Foucault and the revolutionary self-castration of the Left

by Jerome Roos on December 1, 2011

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Far from posing a counter-hegemonic challenge to the dominant powers in the world, Foucault’s armchair philosophy simply made resistance impossible.

I first encountered the work of Michel Foucault in college. Intrigued but confused, I decided to look for videos of the intellectual giant explaining his theories in a way that might be more intelligible than his obscurantist writings. To my excitement, I encountered a fascinating debate between Foucault and Chomsky aired on Dutch television in 1971. The exchange between the figureheads of the European and American Left, respectively, was a true clash of titans. By the end of it, however, I had lost most of my short-lived obsession with Foucault and had sided instead with the radical linguist Chomsky.

Foucault: Truism, Error and Gibberish?

Later, while doing graduate studies in Paris, I was taken aback by the extent to which intellectuals are still revered in French culture, as if they were some kind of postmodern priests. Thinking back of Foucault, it struck me how ironic it was that the founding father of discourse analysis should be praised for speaking a discursive dialect that no sane person could believably claim to fully understand. What is the point of criticizing the reproduction of power through academic institutions if you willfully reproduce that same very power through your own unintelligible language?

Given the fact that Foucauldian discourse analysis is meant to reveal the obscured power relations undergirding social interactions in everyday life, there must have been an exclusionary purpose to Foucault’s flamboyant style of writing and speaking. In my own discourse analysis of Foucault, his was a desperate attempt to turn commonsensical statements about the role of language into seemingly profound truths backed by the culturally-respected veil of social theory — common sense dressed up in the hot air of ‘philosophy’.

Or, as Chomsky himself would later go on to say:

Quite regularly, “my eyes glaze over” when I read polysyllabic discourse on the themes of poststructuralism and postmodernism; what I understand is largely truism or error, but that is only a fraction of the total word count. True, there are lots of other things I don’t understand: the articles in the current issues of math and physics journals, for example. But there is a difference. In the latter case, I know how to get to understand them, and have done so, in cases of particular interest to me; and I also know that people in these fields can explain the contents to me at my level, so that I can gain what (partial) understanding I may want. In contrast, no one seems to be able to explain to me why the latest post-this-and-that is (for the most part) other than truism, error, or gibberish.

Foucault and the Impossibility of Resistance

But there is another problem. Ultimately, Foucault’s critique of Western civilization becomes a deterministic one. Because it connects power with knowledge through discourse, and because it posits that knowledge and power are continually reproduced through both formal and informal institutions, there is ultimately no way for willful agents to escape the choking grasp of their culture without reproducing the same forms of oppression they are trying to overcome. As a result, Foucault’s philosophy precludes the possibility for revolutionary action. Chomsky, by contrast, focusing on the notions of justice and human nature, actually forces us to imagine an alternative; to find pathways for radical change and actively engage in the creation of a better world.

Foucault, aware of this major limitation in his work, would later state that:

We are not trapped. We cannot jump outside the situation, and there is no point where you are free from all power relations. But you can always change it. So what I’ve said does not mean that we are always trapped, but that we are always free—well, anyway, that there is always the possibility of changing … [r]esistance comes first, and resistance remains superior to the forces of the process; power relations are obliged to change with the resistance. So I think that resistance is the main word, the key word, in this dynamic.

Yet as Slavoj Žižek has argued, “the Foucauldian account of resistance is not only incoherent on its own terms, but also [...], in restricting oppositional political formations to the reactive gestures of refusal and resistance, Foucault embraces a profoundly pessimistic view of the possibilities for social and political transformation.” The only way to overcome this incoherence would be to embrace a more dialectic understanding of power and resistance, in which the roles of the subject and the object — the revolutionary agent and the oppressed individual — are intimately tied up in ways that actually allow the former to outgrow the latter; resistance to overcome power.

