Foucault and the academe

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault

Personally I do not understand at all where most of the people who write about Foucault or use Foucault in their studies (particularly in the fields of sociology and philosophy) get their interpretation of Foucault from.

When I started to get interested in Foucault I had an odd reflex of getting my hand on secondary literature introducing Foucault to the dilettante that I wish I had not. The reason I did so was that I heard so much about how difficult his ideas were and how difficult he was to read. Actually the difficulty had perhaps more to do with the fact that I heard this in the Anglo-American literature, which has a tradition for concise prose and clearly structured books. Not only did I waste vastly my time trying to understand what they meant, but I also almost got a completely spoiled understanding of his work. Luckily, I decided to try to read him on my own. Looking back I realise that most of what people write about Foucault or using Foucault is really a lot of nonsense. I do not claim to be the only one who understands Foucault on this planet, but it seems to me that there is a big hype about his work, which is totally unjustified. I read Foucault in French, and I guess that it probably helps to understand better, since one is less conditioned by conventional political literature written in English (this concise and structured thing).

I think that the best way to introduce Foucault to students is to dedramatise the Foucault hype completely. One has to convince them that Foucault is not a difficult author, mysterious and impenetrable to the infidel. One must have a punk attitude and dare to confront one’s mind to any other one’s. However, it does take a while to read him, and one must be patient with his writing. But it does pay off in the end if one has taken careful notes on the readings of The Archaeology of Knowledge and The Order of Discourse.

A great companion to read alongside Foucault is Using Foucault’s Methods by Gavin Kendal and Gary M. Wickham. The first two chapters at least can be very useful, especially the passages explaining the differences between archaeology and genealogy and the idea about “suspending second order judgements” in applying the method.

However, there is absolutely no better way to understand Foucault, and particularly his archaeological method (from which the rest is based on, especially genealogy, which merely adds power as an element of explanation), than applying his method concretely to the analysis of a discourse in history. I am strongly sceptical towards any other applications of Foucault’s “tools” to other fields than the history of ideas.

In order to do so, the students should first read the methods as described in The Archaeology of Knowledge, The Order of Discourse, and the short text “What is an Author?”. Bullet points, and definitions of Foucault’s key concepts are very important. Then attempting to apply them to historical “facts” or “monuments” is the most effective way to actually understand what Foucault meant by “discours”, “fonction énonciative”, “objet”, “concept”, “stratégie”, etc.

I would really love to teach Foucault my own way, since nobody taught me Foucault. I truly believe also that it is in Foucault’s spirit of approaching any research, like Kant’s enlightened vision of a lamp in the dark, to approach Foucault completely without judgements, with the brain as blank as an empty sheet of paper.

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About Frank Ejby Poulsen

Education: MRes History, European University Institute, Florence, Italy. MSc Political Science, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. LLM International law and EU law, University of Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne, France. Academia Profile: http://eui.academia.edu/FrankEjbyPoulsen Languages: French: Mother tongue Danish: C2 English: C2 German: B1-B2 Spanish: A2-B1 Norwegian and Swedish: reading comprehension
This entry was posted in Foucault, Method in the history of ideas. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Foucault and the academe

  1. davidwills says:

    Make a short synopsis for quick intro, this looks to be good!

  2. Frank Ejby Poulsen says:

    Hi David,

    Thanks for your comment.

    It reflected my thoughts at a time on Foucault’s work. I am revising a little my contention that his approach cannot be used in any other field of study than the history of ideas though. His conception of power has a lot of importance and potential to political science. The main difficulty is to identify sufficiently clearly a conception of power that is very diffuse and almost immaterial. But so is a realist version of power anyway.

    And thanks for making me discover Barney Bubbles through your blog.

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