Refracted Input

Clare O’Farrell’s blog on books, TV, films, Michel Foucault, universities etc. etc.

Posted on my site michel-foucault.com

Interviewer: Structuralism was not born recently. It was around at the beginning of the century. Yet it is only today that people have started talking about it. For the general public you are the priest of ‘structuralism’. Why?

Foucault: At the very most I am the altar boy of structuralism. Let’s say I have rung the bell, the faithful have genuflected and the unbelievers have uttered cries of protest. But the service began a long time ago. The real mystery was not celebrated by me. […] One can talk of a kind of structuralist philosophy which could be defined as the activity which allows one to diagnose what today is.

[Michel Foucault. (1994) [1967]. La philosophie structuraliste permet de diagnostiquer ce qu’est ‘aujourd’hui’. In Dits et écrits: 1954-1988. Vol I. D. Defert, F. Ewald & J. Lagrange (Eds.). Paris: Gallimard, p. 581. This passage trans. Clare O’Farrell]

Random thoughts in response

These remarks are most interesting for a number of reasons. First of all, this passage indicates a certain degree of playfulness in Foucault’s work which usually emerges in the form of subtle irony. In this instance however the fact that he is having fun is clearly on the table.

Secondly, from these remarks, it is quite obvious that in 1967 Foucault was perfectly happy to allow himself to be described as belonging to the structuralist movement, contrary to perceptions in the secondary literature that he was never associated with this movement and had always strenuously rejected it. This perception is of course the result of Foucault’s later pronouncements on structuralism – particularly in the English preface to The Order of Things where he notes:

In France, certain half-witted ‘commentators persist in labelling me a ‘structuralist’. I have been unable to get it into their tiny minds that I have used none of the methods, concepts or key terms that characterize structural analysis. I should be grateful if a more serious public would free me from a connection that certainly does me honour, but that I have not deserved. There may well be certain similarities between the works of the structuralists and my own work. It would hardly behove me, of all people, to claim that my discourse is independent of conditions and rules of which I am very largely unaware, and which determine other work that is being done today. But it is only too easy to avoid the trouble of analysing such work by giving it an admittedly impressive-sounding, but inaccurate, label.

[Foucault (1970) [1966]. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. Tr. A. M. S. Smith. London: Tavistock. p. xiv.]

Foucault distanced himself from the structuralist movement in so far as some forms of structuralism sought to construct universal methodological templates which could explain every and any situation. Foucault’s own approach is resolutely historical – one only discern patterns of order in events that have already taken place and these patterns cannot then be applied to describe future configurations of events.

The third interesting point here is that we see the beginnings of what Foucault came to formulate as ‘the history of the present’. This is the idea that one can practise historical and philosophical analysis in order to examine what is happening now, to examine how the current ‘cultural conjuncture’ (p. 582) works to perpetuate particular relations of power through a variety of institutions, and the various networks of social prohibitions and limits which bound current society. The idea is to draw attention to how relations of power and social regulations operate and decide which are acceptable or unacceptable in the current context. One of the problems is that people get so used to a certain configuration that they take it for granted and fail to see the injustices it perpetuates. One needs to emphasise that Foucault is not advocating the abolition of all social regulation, simply that we need to keep a constant eye on what is going on.

One thought on “Foucault and structuralism

  1. isidore says:

    ” … we need to keep a constant eye on what is going on”

    although it may appear that western society is becoming more and more open, in fact the opposite is happening.
    Our society is becoming more and more repressive. Maybe
    it is the Puritans reasserting themselves(what a horrid
    notion) or maybe it is just another phase of the up and down cycles of history. In any case, En Garde!
    Stay Afloat! …maybe it will pass.

    Like

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