Category Archives: foucault

my musings about Michel Foucault

in response to a remark

A friend of mine said something yesterday that piqued my interest. I paraphrase: “Students in my Modern/Postmodern class will need to pray for help because the writers of the essays in our text do not give any hope of resolving a crisis of faith.” This paraphrase also contains some of what I understood him to mean, I apologize for my failure to grasp the exact thought.

He is correct when he worries for the Christian students in his class. Postmodernism does not try to sew up the cracks in our perception of reality. The reality his students have, and the reality they have constructed is largely deficient in the critical faculties necessary for the raw critique found in postmoderns, post structuralists, and literary critics like Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Fish, Gadamer, or even Nietzsche. That is because they have little training in classical philosophy, or the philosophes of the Age of Reason. Most of these believers have been brought up in the certainties of early twentieth-century conservative theologies.

There is nothing in particular wrong with these certainties, except when they face the much longer and more difficult philosophical conversation of the critical schools. The critical schools have little to do with conservative Christianity, and their remarks are aimed at a much broader set of issues in society. Conservative Christianity is the child of a narrow branch of conservatives, perhaps the Scottish plain language school of theology where the sentence in question just means what it says: a form of literalism. Literalism is fine for a small community that doesn’t interact with the wider world. It is too fragile for contact with uninterpreted reality, say, the truths of experience that are only found outside the covenant community. It is part of a closed system that not unlike natural systems, suffer continuing entropy for lack of a persistent source of energy.

Alongside these certainties is the vigor of youth, that turns their certainty into a weapon for defense of their knowledge citadel. This is all, at times, that their elders expect. What their elders do not expect, because they have no acquaintance, is that the knowledge they have imparted, is at best naïve, and subject to the critiques made famous in the postmoderns. In fact, the sidelong attack of the postmoderns on the knowledge of the modern era (from the Enlightenment) is particularly apt at stressing the unexamined presuppositions of the conservative Christian. This is why my friend’s request for prayer is appropriate.

Part of what has always been the character of the conservatives version of education is indoctrination. That is, flatly, “you should confess what I have told you to believe.” This works perfectly well for doctrinaire scientism as it does for conservative Christianity. Their models of knowledge are similar. Happily the attack of the postmoderns work as well on both crowds. The problem the Christian faces is the failure of their worldview, while the adept at scientism finds a new indoctrination that they naïvely see as truth in the same way as the predecessor scientism. Both reactions are incorrect.

Before we get started, let me suggest as an aside, that the initial mistake many Christians make with postmodernism is that they take it as a replacement for what they call knowledge. This is a failure to recognize the difference between theory and critique, between knowledge and skepticism. When the postmoderns speak they do so not as an authority, but as pointing out flaws in their subject’s perception of knowledge. They are not building an alternative worldview, but suggesting that the current worldview is a cobbled together piece of excrement. Some, like Foucault do this early in their careers, but after tearing down get around to building something later on. Others, like Derrida, never construct anything. They are always and forever deconstructing the precious objects. That is perhaps a bit unfair, but I have found few instances of construction in his writings. His puzzling rhetoric annoys, teases, and rejects the foundationalist certainties of an early twentieth-century worldview.

Problems in the Church with postmodernism (I am most familiar with these) range from outright rejection to reassertion of the fundamentals as a response to the critique. But the range of reactions rises from a lack of acquaintance with the material the postmoderns are critiquing in the first place. Some rail against the postmoderns, not realizing that postmodernism is unhappy with all foundationalist pretensions, not just those evidenced by conservative Christianity. But the Christians I know who reject postmodernism out of hand, don’t realize that they themselves have foundationalist pretensions. They want to say that the Bible is a reliable foundation for Christianity. OK, let them say that. They are wrong. Jesus said himself “You search the scriptures because in them you think you have eternal life, but they are the ones that testify of me.” Christ, and the revelation of Christ is the foundation of the Church and Christianity, not the Bible, (or Peter for that matter,) which by the way, the early believers only had a part of what we call the Old Testament in the Hebrew TENAK and the Greek Septuagint. So Jesus couldn’t have been speaking of the New Testament at all.

So, if Christ is the foundation for the Church, then there is no need to defend the logic of the Bible. (That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t know what it says, or understand history, context, organization, and theology.) These critics of postmodernism rightly believe that postmodernism is an attack on Christianity when Christianity has become an adherent to the text instead of an adherent to Christ. Or these believers think that they are defending Christ when they are defending a culturally inept interpretation of God’s intention, mistaking their theology for reality, they have missed Christ altogether and placed a terrible burden on reality to prove their theology. The postmoderns are correct to critique that miscegenation.

The proper view of the postmodern critique is to treat it as a skeptical instrument to call into question foundationalist assertions, that is, assertions of knowledge that rely on the annunciation and exact correspondence of our knowledge with absolutes. Any study of science or theology will reveal how terribly wrong humans have gotten it at times. The critique of the postmodern is just another instance of calling us to account for some of those errors.

