Foucault and the Critique of Modernity

Is it not necessary to draw a line between those who believe that we can continue to situate our present discontinuities within the historical and transcendental tradition of the nineteenth century and those who are making a great effort to liberate themselves, once and for all, from this conceptual framework? (Foucault 1977: p.120)

What’s going on just now? What’s happening to us? What is this world, this period, this precise moment in which we are living? (Foucault 1982a p.216)

[T]he impression of fulfillment and of end, the muffled feeling that carries and animates our thought, and perhaps lulls it so sleep with the facility of its promises… and makes us believe that something new is about to begin, something that we glimpse only as a thin line of light low on the horizon – that feeling and impression are perhaps not ill founded (Foucault 1973b: p.384)

Foucault’s critique of modernity and humanism, along with his proclamation of the death of man’ and development of new perspectives on society, knowledge, discourse, and power, has made him a major source of postmodern thought. Foucault draws upon an anti-Enlightenment tradition that rejects the equation of reason, emancipation, and progress, arguing that an interface between modern forms of power and knowledge has served tog create new forms of domination. In a series of historico-philosophical studies, he has attempted to develop and substantiate this theme from various perspectives: psychiatry, medicine, punishment and criminology, the emergence of the human sciences, the formation of various disciplinary apparatuses, and the constitution of the subject. Foucault’s project has been to write a critique of our historical era’ (1984: p.42) which problematizes modern forms of knowledge, rationality, social institutions, and subjectivity that seem given and natural but in fact are contingent sociohistorical constructs of power and domination.

While Foucault has decisively influenced postmodern theory, he cannot be wholly assimilate to that rubric. He is a complex and eclectic thinker who draws from multiple sources and problematics while aligning himself with no single one. If there are privileged figures in his work, they are critics of reason and Western thought such as Nietzsche and Bataille. Nietzsche provided Foucault, and nearly all French poststructuralists, with the impetus and ideas to transcend Hegelian and Marxist philosophies. In addition to initiating a postmetaphysical, posthumanist mode of thought, Nietzsche taught Foucault that one could write a genealogical’ history of unconventional topics such as reason, madness, and the subject which located their emergence within sites of domination. Nietzsche demonstrated that the will to truth and knowledge is indissociable from the will to power, and Foucault developed these claims in his critique of liberal humanism, the human sciences, and in his later work on ethics. While Foucault never wrote aphoristically in the style of Nietzsche, he did accept Nietzsche’s claims that systematizing methods produce reductive social and historical analyses, and that knowledge is perspectival in nature, requiring multiple viewpoints to interpret a heterogeneous reality.

Foucault was also deeply influenced by Bataille’s assault on Enlightenment reason and the reality principle of Western culture. Bataille (1985, 1988, 1989) championed the realm of heterogeneity, the ecstatic and explosive forces of religious fervor, secularity, and intoxicated experience that subvert and transgress the instrumental rationality and normalcy of bourgeois culture. Against the rationalist outlook of political economy and philosophy, Bataille sought a transcendence of utilitarian production and needs, while celebrating a general economy’ of consumption, waste, and expenditure as liberator. Bataille’s fervent attach on the sovereign philosophical subject and his embrace of transgressive experiences were influential for Foucault and other postmodern theorists. Through his writings, Foucault valorizes figures such as Holderlin, Artaud, and others for subverting the hegemony of modern reason and its norms and he frequently empathized with the mad, criminals, aesthetes, and marginalized types of all kinds.

Recognizing the problems with attaching labels to Foucault’s work, we wish to examine the extent to which he develops certain postmodern positions. We do not read Foucault as a postmodernist tout court, but rather as a theorist who combines premodern, modern, and postmodern perspectives. We see Foucault as a profoundly conflicted thinker whose thought is torn between oppositions such as totalizing/detotalizing impulses and tensions between discursive/extra-discursive theorization, macro/microperspectives, and a dialectic of domination/resistance.

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