Foucault roundup #4

A good Foucault theory, well-expressed:

My theory has to do with Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things, which is a book about knowledge in the Classical Age (roughly speaking the late 17th and 18th centuries). My theory is this: The Order of Things is actually about the 19th century, and more specifically Darwin, Marx, and the Oxford English Dictionary despite the fact that Foucault doesn’t mention any of these anywhere in the O of T.

In the O of T, Foucault argues that a fundamentally similar rationality governs three seemingly unrelated projects of the Classical Age: a taxonomy of grammar and language (most notably the Port-Royal project), a classification of living things lead by Jonston, Tournefort and Linnaeus, and a study of wealth and exchange prompted largely by the work of John Locke. Essentially, these projects were the predecessors of linguistics, biology, and political economy respectively, all disciplines that had not yet been invented. However, to call them “predecessors” does not mean that these earlier projects “evolved” into these later disciplines. Foucault’s point is that, on the contrary, those areas of study that we now associate with biology, linguistics, and political economy were once studied from an entirely different angle and with an entirely different goal in mind.

I happened to pick up a copy of The Professor and the Madman in the Minneapolis airport on my way to Portland…

I’ve used the OED dozens of times to look up words and trace the history of their connotations, but it wasn’t until I read Winchester’s description that I saw the fundamental similarity between that linguistic project, Darwin’s theory of evolution, and Marx’s study of wealth. The same rationality governed all three projects, despite the fact that there may have been virtually no contact between the three. For some reason, in the middle of the 19th century, a bunch of scholars in England were convinced that the key to the knowledge they were seeking lay in charting the history of how things changed over time. My theory was complete: Foucault’s book about the Classical Age wasn’t really about the Classical Age at all, and he really had meant it when he said Marx was on every page of his work. Of course, the next question is: what rationality governs the opening of the 21st century?

2. A fair enough reading of Foucault’s discussion in The Subject and Power, by someone who decided to put him on their list of comps questions:

For Foucault power is inextricably linked to subjectivity. People become subjects in and through existing power relations. He offers two definitions of “subject”: 1. Subject to someone else by control and dependence; 2. Tied to one’s own identity by conscience or self-knowledge. Both meanings suggest a form of power that subjugates and makes subject to. Foucault casts the modern state as a sophisticated structure that integrates individuals on condition that this individuality would be shaped in a new form and submitted to a set of specific patterns.

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