought, Nietzsche taught Foucault that one couldwrite a ‘genealogical’ history of unconventional topics such as reason, madness, and thesubject which located their emergence within sites of domination. Nietzsche demonstratedthat the will to truth and knowledge is indissociable from the will to power, and Foucaultdeveloped these claims in his critique of liberal humanism, the human sciences, and in his later work on ethics. While Foucault never wrote aphoristically in the style of Nietzsche, he didaccept Nietzsche’s claims that systematizing methods produce reductive social and historical  42analyses, and that knowledge is perspectival in nature, requiring multiple viewpoints tointerpret a heterogeneous reality.Foucault was also deeply influenced by Bataille’s assault on Enlightenment reason and thereality principle of Western culture. Bataille (1985, 1988, 1989) championed the realm of heterogeneity, the ecstatic and explosive forces of religious fervour, sexuality, and intoxicatedexperience that subvert and transgress the instrumental rationality and normalcy of bourgeoisculture. Against the rationalist outlook of political economy and philosophy, Bataille sought atranscendence of utilitarian production and needs, while celebrating a ‘general economy’ of consumption, waste, and expenditure as liberatory. Bataille’s fervent attack on the sovereign philosophical subject and his embrace of transgressive experiences were influential for Foucault and other postmodern theorists. Throughout his writings, Foucault valorizes figuressuch as Hölderlin, Artaud, and others for subverting the hegemony of modern reason and itsnorms and he frequently empathized with the mad, criminals, aesthetes, and marginalizedtypes of all kinds. 1 Recognizing the problems with attaching labels to Foucault’s work, we wish to examine theextent to which he develops certain postmodern positions. We do not read Foucault as a postmodernist tout court, but rather as a theorist who combines premodern, modern, and postmodern perspectives. 2  We see Foucault as a profoundly conflicted thinker whose thoughtis torn between oppositions such as totalizing/detotalizing impulses and tensions betweendiscursive/extra-discursive theorization, macro/microperspectives, and a dialectic of domination/resistance. We begin with a discussion of his critique of modernity (2.1). Thiscritique is developed in the form of new historiographical approaches which he terms‘archaeology’ and ‘genealogy’. We shall then explicate Foucault’s postmodern perspectiveson the nature of modern power and his argument that the modern subject is a construct of domination (2.2). After analyzing the political implications of Foucault’s genealogical method(2.3) and his later studies of ethics and techniques of the self, we shall conclude with somecritical remarks on the tensions and lacunae in his work as a whole (2.4). 2.1 Postmodern Perspectives and the Critique of Modernity I think that the central issue of philosophy and critical thought since theeighteenth century has always been, still is, and will, I hope, remain thequestion: What   is this Reason that we use? What are its historical effects?What are its limits, and what are its dangers (Foucault 1984: p. 249).My objective ... has been to create a history of the different modes by which,in our culture, human beings are made subjects (Foucault 1982a: p. 208).Foucault was born in Poitiers, France, in 1926 and died in 1984. He began his academic career as a philosopher, studying with Jean Hyppolite at the Lycée Henri IV and Althusser at theEcole Normale Supérieure. Becoming intolerant of the abstractness of this discipline and itsnaive truth claims, Foucault turned to psychology and psychopathology as alternative forms  43of study and observed psychiatric practice in French mental hospitals during the early 1950s(see Sheridan 1980). These studies led to his first two books on the theme of mental illnessand began his lifelong preoccupation with the relationship between knowledge and power. For a time, he was a member of the Communist Party, but could not accept the straitjacket of orthodoxy and broke with them in 1951, holding ambiguous feelings about Marxism through-out his life. Foucault taught in French departments in Sweden, Poland, and Germany duringthe 1950s and returned to France in 1960 in order to complete his doctorat d’état   in thehistory of science under Georges Canguilhem. After the May 1968 protests, Foucault becamechairman of Department of Philosophy at Vincennes. In 1970, he was appointed to the (self-titled) chair of Professor of History of Systems of Thought at the Collège de France where hetaught for the rest of his life.Foucault’s work provides an innovative and comprehensive critique of modernity. Whereasfor many theorists modernity encompasses a large, undifferentiated historical epoch thatdates from the Renaissance to the present moment, Foucault distinguishes between two post-Renaissance eras: the classical era (1660-1800) and the modern era (1800-1950) (Foucault1989: p. 30). He sees the classical era as inaugurating a powerful mode of domination over human beings that culminates in the modern era. Foucault follows the Nietzschean positionthat dismisses the Enlightenment ideology of historical progress: ‘Humanity does notgradually progress from combat to combat until it arrives at universal reciprocity, where therule of law finally replaces warfare; humanity installs each of its violences in a system of rulesand thus proceeds