Reading Foucault: Some observations

Reading Foucault is difficult; but one questions how it is that Foucault shall be read: for this question determines the latterly question: how shall Foucault be judged?

It is, despite my confidence about social theory, a whole minefield, of which I admit nothing interesting I can say about Foucault; comparatively however, the observations can be made:

1. It is strangely familiar to read Foucault, not in the writing style, nor even in the context; but in the conclusions made.

2. This is for a few reasons: Foucault’s terminology and work has been dispersed even if not by name unto many subjects: literary studies, social sciences, the humanities, (continental) philosophy..

3. There is a strange parallel to be made between Goffman (of whom I know a little bit more about) and Foucault:

i. Both seem to have interests in control mechanisms
ii. Both have ‘campaigning’ elements to them
iii. Both leer into the more morbid and dark and ‘outside’ (to use Goffmanian terminology) subjects of social relations and social structure; stigma, homosexuality, the ‘total institution’.

4. This parallel isvery unsubtle and there are many complexities to Foucault that I am not acknowledging.Very much, it is to say that Foucault’s work took place in the intellectually isolated environment of France, where little outside of it came through (except, of course, for the real ‘titans’ of the past – Freud, Marx, Hegel etc.)

5. It is interesting to read Foucault as a historian for two reasons:

i. If we understand Foucault as a historian, it sets a prospect for the kind of thing history can be: social commentary of the past to understand the present and future. I hold this wider perspective of our social and natural history to be ‘history par excellance’.
ii. Seeing Foucault as making a statement about our understanding as a result of, or in context of, past social beliefs/attitudes and institutional build makes Foucault look very favourable (much more so, than if we were to consider him a ‘social theorist’, or ‘philosopher’).

Michael

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