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Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Berman on Foucault

Michel Foucault was a highly influential French social theorist who died in 1984. In the words of Alain Badiou, he was "a scholar, the excellence of that term, full of humour, modest and capable, when necessary, of great rational violence" (Badiou, 2009: 119). Within Critical Management Studies, Critical Marketing and Consumer Culture Theory, Foucault's work has been particularly influential.

At one stage in Critical Management Studies, Foucault-scholars seemed to have become pitted against Marxists and division lines were set accordingly across several British business schools. From the Marxist perspective, his work often is seen as cited in a way that forecloses radical analysis and can be, despite himself, mobilised as a conservative and even reactionary frame of analysis leading Zizek to refer to the "tragedy of Foucault".

Like Adorno, it often seems that Foucault has been overtaken by representations. With such thoughts and divisions in mind, it is interesting to refer to Marshall Berman's impassioned perspective in All That is Solid Melts Into Air (recently re-issued by Verso), worth reproducing at length:

 Marshall Berman, author of All That is Solid Melts Into Air

Just about the only author of the past decade who has had anything substantial to say about modernity is Michel Foucault. And what he has to say is an endless, excruciating series of variations on the Weberian themes of the iron cage and the human nullities whose souls are shaped to fit the bars. Foucault is obsessed with prisons, hospitals, asylums and what Erving Goffman has called "total institutions." Unlike Goffman, however, Foucault denies the possiblity of any sort of freedom, either outside these institutions or within their interstices. Foucault's totalities swallow up every facet of modern life. He develops these themes with obsessive relentlessness and, indeed, with sadistic flourishes, clamping his ideas down on his readers like iron bars, twisting each dialectic into our flesh like a new turn of the screw.
Foucault reserves his most savage contempt for people who imagine that it is possible for modern mankind to be free. Do we think we feel a spontaneous rush of sexual desire? We are merely being moved by "the modern technologies of power that take life as their object," driven by "the deployment of sexuality by power in its grip on bodies and their materiality, their forces, their energies, sensations and pleasures." Do we act politically, overthrow tyrannies, make revolutions, create constitutions to establish and protect human rights? Mere "judicial regression" from the feudal ages, because constitutions and bills of rights are merely "the forms that [make] an essentially normalising power acceptable." Do we use our minds to unmask oppression - as Foucault appears to be trying to do? Forget it, because all forms of inquiry into the human condition "merely refer individuals from one disciplinary authority to another," and hence only add to the triumphant "discourse of power." Any criticism rings hollow, because the critic himself or herself is "in the panoptic machine, invested by its effects of power, which we bring to ourselves, since we are part of its mechanism."
After being subjected to this for a while, we realise that there is no freedom in Foucault's world, because his language forms a seamless web, a cage far more airtight than anything Weber ever dreamed of, into which no life can break. The mystery is who so many of today's intellectuals want to choke in there with him. The answer is, I suspect, that Foucault offers a generation of refugees from the 1960s a world-historical alibi for the sense of passivity and helplessness that gripped so many of us in the 1970s. There is no point in trying to resist the oppressions and injustices of modern life, since even our dreams of freedom only add more links to our chains; however, once we grasp the total futility of it all, at least we can relax. (p34-35)

Badiou, Alain. 2009. Pocket Pantheon. London: Verso.
Berman, Marshall. 2010. All That is Solid Melts Into Air. London: Verso.

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