Economics and Michel Foucault

Joshua Miller, a loyal MR reader, asks:

Another cut on local knowledge: what is economics' relationship to Michel Foucault? Often I see folks like you and Hanson making points that the rest of the social sciences and humanities would call Foucauldian, about the role of disciplinary power in knowledge-production, but you don't seem to ever reference or perhaps even read him. Perhaps he is simply not considered very interesting? Given the fact that there is some history of economics in his "Les Mots and les choses," I'd think there'd be more of an attempt to discredit or claim him.

Foucault is interesting, but use him with caution.  Most of his books have not held up very well as history, even if he succeeded in drawing people's attention to some neglected factors.  On top of that, his theoretical framework is incoherent.  Try reading The Archaeology of Knowledge.  I find The Order of Things to be an insightful but skewed account of the seventeenth century; detailed objections aside, it goes astray by assuming, implicitly, explicitly or otherwise, that structural categories somehow interact with each other in the world of ideas.  It's much more micro and disaggregated than he lets on, but still I am glad I read the book.  This volume is a good, readable introduction to his work.

Perhaps Foucault is best on prisons and hospitals, though again caveat emptor on the history.  His most valuable insight, both theoretically and historically, is that what appears to be "enlightenment" (or for that matter "Enlightenment") is often anything but.

Foucault is important, and he deserves to be read, but I am not sure he will be much read fifty years from now.  I also view "engaging with him" as a much overdone and much overrated exercise, carried in large part by the less salubrious tendencies in Continental and U.S. humanities scholarly discourse.  It is better to simply work on the topics he cared about, using his books as a reminder to consider some different angles.

Did you know that Foucault — at least the late Foucault — appreciated Mises, Hayek, and Friedman?


Excellent assessment.

Interesting Foucault said to his students "Why, after all, is it necessary to govern?”. He was a bit of an anarchist wasn't he. It's about as helpful as saying shoot them, or don't vote. Ah such are the luxuries of French intellectual life.

Michael, I would most certainly agree that some of his work is essentially a critique of power in modern political economy. His notion of disciplinary power (different from obedience) is understood by Critical Legal Scholars as a way to understand how the state legitimates and reproduces social relations (such as those between employer and employee). This is not an instrumental argument (an easy leftist yarn) but rather a relative autonomy argument (a more nuanced framework for understanding the place of the state in the economy). See Christopher Tomlins, /Law, Labor and Ideology in Early America/

I definitely agree with Tyler that we need to be careful with Foucaut, but he certainly seems to have a lot of relevance to the study of political economy.

Kelly, here is a reference to a piece which discusses the features of a "Deleuzian Economy": Joseph Rebello, "The Economy of Joyful Passions: A Political Economic Ethics of the Virtual" Rethinking Marxism Vol. 18 No. 2.

I'd go a bit further. I find a lot of his writing incoherent, and believe the American adoption of his theories has been a pernicious influence on the humanities.

Very good - critical - book on Foucault, by Brazilian diplomat and scholar J.G. Merquior. Merquior, by the way, was a disciple and a friend of Ernst Gellner. I have not yet read Gellner's intellectual biography published last year and highly praised by Tyler, but I would appreciate if someone who read it would tell me if Merquior is mentioned in it.

Diogo, Biographers are not necessarily reliable. Like diplomats they always dropping names. I can't remember Gellner ever mentioning Foucault in his books. Why would he. It would be like cheese and chalk. But he did once famously say that Paris was the "capital of obscurity" and insinuated cryptically that certain f... f... writers such as f... create a "demand for obscurity".

Dear yearning.looking and the likeminded,

Foucault and Deleuze are thorns in philosophy's side. Deleuze worked as an academic philosopher in some of the most respected, most doctrinaire circles in French philosophy in the early 50's. His areas of study were very isolated, and he was only allowed to publish on certain topics. He said afterwards that this period of his life was somewhat colorless--he felt constricted by the narrowness of the discipline, even though he wrote one of his most innovative works during this time, Difference and Repetition.

At some point in the 1960's he came upon a new method of analysis. He literally described it this way in an interview: he comes up behind the philosopher, unexpected, buggers the philosopher (whether Kant, Hume or Freud) and through this violent interaction the philosopher gives birth to a monstrously deformed child, in the form of a concept.

