Thursday, May 22, 2008

Foucault First Impressions

Started familiarizing myself with Foucault's work and ideas. I have not attempted to read his books, as they seem quite dense and daunting, and I have little free time currently. So I thought a more prudent approach would be to dip my toes in the water and read an introductory book about him first, and then follow that up with The Foucault Reader which contains interviews and excerpts of his work.

My initial impression of Foucault, after reading Foucault for Beginners, was negative, but upon further reflection I think it was due to the way this book was written. As I read the Foucault Reader, this impression is changing.

Some initial impressions and unresolved questions:

1) I was impressed that Foucault separates the search an explanation of a phenomenon, with the act of identifying a phenomenon. I understand him to mean that before we try to come up with an explanation, we need to truly understand all the aspects of a problem.

2) Foucault recognizes that ideas in his earlier works had evolved. He readily admits to have misunderstood concepts, and does not dogmatically stick to his original thinking. As a matter of fact he often seems very self critical for not recognizing the error in his thinking.

3) It will be interesting to see if Foucault turns the lens on himself and attempts to analyze how his own biases, political, or sexual, for example, influence his thinking.

4) I was struck with how heavily the terminology of "political struggle" figures in the thinking of European intellectuals. I had forgotten about this, living in the US. I don't really recall any mainstream American intellectual whose worldview is so heavily predicated on concepts of political struggle. In general, whereas the Europeans seem heavily influenced by Marxism, the Americans seem to treat it very abstractly, if at all.


Anonymous B. Spinoza said...

funny, I started reading that book once while I was in Barnes and Noble. I don't remember much of it

May 22, 2008 10:54 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

which book?

May 22, 2008 11:02 AM  
Anonymous B. Spinoza said...

Foucault for Beginners

May 22, 2008 1:34 PM  
Blogger evanstonjew said...

Start with the biographies, they are easy and interesting and the gossip is just great

May 22, 2008 3:33 PM  
Blogger FedUp said...

I wish I could just download all that stuff into my mind like a movie off of limewire, just so I could join in with the ongoing EJ and arama convo on XGH's blog.

But alas, I am but a mere human and it's gonna take some time before I can join in. Why couldn't we just read books like Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation?!

May 22, 2008 3:41 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

any particular ones you recommend?

FedUp - unfortunately it is not just the downloading, its the time to incubate and understand. Reading Foucault, I half the time have no idea what he is talking about - I know what the words mean, but the composite meaning eludes me.

May 22, 2008 3:44 PM  
Blogger evanstonjew said...

There is this Miller book where he says Foucault knew he had AIDS and continued to frequent the bathhouses. I know this view has been challenged, but don't know how it settled. (The Passion of Michael Foucault). The standard biography is by Didier Eribon. Both are good.

The late work on The History of Sexuality has been applied to Jewish studies by Boyarin and Co. There is a heated symposium in the Jewish Quarterly Review if this style of doing Jewish studies is useful.

May 22, 2008 6:42 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

Eribon's book is at the skokie library:) Save myself $60.

May 22, 2008 8:36 PM  
Blogger William Kolbrener said...

I was in graduate school in English in the eighties, and it was probably Foucault whose thought was most dominant. If it was Derrida and deconstruction in the seventies (ahistorical and apolitical), it was Foucault, Edward Said and the New Historicism in the eighties, and early nineties. Which is to say, there definitely was a political impulse in the Academy (however abstract it still was), and Foucault was the point man... For him it's not so much, however, "political struggle," but more simply put, "power"...

May 23, 2008 7:27 AM  
Blogger -suitepotato- said...

He can't be too important. The Oxford Guide to Philosophy doesn't waste a complete half page on him.

Let's see... (goes over his stuff online) Uh-huh... Right..

Wow, I didn't think anyone could simultaneously outdo Derrida for meaningless and shallow double-talk masquerading as introspection and earn Noam Chomsky's negativity at the same time. Noam usually goes in for anything that makes a mockery of common sense, logic, and normality all at the same time.

The entire raison d'etre for Madness and Civilization seems to be to demonstrate that he has a firm grasp of the obvious in that the earlier times weren't exactly friendly to insane people. From a psychological viewpoint, this seems to express a subconscious fear on his part of accidental time travel to the past where people who wrote stuff like him were brutalized and locked up.

Good think he was born in more sensible times where we let self-absorbed would-be intellectuals run loose in public so we can hopefully learn by example how not to think.

*Note, this is a singular person's review and should not in any way be construed as a positive recommendation to read Foucault or take him any more seriously than Derrida or Chomsky.

Especially Chomsky. His tenuous grasp on mass social realpolitik aka common sense absolutely scares me, and yes, I'm kind of envious at the detachment from sanity too.

May 23, 2008 12:45 PM  

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