What does the believer have to fear from postmodernism? Well, in my estimation, nothing. All that’s required is the kind of reading and research that is required for any other dense and often inscrutable set of texts: a healthy ego, a wry sense of humor, some fair historical awareness of the subjects of their critique, and an acquaintance with the larger conversation. If somebody mentions a writer, say Foucault mentioning Nietzsche, it would be worth your while to discover what Nietzsche was doing that Foucault critiques. If a writer mentions an essay or a book, as Foucault does when he mentions Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals in “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” you will notice that he also mentions Dr. Paul Rée who is one subject Nietzsche critiques in his book. Rée is known as the subject of Nietzsche’s critique by any who have read the Genealogy, and so wouldn’t necessarily require a citation by Foucault. But for the uninformed reading Foucault’s essay, Rée is a piece of the puzzle unknowable outside of Foucault’s reference to his ideas. But this scholarly concern of mine is meant only to hint at the many ramifications possible in tracing out the meaning of any reference. Any casual dismissal of Foucault because he “attacks” conservative Christianity, has no idea what Foucault has said and so does a disservice to the hearers, in fact performs the office of lying and misleading.

I haven’t told you what Paul Rée actually said, or what Foucault or Nietzsche said. But a student who wishes to be counted, should be able to enter that conversation fairly as an observer, and later, a participant. A reader worth their salt will be able to evaluate what they say without spitting or cursing. Comprehending any writing is partly a skill that requires being able to ground the conversation in some space, taking one side or another (one of many possible sides). The tendency to see any conversation as black and white is one of the unfortunate characteristics of foundationalism. Every statement is judged to be right or wrong, fitting or perverse. One must be willing to try to see an alternative worldview. You should even try swapping out your worldview for somebody else’s. That takes strength of character, so you may have to work out for a while in simpler tasks before trying it.

Does the postmodern critique give us relativism? No, it doesn’t. Remember that postmodernism is not giving us anything but a critique of failed beliefs, systems, and ideas. You might conclude that relativism is an appropriate response to their critique, but it would be your choosing that, instead of their critique resulting in that. According to Hughes LeBlanc, probabilistic logics function as well as binary ones. And Joe Margolis suggests that a robust relativism does not preclude truth. Thinking in black and white terms is probably wrong. Just because Jesus speaks the truth does not preclude Kongzi or Plato from also speaking the truth. Just because Aristotle is wrong about one thing (actually more than that) doesn’t mean he was wrong about all the things he said. Just because you have made mistakes in the past doesn’t mean you always make mistakes, etc.

Cheer up! The postmodern conversation is a fruitful one, when you can flex like a palm tree in the wind. The practice of shoring up your defenses against a possible attack can give you insight into your form of life, and help you to be transformed and not destroyed by this contact.


Our use of language, words, and communication is a very spiritual affair. After all there is little material component to reality. As the physicists are noted for pointing out there really is no stuff at the bottom except fields, forces, and information. Material is so 19th century.

Michel Foucault tried to get us to consider that the practices that are most important for us, including the conversations and letters we share with each other are spiritual practices even as our poetry and prayer is. We have gotten rationality down pat in our computers. But consciousness and self consciousness, not yet. That doesn’t mean we won’t, but we don’t understand it well enough yet to program it. It may be in trying to program it that we begin to understand it better. Morality of whatever kind is for us a very spiritual exercise because its practice is the admission that there is meaning beyond the redness of tooth and claw.

How can poetry not be a spiritual affair. The modern materialists have done so much to make the precious banal. In an effort to keep God out, they have reduced themselves to plankton, all the while acting as if like gods they could banish their spiritual natures with a wave of their hand. (I don’t say “spiritual natures” like there’s a God-sized hole in us that can be filled only by following this or that rubric.) Our spiritual nature is consciousness and self consciousness, a mystery of magnificent scope.

I know Christianity and all the major religions have some take on the afterlife. But I side with Plato who says we shouldn’t be scared of it since we can know nothing about it. Even though in the mouth of Socrates he elaborated a marvelous tale of the afterlife, reincarnation, et al in the Phaedo he denied anything like knowledge about it.

Kant thought that without God, freedom, and immortality, morality couldn’t exist. I don’t know that, but as mysteries they are magnificent in scope. There is no easy answer to them, or categories we can put them in. The modern materialist would banish such language, but it persists, even if there is no resolution to debates about it. Looking for proofs for or against Kant’s foundational principles is a problem that can only be solved by taking a transcendental position (too high for mere humans.) That system in which freedom can be proven is larger than the system we live in. We can assert it. We can’t prove it. We also can’t prove that it doesn’t exist. It remains conditional in a philosophic sense, suspended without resolution, even though we act as though it does exist and hold each other accountable as if it exists.

I let the materialists have their say. It comforts them to eradicate the opposition. Hot air really.

one ring to rule them all

I’ve been thinking about the rings I wear. I have worn a wedding ring for over 32 years. What does it symbolize? Why can’t I, shouldn’t I take it off; is it possible to take it off without calling into question the commitment it represents? Marriage is complicated by every revelation, every intention, every act. Acts of faith and acts of passion, acts of love and acts of desire, known acts and hidden acts. Then there are moments of grace, moments of anger righteous and otherwise, prejudice and overlooking offense. The breadth of any relationship is extremely broad, and mostly unfathomable.

