Anthropology Independent Studies
Prof. S. Errington
Copyright © 1997 B. A. Collie Collier
In this book, Michel Foucault presents a wide variety of perspectives on his works. The different approaches used by the different interviewers, and the breadth of subjects covered makes for a confusing and rather disjointed approach. The various chapters include such widely disparate subject matter as chatting on future works (most notably the History of Sexuality), the nature of prisons as entrapping both the prisoner and the guard within an inescapable network of discipline, and what appears to be an amiable and sometimes humorous argument between a small group of friends as to what precisely Foucault meant in some of his works. The works themselves, in Foucault's changing reactions to them, can be seen to demonstrate his evolving thoughts and theorizations on the nature of the subjects studied, and how these subjects (sometimes quite loosely) interrelate. He reiterates often the continuing character of his studies, pointing out frequently that this or that problem is one on which he is still working. Indeed, it was not until the middle chapters that this puzzling effect was revealed to be both deliberate and desired.
As Foucault himself points out, in his searching for the nature and expression of power within society, he discovered that the sciences he was studying were profoundly enmeshed in social structures. This occurred to the point that any previous studies done had simply reiterated unconsciously the very social structures and scientific armatures they were supposed to be critically examining. The unwitting acceptance of the social status quo was so pervasive that initially the questions Foucault was asking about the nature of power were considered frivolous or unimportant. Furthermore, as Foucault ruefully notes, it is the nature of the scientific structure to constantly strengthen and entrench itself by incorporating new ideas, reforming them as a part of the very structure and ideology which they attempted to dismantle. It is in an effort to deconstruct that signifying field, or domain of signifying structures, that Foucault addresses himself in his works, and (I believe) in the rather disjointed nature of this book of essays.
One of the theories apparently in vogue today views language as a determinant of culture-making; society is formed by language, just as language forms society. Foucault's critique of this ideology demonstrates his belief in its errancy. As the major initiator of the discourse on power, Foucault apparently believes that modern apparatuses of power are positive and productive. Their effectivity rests on what he refers to as a politics or regime of truth, rather than being repressively instituted on a regime of falsity, as is currently frequently believed. The truth on which this application of power is based, in order to be understood, must be emancipated from al the forms of hegemony; social, economic, and cultural. As he states, it is the nature of the technologies of power to traverse and produce things, to induce pleasure, form knowledge, and produce discourse. Consequently, the study of the discourse of power must of necessity be more fruitful in examining the nature of the creation and implementation of society than the study of socio-linguistics, which is only a form or expression of that very discourse of power. To Foucault, theory is a constructed tool kit; not a system, but rather an instrument or logic concerning the specificity of power relations and the struggles around them. Furthermore, these very struggles must be examined on a case-by-case basis, in order to avoid the theoretical tool kit becoming an integral part of the very cultural system or structure it seeks to examine, and ultimately to expose.
Foucault shows himself to be, in these essays, rather culturally ethnocentric. He considers the monarch, for example, to be the symbol of the domination-repression schema of power, and assumes this symbolism is universal. His explanatory examples, unlike Barthes, are all European indeed, they may all be French, although I do not know this for sure. Furthermore, while his dissertations on the nature of power are fascinating, and mention some interesting theorizations, I am ultimately left with a vague feeling that there is something missing... that I have read many erudite discussions on theory, but it is in the end a theory that does not truly engage any subject and does not appear to ever engage with the nitty-gritty of real life, or real societal actions. Perhaps I would not have this faint discomfort had I read more of his actual studies and/or ethnographies.
Last Updated: Wed, August 6, 1997