Why a review is not just a review

The fact that the TLS review of Foucault’s History of Madness is still being picked up by various people and used to reject Foucault tout court shows why a review is not just a review but a political intervention.

Now the neo-con magazine National Review Online has taken up the issue:

The scholarship is a mess. Foucault attributes positions to documents that are not to be found there. He takes dubious 19th-century sources at face value. He gets basic facts wrong. He ignores recent scholarship. The most celebrated and revered historian of the last 50 years, a presiding deity of cultural studies, an icon of gender theory, interdisciplinarity, and poststructuralism, it turns out, committed one historiographical crime after another to push a counter-Enlightenment thesis.

(The piece was written by Mark Bauerlein, a professor at Emory who is described as being until recently a staunch liberal Democrat, what he is now I don’t know, but he’s chosen to blog for the staunch conservative NRO.)

Bauerlein’s case is not helped by his over-reaching (eg., “one historiographical crime after another”) but for him Foucault’s real sin seems to be his critique of the Enlightenment. The fact that Foucault has chosen to write about the Enlightenment, and written critically, would not necessarily mean he need not be taken seriously (he joins a long line of scholars in that vein).

Bauerlein is also wrong to claim that Foucault “pushed” a counter-Enlightenment thesis because of his critique. Foucault’s fascination with Kant’s question Was ist Aufklärung? (DE 339) is clear; the Enlightenment was the occasion when humanity began to “put its own reason to use without subjecting itself to any authority” and “the Enlightenment is the age of critique.” What Foucault was interested in were the rationalities that produced both modernity as a way of acting and behaving, and at the same time how it “found itself struggling with attitudes of ‘countermodernity'” ie critique itself. So for Foucault the Enlightenment is vital, and it is not a question of adopting some simple “anti-Enlightenment” agenda, but of dealing with the Enlightenment’s complex legacies.

(It is also in this essay that Foucault rejects postmodernism as a useful way of dealing with any of this; modernity is not so much an epoch situated on the calendar as this attitude, which was new and very much worth investigating. Foucault’s negative appraisal of postmodernism somehow never seems to get mentioned by those who wish to tar him with it.)

Critics of Foucault would see on reading this essay (DE 339, What is Enlightenment?) that he lays out a series of negative and positive aspects of the Enlightenment ethos, and that while it is not a complete historical summary of the Enlightenment, it points to an interesting series of issues that need further work: our freedom to act, the struggles for freedom, how to deal with increasing capabilities without producing hegemony, how knowledge constitutes objects (obviously a Kantian question) and the local specificity of Enlightenment’s effects (how general it is).

Foucault ends by saying that he doesn’t know if it’s critical to still have faith in the Enlightenment, but that the point is that the critical task it inaugurated goes on in order to continue the struggle for “liberty.” Certainly not an anti-rationalist (why would that playboy of anti-rationalism, Jean Baudrillard, have needed to attack him if he was?).

For me at least this is what remains so productive about Foucault’s thought, he was a philosopher of freedom. “I firmly believe in human freedom” he has said (p. 399, Power, the Essential Works of Foucault).

4 Responses

  1. The Warden Will See You Now, Mr. Foucault

    Andrew Scull's review of the new translation of Madness and Civilization is on more than a few people's minds, and why not? Its relentless criticism of Foucault's shoddy historiography is meant to provoke: [History], consequently, requir…

  2. […] Valve, One Way Street, Foucault blog, The Kugelmass […]

  3. […] Introduction for the full recent translation of the History of Madness (the one that got all the controversy recently, with a long reply by Colin Gordon). The 1961 Folie et Déraison did indeed turn out to […]

  4. […] liksom de debattinlägg som följde upp denna – och … några forskarbloggar (här och här, tex) skrivna av folk som uppenbarligen kunde mycket om Foucault: i just det fallet var svenska […]

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