Refracted Input

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

Posted on my site
See here for additional discussion.

Didier Eribon: On vous dit assez pessimiste. A vous entendre je vous croirais plutôt optimiste?
Il y a un optimisme qui consiste à dire: de toute façon, ça ne pouvait pas être mieux. Mon optimisme consisterait plutôt à dire: tant de choses peuvent être changées, fragiles comme elles sont, liées à plus de contingences que de necessités, à plus d’arbitaire que d’évidence, à plus de contigences historieques complexes mais passagères qu’à des constances anthropologiques inévitables.

Michel Foucault, (1994) [1981] ‘Est-il donc important de penser?’ In Dits et Ecrits vol. IV. Paris: Gallimard, p. 182.

Didier Eribon: You are said to be rather pessimistic. Listening to you, though, I get the impression that you are something of an optimist instead.
There is an optimism that consists in saying, “In any case, it couldn’t be any better.” My optimism would consist in saying, “So many things can be changed, being as fragile as they are, tied more to contingencies than to necessities, more to what is arbitrary than to what is rationally established, more to complex but transitory historical contigencies than to inevitable anthropological constants…”

Michel Foucault, (2000) [1981] ‘ So is it important to think? ‘. In J. Faubion (ed.). Tr. Robert Hurley and others. Power The Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954-1984. Volume Three. New York: New Press, p. 458.

Random thoughts in response

Foucault has frequently been accused of being a destructive and dangerous nihilist. There are a number of reasons for these accusations. The first perhaps, is that he offers a point of view on political and social action that diverges from the positions of those making the accusation. On the doctrinaire Left, he is seen as a nihilist because he doesn’t have a grand schema of revolutionary action or of desirable personal identities that can offer a solution to any and all social problems. The claim is that this gives people nothing to aspire to and they can only sink into despairing inaction.

On the doctrinaire Right, he is a nihilist because he radically questions the existing status quo and suggests that existing structures of power and authority might not be all sweetness and light and have the best interests of everybody at heart.

But if one is prepared to leave such partisan doctrines aside, Foucault’s work offers a whole range of possibilities. He systematically shows that structures and ideas we think are immutable have in fact changed over time and indeed haven’t always existed. He shows that the most miniscule of changes are important and that every person is in the position to effect some kind of change at some level in a highly complex social and cultural arrangement.

Foucault’s work is in fact endlessly optimistic. No matter how bad any situation is there are always possibilities for change, for making choices, no matter how restricted. A problem is simply an invitation to consider what might be done, what strategies can be employed to create even a subtle shift. At present, the tendency is to create social and cultural relations that are more and more legally and bureaucratically restrictive, tied down with endless rules and regulations. The game becomes a quest to find the loopholes, the points of weakness, the empty spaces that are not covered by these networks of regulation.

Admittedly, in the current historical situation this quest for loopholes of freedom is becoming more and more difficult – and I am thinking of my own local institutional space which is the university. But times have always been hard. As Foucault points out there is no such thing as a golden age when all was rosy. Perhaps current difficulties are no more than an incentive to think harder about where those heterotopic spaces might be found and an invitation to have the courage to seek them out, set up new alliances and not succumb to the temptations of power and status which the institution appears so enticingly to offer (for a price). As Pierre Bourdieu has so acutely observed, institutions count on their members buying into their exclusionary hierarchies, taking the gamble that they might be rewarded with entry into that exclusive and miniscule club of people who manage to get to the top.

Cornelius Castoriadis points out that all social institutions have a tendency to be totalising. It’s more efficient, and human populations can be messy and disorganised. But it is only because people resist and object to these totalising tendencies in all sorts of ways that means that existence is not absolutely intolerable. But resistance needs to happen. Individual stands need to be taken against cultures of fear and the seductions of power – even if those stands are quite obscure and quite mundane, a laugh in the tearoom or at a staff meeting perhaps, a failure to fill in some tedious form.

This is where Foucault’s optimism comes in. There is always room for movement somewhere. Reading his work is a constant and encouraging reminder of this.

2 thoughts on “Foucault, an optimistic thinker

  1. Jason says:

    Thanks! I feel more encouraged already. Specifically, I feel like I can more confidently adopt some Foucault to my political science work on social movements, because I’ll be better equipped to refute accusations of dreary pessimism. In “Fighting Neo-liberalism with Neo-liberal Discourse: ATTAC Norway, Foucault and Collective Action Framing” SVEINUNG SANDBERG (Social Movement Studies, Vol. 5, No. 3, 209–227, December 2006) invokes framing theory to introduce voluntarism to “determinist” studies of discourse. I wonder if from your perspective such a move would be unnecessary as Foucault already theorizes possibilities for change.


  2. Clare says:

    Thanks for this really interesting comment Jason. I think Foucault’s work provides a very flexible set of tools for analysing how things have worked in the past which then sets things up for the readers to think about what they are going to do about the situation they find themselves in.

    I have added a new blog post on your question as a more lengthy response.


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