why foucault is frustrating

Our recent discussion of the relationship between Foucault and Weber made me realize why Foucault is frustrating. No, it’s not for the reasons that you might expect from Peter Klein and the “Po-mo Periscope” crew. I don’t make fun of scholarship just because it doesn’t fit into the normal social science mode. Nor do I take academic puffery to be a reason to dismiss someone.

But still, there’s a lot that bugs me about Foucault. I finally understood why when I was trying to respond the question of how Foucault relates to Weber. Rather than speculate, I decided to actually reread some Foucault and then see what he had to say about Weber’s theory of power.

Answer: Nothing. Seriously, check out the indices of his major books. Go to Google Books, call up Discipline and Punish, and search for “Weber.” No matches.  The only mentions are in the introductions and prefaces by Foucault scholars. There’s probably a few mentions in thousands of pages, but not many. Rather shockingly, Foucault didn’t think it was terribly interesting to consider the concept of power articulated by one social science’s greatest figures.

Here’s what I came to appreciate. Foucault completely divorced himself from contemporary discourse. Basically, Foucault does close readings of original texts and then builds his idiosyncratic theories without any reference to anyone else. Of course, I am sure he was steeped in his intellectual world of Marxism, Critical theory, and structuralism. But you would never know it from the references. The world of 20th century social thought does not exist for Foucault, except as an object of study (see section III of the Order of Things).

In fact, if you read the afterward by Fontana and Bertani (287) to Society Must be Defended, they note that Foucault did not keep a record of what he read and did not engage other authors (except in interviews). Basically, he kind of cooked up everything in his head and then laid it upon the original text without much sense of how his ideas were built from others.

That by itself doesn’t invalidate or prove anything about Foucault’s thought. Rather, it shows that he built this self-referential writing style that was divorced from other scholars. He didn’t use their language or give credit if he did. That makes questions of the type “What is the relationship between Foucault and XXX?” inherently annoying because he never told anyone where he was coming from.

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Written by fabiorojas

December 4, 2011 at 12:03 am

Posted in fabio

34 Responses

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  1. It bothers me that the way that one typically studies Foucault is through total immersion. I’m a political scientist interested in a policy area other than the ones where people always talk about Foucault, but where I think that “biopolitics” could be useful. What I’d like is to see how Foucault’s ideas engage with and stack up against other ways of thinking about the state and “life.” But my only option is to read nothing but Foucault for three months and relate it to terrorism, policing etc rather than a broader range of issues. You don’t have to do this kind of thing with Weber or Marcuse or James Scott.



    December 4, 2011 at 12:41 am

  2. I’m not sure any of these Postmodern folks actually love knowledge.
    Thus, calling them “Philosophers” may be a misnomer.


    Chris Smith (@smitty_one_each)

    December 4, 2011 at 1:21 am

  3. Fabio, I agree, this is an important point. Foucault does sometimes refer to others in interview form (as you suggested), such as when he credits the Frankfurt School in an interview with Gérard Raulet.



    December 4, 2011 at 2:15 am

  4. How is this different from people like Bataille or Gauchet? What you are describing (no references to other authors) is not unique to Michel Foucault. It is simply a part of French scholarly culture.



    December 4, 2011 at 5:43 am

  5. Fabio, I think you nailed it on this one. On the other hand, since he’s of the era of Poulantzas and Althusser you might find relationships to Weber there. Or maybe none of them reference Weber at all, preferring Gramsci et. al..



    December 4, 2011 at 7:28 am

  6. Agree with John, my understanding is that this reflects particular scholastic conventions (of the French, historical, and philosophical varieties) rather than some personal flaw.



    December 4, 2011 at 10:05 am

  7. Foucault described himself in an interview as a Nietzschean, though admitted that he hadn’t entirely recognised this until quite late in his career. The Nietzschean ethos is to identify certain ‘heroes’, rather than peers or influences, and to try and re-launch Western theory in their spirit. Nietzsche did this in relation to the ancients; in a sense Foucault did it in relation to Nietzsche. It’s also very much Heidegger’s stated ambition, to overturn the history of philosophy in order to start again, as if from scratch. In the language of computer geeks, ignoring contemporary modern theory ‘is a feature not a bug’. It’s like complaining that Adorno seems a little too negative.


    Will Davies

    December 4, 2011 at 12:17 pm

  8. One positive externality of this annoying habit is that it creates an entire industry of secondary commentary designed to fill in the blanks, establish theses of underground influence, continuity, rupture, implicit critiques, etc.



    December 4, 2011 at 1:44 pm

  9. omar: that’s a *positive* externality?



