Foucault a postmodernist?

SUBJECT: Foucault a postmodernist? 7/13/95 11:02 AM

Thanks for your question. Your question is not too basic; in fact, it
addresses a hotly debated issue in current Foucault scholarship. Foucault
rejected the label of "postmodernist" or "antimodernist". Responding to
Kant's "What is Enlightenment?" Foucault affirms that he is a modernist, and
that modernism is an attitude (not an era) which stands in constant critique
of the assumptions which come from our socio-historical heritage. In this
sense, one could never be more "up-to-date" than the modernists.

However, "postmodernism" has come to represent a variety of perspectives, most
of which, which deny the ultimacy of an Enlightenment point of view. What is
an "Enlightenment point of view"? Well, if we think of the Enlightenment as a
time when human beings began to throw off some of the shackles of
authoritarianism and became "enlightened" by the rise of science, reason, and
inquiry, then an Enlightenment point of view is one that is characterized by a
detacted, autonomous, objective rationality. You might want to think of this
perspective as epitomized in Francis Bacon's famous statement that "Knowledge
is power" meaning that once we've figured things out (gotten the "facts"),
we'll be able to do what we want and know what is best.

If postmodernism is understood as a rejection of this point of view, then
Foucault is surely a postmodernist. Turning Bacon on his head, Foucault
affirmed that it is not the case that knowledge is power, but power is
knowledge. Meaning, those people who have power (social, political, etc.)
always decide what will or will not be counted as "knowledge." That's why so
many of Foucault's histories (of the prison, the clinic, etc.) tell a
different story from the one we're accustomed to hearing. Foucault,
consistent with much postmodern thought, affirms that we can *never* escape
from the shacles of some form of power. Power is a constitutive dimension of
all discourse. You can see that there are good arguments on both sides for
understanding Foucault as either a modernist or a postmodernist. The
important issue becomes how you define modernity/postmodernity.

Responding to your inquiry, Sam Binkley writes: "In short, postmodernists
think it's more fun to make things difficult or impossible than to make them
easy and managable." The issues here are far more complicated. It's not that
one "makes" easy things difficult, but rather that one must be careful not to
distort difficult things by too quickly making them easy. In this sense,
postmodernism is also an attitude, and it has been most artfully practiced by
Socrates, St. Augustine, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, and a host of others. I
hope some of this long-winded reponse helps.
--Scott Moore

Scott H. Moore, Ph.D.
Department of Philosophy, Baylor University
Waco, TX 76798-7274 / (817)755-3368


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