Ten Years on Trial

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Stuart Elden – Foucault’s Last Decade (Polity)

Stuart Elden is an outstanding academic and a great writer, combining a high degree of scrupulousness in research with an accessible and assured style. Foucault always seems to arrive obscured by a fog of sensation, stories of saunas and acid trips, self-mutilation and other ‘excesses’.

But this holds a mirror up to everything else, rather than telling us much about Foucault. It tells us that we live in an age in which information will fly with spectacle and sensation or it will dive below the altitude of detection.

There is gladly none of this here and you can read The Passion of Michel Foucault by James Miller if you want that.

Elden begins with one brief paragraph of relevant biography before moving on to The Work. He tells us that in 1974 Foucault finished Discipline and Punish and on the very same day he began the History of Sexuality, Volume One. In 1984 he was dead.

In those ten years there was a huge shift, a large amount of new beginnings and, because of Foucault’s death, a lot of loose ends. Elden works meticulously and fascinatingly through these. His ability to keep such arcana within a highly engaging narrative is at times quite miraculous.

He assesses the work on sexuality and the work on power. There are suggestive glimpses of the way the three volume History of Sexuality might have been structured if Foucault hadn’t been taken so early. The first volume sets out a stall that largely remains in the first volume.

In doing this, Elden takes care to outline and negotiate a major difficulty of Foucault scholarship: no work not delivered in his lifetime was supposed to be published after his death. Some liberties have been taken with this dictat, issued by Foucault himself in a letter in lieu of a will.

But the pieces of work that fall between the published and not, the things that were clearly intended for a public, eventually, are the most fascinating. I read the work on the sealed letters from the king – the lettre de cachet – dictats of death and marriage handed out, and how Foucault sees in these the seething resentments from below to be granted agency.

The sovereign is both despotic and a kind of overflow mechanism here, a steam pipe letting out excess heat. I think of neighbours ratting on each other in Soviet pressure cookers. The archival discourse analysis was worked on by two successive research assistants, some of it was published but much of it not.

I then read about the work on dreams and their purposes in Greek and Roman familial structures and I think ‘I could be convinced by this thesis, or not’. Elden’s strength is to let the facts of Foucault’s unfinished work speak, rather than to present ideology desperately and precariously held aloft with a teetering pile of partly arbitrary data.

This is therefore a very Foucauldian take on Foucault and Elden is confident enough to not need to make easy capital out of his method. He doesn’t try to convince you, this book is, like Foucault’s best work, a blueprint for a possible set of tools.

Foucault’s work often just describes. It lets whole condensations of description create ‘the picture’. He does not paint. Nor does Elden. This is not to say that there is some sort of objective science here, or that language can completely flee ideology and metaphysics, but this way of working at least protrudes some way out of the cosmic slop.

This book also gives us glimpses of the Foucault that gives the lie to the idea that he existed completely contra-Marx, or that he was a kind of prototype neoconservative. The sense that Foucault saw the horrible intensification of power everywhere is clear.

Elden draws on the lectures at the College de France and having audited many of them myself a very different sense of Foucault’s take on power flashes up at times.

Again though, Elden is careful to add that Foucault himself was largely dismissive of these lectures. But the sense is there, that despotic individual power and its collusive, insane networks are related and this definitely does not mean that power is everywhere and nowhere, as a neoliberal corporate business management guide might try to suggest, and many crude interpreters believe.

This is important to revisit now, because there is a turn to a Marxism under way that also flees from the relativism of postmodernism and this Foucault is needed to clear away those blocks of doxa. Of course, because the adherents are a priori anti-Foucault this will be dismissed a priori.

There is a sick ouroboros here. Much in the same way, the exploding of common sense delivered by psychoanalysis was (and still is) often dismissed by the same common sense that came under attack by the falling shells that ripped it asunder.

That the revelations about repressed sexual and other drives are also buried by the same repressive processes that are being revealed is no coincidence. Something similar is going on in the current theoretical disavowals and neophilosophical reifications.

To critique structuralism and its badly named ‘post-‘ is one quite laudable thing, to dismiss it completely and replace it with simplistic dogma another barbarism altogether.

In human affairs, or to be more precise, in ‘politics’, all of this is probably inevitable, but the loss of any sense of meaning outside or between the religious structures of philosophical dogmas is no less sad because of that probable inevitability. In this sense, Elden assesses Foucault in a way Foucault would admire. He sees his ouvre as in process, rather than as a fixed slab with a final set of meanings.

I am not surprised that postmodernity and the whole neoliberal settlement of ‘the end of history’ is being set upon and ripped up with glee. Postmodernism always sat nicely on one of the larger credit bubbles of western capitalism’s history. If anything, it is amazing that it has taken ten years since 2008 to arrive at this point.

It is too disturbing to live in a permanently deracinated present, with no stable future or past. But the excessively heavy futures of the past are being remade with every tear. What is de-assembling now will soon turn into a recognisable Doxa.

To put it crudely, postmodernism is – I refuse to tense it past yet – absolute shit, but fleeing to a constructed opposite gives no guarantee whatsoever of getting out of the philosophical merde. But it is exactly this universal message that Foucault delivered and we are better off with it.

To say we have arrived at a post-relative time – and many on the left are now saying it – is to erase the arrival itself, an arrival that eats the stability of ‘being there’. It wasn’t like this in the past and it won’t be like this in the future, so nobody can tell you the future is settled, final, inevitable or perfect when you get there.

To say this doesn’t mean one is giving up on the idea that some periods are more brutal than others, or that there are despots and then there are saints.

Perhaps the one thing to take with us, then, is the work of the man who showed us how to identify the edges and sutures of those historical corpses. Elden’s study gives us the seams of Foucault’s final and perhaps most intense phase.

This is a time when the discourses are being refigured and they always are the most interesting times to examine, whether you are Foucauldian or a Marxist, and I still count myself among the latter.

– Steve Hanson

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