Book Review: A Companion to Foucault, edited by Christopher Falzon, Timothy O’Leary and Jana Sawicki

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Chichester, Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. Pp. 608. Hb. £128.00.

Reviewed by Ansgar Allen

 

This book is one of the latest in a long-running series of companions to philosophy published by Wiley-Blackwell.  Initially, these edited collections took turns with the various subfields of contemporary philosophy.  More recently, they attached themselves to specific philosophical figures.  This particular companion to Foucault (to be followed shortly by one to Derrida) now occupies a shelf with equivalents for other acclaimed philosophers, such as Nietzsche, whose front cover faces Socrates’ rear, and Descartes, who we find similarly oriented with respect to Plato.  Taking up the rear in the latter’s case is Kant, and so it goes on.

This series is united by a simple assumption, which is this:  All major philosophical domains and figures deserve companions of this type, companions that aspire to the highest standards of academic scholarship when formulating their philosophical appraisals.  Hence, we have a group of illustrious scholars furnishing Foucault with commentary; another set preoccupied with Nietzsche, yet another with Plato.

To point this out is to state the blindingly obvious.  The assumption – that ‘great’ philosophers require scholarly elaboration – is so banal indeed, that the mere act of calling attention to it approaches heresy.  For how could academic philosophers do anything but generate commentaries, critiques, and compendia for their predecessors?

But does Foucault really need more such scholarly accompaniment?  Admittedly, his work benefits from a certain amount of guided digestion and elaboration, but in this area it is hardly left wanting.  Foucault-related scholarship abounds. 

A Companion to Foucault adds twenty-seven commissioned chapters, one chronology, and one appendix to the field.  These chapters are loosely arranged into five sections: The first part titled ‘Landmarks’ offers a chronological overview of key moments in Foucault’s work, from History of Madness and The Order of Things to Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality.  It introduces key concepts such as ‘resistance’, ‘government’, and ‘the care of the self’ as well as lesser-known engagements, such as Foucault’s work on the visual arts.  Parts II-V are arranged thematically, ranging from Foucault’s approach to the question of knowledge and his conception of critical agency (Part II), to his related efforts to reconceptualize power (Part III), his influence on feminist, anti-racist, postcolonial, and queer theorists (Part IV), and his contribution to ethics as an aesthetics of existence (Part V).  The collection is framed by the first English translation of a detailed chronology of Foucault’s life and work, written by Daniel Defert, and an appendix that includes a complete bibliography and concordance of Foucault’s shorter works.  This bibliography is designed to allow researchers ‘to easily establish equivalences between different English translations of Foucault’s interviews, essays, and occasional lectures and to identify their French sources’.  This is ‘the first such publication in English and promises to be an essential tool for future Foucault scholars’ (p. 7).

While this companion and its compendia will undoubtedly be a useful resource, it is perhaps not the accompaniment that Foucault most requires.  Though he was a scholar of sorts (having, for example, an obvious passion for the archive), his scholarship was animated by the disruptive impulse that characterizes ‘genealogy’.  As Paul Rabinow observes, Foucault sought to effect a kind of ‘analytic dismantling’ - a ‘production of estrangement’ (p. 192) - through which his detailed but deliberately disruptive reading of historical texts was set to destabilize those aspects of the present that are most readily taken to be its objective givens.  This mode of contestation was designed to help open the present to the possibility of its radical transformation.  In pursuing such an objective this analytic project would necessarily appear odd, if not untimely, even unreasonable.  The success of such scholarship (if we can still call it that) was to be judged according to the disruption it caused.  Consequently, those who read Foucault best are not simply informed by his work, they are unsettled by it.  The danger with compendia such as A Companion to Foucault is that they effect a transformation by which a philosopher’s work looses its capacity to disturb us. 

The scholar is temperamentally opposed to the untimely meditations, to the ‘inopportune and vigorous contemplations’, of a Foucault who, at his best, unsettled those frameworks we most take for granted.  His was, as Rabinow argues, always to be ‘an uneasy and restless’ kind of investigative activity (pp. 191-2), as Foucault’s interminable self-adjustments and restatements of purpose bear witness.  The danger with scholarship, and with the whole industry that now surrounds Foucault’s work, is that it buries this restless ethic under the considerable weight of its commentaries. 

Nietzsche (1998 [1886], p. 97) claimed that perhaps the worst and most dangerous thing a scholar can do is destroy the extraordinary impulse that is echoed in the work of the philosopher under study.  Through excessively scrupulous enquiries the scholar unwittingly helps ‘to break or - even better! - to loosen every tensed bow’, with ‘deference, with a gentle hand, to be sure - in friendly sympathy loosen it.’ 

For Nietzsche, the choice was obvious: to the extent that academic philosophy has become over-run by a scholarly impulse, the ‘true philosopher’ must today live ‘“unphilosophically” and “unwisely” and above all imprudently…continually risking himself’ (p. 96).  The problem with so much of the work that takes its inspiration from Foucault (and Nietzsche) is that it entails little risk, causes little disruption, and invites little action.

References:

Nietzsche (1998 [1886]) Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 

Correspondence: Ansgar Allen, School of Education, University of Sheffield, Western Bank, Sheffield, S10 2TN, UK

Email: a.allen@Sheffield.ac.uk

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