Michel Foucault: “Society must be defended” (Picador, 1997)

I used to be a Foucault believer, but I had gone on to other things by the time this book came out. I still think there’s a lot to learn  from his earlier books but I find this one annoying.

I liked his early thing about “specific intellectuals” (with a subject matter), as opposed to “general intellectuals” who pontificate on everything (he meant Sartre. But apparently his Collège de France job description required him to pontificate.  Europe’s humanist intellectual tradition has had its Pope since Voltaire, and the Collège wanted the position to stay in French hands. (The lineage: Voltaire/ Goethe / Victor Hugo* / Tolstoy /1914-1945 interregnum / Sartre. (George Bernard Shaw didn’t quite cut it when Tolstoy died. After WWII Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, Sartre’s cousin Albert Schweitzer, and Sartre fought it out, with Sartre the consensus winner except among analytic philosophers).

By the time of these lectures Foucault had made Power into an ontological substance, like Matter or Being or Man (and in fact, replacing Man). This might have been OK I suppose, but he still felt the anarchist-liberationist resentment of power, the state, and the Sovereignty, so his ontology was Manichaean .  We are all particles of light trapped in a world of sludgy darkness ruled by the evil demigod, Power. As if we ourselves aren’t Power too, and as if each of us is not, to others, the hated and repressive “Society”.  (When Foucault went to the bank I’m sure that he expected them to cash his checks and give him his money. Etc.)

Anyway, the whole biopower thing pisses me off. After all, biopower did get rid of cholera and plague and typhoid and typhus and smallpox and pellagra and rickets. Why minimize it with vaguely paranoid descriptions? Is medicine best described as a “political intervention technique with power effects”? Was increasing life expectancy really a Statist power grab? Is Social Security primarily a “subtle mechanism more economically rational than indiscriminate charity”? Should we regret that the Fascists drained the malaria swamps that killed poor Daisy Miller? Did it have to end up with Hitler? (Had Foucault even heard of Godwin?)

There are things to salvage here, when he talks about natalist policy, city planning, the medicalization of the population, and normalization. But I find the tone horribly annoying.

* Victor Hugo was huge in his time. In French Indochina (Vietnam) the modernizing Cao Dai sect put him into their pantheon as a God, and in Iowa my grandfather named his stud bull after Victor Hugo, who was famous for such capacities.

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Published in: on May 28, 2017 at 6:03 pm  Leave a Comment  

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