King Cang

Stuart Elden – Canguilhem (Polity)

I went through this book on Georges Canguilhem by Stuart Elden in strides, thanks to his excellent explanatory craft. He lays out detailed research with an engaging narrative style and no gloss or loss. I hadn’t explored ‘King Cang’ in detail before and now I see how important he was.

The Foucault link is the thing many people know about, but the oft-mentioned connection to Foucault’s PhD is actually minimal, at the same time as Canguilhem’s work is Ur-Foucauldian.

The Normal and the Pathological is the key work and Elden maps out the text itself with fascinating asides on the histories of some of the concepts and debates Canguilhem grappled with in his time.

Canguilhem was a historian and philosopher of science, he worked closely with Gaston Bachelard, who is largely known for his book on space in Britain, rather than for being the equally paradigm-challenging individual he was in Europe. Shall I talk about Europe? I better not talk about Europe.

These figures – Foucault included – take you right into the roots of epistemology. For Canguilhem disease is not a diversion from the ‘norm’ of health, but a new type of life. Dead things live, hair grows. Live things have deadness. Mechanism and vitalism – and in fact morbidity and life – are not divided cleanly in two by a scalpel blade. The experimental laboratory is not a normalised situation, but a pathological one. Statistical mean averages normalise. The roots of this lie in metricisation and all the way back to the revolution, Bonaparte. Standard measures that were required to control and for warfare.

Scientists may have their eyes down the microscope, but they all live in a social world and they blindly bring elements of that socialisation to their supposedly neutral objective labour.

The links with Foucault in The Birth of the Clinic and other works should now be clear to those who know that material. But the kind of thinking Canguilhem executed is exactly that which is under threat in some places as conservatism and a re-kindled fascism shows a clear desire to close down on all but the most instrumentalised philosophy.

Cang’s work was in fact a kind of philosophical Antifa – as Elden shows – even though the explicit terms of those politics were muted in his writings.

These issues are at the heart of the struggle for the independent soft power of the university in Britain. Canguilhem is a crucial figure to keep as that struggle moves on, his critique of science and its epistemologies are as far-reaching as Adorno and Horkheimer’s in Dialectic of Enlightenment.

Elden’s book is the perfect introduction and future guide to ‘Cang’ in English. Highly recommended.

– Steve Hanson

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