Throwing Out the Baby With the Bathwater

The problem with Foucault’s incoherent conception of resistance is that, from the 1960s onward, his discursive method has become quasi-hegemonic in Leftist academic circles. Ever since the postmodernists and post-structuralists began to scramble for an alternative to the rigid economism of orthodox Marxism, the systemic critique of capitalism has largely been thrown overboard. Thus, in an attempt to expand the Marxian notions of politico-economic oppression and social conflict with a more discourse-based cultural critique, Foucault and his followers actually ended up throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Far from revealing the predominant power relations in society, the post-1968 Left has ended up ‘purging’ social reality of its material power dynamics and ‘stuffing’ it with interpretations over meaning and contextuality. In other words, discourse analysis has become so emphatically obsessed with language and intersubjectivity that it can only speak to forms of cultural oppression in highly specific contexts, while largely sidestepping the structural forces of economic oppression that Marx spoke to. In the meantime, we are left with a contradictory view of resistance that is at once pessimistic and naive — epitomized in Foucault’s bizarre praise of the fundamentalist Iranian Revolution of 1979.

Thus, to borrow from Slavoj Žižek once more, the cultural turn in critical theory — far from being counter-hegemonic in the Gramscian sense, as it claims to be — has actually proved perfectly compatible with the dominant mode of capitalist accumulation. A multinational corporation like Shell, whose ‘rational’ decisions affect the lives of millions of Nigerians, could honestly care less about a bunch of fashionable bourgeois intellectuals holding obscure and unintelligible conversations about the linguistic construction of social reality and its implications for social stratification in the Niger Delta.

Discourse as a Hegemonic Strategy

Ultimately, as Antonio Gramsci pointed out, the moment where discourse becomes relevant is in the act of justification and legitimation, where dominant social actors seek to cement popular consent and justify their materially privileged position by obscuring the negative impacts of their structural power. Shell doesn’t care about discourse analysis. What it does not want you to know are the facts — for example its capture of the Nigerian state and its military crackdown on citizen protests against the brutal environmental and developmental disaster it is causing. And so it spends lavishly on lobbying, PR, greenwashing and ‘corporate social responsibility‘ in order to justify its overwhelming power and defend the legitimacy of global capital.

We see this form of discursive power in operation every single day, through old-fashioned marketing campaigns, for example, but especially through ‘progressive’ business strategies such as ‘fair trade chocolate’ and ‘organic latte’. In extreme cases, states and corporations even engage in downright suppression or manipulation of the truth, as large oil companies have done by funding bogus science denying the reality of climate change, or as House Speaker John Boehner and a Wall Street lobbying firm proposed to do by starting a $850,000 PR campaign to delegitimize the Occupy Wall Street movement. Discursive power exists, but not independently of its material foundations.

The rise of poststructuralism, postmodernism and constructivism in the social sciences has thus been a boon for the true wielders of material power in this world. By replacing the systemic critique of capitalism with the discursive critique of civilization, the postmodern and post-structuralist Left has ended up castrating itself intellectually in the attempt to overthrow the cultural hegemony of global capital. Far from revolutionizing society, postmodernism has only further entrenched the power of the bourgeois elite. The time has come to leave our armchairs and take the bull by the horns. As Marx had it, “philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways — the point is to change it.”

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Leo December 1, 2011 at 22:21

this time, I do not agree entirely with you. I think that Foucault, at his best (Sorvegliare e punire) has a lot to say about how power and knowledge are interwoven. I think language matters a lot, and I would venture that your use of the term “castration” in the title is indicative, for it posits that a strong left must necessarily be “virile”.

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Austin G. Mackell September 28, 2012 at 02:02

Hi Leo,

Like you I see great value in Foucault’s work. However I think this is because of the depth of his research and his creative imagination. However, I think this happened despite his post-structuralist framework, rather than because of it.

As such, whilst being able to find some value in him and others mentioned, I think the thrust of the piece is correct.

Peace.

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Axel Salomonsson December 1, 2011 at 23:54

You are absolutely right. I think Focault and some other postmodern scholars has made some good points, but the post-everything era is over. The day of action has come (back). Hopefully not to late.

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Austin G. Mackell October 1, 2012 at 22:20

The good thing Is Axel, we both know there are millions of people around the world pushing in roughly the same direction. I think it will all come together in the end. The question is just how bad things have to get before another big upheaval becomes the course of least resistance, which seems unfortunately, to be the path human affairs tends to take.

