An exchange on Foucault

Jason A Schulman wrote:

"I've heard that Foucault was active in progressive politics in some fashion. However, his Nietzchean insistence on the struggle for power as the ultmate determinant of all human action is not encouraging to progressive -- let alone socialist -- political philosophies."


Jason,

This little post of yours made my mind fly in several directions at once. Lets see if I can build something of it.

Your first sentence brings the problem of the distant cultural universes. While you have merely heard of it, for those of us who live under the intellectual hegemony of francophony (I'm from Portugal), it is an established and uncontroversial fact that Foucault was a progressive scholar. Indeed he was - along Sartre, Beauvoir and Genet - the very model of the "intellectuel engagé" of the 60's. He belonged to the PCF and then to a couple of far-left groups; he was active in a number of progressive organizations (namelly of social prisoners); he marched, yelled and sang in all sorts of leftist manifestations; signed hundreds of petitions; you name it. Forget that Miller trash - if you're really interested, read Didier Eribon's biography 'Michel Foucault'. I believe it's available in english.

I don't know all the details but, in the US, you probably received him - in the 80's, a time of deep political and intellectual reaction - mainly as a philosopher and even this already included in the po-mo pack along with Lyotard, Derrida and Deleuze. (Technically, Foucault was not a po-mo, but that would be another story and the fact is that his philosophy is indeed deeply flawed and trendy.) So, your perception of the man is totally different from ours.

There's another side to this cultural incomprehension. We, in the continental european left, are used to deal with concepts and trends - such as anti-humanism, nietzscheanism, structuralism, etc. - that are absolute anathema to you, who belong to a more empirical and meliorative tradition. You will rather go easy with ideas and watch carefully for reality. We will rather storm the heavens intellectually, build big systems with geometric perfection - and occasionally bleed our noses against the first wall.

This takes us to your last sentence, which poses a real problem. In fact, THE problem with Foucault. In so far as all discourse is power - and power over others who are deprived of it -, his system is deeply pessimistic. It seems there will always be dominators and dominated. Foucault himself tried to deny this but, personally (and I'm not alone on this), I see no way out of it.

So there is not a shadow of doubt in my mind that we must fight foucauldianism. The man, however, I find him rather likeable and touching. His heart was on the right place but his intellectual arrogance drove him astray.

João Paulo Monteiro