This first post in a short-term regular series of essays on Michel Foucault deals with his most famous influences. I begin with the precursors to Foucault’s own production of knowledge because their work and tutelage form the conditions of that production. This requires that I oversimplify some of their contributions to cultural scholarship and critical theory. I hope to maintain a baseline level of respect for their importance without fetishizing their names, just as I intend to maintain the tension between the familiarity of Foucault’s own name and the irreducibility of his intellectual production to any single certain thought or text. Enough lingering on qualifications and breast-beating, then. Let me turn to the names and their significance for Foucault’s emergence as a theoretical producer – and event.
- Michel Foucault – image via Creative Commons.
We can divide the influential theorists who appear tacitly or explicitly throughout Foucult’s oeuvre into about four groups, though some of them migrate from one to another: historians, phenomenologists, structuralists, and positivists. Among the historians, I count Nietzsche, Hegel, Marx, and Althusser as the most important. Among phenomenologists, younger group, we find Bachelard, Canguilheim, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty. Structuralist minds include those of de Saussure, Levi-Strauss, Lacan, and (tentatively) Freud. Finally, a strained strain of positivism inherited from Kant, de Sade, and Bentham (all of whom appear in some disguise) both rounds out this schema, and emphasizes its mutabiity. Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, and Kant, for example, inhabit far broader positions in Foucault’s lexicon. Their prominence also raises a question of the possibility of a “return to” any one thinker’s body of work — but this is a question to which we must return later.
First, it is worth noting the major, relevant concepts to which we will place Foucault in relation over the course of the semester. Nietzsche’s genealogy is well-recognized, but a quieter concept — the distinction between Apollonian and Dionysian characteristics — also enters Foucault’s argumentation in force. From Hegel, we find the Spirit of History hard at work, as well as his dialectical understanding of history. Likewise, the importance of historical materialism as expunded by Marx is never lost on Foucault. Still, this concept is inflected through the critique of ideology as developed by Althusser, whose focus on institutions, interpellation, and apparatuses is mirrored in Foucault’s studies long after their professional separation. But these dialectics do not constrain Foucault’s interest in other frameworks for thinking our relationship to the world around us.
From the positivist group, Foucault draws deeply on Kant’s categorical imperative, as a provocation to examine assumptions of immutable, natural, or otherwise a priori phenomena. His ability to bridge the divide between metaphysical and material epistemologies marks the relevance of both approaches through his body of work. Likewise, his adoption of the milder elements of de Sade’s philosophical musings – the primacy of any assumptions of power invested in the body, for example – reveals the importance of speculative as well as empirical positivist thought for his own work.
From the phenomenologists and structuralists, among many of whom Foucault had occasion to study directly or work alongside, another set of conditions emerges. The insistence of Merleau-Ponty and of Canguilheim on the division between knowledge of things perceived versus knowledge of things conceived never leaves Foucault’s own examinations of normal or deviant states of existence. Similarly, Bachelard’s description of epistemological rupture fits the central question of many of Foucault’s works. Heidegger’s relentless skepticism of linear causation becomes familiar when inflected through Foucault’s concentration on strata of interaction, particularly in terms of political power. As elsewhere, the strange implications of these affinities remain valid points of entry for scholarly and critical attention.
Speculative aspects fall away when we encounter the structural foundations of Foucault’s production. I have marked out Freud as belonging to this group, perhaps hastily, but the latter’s importance for Lacanian psychoanalytic thought makes it a rough match. So too does Foucault’s adoption and revision of Freud’s attention to imagination and dreaming; psychic matters must attend to the structural conditions of their generation for Foucault. From the linguists and anthropologists, named here as de Saussure and Levi-Srauss (but also including others like Kojeve), Foucault extracts symbolic and historical oppositions between the layers of signification that each of these thinkers recognizes. Finally, from his deep engagement with Lacanian psychic structures, we encounter Foucault’s attention to the conditions under which trauma, desire, and other phenomena arise.
This has not touched the complexity of any of these issues. It only hopes to mark them as points of entry into the vast literature produced by Foucault, because they served as points of entry for his own generation of that literature. In so establishing and marking these many names, I risk a clear ignorance of the author-text relationship that Foucault troubles. In choosing these “big names” as my beginning point, I also risk the reinscription of Enlightenment assumptions on the texts that I will read this semester. However, I hope to mitigate and manage those risks through cautious and disciplined attention to the historical, material, and conceptual conditions under which I choose and engage with these many texts.
Next week, this column will turn from a broad gloss of the conditions, education, inheritance, and debts around Foucault’s work, to his work itself, on the History of Madness. The posts will be shorter from here on, and they will also involve closer attention to the group of influential voices not discussed here – the obscure and often anonymous sources who constitute Foucault’s archival subjects in many cases. These raise the question of the constitutive absences for his archive. They will also raise the spectre of his author-function, and of historicist tendencies in his own and in my own work. Finally, they will begin to assess the discontinuity between a persistent inability to agree on core principles in Foucault’s work and its enduring popularity. Though I do not necessarily take a “Foucauldian” approach or ask those questions, I do ask – throughout the semester – what such an approach might actually mean.