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barbara blackman December 2, 2011 at 00:20

I feel that governments keep talking about terrorist being people who have ideologies that inspire them to do acts of terror. But what about corporations who through neglect & greed perpetuate an attack? How is the killing of 11 people & the polution of the Gulf of Mexico not an act of terror? How is the spilling of nuclear waste across the globe from Japan not an act of terror? These were not unavoidable accidents. These were not acts of God.

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Gavin Keeney December 2, 2011 at 09:41

To be fair, you have to distinguish between different forms of post-modernism and post-structuralism. But you’re right about Foucault — he was in many ways a sadist. (And then there are all the problems with Deleuze and the Deleuzeans …)More importantly, and perhaps to lend some sort of weak defense to the forms of post-structuralism that are admirable, the passage out of the post-modern impasse (Guattari’s term) or the post-modern caesura (Negri’s term) is underway — and they, oddly, prepared the way out. (What is truly reprehensible though is post-Marxism. The best definition of post-Marxism I’ve ever read is in, if I remember correctly, the early pages of Rancière’s The Emancipated Spectator. And I always wondered what the hell it was. Post-Marxism is defined by the moment when Marxists gave up. They accepted that they’d only be able to fight from within the capitalist order and only by volubly becoming naysayers — in other words, utterly negative, sardonic, and/or cynical. They capitulated to the machinery — and in many ways this is the origin of much post-modernism, including — I’d say — Baudrillard. As as result, I avoid Foucault, Deleuze, and Baudrillard like the plague.)

You write: “The only way to overcome this incoherence would be to embrace a more dialectic understanding of power and resistance, in which the roles of the subject and the object — the revolutionary agent and the oppressed individual — are intimately tied up in ways that actually allow the former to outgrow the latter; resistance to overcome power.” I answer: This was Nietzsche’s gift, and Nietzsche was a philosopher (but one who philosophized with a hammer). (Yet the secret of Nietzsche is that he was marginalized after The Birth of Tragedy for not playing by academic rules. And this marginalization turned him instead into a literary figure. He wasn’t even taken seriously as a philosopher until well into the early twentieth century.)

Zizek’s a curious case in point (as is his colleague Badiou). He (and Badiou) milk academia for all the perks of its incestuous, celebrity-driven culture. Do either of them “act”, as you seem to require? Both write … Writing is revolutionary. Sorry! But it is … Writing is an act. (Look at your own writing.)

Back to post-structuralism. It also is over. Derrida killed it off just before he died. He killed it off with — voila! — Spectres of Marx.

Lastly, you’d be fabulous in a debate with Sylvère Lotringer. I’d love to moderate. He’s still — more or less — a diehard Foucauldian. His Semiotext(e) publications defined radical critique for decades. Did they define it from Foucault’s perverse privileged position within discourse analysis? Probably yes …

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Jérôme E. Roos December 2, 2011 at 21:07

There’s some terrific reflections in here Gavin, thanks for this. You are absolutely right about the need to draw a distinction between postmodernism and post-structuralism, as well as the curious case of Slavoj Zizek. Also, you are right, writing is a form of action and can definitely be a genuine form of resistance. In that respect, Foucault was a revolutionary at the discursive level, but, I believe, ultimately a counter-revolutionary in terms of the pessimism his revolutionary thought imbued among the Left. Much more to respond to here, hopefully I’ll have the time to do so soon! Thanks again :)

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Pygmalion Karatzas December 2, 2011 at 11:02

Totally agree with u Jerome! Similar thing happened to me when i discovered Foucault in college… Even back then, David Harvey made much more sense to me… Later I discovered Ken Wilber who i think makes an excellent job at highlighting in a simple and understandable way the positive aspects of postmodernism and poststructuralism and at the same time ‘crushing and trushing’ all the negative aspects, blind spots and side-effects of it all…

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Jérôme E. Roos December 2, 2011 at 21:10

Thanks man! I also read Wilber in my post-college New Age phase (before growing sick with his self-referential style of writing and the uber-capitalist promotion of his books, ideas and institute). Wilber’s critique of post-modernism and the early Foucault remains spot on, though, and it definitely fed into this article!

