Rorty on Foucault in 1981

Reviewing three new books by Foucault in 1981, Richard Rorty wrote:

Russell and Wittgenstein and Heidegger and Sartre are dead, and it looks as if there are no great philosophers left alive. At the end of his book, Alan Sheridan hesitantly stakes a claim for Foucault: ‘It is difficult to conceive of any thinker having, in the last quarter of our century, the influence that Nietzsche exercised over its first quarter. Yet Foucault’s achievement so far makes him a more likely candidate than any other.’ This judgment is probably right. Foucault offers the two things which people want from a philosopher: a view about what values to place on current knowledge-claims, and hints about how to change the world. More specifically, he combines a sceptical judgment about the nature of science with concrete suggestions about how power might be taken from those who presently possess it. His view of knowledge derives from Nietzsche. His view of power derives from Marx. But he uses each of these men to criticise the other.

You can tell this is Rorty from the language (eg., “social hope,” mentions of Dewey) and how he uses his subjects to very neatly stack up against each other in clear-cut positions.

The three books (Power/Knowledge, Sheridan’s biography, Herculine Barbin) are given a fairly sensible review by Rorty. He later remarks:

Power/Knowledge (and an earlier collection of translations of his essays and interviews, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice) can be read as cancelling and replacing Foucault’s earlier attempt to state the method and goal of his historical writing: The Archaeology of Knowledge, his stuffiest, most obscure and worst book. Especially in the interviews. Power/Knowledge is remarkably un-gurulike, very honest, and about as clear as an attempt to say something genuinely new can be.

Rorty had a different opinion about the third book however:

The third of the books under review, however, was a mistake. Herculine Barbin comprises the memoirs of a hermaphrodite who committed suicide, a nasty little fictionalisation of her life (‘A Scandal at the Convent’) by a psychiatrist named Panizza, and a very lightweight ten-page introduction by Foucault. Foucault is currently in the middle of writing a long work on sexuality, and these memoirs are one of the things he came across in his research. But they were not worth reprinting, much less translating. They do not help to answer, nor even help to ask, the question with which Foucault begins his introduction: ‘Do we truly need a true sex?’ About the memoirs, Foucault says: ‘one has the impression … that everything takes place in a world of the feelings – enthusiasm, pleasure, sorrow, warmth, sweetness, bitterness – where the identity of the partners and above all the enigmatic character around whom everything centred, had no importance … what she evokes in her past is the happy limbo of a non-identity …’ But this is not borne out by the text. The memoirs convey very little. They read so much like soft porn that it is almost impossible to remember that they really are a desolate attempt at self-description.

This leads to Rorty’s severest criticisms of Foucault, namely that he goes too far, is too radical.

Foucault does not speculate about possible future utopias, either in connection with sexuality or with anything else. His suggestions about reform remain hints. But one wishes he would speculate. His obviously sincere attempt to make philosophical thinking be of some use, do some good, help people, is not going to get anywhere until he condescends to do a bit of dreaming about the future, rather than stopping dead after genealogising the present.

Like Sartre, Foucault seems to hate the bourgeoisie more than he loves anyone else.This leads him into the same sort of tolerance for Maoist bloodthirstiness as Sartre had for Stalinist terror. In the first interview in Power/Knowledge, Foucault out-radicals some Maoists by objecting to ‘People’s Courts’ as perpetuating the ‘judicial and penal apparatus’ which the revolution must get rid of. It all sounds much too much like a Nazi ideologue suggesting that the administrative apparatus for carrying out the Nuremberg Laws betrays the spirit of the National Socialist revolution, and hinting that it would be better if Jews were beaten to death on the spot by their neighbours. It is hard to see how someone who claims no longer to believe in a good, pure, true self which has been repressed by society can seriously suggest that ‘the masses will discover a way of dealing with the problem of their enemies … methods of retribution which will range from punishment to re-education, without involving the form of the court which – in any case in our society, I don’t know about China – is to be avoided.’

Certainly in this quote we have that old appeal to the proletariat that Orwell lampoons so effectively in Nineteen-Eighty-Four. The interview from which this quotation derives was published in 1972 and occurred between Foucault and “some Maoist militants” to discuss a people’s court to judge the police.

Now, Foucault does go on to admit that if the people’s court deleted the “bench and the robe” and just employed a a regulatory role (what he would prefer to call “an instance of political elucidation”) then he would agree with it. But this would precisely not be a court.

A court has the function of splitting up people, a dividing practice, especially between the proles and the non-proletariat, and this is what Foucault wants to examine in this interview. For me I don’t think this is a question of out-radicalising Maoists, but of his familiar concern with power and institutions.


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