Refracted Input

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

Posted on my site

‘Je suis un expérimentateur, et non pas un théorician. J’appelle théorician celui qui bâtit un système général soit de deduction, soit d’analyse, et l’applique de façon uniforme à des champs différents. Ce n’est pas mon cas. Je suis un expérimentateur en ce sens que j’écris pour me changer moi-même et ne plus penser la même chose qu’auparavant.’

Michel Foucault, (1994) [1980]. Entretien avec Michel Foucault. In Dits et écrits, t. 4. Paris: Gallimard. #281, p. 42.

‘I am an experimenter and not a theorist. I call a theorist someone
who constructs a general system either deductive or analytical, and
applies it to different fields in a uniform way . This isn’t my case.
I am an experimenter in the sense that I write in order to change
myself and in order not to think the same thing as before’

Michel Foucault, “Interview with Michel Foucault” J. Faubion, ed., Power (New York: New Press, 2000), p. 240.

Random thoughts in response

Foucault is often either revered or feared as a ‘theorist’. ‘Theory’, the bane of undergraduates loathe to strain their brains, and the dreaded holy grail of postgraduate students looking for some way to satisfy their supervisors’ unreasonable requirements to organise their empirical data into some meaningful form. In the 1970s, 1980s and even the 1990s ‘theory’, particularly in its French, German and Italian incarnations was the object of aspiration: exciting, difficult and mysterious. Its practitioners were much admired for their lofty intelligence and ability to explain the world and perhaps change things for the better as a result. Alternately, of course, they were reviled as a bunch of obscurantist and dangerous radicals exerting a pernicious influence on the young and foolish.

But the new millennium has seen the erosion of the high status of theory. University courses have systematically eliminated this kind of reflection in favour of pragmatic, so-called ‘vocational’ concerns. That’s what the ‘market’ wants. In vocational courses such as teacher training – the suggestion that reading of reasonable difficulty might actually take place outside of class time and then be discussed in said class, leads to either sullen resistance or open hostility and poor ‘student evaluations’ of the course. The client is always right. Yet paradoxically, many people (even undergraduates) still have a creeping suspicion that there must be more to life and social existence than learning how to conform to ever more oppressive work-place regulations or propping up the economy in this time of GFC (global financial crisis. I will pass on the sheer utter pomposity and Sartrean bad faith of reducing this to an acronym). In desperation, many people, faute de mieux, turn to that nineteenth-century mechanism of social control, psychology, only to find the dreary parade of rats and stats, pseudo-scientific jargon and statements of the obvious has advanced them no further.

Further, postgraduate students in vocational areas such as education bemoan in mantra-like fashion the fact that they have been given no proper training or exposure to ‘theory’, which once they start reading, they actually find to be of some interest in organising interpretations of the world and events.

But, of course, Foucault claims not to be a ‘theorist’ in spite of universal insistence to the contrary. This further confuses students and a number of academics who see theory as little more than a grid or template, inexplicably insisted on by supervisors and journal referees for slotting empirical data into convenient boxes. Foucault’s work can’t really be adequately used as a template – although some interpreters have taken aspects of his work and produced handy digest forms for such use.

Foucault’s work is an approach, not a formula for the easy cataloguing of data. His point of view is that we are profoundly historical beings who produce forms of knowledge that are also governed by history. The next step is to describe these historical orders, and history by definition involves constant change. There can be no universal ahistorical template of order. Each historical situation requires reflection and investigation in order to discern the patterns of order which emerge, and further, these patterns of order vary according to the level being examined – are we talking about ships entering a harbour, scientific medical theories, economics or political reform? In a given period, these can all be related at various levels but they have to be examined in turn and the connections between them drawn. This is not a recipe for the production line organization of data and its easy filing into suitable catalogue drawers, drawers which can then be hastily closed and readily forgotten.

A comment on this post raises the question of the relation between ‘theory’ and everyday life. I have posted my response here to give it more visibility.
The answer to this question depends on how you define the relation between the kind of reflection that Foucault offers and day-to-day activity. I don’t believe in theory/practice divides. So-called theory is already a practice. The way one thinks about the world is fundamental to how one lives in the world.

For example, if you believe that men are superior to women and that one ‘race’ is superior to another, or that money and status are what count and have a whole set of ideas to support those beliefs – this will determine how you act in the world. If, however, you change your mind about these beliefs after reading some books or having been exposed to these books through education, you are (perhaps) going to behave differently.

It is not a question of abstract tools (‘theory’) which can somehow be applied to deal with specific problems in the so-called ‘real world’ (practice). This is not what Foucault’s work is about. As I’ve said above – he’s not offering a template. It’s about challenging beliefs people might have about the way things work. It is then up to people reading books such as Foucault’s to decide what they want to think about it all and to decide in what ways they want to conduct themselves at an everyday level in their own very specific situations.

In short, as Foucault said himself elsewhere, a ‘theory’ is not the answer. It is only one element – but a non negligeable element – in a complex equation. And being exposed to ‘theories’ gives one more choices in the ways one thinks about the world and therefore interacts with it.

4 thoughts on “Foucault and ‘theory’

  1. Drunken Nomad says:

    Thanks for your thoughts on Foucault. When I drink, I read theory, and I worry in my drunken lucidity that I’m indulging in a fantasy land. Foucault inspires me, but on the ground, I’m not sure if he’s helped me get the real work done. I’ve helped a bunch of homeless kids learn how to read, and have helped rehabilitate gang members in Oakland. I’ve built a house and grown my own food. I’m a unique yoga teacher and consider myself a thoughtful person who is pretty good at not getting stuck in the structures around me. Just not sure how Foucault fits in to creating a world that is truly ours, that we have made and are involved in. I read him like I read Artaud, he helps me make an art of my life: perhaps that’s all he is for me. He adds to my poetic sense. But at the end of the day – a REAL day of nitty gritty work of healing communities I’m a part of – I’m not sure if any theorist has ever put any tricks up my sleeve. I talk to the kids at Berkeley who study with Dreyfus and I often feel a combination of pessimism and utopianism – doubting they can apply their abstract ideas to changing the streets ten blocks away, but believing that somehow its all relevant, even magical, if only applied the right way.


  2. Clare says:

    Well, one response to this of course is that Foucault is not a theorist. I have posted a more serious reply to this in the main body of the post


  3. Chathan Vemuri says:

    Would it be ok if I cited this in a response to any discussion of “theory” in the academy?
    I couldn’t help but look at this after reading your Twilight blog piece


  4. Clare says:

    No problem Chetan


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