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Pygmalion Karztas December 4, 2011 at 15:49

I agree with u about the ‘self-referential style’ (although it seems to me that all major philosophers inevitably fall into this). I also agree about the ‘uber-capitalist promotion’ but in this case i am more happy with the aspect of spreading wide a positive vision that is very much needed than the aspect of making money from selling books and seminars (even if sometimes it does bag me…:) Having said that, i do criticize the Institute for not taking a stronger active role in the current (r)evolutionary movement. Maybe this is the decisive test for I-I (as it was for the counterculture in the 60-70ies that Ken himself criticized strongly)…
In any case, congrats on the spirited articles u post and the close follow-ups!

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Translator Brigades December 2, 2011 at 12:19

Fantastic article Jerome and friends from roarmag. I´m sincerely very impressed. I´ll follow you closely. In solidarity, TB

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Jérôme E. Roos December 2, 2011 at 21:11

Thanks TB, greatly appreciate it!

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dave December 2, 2011 at 22:17

Whenever somebody mentions F’ I usually ask ‘which one?” Not familiar with the whole canon but have read ORDER and ARCHEOLOGY and I wondered if they had been written by the same guy they were so fundamentally different.

Hate to be the only rejectionist here but I do think this is much ado about nothing. As an ardent revolutionologist, it seems to me that two things are clear: 1, You need to get people really good and mad to make them rebel. 2, And once the genie of rebellion is loosed from her bottle, its inertial energy is directed by many forces including pure dumb luck. It is not theory and theorists who create the tumult from which revolutions spring, material conditions and the responses [or lack thereof] of the state do; nor does or can theory avert failure once the battle between revolt and state reaction ensues. It simply doesn’t matter what foucault believes or writes. Revolutions are made by people who don’t give a damn about theory. Intellectuals may lead–think lenin, trotsky–and when fate favors them and the revolutionaries prevail the leaders are often falsely credited with its success–again think lenin, Trotsky.

I think if one looks at what actually has happened, and take Mao’s advice ['seek truth from facts'] to heart, one can only conclude that the divinations of academics from the Enlightenment to the present, including Marx, the Frankfurter post-Marxists et al, have had virtually no effect, none of any consequence anyway. The sailors aboard the Potempkin didn’t mutiny because they had read State and Revolution or What Is To Be Done, nor had the soldiers who stormed the palace. At best they can be catalysts [Sieyes, Tom Paine] but exhortation and theory are distinctly different things. If Foucault had come to different conclusions, or had expressed himself differently, or had never existed at all, it wouldn’t have made any difference.

But this is not to say I didn’t enjoy J’s ruminations on the topic. He thinks [and this is said without a drop of condescension I assure you] the way I used to when I was young. I hope his generation will succeed where mine did not.

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Gavin Keeney December 3, 2011 at 02:34

There’s an interesting PARALLEL conversation going on at the “redoubtable” academia.edu, oddly perhaps, on the very issue of neo-liberalism and the academy … (I say “redoubtable” because this site is likely to slowly demolish LinkedIn with its gratuitous and ridiculous role as self-marketing juggernaut for the academic and professional celebritocracy. Does anyone really need to know where so-and-so is traveling on such and such a date, or if Michael Speaks has yet another speaking engagement to speak out against too much talk and too little action?)

http://www.academia.edu/Questions/6201

Have cross-posted THIS discussion THERE, as I think the discussion HERE is primarily about the corruption of the academies and the neutralizing of dissent EVERYWHERE, not just in the streets. (And no one has yet answered the question as to why Foucault doesn’t really matter, despite his implicit embrace of power, other than to suggest that ALL intellectualism is ineffectual, which is — of course — an old attitude problem dating back to the first days of imperial power when how much weaponry you had or how many troops seemed to trump all other considerations.)

(I trust this link will work and you don’t need to register or sign in to visit the discussion THERE.)

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Gavin Keeney December 3, 2011 at 05:33

And then there is the “self-castrating” art world …

“While it is undoubtedly the moneyed global elite and their suck-ups who dominate the art world, there is no revolution at the gates, for art fans from much wider social spheres are sucked into this uncontroversial, irrelevant neophilia”

http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2011/dec/02/charles-saatchi-art-world-attack

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Gavin Keeney December 3, 2011 at 03:11

PS – For anyone wanting to examine the work of someone who represents — at least for my own poor self — an exemplar of speculative intellect in action, please see the work of Chris Marker. For an example of how the Left repeatedly destroys itself, see his 1977 film, and there were TWO versions (1977/1993 France 240/180 mins), Le fond de l’air est rouge (A Grin Without A Cat).

