Foucaultian Masks and Contested Interpretations

By Pickett, Brent | Political Research Quarterly, December 1997 | Go to article overview

Foucaultian Masks and Contested Interpretations


Pickett, Brent, Political Research Quarterly


Perhaps the central difficulty in the thought of Michel Foucault concems the shifts, breaks and changing stances across his various works. Two broad ways of interpreting Foucault are laid out. On the first view, Foucault is a liberal democrat whose thought is largely compatible with much of the modem project. On the second, Foucault is fully Nietzschean, opposing modernity in the name of an indeterminate and rhetorically affirmed "other," and arguing that all truth is deeply implicated in power. Many criticisms of this postmodern Foucault have already been made, but most of Foucault's defenders find them to beg the question. In order to avoid this stalemate, I examine how an engaged postmodem Foucaultian would deliberate about her moral and practical stance. I argue that this postmodern Foucaultian cannot consciously maintain her position while actually engaged, and for reasons that help to clarify which aspects of Foucault's thought need to be abandoned and which are useful.

"More than one person, like me no doubt, writes in order to have no face." (Foucault 1972: 17)

Consider two remarks Foucault made on crime and punishment, separated by roughly a decade: "... the penal system operates as an anti-seditious system... This is why the revolution can only take place via the radical elimination of the juridical apparatus, and anything which could reintroduce the penal apparatus ... must be banished" (1980: 16, emphasis added), and "... individuals who are part of this society have to recognize each other as subjects of the law who as such are susceptible of being punished and chastised if they infringe upon some rule. There is nothing scandalous about that, I don't think" (1989: 202). It is doubtless that at least some of the reason for the variety of incompatible interpretations of Foucault's work is due to such starkly contrasting statements as these. Foucault shifts his position over time, and occasionally he takes contradictory stances within the same text. He implicitly supports a certain stance with his rhetoric, yet denounces the same view when it is put to him explicitly. In many ways he seems to be as anti-systematic as Nietzsche, as elusive and playful with masks, as his great intellectual forebear. But is there a face beneath the masks? Is there, can there be, a "real" Foucault?

I will argue that there is a fundamental division running through Foucault's work. On one side stands a Foucault who is more of a modernist than a postmodernist. At the heart of his project is a strategy of disruption and unsettling of our humanist self-congratulations, although this is coupled with support for liberal democracy This view corresponds to elements of Foucault's thought which I label the modern Foucault (see Thiele 1990: 907-25; Hooke 1987: 38-60). In opposition to this, there are strands within Foucault, which I will label the postmodern Foucault, which reject modernity, and oppose liberalism, in the name of some indeterminate and rhetorically affirmed "other" (cf. Habermas 1987). This Foucault is fully Nietzschean: all truth is implicated in power; the proper response to modernity is a project of subversion and resistance; and the broad political categories of the modem world, whether of the left or right, are virtually indistinguishable and all entirely deficient.l This distinction raises the possibility that the most defensible Foucaultian political theory is not the same as the most defensible textual interpretation of Foucault. To anticipate most of the argument, I will contend that in some though certainly not all respects the postmodem Foucault is the better reading, while the modem Foucault offers the better theory.

After briefly describing these two ways of reading Foucault, I will turn to the issue of how an engaged Foucaultian would deliberate about her moral and practical stance. I argue Foucault is poorly defended, or perhaps more accurately, he is not used as well as he might be, by those who are unwilling to criticize and abandon several elements of his thought. …

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