    December 4, 2011 at 5:18 pm

  10. It helps people who write on theory and dead theorists put food on the table.



    December 4, 2011 at 5:34 pm

  11. John and Sallaz are correct. Foucault’s literary culture had, more or less, the following rule of citation” “if they are alive, don’t cite unless they are your friends.” (The merits of this system of recognition are a separate issue from the evaluation of the texts–but the system does presuppose that the average French reader of the texts are far more widely literature than we would expect our readers to be in North America.) It is clear that he read, among others, Althusser, Poultanzas, Deleuze & Guattari, Clastres, Blanchot, Bataille, Levi-Strauss, Sartre, Hyppolite, Kojeve, Heidegger. Like most French of his generation, he was likely familiar with Durkheim, which might also imply Tarde, as well as Marx. And it is clear that he had read Kant, Hegel and Nietzsche carefully.

    Contrary to the original post, he likely didn’t read much of Adorno, Horkheimer, or Marcuse. He read enough Habermas to disagree with him. His reading of Weber was likely fairly superficial and touched upon the classics. He was likely unfamiliar with most of the standards in the Anglo-American tradition (which is to say, he would have been spared the unique horror of reading Parsons).


    Craig McFarlane

    December 4, 2011 at 7:58 pm

  12. “The world of 20th century social thought does not exist for Foucault, except as an object of study (see section III of the Order of Things)”

    If by this you mean that in Foucault’s texts the world of 20thg century thought does not [seem] to exist, then I would agree. But Foucault was oriented toward the historical epistemology school in France and opposed to the two dominant poles of French social thought at the time: Structural Marxism and the Existentialism of Sartre. Foucault studied with Althusser, but he broke away from the problematics established by Althusser’s structural Marxism. Foucault did not pursue the problematic of science/ideology – his interest was not in establishing a science of society that could serve to demystify ideology. . Instead, Foucault raised the problem of truth and epistemology, and later with questions of power and subjectivity. But while Foucault broke with Althusser’s problematic of science/ideology, he also analyzed the relations of institutions and their power to create subjects.

    In Foucault’s work he does not include anything like a “literature review.” in a contemporary sociology article. As a matter of style Foucault does not compulsively pitch his ideas against other theorists. In his works you don’t encounter ‘tweaking theorist X’s reading of prominent scholar Y’s latest reinterpretation of classical theorist Z.’ This is an aspect of Foucault’s style that contributes to tendency of discussions to center on his work as a whole rather than as one of among a number of writers that ‘tweak theorist X’s reading of prominent scholar Y’s latest reinterpretation of classical theorist Z.’ But Foucault’s many qualifications and rhetorical objections to his analysis throughout his works are suggestive of his attempts to position himself within the French intellectual field.

    “That makes questions of the type “What is the relationship between Foucault and XXX?” inherently annoying because he never told anyone where he was coming from.”

    There are a number of interviews, as some comments have mentioned, where Foucault explicitly positions his work in relation to contemporary and “classical” theorists.

    See: “Interview with Michel Foucault” conducted by D. Trombadori (1978) in the collection Power edited by Faubion. The year is significant in Szakelczai’s :”Reflexive Historical Sociology” as a time when -according to Szakelczai’s “detailed study of Foucault’s notes” – Foucault became interested in the work of Weber and Thomas Mann. This is also the time that Foucault begins to pose questions of governmentality.

    In this interview you can find what you are looking for from Foucault. In the interview he addresses his thoughts on method, which he says “tend to be reflections on a finished book that may help me to define another possible project,”: and goes on to qualify that “this is not to state a general method that would be definitively valid for others or for myself.” (240). He regards his thought on method as “insturmental” and “tentative.” This I think is what leads to the difficulty of his work. It does not propose a strict method. Instead, it raises a set of theoretical questions and poses various problems for analysis. So the contributions of his work and the insights of analysis are not quickly reducible to a set of concepts. Instead, the concepts are formed through specific historical case studies that develop from distinctive ways of posing questions and developing analytic foci.

    SMith: he responds to a question about his positioning in philosophical thought with stating that he does not regard himself as a philosopher.

    Throughout the interview he situates his thought in relation to a range of theorists and I recommend it for those finding the same problems with Foucault that FAbio poses.

    Another interview that may be of interest in the same volume: “Questions of Method.” Foucault differentiates his approach from Weberian and Marxist analysis.

    I will save a comment about this interview for the Foucault and Weber post.