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Julien Febvre December 7, 2011 at 13:30

Foucault and most of the post-structuralists have adopted a very problematic idea on power. To say that power is everywhere is highly deterministic and I barely can see any sort of liberation coming out of necessity or other a-priori approaches. But in overall, I don’t think that Foucault’s philosophy has not good points.

I would suggest you to have a look at some of these gorgeous works of Cornelius Castoriadis. A really good philosopher that I discovered lately…

http://eagainst.com/articles/castoriadis-cornelius-the-imaginary-institution-of-society/

http://eagainst.com/articles/cornelius-castoriadis-figures-of-the-thinkable/

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Candide December 8, 2011 at 00:40

“‘And you must also know’… – ‘All I know,’ said Candide, ‘is that we must cultivate our garden’ – ‘you are right,’ said Pangloss ‘for when men was placed in the garden of Edenm he was put there ut operaretur eum, so that he might work: which proves that man was not born for rest,’ – ‘Let us set to work and stop proving things,’ said Martin ‘for that is the only way to make life bearable’ [...] ” Voltaire (in Candide, or Optimism, p.93)

(your thinking about the quote here)

I’lld say: let us cultivate our garden of revolutions so that we may have a good crop next year…

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Philippe December 9, 2011 at 19:38

This was well written, and I take your points. That being said, there are a couple of problems with it on a purely factual level. You point out that “there is ultimately no way for willful agents to escape the choking grasp of their culture without reproducing the same forms of oppression they are trying to overcome. As a result, Foucault’s philosophy precludes the possibility for revolutionary action”. Foucault’s early and middle philosophy, which is his most studied, would indeed seem to suggest this.

However, he recognized his own problems, and attempted to formulate a way out of this by focusing on ethics and the act of self-creation, the ability for social agents to experiment with new forms of self-fashioning not dominated by capitalism.

You also criticize that discursive readings cannot and should not be divorced from their material roots — granted. Nor would Foucault or any post-structuralist/modernist ask such. What is at stake is the purely economist relationship between base and superstructure, and their mutual interpenetration. This is not something all that unique in leftist thought, as Gramsci, who you cite, pointed it out much earlier.

Finally I would point out a problem when you state Shell “could honestly care less about a bunch of fashionable bourgeois intellectuals holding obscure and unintelligible conversations about the linguistic construction of social reality and its implications for social stratification in the Niger Delta”.

1. Shell may not care about that, but the simple revelation of multiple forms of domination can indeed stir people to opposition.
2. Nothing in Foucault in particular precludes material analysis of those damning facts you state — many of Foucault’s texts are heavily researched and historically grounded.
3. Are explicitly Marxist conversations about use-value and exchange-value about Shell necessarily more likely to prompt action than post-structuralist accounts of domination and discourse?
4. Is it the responsibility of every researcher to state the exact same points? Can’t a rawly materialist analysis along Marxist lines of economic exploitation coincide with and complement a Foucauldian reading of linguistic domination and social stratification? Why are they mutually exclusive?

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Justin December 22, 2011 at 12:40

Interesting insights, Jerome. I think there is a relatively simple reason why postmodernism, poststructuralism and post-Marxism have significant niches within academia (while traditional Marxist approaches are typically treated as crude in contemporary academic circles). The simple reason, I think, is that, within contemporary academic institutions and among the mostly bourgeois intellectuals who occupy them, there is relatively little interest in the traditional focus of Marxist scholarship: the social relations of production and how they relate to cultural production. For the modern bourgeois intellectual, Marxist scholarship is mostly drab because it doesn’t fetishize bourgeois aspirations and lifestyles. It is to be expected that academia will produce diversionary paths for the left because universities are invariably bourgeois institutions that will quite naturally reward scholarship that appeals to people with bourgeois aspirations and lifestyles. (It should be no surprise that perhaps the two greatest socialist intellectuals in modern European history –Marx and Gramsci– didn’t teach at universities.)

