Interpreting Foucault

Article excerpt

When Michel Foucault was once asked whether he considered himself a postmodern thinker, he responded by saying that he did not know what the term "postmodern" meant. Foucault was simply indicating that he was not interested in the issue of postmodernism; it is therefore ironic that he should have become, after his death, an exemplary postmodernist. On the other hand, this is hardly surprising: Foucault clearly helped set the terms and outline the issues of an emerging movement in the history of Western thought, a mode of intellection that tends to be identified, retrospectively, as postmodernism. This contribution and influence can best be appreciated in the context of the continuing debate on the significance and validity of Foucault's work. It is a dispute that can also help clear up some of the confusion arising from conflicting interpretations of so-called postmodern critical practices. Viewed in the context of the debate on the legitimacy of Foucault's theories, the postmodernism associated with poststructuralist critique acquires the specification of a post-enlightenment, post-marxist, and post-liberal political and philosophical mode of thought.

Simply put, the central issue opposing Foucault's supporters to his critics is the question of our relationship to our knowledge of society and the world. While the critics base their objections on a model of a conscious and purposeful subject whose agency has a direct and verifiable impact on the order of things, defenders of Foucault are increasingly interested in elaborating an insight that was central to Foucault's mork: the realization that before we attempt to influence events or change the world, it behooves us to take into account, to examine, and to elucidate that which mediates between "us" and our representation of reality. To do this, we must first be cured of our illusions about our ability to determine or ratify "truth"; yet we must also recognize our undeniable aptitude to produce "truth-effects." Foucault explains:

I am fully aware that I have never written anything other than fictions. For all that, I would not want to say that they are outside truth. It seems possible to me to make fiction work within truth, to induce truth-effects within a fictional discourse, and in some way to make the discourse of truth arouse, "fabricate" something which does not as yet exist, thus "fiction" something. One "fictions" history starting from a political reality that renders it true, one "fictions" a politics that doesn't as yet exist starting from an historical truth. ("Interview" 74-75)

In addition, one needs constantly to confront one's fictional creations with the historical and discursive regime of truths within and against which they are elaborated. That is why Foucault emphasized that he had "always been concerned with linking together as tightly as possible the historical and theoretical analysis of power relations, institutions, and knowledge, to the movements, critiques, and experiences that call them into question in reality" ("Politics" 374). Foucault was generally opposed to systematic, totalizing approaches to human affairs and considered it essential to confront thought with the concrete evidence of our experience of the "order of things." It is this approach that has given his work the designation of "postmodern" and has placed it in close affinity with the increasingly numerous and important other attempts at disclosing strategies of truth-effects in our culture and society. It is also this postmodern propensity for privileging the discontinuous and the dissonant that has motivated a considerable resistance to Foucault's thought.

Some of the more familiar objections raised to Foucault's writings amount to a refusal to grant what is a fundamental insight proposed by the philosopher: that the very bases for criticism have changed and that it is no longer possible, nor useful, to proceed according to standards of rationality inherited from earlier ages. …