If you read his books you do get this impression-- that he's reading the philosopher in a completely inappropriate, yet fascinating way. For instance, his reading of Leibniz, in The Fold, focuses on an obscure area of Leibniz's thought: his idea of the monad, a concept which is scientific but is described in a thoroughly poetic way. For Deleuze this is the most important thing about Leibniz, even though it is mostly ignored in modern readings of Leibniz, whose metaphysics have generally been rejected by philosophers in favor of Descartes. Here's an excerpt from his reading of Leibniz's monad:

"In Leibniz, we clearly witness a schizophrenic reconstruction: God's attorney convenes characters who reconstitute the world with their inner, so-called autoplastic modifications. Such are the monads, or Leibniz's Selves, automata, each of which draws from its depths the entire world and handles its relations with the outside or with others as an uncoiling of the mechanism of its own spring, of its own prearranged spontaneity. Monads have to be conceived as dancing."

And the reason I choose this quote is the technical, poetic sound of it in relation to its final sentence, about dancing. Deleuze, some of the time at least, genuinely cares about dancing the most, or sex, or schizophrenia or drugs or murder. He does not reserve his interest for those things which accrue interest for the state or the corporation: overused ideals like justice, truth, meaning, the mind, the market, and so on. He knows that a fascinating concept can be fascinating because it is bizarre, because it is idiosyncratic.

I hope this will help to explain, also, why professional philosophers shake their heads disapprovingly. For them, the Deleuzes and the Foucaults ruin the non-party by actually enjoying what they do, by doing it with a characteristic flourish and taking up the limelight, making it fun and exciting. Watch the videos on dailymotion of Deleuze classes: they are packed with young, excited students.

One of my favorite Foucault moments is when he's debating Noam Chomsky. After listening to an obsessively logical description of Chomsky's notion of justice, Foucault says, leaning back in his chair and grinning maniacally, "Monsieur Chomsky's analysis is far more advanced than mine."

Look at DePaul's graduate philosophy program, it's one of the best in the world and one of the few that focuses fully on Continental philosophy, although it questions the whole idea of Continental existing separately from the rest. Look at Emory U in Atlanta and SUNY Stony Brook.

I could also study A Thousand Plateaus for the rest of my life. Deleuze and Guattari have written some of the most fascinating, disturbing, bizarre, brilliant work of the 20th century.

I'm going to go ahead and list a few helpful red flags that will let you know when someone probably isn't worth listening to on economic matters. (Or most matters, really)

1. If they've used the phrase "neoliberal" outside of the context "I am a neoliberal".
2. If they mention Foucault outside of the context of "Foucault was a moron, now put down that philosophical garbage, take off that damn scarf, put down the starbucks and help the economists in the room as they try to solve real problems with real ideas".

A good 99% of all philosphy is nothing but a mental masturbation recreational exercise for pampered liberals. When people want to take things seriously they turn to the sciences- and economics is certainly one of them.

There is a wrong link for "The Order of Things" too.

Dear Tyler,

Do you have an opinion on Aglietta and Orlean's adaptation of Girard's mimesis to money and economics?

Or perhaps on Bourdieu and symbolic goods?

What makes you think that Derrida is a pile of crap and Foucault is comprehensible? They did have quite a serious rift, but I think you need to be able to read French to find out why...I don't know much about it myself.

As for Guattari, I don't think he had any association with Derrida. He was a very political psychoanalyst, and Derrida stayed completely away from politics (at least in terms of resistance movements in France). I've heard that Guattari had no university education, but I could be wrong about that.

I think both Tyler (and Reason) calling Foucault a "fan" of Hayek shows he hasn't really read him at all.

Eric Rasmusen,

It's a lot like music--the best "explanation" you're going to get is reading him yourself, and reading some of the posts above and other stuff by people who don't dismiss Foucault and Continental philosophy. Nobody is going to prove to you why it's useful or important in the same tone or the same language that one might use to explain the importance of somebody like Milton Friedman, because Foucault was not trying to do what Friedman and most economists try to do. His aims were otherwise.

You could say that he made stuff up--he, like Derrida and most of French theory in general, certainly believed the boundary between fiction, nonfiction and poetry to be permeable, although not nonexistent. In this regard I think it's irresponsible for Adam to compare him to the recent AZ shooter: Foucault would never have agreed with the notion that "words don't have meaning."

I completely agree with musa that it's ignorant to call Foucault a "fan" of Hayek. Anyone who hasn't read a little Foucault should not be part of this debate, and if you try to read him and get angry, come back to the forum and explain it in an original way.

Just to clarify: in Joshua's post he references "Le mots et les choses," as well as The Order of Things. They are the same book, and the title's translation is bizarre (In French it means "Words and Things," which is a play, or a backhanded insult, at Sartre's memoir's title, which is Words).

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