from domination to domination’ (Foucault 1977: p. 151). Yet, ironically,Foucault believes that the modern era is a kind of progress - in the dissemination andrefinement of techniques of domination. On this point, his initial position is similar to that of Adorno, who spoke of the continuity of disaster ‘leading from the slingshot to the megaton bomb’ (Adorno 1973: p. 320), and quite unlike that of Marx, Weber, or Habermas whoattempt to identify both the emancipatory and repressive aspects of modernity.Like Horkheimer and Adorno (1972), Foucault therefore believes that modern rationality isa coercive force, but where they focused on the colonization of nature, and the subsequentrepression of social and psychic existence, Foucault concentrates on the domination of theindividual through social institutions, discourses, and practices. Awakening in the classicalworld like a sleeping giant, reason finds chaos and disorder everywhere and embarks on arational ordering of the social world. It attempts to classify and regulate all forms of experience through a systematic construction of knowledge and discourse, which Foucaultunderstands as systems of language imbricated with social practice. He argues that varioushuman experiences, such as madness or sexuality, become the objects of intense analysis andscrutiny. They are discursively (re)constituted within rationalist and scientific frames of reference, within the discourses of modern knowledge, and thereby made accessible for administration and control. Since the eighteenth century, there has been a discursive explosionwhereby all human behaviour has come under the ‘imperialism’ of modern discourse andregimes of power/knowledge. The task of the Enlightenment, Foucault argues, was tomultiply ‘reason’s political power’ (1988d: p. 58) and disseminate it throughout the socialfield, eventually saturating the spaces of everyday life.  44Foucault therefore adopts a stance of hostile opposition to modernity and this is one of themost salient postmodern features of his work. Postmodern theory in general rejects themodern equation of reason and freedom and attempts to problematize modern forms of rationality as reductive and oppressive. In his genealogical works of the 1970s, Foucaultstigmatizes modern rationality, institutions, and forms of subjectivity as sources or constructs of domination. Where modern theories tend to see knowledge and truth to beneutral, objective, universal, or vehicles of progress and emancipation, Foucault analyzesthem as integral components of power and domination. Postmodern theory rejects unifying or totalizing modes of theory as rationalist myths of the Enlightenment that are reductionist andobscure the differential and plural nature of the social field, while politically entailing thesuppression of plurality, diversity, and individuality in favour of conformity andhomogeneity.In direct opposition to modern views, postmodernists valorize incommensurability,difference, and fragmentation as the antidotes to repressive modern modes of theory andrationality. For example, Foucault valorizes ‘the amazing efficacy of discontinuous, particular and local criticism’ as compared to the ‘inhibiting effect of global, totalitarian theories ’ at boththe theoretical and political level. While he acknowledges that global theories such as Marxismand psychoanalysis have provided ‘useful tools for local research’ (1980a: p. 81), he believesthey are reductionistic and coercive in their practical implications and need to be superseded by a plurality of forms of knowledge and microanalyses. Consequently, Foucault attempts todetotalize history and society as unified wholes governed by a centre, essence, or telos, and todecentre the subject as a constituted rather than a constituting consciousness. He analyseshistory as a non-evolutionary, fragmented field of disconnected knowledges, while presentingsociety as a dispersed regularity of unevenly developing levels of discourses, and the modernsubject as a humanist fiction integral to the operations of a carceral society that everywheredisciplines and trains its subjects for labour and conformity.Perhaps the fundamental guiding motivation of Foucault’s work is to ‘respect ...differences’ (Foucault 1973b: p. xii). This imperative informs his historical approach, perspectives on society, and political positions and takes numerous forms: a historicalmethodology which attempts to grasp the specificity and discontinuity of discourses, arethinking of power as diffused throughout multiple social sites, a redefinition of the ‘generalintellectual’ as a ‘specific intellectual’, and a critique of global and totalizing modes of thought. Foucault analyzes modernity from various perspectives on modern discourses andinstitutions. On Nietzsche’s understanding, perspectivism denies the existence of facts, andinsists there are only interpretations of the world. Since the world has no single meaning, butrather countless meanings, a perspectivist seeks multiple interpretations of phenomena andinsists there is ‘no limit to the ways in which the world can be interpreted’ (Nietzsche 1967: p. 326). Nietzsche’s reflections on the srcins of values, for instance, proceeded from psychological, physiological, historical, philosophical, and linguistic grounds. For Nietzsche,the more perspectives one can gain on the world or any of its phenomena, the richer anddeeper will be one’s interpretations and knowledge. 3
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