    December 4, 2011 at 9:27 pm

  13. The fault, dear Brutus, lies not with Michel Foucault that we perceive ourselves as underlings. Not many researchers publishing now in the Journal of Applied Physics cite Sir Isaac Newton, but sociologists still cite Durkheim and Marx and Weber. In a different discussion entirely on students who cite Wikipedia, it was cogently noted that the argument was misplaced: you do not cite a common source, neither the Britannica nor the OED, unless there is some special purpose. Michel Foucault only assumed that he was writing for an audience that shared his knowledge base. If you don’t know your Weber, that is your problem, not Foucault’s.


    Michael E, Marotta

    December 4, 2011 at 10:32 pm

  14. A philosopher remarked to me once that as far as he could tell no Great Thinker ™ in his field ever engages the literature or stoops to arguing directly with more than one or two people—instead, they just Lay Out Their View from on high. Filling in the details, as Omar notes, is left to the gnawing criticism of the mice.

    The problem of course, is the difference between p(Laying Out One’s View From On High | Great Thinker) vs p(Great Thinker | Laying Out One’s View From On High).



    December 4, 2011 at 10:51 pm

  15. I think it’s also worth considering that Weber was very much maligned by the likes of Althusser and others in the post-war French intellectual scene (too bourgeois). That, and the lack of French translations of Weber until very late, probably had a lot to do with the general lack of engagement with Weber (although Foucault read German). Raymond Aron was Weber’s big advocate in post-war France, but Aron’s association with the political right probably made explicitly drawing on Weber rather taboo. Simply put, Weber wasn’t considered a foundational thinker in France until the last quarter of the 20th century.



    December 5, 2011 at 12:40 am

  16. Fabio,

    would you level the same critique at Harrison White? He is not very interested in lit reviews and citations either and whenever he cites, it is mostly the work of his own students.
    As he recently replied to a question about what advice he would give junior sociologists: “This thing of just systematically learning all of a given area and doing your comprehensives and writing your literature review, well, maybe there’s something to be said for that, but not much. What you ought to be doing is getting an idea.”


    orgtheory reader

    December 5, 2011 at 4:01 pm

  17. @orgtheory reader: Is that comment from White published or available in audio or video somewhere by any chance? As an (early-stage) grad student who works on networks, culture, and organizations. I’d like to here more about this from the godfather.



    December 5, 2011 at 4:37 pm

  18. @orgtheory reader:

    Actually, I have leveled the exact same charge against Harrison White. See: Rojas, Fabio. 2006. “Sociological Imperialism in Three Theories of the Market.” Journal of Institutional Economics 2(3): 339-363.

    I wrote about White’s Markets from Networks:

    “White’s treatment can be at moments off-putting because of ad hominem attacks (he
    accuses Nerlove of ‘economist’s machismo’) and tortured passages.4

    4 E.g., ‘The third implication ties in also with the proclivity for pure competition assumptions noted
    earlier and serves as introduction to the final section of the present chapter, and to generalizations in
    subsequent chapters, because it illustrates econometric work finding itself drawn into considerations of network structure and how that intercalates with markets of one sort and another’ (253). Sadly, this is
    one of White’s less cryptic moments.”

    Basically, I hold White to the same standard. He’s hard to read and he doesn’t cite. He could be wildly misinterpreting things and making stuff up. He could be citing shoddy research. I am not the biggest fan of White’s later work for this reason.

    Citations aren’t for sissies. Sure, don’t turn it into a ritual, but, at the same time, there’s a lot to be learned from other people. Science isn’t about our ego. It’s a giant truth discovery team project and citations help us build the knowledge.



    December 5, 2011 at 4:45 pm

  19. @JM: Type “This thing of just systematically learning all of a given area” into google (with quotes). There’s one result, an interview with White.



    December 5, 2011 at 5:12 pm

  20. @Joe: Thanks! I look forward to reading it.



    December 5, 2011 at 5:26 pm

  21. My two cents: 1) There are times when it is very clear he is engaging with a particular author, or set of authors, without acknowledgment. In Archaeology of Knowledge, for example, there is a section that is clearly an intervention into a debate between P.F Strawson and Bertrand Russell over Russell’s theory of descriptions. He also takes a lot of thinly veiled shots at Poulantzas in D&P (I think its D&P), but again, no citations.

    2) Maybe its a French thing because Latour does it too. Ironically, its Foucault that Latour should be citing, but never does. Science in Action is a pretty straightforward empirical application of the Archaeology of Knowledge.



    December 5, 2011 at 6:26 pm

  22. Building on musa’s and aaron’s comments, in the chapter entitled “Method” in the History of Sexuality (1978), Foucault writes the following:

    “But the word power is apt to lead to a number of misunderstandings… By power, I do not mean “Power” as a group of institutions and mechanisms that ensure the subservience of the citizens of a given state.” By power, I do not mean, either, a mode of subjugation which, in contrast to violence, has the form of the rule. Finally, I do not have in mind a general system of domination exerted by one group over another, a system whose effects, through successive derivations, pervade, the entire social body. … It seems to me that power must be understood in the first instance as the multiplicity of force relations immanent…”

    It seems to me that he is talking about Hobbesian, Weberian, and Marxist notions of power.