This is not to say that there aren’t any grounded leftist intellectuals in contemporary academia, but they are rare, and it is no coincidence that they pop up almost exclusively in disciplines that are far removed from power (such as linguistics, geography, etc.).

What the left needs is alternative sources of cultural and intellectual development, which can only come from the development of its own parties and movements. Universities are no doubt a useful starting point for leftist intellectuals (as they were for Marx and Gramsci), but there will always need to be another component to spur the largescale development of Gramsci’s “intellectuals of the working class.”

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QS December 27, 2011 at 18:16

Frankly, I think you and many others exaggerate the difficulty of reading Foucault and use it as an excuse for dismissing him. Some of his stuff is hard, much of it is not, but overall he says a lot of useful things about how power works in society.

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Joe Davies January 7, 2012 at 01:55

Interesting discussion! The point that needs to be made about resistance is that resistance is by itself not enough. Sure it can raise awareness and can create movements and spread ideas, but by itself, resistance addresses only the power culture and thus legitimizes it. It’s like opposing World War I by demonizing Kitchener, rather than capitalist war in general. It’s the assertion of our own power as workers and oppressed peoples that really matters. Resistance is part of that, but it’s not the part that wins the revolution, folks!

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Torn Halves February 2, 2012 at 12:50

Nice article and some interesting comments. I think there is material here for another article on Foucault and his style. You dismiss him too quickly, not because you are wrong to do so, but because there is more that needs to be said about this sort of obscurantism. The strange interplay of power and utter impotence in the academy. Aristotle was tutor to Alexander (the future Great). Foucault was tutor to… powerless Foucault groupies. And then the perverse tension between an apparently democratic theory (insofar as the demos can be identified with the oppressed) and his own aristocratic practice (his own writing and speaking).

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Andrew Stergiou February 2, 2012 at 20:24

My time is very limited, so unfortunately I make many errors and in this case found the silly response by Simon Thorpe, to this article by Jerome Roos, December 1, 2011by which I defer to as as better said. Adding I did not feel substance in the response by Simon Thorpe, leaving the PC for the kitchen I was filled with one line response like are you supposed to be “anarchist or 50% of an anarchist, or 50% of 1% of an anarchist. Yes Marx spoke on this topic as Lenin positing that the point is not to philosophize about the world but to change it even as I sit here in a small rural city feeling as if in exile in Siberia, because theory to be valid can not be viewed as valid if it does not apply everywhere.

So I am now confused as this article was presented differently than the response to it was written. So far as I can see I am in agreement generally on with Jerome Foos, and oppose Simon Thorpe whom I viewed similarly in what Roos wrote of Foucault. I Think I can greet such an article as well written though defer 100% as it is not a field of my forte or specialty.

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Sovryn Truth February 19, 2012 at 02:53

This statement, right here – “…praised for speaking a discursive dialect that no sane person could believably claim to fully understand.” Has me laughing my butt off!
One of the most annoying things to have had to deal with throughout college, and in personal intellectual studies, etc, is Slogging through all the “pomp and circumstance” the authors go through in an obvious attempt at making everyone believe that he or she is some phenomenal Deep and Complex Thinker and Writer. And when you finally get to MEAT of the matter it is often barely worth the effort it took to dissect it.
Thank you for this submission. And the laugh.

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Mark March 6, 2012 at 04:57

Foucault’s project is completely different from Marx, and that of Zizek & Gramsci.
1) Foucault is not undertaking a transcendental project regarding the state, but an imminent one – ie. he’s not trying to enact an utopia.
2) Foucault’s understanding of power is primarily concerned with potentia, that is power as a productive force how people’s behaviour is produced, rather than the more familiar, potestas, which is more like what teenagers understand power, ie. your parents are meanies in power, and as such are sucky.
3) the author’s understanding of Foucault and his over project & in particular his understanding of power is weak. A Foucauldian analysis of Nigerian corruption, would start to analysis with the micro-strategies of power which occur in the Nigerian Delta and how that affects the people living there.

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chuck zonart May 14, 2012 at 13:40

At least Foucault dressed really nice.

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Tove January 19, 2014 at 15:59

Hey, maybe you want to replace the source for the quote taken from Sex, Power and the Politics of Identity, as the one linked now leads to what seems to be a fascist magazine?

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