One of the problems with working in an academic environment is that any casual conversation might lead to homework.
Yesterday was one of those busy days where I’m lucky to find time for lunch. I am discovering, in my new capacity as an advisor, that the first three weeks of the semester are frantic times, so a little down time is always welcome. I had a break and I took it, heading up to the little staff lunchroom that we have down at Home Campus.
Somehow my colleagues and I ended up in a conversation about Foucault.
If you have no idea what that means, well, count yourself lucky. If you do, you probably went to graduate school in the 1990s.
Foucault was a theorist. Don’t bother asking “theorist of what?” for, as I was repeatedly admonished in graduate school, that is the wrong question. He was a Theorist, and the What is left to the observer. He was also French. He is famous for the impenetrability of his prose, the smugness of his disciples, the simplicity of his main points once stripped of their shield of jargon, and the general air of pretentiousness that surrounds any work that seriously attempts to employ his discourse. At least that’s what I remember him for. Other scholars disagree – often profoundly, and with some vigor – as is their right.
I was surrounded by Foucault back in graduate school. I lived and worked with people who just thought Foucault was the best scholar ever to put pen to paper, producing Theories of universal applicability across all disciplines. I actually understood jokes about Foucault, even if I never did figure out how to spell the man’s name (and three cheers for Blogger’s spell-check service, I say – would that it had existed back then). But only once did I attempt to read his actual writings.
It did not go well.
I got about three pages into an article assigned for one of my graduate seminars before my brain leaped out of my skull in self defense and tried to stab my eyes out with a pen so I wouldn’t have to continue. This is how you get migraines. So I kept judiciously quiet that week, and eventually the seminar changed focus to something less mystifying such as – oh, I forget, but perhaps quantum cryodynamics or the mysteries of movie studio accounting.
It is possible that this experience unduly influenced my opinion of the man and his followers. I will admit to that as an option.
The philosopher at the lunch table, a man who clearly enjoyed his Foucault, felt that I was missing out, so before I left to go back to my office he had given me a twelve-page article written by Foucault to read.
And like a good little academic, I started it last night.
I’m about six pages in so far, and mostly what it has taught me is that my brain was not wrong all those years ago.
For one thing, I’m still not sure what Foucault is trying to say, halfway into this piece. He spends an inordinate amount of time telling me what he is NOT saying, which makes those parts where he is actually trying to say what he IS saying somewhat disjointed and hard to follow.
For another thing, he does not make it any easier to follow those parts where he is actually trying to say something because he spends much of his remaining time redefining perfectly ordinary words (“genealogy”) to mean things that only he says they mean. I think we already have words for most of what he’s trying to get across, and it’s long been a pet peeve of mine when academics create neologisms that they don’t need to create. One of the articles that still annoys me from graduate school repeatedly used the word “suspicion” as a verb, for example. I remember thinking, “we already have a verb for that, I suspect.” I stayed quiet that class too.
I stayed quiet a lot in graduate school, now that I think of it.
Most of what remains so far in this article, once you have stripped out the neologisms and the handwaving denials of what he couldn’t possibly be saying at this moment, falls into one of two categories.
The first is an oddly disconcerting combination of Burkean Conservatism – with its emphasis on the specific, the unique, and the historical, in contrast to the timeless universalism of Enlightenment thought that Burke was reacting against – and German Volkish ideology, the backbone of what intellectual rigor the Nazis possessed. He does go out of his way to disavow Fascism and indeed all totalitarianism, though, which is nice of him.
The second is the fairly straightforward idea that alternative narratives tend to get lost in the shuffle when large, universalist, overarching narratives are put forward. Umm, yes? As the old saying goes, when all you have is a hammer everything looks more or less like a nail, and this can be disconcerting to those of us who are not, in fact, nails.
Historians have been banging on about this since the 1950s, in one form or another. It is, for example, the intellectual justification for social history – the history of the downtrodden, the voiceless, the people who aren’t running things – which has been a major part of the historical profession since Eisenhower was in office. I’m not sure why this qualifies as a revelation now or even in 1980 when he was writing this article, but then Foucault is a Theorist and not a historian so what do I know.
So I don’t know if I’m going to read the rest of this article.
On the one hand, it’s only six more pages and I was given it in good faith. I should continue and see if it gets better or, alternatively, if I grow more appreciative. Either could happen, I suppose.
On the other hand?
My brain knows where the pens are.