Windschuttle on Foucault

[I apologise in the beginning for the elaborate quotations in this post, hopefully you will appreciate why such context-building quotations of quotations are necessary.]

Keith Windschuttle’s essay on Foucault was published nearly a decade ago. I have written about it before (I think? I can’t remember exactly). Anyway, now I need to engage with it seriously for my dissertation, so here are some more thoughts.

I wonder if Windschuttle has read some more of Foucault’s works by now, or even some more of Foucault’s interviews, to grasp the basis of his — that is Windshuttle’s — misunderstanding of Foucault’s work? Windshuttle makes two main errors in an otherwise interesting essay.

1) He makes no explicit distinction between different conceptions of the ‘event’. The two main definitions at stake here are: a) historical events, the kind that I suspect Windshuttle would recognise; b) discursive events, the kind that Foucault is writing about. Windschuttle goes to the trouble of quoting from Foucault’s essay ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy and History’:

However, if one takes this view, where does this leave the pursuit of the truth about what happened in the past? Foucault is quite explicit-everything that happened in history has to be seen from a perspective. Even what most people would regard as fairly basic historic facts should not be seen as standing on their own. The details of events such as the storming of the Bastille, or the Battle of Waterloo, can never be seen in objective terms but only through a political interpretation.

An event, consequently, is not a decision, a treaty, a reign, or a battle, but the reversal of a relationship of forces, the usurpation of power, the appropriation of a vocabulary turned against those who had once used it. 

Basic historic facts are just that, basic facts. Discursive events of the kind Foucault is discussing involved the practice of reading the archive as something like what Deleuze and Guattari called a ‘phylum’ and extracting those singularities (of various types) that can be said to have caused the historical ‘discontinuities’ under consideration. Foucault pursued discursive traces from these singularities. Such singularities did not exist in history as such, although they are of the past (and present and potentially the future). Does Windshuttle argue that the inflections and discontinuities that Foucault isolated simply did not exist? That there were no such singularities evident as traces in the archive? No, he says that the dates were wrong. In the first level of critique, what is at stake is not the philosophy per se, but the accuracy of Foucault’s own reductions and scholarly imperfections. Congratulations to Windschuttle for refining Foucault’s method by incorporating a larger set of data.

2) Windschuttle takes a somewhat neo-Platonic route in his understanding of Foucault. He certainly fathoms that Foucault is not merely describing the sheer facticity of history, i.e. reassembling an account of something experienced in the past in the present by using the archive, yet instead of turning to Foucault’s works to help him understand what it is that Foucault is attempting to grasp, he appears to make the assumption that any ‘philosophy’ deals in ‘ideas’. I guess he hasn’t read much philosophy of the ‘event’ then, including Deleuze’s works that sought to repudiate a philosophy of Platonic Ideas for one of ‘events’;). This is the primary error of Windschuttle’s essay that may be in part derived from the first error (regarding the lack of understanding between different conceptions of the event):

Foucault insists that the change which occurred was essentially a philosophical one. There was a moment in time when a new idea was invented. Such was the power of this idea that, eventually, it caused such dramatic political changes as the overthrow of the king and the court in France and the reorganisation of the political system in England.

Interviewer: You determine one moment as being central in the history of repression: the transition from the inflicting of penalties to the imposition of surveillance.
Foucault: That’s correct-the moment where it became understood that it was more efficient and profitable in terms of the economy of power to place people under surveillance than to subject them to some exemplary penalty… The eighteenth century invented, so to speak, a synaptic regime of power, a regime of its exercise within the social body, rather than from above it. The change in official forms of political power was linked to this process, but only via intervening shifts and displacements It was the instituting of this new local, capillary form of power which impelled society to eliminate certain elements such as the court and the king. The mythology of the sovereign was no longer possible once a certain kind of power was being exercised within the social body. The sovereign then became a fantastic personage, at once archaic and monstrous. 

