Two reviews of Paras

Two reviews of Paras, Foucault 2.0 address the question of whether Foucault reintroduced the notion of the subject in his later writings. Additionally, on this week when the president of Iran visits Columbia U, they comment on Foucault’s journalism in the late 1970s with the Iranian revolution.

These topics speak to the different Foucaults that are out there. There’s the one that is seen by say cultural studies people and cultural anthropologists. Then not too far away, there’s the Foucault of sexuality. There’s the Foucault seen by those interested in political theory and governmentality. And there’s the Foucault that is seen by Serious philosophers studying the ramifications of archeology and genealogy. As I’ve learned doing this blog, there’s also the Foucault of modern theology students (ethics and culture of the self). (Then of course there are all the Foucaults, with egghead glistening, who play the role of villain in the nightmares of David Frum and co.)

Over a career as productive as Foucault’s it’s not surprising that people find these Foucaults and set them going but it does raise the question of how, if at all, they might fit together.

This is how the first review begins:

Readers of Foucault’s texts have long been perplexed by the apparent shift his writings underwent in the late 1970s. Following the appearance of the first volume of The History of Sexuality (Le volunté de savoir, translated as The History of Sexuality: An Introduction) in 1976, Foucault’s investigations inexplicably change focus: from an investigation of the prison and the mechanisms of power that produce the modern individual in Discipline and Punish, the second and third volumes of the History of Sexuality focus on practices of the self in ancient Greece and Rome. Indeed, at the time of his death, Foucault was at work on a fourth volume examining the practices of the self in the Christian era.1 How does one account for the fact that the thinker who had written in 1966 that the one could “certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand and at the edge of the sea” was suddenly writing about the various practices of the self prevalent in the ancient world, practices that were meant to ensure individual freedom and autonomy?

Corey McCall, Other Voices, May 2007. (By the way, Other Voices is planning a future issue on biopolitics if you wish to submit something. Also  by the way, there’s an odd thing on the OV site called the Manual of Lost Ideas which can only be interpreted as an extensive fiction in the style of Mark Z. Danielewski.)

A more recent review of Paras appears at Event Mechanics. EV thinks the title is atrocious if it refers to web 2.0 (I dunno if it does) becausethe latter is:

an expression of the worst excesses of the cultural industry capitalising on a techno-enthusiasm

but hey that doesn’t seem fair. The web 2.0 could equally well be a social networking site for political activism (ActBlue? BlogPAC?). But anyway.

This is all well and good until Paras seems to lose the ‘plot’ a bit in what I assume is meant to be the point of the book’s argument, the “Deep Subjects” chapter. Another reader had similar problems with Chapter Four: “Paras’ interpretive strategy blinds him to the continuities at work across Foucault’s texts and reduces his later texts to something of a death bed conversion to the time-honored values of liberal humanism.” The problem, condensed: Paras writes from within neo-liberal discourse and argues from the assumption that “interests” equals “individuals”, thus transforming Foucault’s two courses (77-78 and 78-79) into a project “that viewed the individual as the secret bearer of his own deep truth” (113).

Catastrophic [!]

I think he has to say a bit more about why individuals are not their interests. This smacks a bit false consciousness-y.

2 Responses

  1. Interesting list of Foucaults! As a modern Theology student, I think you missed one: there is also, presumably, the Foucault of ancient history. Not all researchers of late antiquity are willing to write him off as a charlatan. A number of us read his stuff alongside the work of Peter Brown and various others.
    Surely the approach to Foucault simply along the lines of ethics and the culture of the self is a scary option? In my work, I try to hold it together with more critical studies of how ethics and ascetics can all too easily become control and domination. Foucault seems to hint that this happens precisely when they get religious, which makes it a particular warning to people like me.

  2. Paras’s book is troubling on a number of fronts, and one concern that McCall nicely picks up on in his review is the standard partitioning of Foucault’s thought into two or three distinct periods. Particularly troubling is the standard charge that Foucault’s work on power effaced the possibility of freedom while his later work on ethics revives the capacity for choice. I agree with McCall and others that Paras is unfair to Foucault on this count, the problem is particularly difficult.

    The freedom-power relation is not easy to solve in the context of Foucault’s work precisely because it’s not an easy problem to solve at all. If Foucault had nicely and cleanly solved the issue, as many of his admirers seem to want to claim, then we wouldn’t still be wrestling with it today. But we are.

    McCall wrote “[i]t was only during his later period that he returned to the idea of the subject as an individual in charge of her own fate.” But it’s not clear that Foucault can work up a conception of freedom in the face of disciplinary power by a rather simplistic conception of individuals in charge of their own fate. It’s not clear to me that Foucault in his late work on ethics had any interest in the individual. Subjectivation is one thing, but individuation is another. So while I agree that McCall and other defenders of Foucault rightly detect something wrong in Paras’s work, I’m not sure that the problem has yet to be philosophically solved.

    Here’s another review of Paras’s book which I published in an academic journal: http://www.symposium-journal.com/issues/Vol11%20no1/rKOOPMAN.htm . I point to similar problems with Paras’s approach there, but I’m also critical of Paras’s attempt to elevate the archival materials to a status equal to that of Foucault’s published writings. I think this will ultimately lead to mistakes based on downgrading what Foucault’s actual position was in his carefully worked-over primary materials.

    -nice blog, btw-
    -this one has the correct url-

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