An old Jewish proverb curses by saying, “May you live in interesting times.” Marriage is clearly one of the most interesting times. As a man, I have one woman, and she is a fabulous complexity that though known, is almost entirely beyond comprehension. Human freedom accounts for most of this, but there is a matter of nature and limits, and genetics, and everything that limits freedom. Little cruelties don’t go unnoticed. Slights and offenses build up. Unintentional misfires of language set the stage for explosive anger and hunger for reattachment, forgiveness and a pledge to do better next time. We are together because we want to be and because we need to be. More than anything else the ring is evidence of that, but not its means.

It is the endearing and enduring quality of hope that makes living together the luxury that we can’t do without. And, occasionally we grow through the trials of our relationship into better people than we were before.

I have worn a few rings besides my wedding ring. The first that was important to me was my high school ring. East Aurora High was a place of profound change for me. I got a ring (I can’t remember whether I paid for it or my parents), you know, with a blue glass jewel and an EAHS inscription around it, standard fare for the 18 year old.

I was proud of it and wore it all the time, until I almost lost my finger to it hanging from it on the back of a stage prop in a play. I can’t tell you how scared I was or how grateful I was that I didn’t lose my finger. But I lost the ring after that.

The next ring I wore was my wedding ring. I was 27 years old and happier than I could have imagined. I told that story. I have never been threatened by my wedding ring like I was by the EAHS ring.

I felt I wanted another ring, and I didn’t want just any old ring. Why should I be happy with a ring that fit if it didn’t represent what I thought it should?

When our family traveled out west to explore and see the sights, we stopped off at an old voleano caldera and in the gift shop I found a silver ring. I found out later that it was a Hopi story ring. It had figures on its surface that told of Hopi life. I thought I would wear it in solidarity with Native American (even though they call themselves Indian) rights. I wore it on my right-hand ring finger. In a couple years I lost it while I washed my car. I replaced it with a silver spoon handle ring that didn’t represent anything.

The next ring I bought was also on our western trip. It was also a Hopi story ring but smaller and I wore it on my right pinky finger. I lost it about a year earlier than I lost the other Hopi ring, also at a car wash. But I went back and found it on the ground. Yea!

When my family and I went to Britain to celebrate me finishing my doctorate in philosophy, my wife and girls bought me a celtic ring. I took off the silver spoon handle ring and put the celtic on my right ring finger. I decided after that to remove my Hopi ring, since I really didn’t need or want to represent Native American rights any more. So Now I am wearing my wedding ring and my philosophy ring. But I went through a time after our Britain trip that I couldn’t wear my philosophy ring. So I didn’t I just had my wedding ring.

Through thick and thin, my wedding ring has stayed on my finger. Later, I don’t quite know the moment, but I felt as if I had both earned my doctorate, and that I had become the philosopher, and I could again wear my celtic ring. So I wear the two as symbols of the enduring relations I have in my world, my wedding ring and my philosophy ring. But my wedding ring, has endured all changes and is preeminent over all the others in importance and time.

the shame of losing foucault

I began my doctorate at Cardiff University with the thought that Michel Foucault was still interesting to read after all these years. I had begun to purchase the lectures when they were translated into English in 2003 or so. They reminded me of the struggle to annunciate thoughts, the difficulty of saying something that changed the way people thought about the world, to say truth, even when it went against the norms of the day.

The latest of the lectures, released just last week, is The Government of the Self and Others from 1982-1983. I am reading the first lecture and receiving the words with a freshness that makes me write of Foucault as if he were still alive, teaching this just now, and I am saddened that he died.

The shame of losing him is another thing. The brisk and incisive scholarship of his mature work is often clouded in the minds of some people with a rejection of the man himself who struggled early in his life with being homosexual. Later he did not struggle, but defended the right of homosexual people to live and experience life without the censure and disapprobation of a conservative culture that had never and has not yet cleaned up its own propensity for violence. It is a shame that knowledge unearthed and constructed in this man cannot find the light of day because people are blocked by their own sense of moral propriety.

It is senseless to speculate what would have happened had he lived, what he would have said. But the records of his life are being unearthed again and again. I am doing this in my dissertation, hoping there is a place in the conservative culture I am embedded in for the exposure of his knowledge irrespective of the person who unearths it.

This is a fun thing, partially, telling conservatives that C.S. Lewis drank quite a bit, saying how great men don’t follow petty moral visions, that for all their authoritative ring, don’t even know what the Bible said, or if they know, have discounted it because it conflicts with their own personal convictions.

Not so Foucault. Never afraid of challenging his own or others notions, he nonetheless managed to work toward a challenging and holistic moral vision around the problems of self construction within the matrices of necessity surrounding all of us.

Thanks Michel. There’s plenty of work to be done. Time for my dissertation.