One can see from passages like this why Foucault became so popular within universities. The fall of political dynasties is but a consequence of one momentous idea. Unlike Marx, who made philosophers dependent upon the revolution of the blue collar proletariat for their power, Foucault elevates social thinkers to the most powerful members of society, all by themselves.

Windschuttle continues on with this assumption regarding the nature of the historical ‘thing’ that Foucault seeks to elucidate in different and in different archival projects through his career as being an ‘idea’ rather than a ‘discursive event’. Does Windshuttle really have the understanding that what Foucault was pursuing was the ‘origin’ of an Idea in his study of ‘understandings’ as if such ‘understandings’ were a clinical, disciplinary, or even sexual expression of a commonly, consciously held ‘Idea’ that can be located in a particular historical context within which they were expressed? Nonsense. There is no ‘idea’. Windshuttle would like Foucault’s work to exist on the same level as his own a-historical conjecture regarding the transcendental pillars of Enlightenment humanism. Windschuttle interrogates some of the work of individual Enlightenment-era thinkers for an expression of an ‘Idea’ that he mistakenly believes has been somehow apportioned to them by Foucault (or at least Windshuttle assumes such a responsibility of Foucault).

Foucault was attempting to map the discursive traces of historical shifts. Although these shifts were certainly lived by historical actors and populations and they would have some knowledge (savoir) of them, this is not the same thing as tranformations deduced by an interrogation of the forms of knowledge (connaissance), and correlative knowledge of relations between subject and object, being produced in these historical periods. The level at which these shifts occurred was not of the perceptual terrain of historical agents, as if the Idea was perhaps a particular (neo-Marxist?) (self?) realization of an unfettered consciousness.

The simplest way to approach the methodological underpinnings of Foucault’s work is to treat it as an attempt to borrow from the then-emerging (1960s) field of complexity science, or, perhaps more correctly, to treat it as the attempt of a brilliant historian who perceived the same inadequacies of evolutionary or developmental systems as did the complexity scientists (but in the context of history):

Foucault was tackling the contemporary myth of a homeostatic retro-active coding of humanity in the shadow of the Enlightenment conception of trans-historical ‘Man’ and correlative system of ‘Man’s’ production, hence his announcement of its ‘death’. His primary interest were the systems of thought that take ‘Man’ to be the object of knowledge, from the discursive output of these systems it allowed him to trace the ‘cracks’ on the ‘surface of things’. The ‘cracks’ follow a path inflected by various singularities. The ‘surface of things’ being precisely the relations between knowledge and the things to which such knowledges refer; such relations or rather compositions of language and a state of affairs, are called ‘events’. Foucault pursued them through archival discursive traces (such traces, by the way, were given the generic, but important term in Foucault’s methodological terminology of ‘statements’); hence they are ‘discursive events’. As Negri and Hardt write in Empire (which contradicts what I wrote earlier about ‘events’ in Foucault’s, and Deleuze and Guattari’s works, as I had forgotten so much stuff I had read!):

What Foucault constructed implicitly (and Deleuze and Guattari made explicit) is […] the paradox of a power that, while it unifies and envelops within itself every element of social life (thus losing its capacity effectively to mediate different social forces), at that very moment reveals a new context, a new milieu of maximum plurality and uncontainable singularization – a milieu of the event. (Negri and Hardt, 2000: 25)

Unfortunately, if you do not grasp the qualities of a ‘discursive event’ (even intuitively), then it is impossible to grasp even the slightest hint of an understanding of Foucault’s project. You will forever misrecognise it as evidence of some larger project or another (such as ‘anti-humanism’). Of course, this is not to say that the singularity of ‘Foucault’ can not be organised into other ‘discursive events’ that forward particular interests, such as Windschuttle’s attempt to discourse the singularity of ‘Foucault’ in a particular way that attempts to forward his — that is Windschuttle’s — own conservative interests. From this perspective, Windschuttle’s (perhaps, willful) misreading and essay is an exemplary case of an ‘effective history’. Perhaps Windschuttle wrote it to be a form of ironic postmodernist performance? In that case, Windschuttle is a genius!