In my Twitter header is a quote by Michel Foucault, whose influence on me has been substantial.
Foucault’s work is so embedded in modern work in the humanities that writing about him as an amateur is like hanging a sign around your neck reading “Slap Me”.
But a friend asked me about the quote, and I haven’t written a stand-alone piece on Foucault, so here are three brief thoughts.
On more than one occasion, Foucault described his work as a toolbox. Readers, in this interpretation, should pick and choose the concepts they find useful, to use as they see fit.
I would like my books to be a kind of tool-box which others can rummage through to find a tool which they can use however they wish in their own area... I would like the little volume that I want to write on disciplinary systems to be useful to an educator, a warden, a magistrate, a conscientious objector. I don't write for an audience, I write for users, not readers.
Michel Foucault, (1974) 'Prisons et asiles dans le mécanisme du pouvoir' in Dits et Ecrits, t. II. Paris: Gallimard, 1994, pp. 523-4.
This is an extraordinarily liberating way to present philosophical ideas. Virtually every other philosopher — in any tradition, including the religious ones — requires the acceptance of, and commitment to, entire systems of thought.
As an aside, his chosen title for his professorship in the College De France was “of the history of systems of thought” — perhaps to indicate that he required no such commitment from his acolytes.
Foucault gives you permission, as it were, to do what you will. So individual snippets, micro-insights, become valuable in and of themselves. It does not require a commitment to a complicated system.
This is of course one reason he shows up everywhere.
The quote in my Twitter header is not from any of Foucault’s books. It is from an interview conducted in 1983, not long before his death.
Foucault was remarkably articulate and incisive in his interviews, many of which are collected here. If, upon reading this little essay, you are intrigued, I suggest you begin here; move on to The Order of Things (about which more below); and then dip into his interviews.
As for the quote itself: it may seem blindingly obvious upon inspection, but upon even closer inspection and when read in context and in juxtaposition with the rest of his oeuvre, it is also liberating in ways that only became clear to me over time.
Virtually everything has a history, and that history is a product of certain events and tendencies. Large and small examples of things that have a history that could have been very different: “elections”; “t-shirts”; “office buildings”; “college”; “cities”; “underwear”; “space”; “family”; and so on.
Thinking this way is not just enlightening; it offers paths to change. I have used this to positive effect in my work and personal lives.
The Order of Things
Ten years ago I read, as part of a course in anthropology, my first work by Foucault, namely The Order of Things, published in 1965.
Then follows, in baroque prose that is distinctively Foucauldian and makes reading him such a pleasure, a long explication of Velasquez’s Las Meninas.
I won’t regurgitate the remainder of the book’s contents (I have utilized the most important idea here). All I will say here is that there is no philosophical work like it.
Much of the academic writing about Foucault is obsessive about the ideas in his later works — specifically applying his analysis of power to just about everything, and using the word “discourse” so incessantly as to drive a lay reader mad (note: his first work was about insanity, so perhaps this is fitting).
It is The Order of Things that I keep returning to, because it gave me another way of looking at the world. Reading it was the closest I am likely to come, in my godless life, to having a religious experience.