Re: Foucault for beginners

> well, since you put it that way.... I am writing a critique of a
> series of articles on identity politics. One author dismisses Foucault
> (and feminist postmodern theory) on the grounds that Foucault does not
> allow the subject to exist as a locus of agency. In terms of my
> knowledge, I do not have a Foucauldian leg to stand on to argue this
> position, but intuitively (from list discussions I have read and
> enjoyed), I think this author is wrong. Can anyone help? Replying
> off-list is fine if you have the time, energy and inclination. Thanks in
> advance.
> Sharon M.
> Grad Student, Politics Dept.
> York University
> sh96az@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx


I don't know how much time you want to spend reading secondary
materials on Foucault, but if you want a quick but comprehensive and
reliable overview of Foucault's philosophy of "the subject," I would
suggest any or all of the following:

The best brief overview, I think, is Joseph Rouse's "Power/Knowledge,"
which appears in THE CAMBRIDGE COMPANION TO FOUCAULT (ed. G. Gutting).
It contains an indispensable elucidation of F's "strategical
conception of power."

On the general theme of the (so-called) "social construction" of kinds
of person, see Ian Hacking's "Making Up People," which appears in a

Foucault's last couple of books concerned agency and self-invention.
The big picture is covered in Ian Hacking's "Self-Improvement," also

Finally, the theme of identity politics is addressed in relation to
Foucault in the short book, FOUCAULT & THE POLITICAL, by Jon Simons,
especially in the last couple of chapters.


Foucault's ideas about the role of social interaction ("power") in the
constitution of kinds of person are not as unprecedented as many
people assume. For an account that anticipates Foucault in many
respects, see Howard S. Becker, OUTSIDERS: STUDIES IN THE SOCIOLOGY OF
DEVIANCE. Irving Goffman also pursues what he somewhere calls the
"institutional theory of the self," which is a term that could
usefully be applied to Foucault's work.

It is important not to make the mistake of seeing Foucault as saying
something very eccentric. Marx says that "slaves" or "proletarians"
do not exist (as such) EXCEPT in the context of certain systems of social
relations, and by virtue of the role that certain people play, at
certain times, in certain patterns of social interaction. Foucault
says the same sort of thing about "delinquents," "perverts," and
"dangerous offenders." Such kinds of person are identified not by
what they do, nor by what they ARE inherently (in their own right),
but by the way they figure in certain social ("discursive and
non-discursive") practices, that is, norm-governed ways of talking
about people (or oneself) and acting toward them (or oneself).

As Foucault says in "On the Genealogy of Ethics":

"It is not just in the play of symbols that the subject is
constituted. It is constituted in real practices -- historically
analysable practices. there is a technology of the constitution of
the self which cuts across symbolic systems while using them."

(This point -- that language, notably names or labels for kinds of
person, is important in practices that themselves cannot be reduced
to language -- is well illustrated in Hacking's article on "Making Up
People," and also -- in more detail -- in John Rajchman's book: MICHEL
FOUCAULT: THE FREEDOM OF PHILOSOPHY, in the chapters after the first

I hope some of this proves useful to you.


  • Re: Foucault for beginners
    • From: Doug Henwood
  • Replies
    Foucault for beginners, Sharon M.
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