    Tony P

    December 5, 2011 at 6:51 pm

  23. This reminds me of what a French sociologists working in the U.S. told me about Actor Network Theory: They never cite anyone so I thought I’ll never cite them. I love reading some of the stuff though.

    I think this is a fate they deserve. Foucault is impossible to cite at all because it is this huge religion-like thing. I once cited Foucault in a paper that I submitted to AJS (just to acknowledge he had worked on a question earlier than the literature I built on). Mistake! I was “misrepresenting Foucault”, even though I just mentioned he had worked on the role of knowledge in constituting social categories (because I hadn’t acknowledged his other later work).

    Well, the paper was not obv. good enough for AJS anyhow for other reasons (I’ve never published there) and only one of the four reviewers picked up my references to Foucault. The point is — I cannot think how citing anyone else’s studies would lead to a similar commentary. Also I noted that even though Foucault is perhaps the best known author on the role of knowledge structures in constituting categories, he never had interest in developing an analytical theory. The reviewer wrote: “It may be unfair to say he had no interest since he died prematurely”. Wow! Some people are touchy. Maybe Shakespeare would have invented the postmodern novel too if he had the healthcare we have.



    December 5, 2011 at 8:44 pm

  24. It seems to me that he is talking about Hobbesian, Weberian, and Marxist notions of power.

    This is exactly the problem though, isn’t it? Having to infer what he read based on our own interpretations of the source texts leaves a great deal of room for us to impute knowledge to him. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing if our own readings of the source texts lead us to find commonalities with Foucault or if the given concept/idea was independently generated–which we know happens somewhat frequently in the history of science and frequently leads to baseless accusations of plagiarism or theft.

    One sometimes sees the following in discussions of work from a previous generation — “Given that [Scholar X] was a contemporary of [Scholar Y] at [Institution], it seems unlikely that [X] was unaware of [theory/concept/method], however it does not appear in the text at all.” Or, take the reverse in the case of this discussion. Ultimately, that’s unsatisfying.



    December 5, 2011 at 9:22 pm

  25. I agree with you, Trey. I’m a standing-on-the-shoulder-of-giants person myself. I think the confusion arises among those that live off Foucault in that they are likely to not see his unique contribution, relative to prior work. They only see HIM.


    Tony P

    December 5, 2011 at 9:37 pm

  26. I think Foucault is very inspiring, but to deal with (or to read) his admirers is frustrating and boring.

    He’s inspiring because he’s commited to one idea: writing a history of thought under the simple premise that thinking happens not in minds but in materials (these may be prisons, books etc.). He always starts with some premises and let them work on some material, then he tries to develop some concepts, adds more material, modifies the concepts and so on – he always does “theory”, “methods” and “empiricism” at the same time – in a good and sometimes brilliant way. What he does is some kind of grounded or middle range theory.

    To read his admirers is frustrating and boring because they are not committed to an idea but only to Foucault – as an author! These hermeneutic discussions on “the intentions of Foucault” are weird because the irony is so obvious. Although there are many books that start with for example with “the concept of gouvernmentality” or something similar (the essence of these chapters is always the same: Foucault’s the king and my Foucault is closer to the true Foucault than your Foucault) and then come up with some empirical data. And if there’s anything to learn from his work, than that you should not do a research or a book in this way. I have really no idea, how you could possibly miss that lesson! Big irony there…



    December 5, 2011 at 9:37 pm

  27. When I was in grad school, my advisor (and social theory professor) told me,”The easiest thing in the world is writing about social theory. Among the hardest is actually writing social theory.” It seems the author of this post is criticizing Foucault for doing what so few of us can do — write social theory — and asking why he doesn’t do what so many of us already do, which is write about social theory. I think I like Foucault’s contributions the way they are.



    December 5, 2011 at 9:42 pm

  28. @Austen: What a weird comment. I am not asking that Foucault do some sort of intellectual history, but give a sense of where he was coming from. It helps for assessing work and understanding the implications.

    Back in the first post, the question was simple: How is Weber’s theory of social power different than Foucault’s? By suppressing your influences (and sure Foucault was influence by *someone*), these questions are hard to answer and it makes it a little tougher so see the strengths and weaknesses of the theory. Omitting references by itself doesn’t make you right or wrong. It means that we have to trust you when you should be transparent.

