Worshipping at the altar of Foucault and the postmodernist esoteric

Getting to work on my master’s thesis is proving to be fraught with difficulty. My new advisor (I had to change when it became clear that the professor I had previously selected simply didn’t want to put in the effort) wants, among other things, for me to read Michel Foucault. He suggested a couple chapters in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977 (but failed to say which ones) and the book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. I am not happy about this; I believe strongly that if someone has something to say, they should write it clearly, and Foucault is notorious for being difficult to read.

So I sat down with Power/Knowledge, because I really, really don’t have time for this, and I was hoping I could get through a chapter while I was holed up in a Palo Alto coffee house waiting out Friday San Francisco Bay Area traffic. Of course, it took longer than that to get through an interview entitled “Truth and Power,” but a couple things clearly emerge.

First, Foucault chooses complex explanations where simple ones will suffice. He notices that the history of scientific progress is punctuated by periods of sudden advance. To me this is unremarkable, but apparently it led to some controversy, suggesting that the wits of those who voluntarily critique Foucault are even dimmer. Foucault rambles on about this only to say that this is not what is important; “rather it is this extent and rapidity [of change] are only the sign of something else: a modification in the rules of formation of statements are accepted as scientifically true,” in other words, a change in dogma.

But Foucault can’t simply acknowledge that as people progress in learning in a single discipline they become ever more invested in the tenets of their field, and that change becomes something to instinctively resist. That would be entirely too simple. No, he wanders off into a textual analysis of a “discursive regime.” Why? He does not say. Foucault does not even mention the simple explanation.

Second, Foucault views power monolithically, as an object like a brick. Perhaps this brick sits on your desk or in your pocket. This is simply stupid-talk. Any anarchist can tell you, and anyone can understand that power is a relationship; it has components: an actor and that which would be acted upon, with the potentiality of that action being an important piece. We do things or refrain from doing things not of our own volition when political authorities tell us to do them and we fear what they could do to us. Compliance thus is borne in the potential of discipline.

This is far from an original concept. The Internal Revenue Service depends on a system of “voluntary compliance” that invokes a better-developed concept of power than Foucault expresses. You file your taxes and pay the amount due because you fear their enforcement. You watch the deductions you take because you fear an audit. And the IRS is well aware of this. They understand well that they would be overwhelmed if even a large enough number of people refused to comply.

So even accountants, whom I think many would criticize for narrowness of thought, have an understanding of power that exceeds Foucault. Yet I see all these speech communication people fawning over Foucault. Foucault, of course, encounters all manner of difficulties in his thinking; to conceptualize power as a monolithic object leads to innumerable complexities. But the simple explanation, the one that anyone can understand, is entirely absent.

I am coming to think that it is not, after all, economics which is the most ideological of social sciences but rather the one I have found myself ensnared in: speech communication.

Author: benfell

David Benfell holds a Ph.D. in Human Science from Saybrook University. He earned a M.A. in Speech Communication from CSU East Bay in 2009 and has studied at California Institute of Integral Studies. He is an anarchist, a vegetarian ecofeminist, a naturist, and a Taoist.

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