Don’t Forget Foucault

Reviewed by Dan Adleman

Foucault Against Himself is Arsenal Pulp Press’ admirable adaptation of François Caillat’s recent documentary film of the same title. Each major chapter of the book is essentially the transcribed text of Caillat’s interview with a scholar featured in the film. Arsenal also enlisted the late author’s friend and interlocutor Paul Rabinow to write an engaging forward that probes the complex relationship between Foucault’s heterogeneous oeuvre and his often fraught life circumstances. To his credit, in what could be perceived as a slight dig at the filmmaker, Rabinow ultimately insists on the irreducible opacity of Foucault’s subjectivity and on critics’ constitutive inability to speak artfully thereto.

One highlight of the book is Caillat’s interview with literary theorist Leo Bersani, who first invited Foucault to lecture at Berkeley in the mid-1970s. Bersani provides a number of insightful anecdotes laced with theoretical observations about Foucault’s work and life. At one point, he speculates provocatively that Foucault’s discovery of “new relational modes” in California’s then-hedonistic Bay Area “stimulated his historical and philosophical production” in a fashion that would not have been possible had he remained within the stultifying confines of the Parisian Collège de France nexus at the time.

In another interview, French art historian Georges Didi-Huberman dwells on Foucault’s modelling of an “archaeological” modus operandi for “orient[ing] yourself within thought.” He goes on to characterize his own approach to art history as immensely indebted to Foucault’s archival methodology and aesthetics in seminal texts like The Birth of the Clinic and The Archaeology of Knowledge. In a comparison that would have made Foucault bristle, Didi-Huberman observes, “What he wrote about Manet . . . doesn’t interest me. We could say the same thing about Freud. When he discusses a Leonardo da Vinci painting, he’s not at his most fascinating. But when Freud looks at hysteria, he gives a veritable lesson in seeing. . . . [Likewise,] when Foucault describes what the clinical gaze is, for me that’s a basic lesson for art history.”

As a general introduction to Foucault’s life and work, Foucault Against Himself strikes a competent balance between biography (at times bordering on hagiography) and popular philosophy; nevertheless, there are two significant problems with Caillat’s approach. Firstly, the filmmaker circumscribes the field of scholarship to a small handful of Foucault’s popular books and shows little evidence of having read much else. Given his own stated intention of tracking Foucault’s constantly metamorphosing understanding of power, it is difficult to forgive him for overlooking the entire Collège de France seminar series (especially his genealogy of neoliberalism in The Birth of Biopolitics) and neglecting to discuss Foucault’s influential concepts of “biopolitics” and “biopower.”

Secondly, if Caillat were to immerse himself in Foucault’s body of work and the broader field of Foucault scholarship, he would quickly relinquish the premise that it would benefit scholars to view him as a thinker who, in his work and life, was fundamentally “against himself”—because this has been commonsensical doxa (about not only Foucault but everyone) for so long that critics could only scratch their heads at Caillat’s posture of having made an incisive intervention on the Foucault archive.

Moreover, against the grain of his insistent questions about “which Foucault” (“the militant” or “the scholar”) engaged in a certain political action or wrote a certain text, it is hard not to hear Foucault’s own spectral response from the end of “What is an Author?”: “Behind all these questions we would hear little more than the murmur of indifference: ‘What matter who’s speaking?’”

This review “Don’t Forget Foucault” originally appeared in Emerging Scholars 2. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 228-229 (Spring/Summer 2016): 237-238.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.