    Liked by 1 person


    December 5, 2011 at 9:49 pm

  29. This discussion seems to miss the point. I know that it seems like I was joking or flippant up there, but I was serious about the importance of writings *about* theorists which actually help us sort out some of these issues. In this respect, the dichotomy between “original” theory and the drab of secondary commentary on theory is completely useless. There is no such thing as original theory. Everything is secondary commentary even the theory that we call classical (e.g. Weber on Ricker or Sombart, Durkheim on Spencer or James, Marx on Smith and Ricardo etc.). Some of it is better than others.

    Fabio’s complaint is right in terms of the narrow facts (Foucault didn’t cite others by name, nor did he begin many sentences with “in contrast to Lacan, I…”), but it misses the fact that we can get a pretty good overall idea of where he was coming from by checking the secondary literature (or even such impressionistic accounts as Francois Dosse’s History of Structuralism). I want to emphasize that this secondary literature is substantial, and it is *serious* scholarly literature, worth reading and worth contributing to. If it wasn’t for this literature for instance, we wouldn’t know that the concept of “discourse” did not originate with nor was it systematically used by Foucault, but that it is essentially a fabrication of secondary commentary. In this literature, questions as to who influenced who can be settled as accurately as in any other area of historical or intellectual scholarship.

    Thus, I reject the attitude that “We can’t really know what’s in Foucault’s head so it is pointless to argue about this and we should read the unadulterated primary works.” As if these works can be read by anybody with a mind that is a blank slate. Besides, we can’t know what’s in anybody’s head (as noted by Quentin Skinner) but we can still establish particular theses to a reasonable degree of satisfaction and accuracy; otherwise intellectual history would be impossible. So if we want to know what the Weber/Foucault relationship is, there is a giant secondary literature that we can peruse, where we can learn what positions are reasonable to take in this respect (here as a random one: In this narrow respect, a lot of the counter-reaction to this post is therefore misleading. There is no “pure” pristine Foucault who is separate from this commentary, nor is there a “pure” Foucault who wrote “original” theory that was disconnected from his influences and from the people or positions that he wanted to attack or defend. That’s like saying that there is some sort of pristine Weber that is separate from the now 100 year old history of commentary, translation, interpretation, of Weber or from the people an positions that he was interested in dealing with. So when we argue for a link or lack thereof between two authors, it is impossible to do so without addressing this secondary literature.



    December 5, 2011 at 10:50 pm

  30. (1) fabiorojas first wrote, “Rather shockingly, Foucault didn’t think it was terribly interesting to consider the concept of power articulated by one social science’s greatest figures.”

    (2) Then wrote, “I am not asking that Foucault do some sort of intellectual history, but give a sense of where he was coming from.”

    I find these two statements contradictory. (1) is a lament that Foucault didn’t do more intellectual history. (2) is a retreat saying that intellectual history isn’t necessary and implies that little more than a citation is what’s needed. (1) is an interesting position I don’t happen to share. (2) is a boring position that uses American sociology norms (heavy citations and lit reviews) to criticize French sociology norms, as others in this thread have pointed out.

    For Foucault to do the work of distinguishing his theory of power from Weber’s, which is what you seem to want in your initial post, would require “intellectual history” of the sort you say isn’t necessary.

    Perhaps, though, I am missing something . . . regardless, thanks for a thought-provoking post.



    December 5, 2011 at 11:44 pm

  31. Fabio and all (esp those who offered detailed references): This thread is refreshing, readable, and useful. My own appreciation departs from Fabio’s position and links more closely with Austen, John, Sallaz, Craig McF and others. I do think we write in part for a knowing community. Will Davies make a useful other point, as does Kieran.
    Fabio: For me, your question is important but also mis-specified. Weber provides several understandings of power, authority, legitmacy, the interpretations of which over time infuse ‘our’ current views of power. As a grad student reading Foucault in the 1980s and still, the architecture of his arguments simply charted different terrain. In the small sense, the capillary conception of power, now vivid in the focus on practices and performativity. For my work and possibly for others, this was ‘Weber read through Goffman’ but whether that was Foucault or not depends on which interpretive community we invoke.
    Again, many thanks to you and the crowd at orgtheory for keeping us in conversation.


    Marc Ventresca

    December 6, 2011 at 4:12 am

  32. […] why foucault is frustrating ( […]


    History «

    December 6, 2011 at 5:17 am

  33. […] has an interesting recent thread about the frustrating task of reading and teaching Foucault. Various commenters note that […]


  34. Just got a notice in my Facebook stream (yes I “liked” Foucault) to buy this: I guess I must oblige.



    December 7, 2011 at 12:03 pm

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