Thursday, April 05, 2007

Mind-Forg'd Manacles

Over at Phi Beta Cons, Anthony Paletta applauds Andrew Scull’s critique of Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, because it suggests that the book is every bit as worthless as Paletta would surely have found it to be, had he ever bothered to read it.

A nice day's work, I'm sure you'll agree. But Paletta can't leave it at that. Because as grand as the pleasures of vicarious scholarship are, they can’t compare to the thrill of making shit up:

So Madness and Civilization has been around for, oh, forty years in its full, original French form. Now, have there been no French or French-speaking scholars in these quatre décennies that could have possibly appraised the rest of the world that “Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique” in fact contained errors? No? I’ve not read the text, but over years I have seen it referenced and discussed in countless works of history and literary criticism – and, outside of clearly ideologically-driven critiques, not one provided even a glimmer of suspicion about its findings. How’s that?
This is delightful. First, Paletta stupidly wonders whether Foucault’s scholarship has ever been scrutinized by French-speaking scholars (including those who carried their modish Francophilia to the ludicrous extreme of actually being born and raised in France). Then, he imagines - for no justifiable reason - that it hasn’t. And finally, he demands an explanation for this imaginary oversight.

Anyone who has a real interest in Foucault knows that he was fiercely and often legitimately criticized by academics from across the political spectrum. Accusations of inaccuracy and exaggeration have dogged his historical work, and certain of his ideas have been questioned, or rejected, by a veritable who’s-who of lefty theorists, from Althusser to Zizek.

Of course, no one cares what they think; they’re all pomo relativists who don’t believe in nuthin’. But MAC has also come under heavy attack from respectable historians like H.C. Erik Midelfort and Michael MacDonald. And by Andrew Scull, for that matter, whose concerns about Foucault's scholarship are actually old news.

Obviously, Paletta has failed to do his homework (with far less excuse, and to much less impressive effect, than Foucault). But that’s fine, because PBC’s mission of restoring truth and virtue to the academic firmament gives its authors carte blanche to fight flawed scholarship with idle speculation, and exaggeration with lies, and multiculturalism with identity politics, and unpleasant facts with escapist gibberish, and kneejerk acclaim with kneejerk dismissal.

I suppose I should mention for the record that the question of whether or not MAC is "accurate" isn't of vital importance to me. Works of history and philosophy and science are meant to be torn down and superseded. Foucault – who certainly earned his place in what he called “the great, tender, and warm freemasonry of useless erudition" - cheerfully admitted that his work was tentative, and invited others to go beyond it. As they should, and have, and will continue to do.

It’d be foolish, especially nowadays, to accept James Frazer, W.F. Otto, or Jane Harrison as the last word on Greek religion. But it’d be worse than foolish to dismiss them, unread, on the basis of secondhand accounts of their “errors.” If nothing else, Paletta’s eagerness to make reading Foucault “unthinkable” confirms the accuracy of what Foucault said about polemicists, in an interview he gave shortly before his death:
[T]he person he confronts is not a partner in search for the truth but an adversary, an enemy who is wrong, who is harmful, and whose very existence constitutes a threat. For him, then, the game consists not of recognizing this person as a subject having the right to speak but of abolishing him as interlocutor, from any possible dialogue; and his final objective will be not to come as close as possible to a difficult truth but to bring about the triumph of the just cause he has been manifestly upholding from the beginning. The polemicist relies on a legitimacy that his adversary is by definition denied.

Perhaps, someday, a long history will have to be written of polemics, polemics as a parasitic figure on discussion and an obstacle to the search for the truth.


Anonymous said...

Well said Phila.

Anonymous said...

...and Foucault. I know that feeling in myself and remind myself of that error.

Phila said...

...and Foucault. I know that feeling in myself and remind myself of that error.

If you mean his comments about polemics, same here. I always tell myself I'll move away from polemics, but never quite manage to do it....

Anonymous said...

Apparently, Paletta thinks that if he throws in enough untranslated French phrases, people will assume he is learned and look no further.
It really is difficult to take such right wing (he writes for National Review) "intellectuals" seriously.

Rmj said...

A Foucault thread, and I wasn't notified? The jungle drums of left blogistan are not working as well as advertised.

Agreed, with you and MF on the subject of polemics. In the name of giving them up, I'm about to post another lengthy one. Never could resist a self-inflicted paradox. Next I will simplify my life by purchasing yet another book to teach me how to do so.

I'm an admirer of Foucault's thought, and less concerned with his scholarship, which at some level devolves into turf wars and petty jealousies among people truly determined to debate how many angels can dance on the head of a pin (not that the medieval scholars ever held such discussions, but it's an apt metaphor for the minutiae professionals can descend to). Accuracy of data has its place, to a point. I certainly question some of the anthropological assertions of Dom Crossan in his The Historical Jesus, not because I am an anthropologist, but simply because his theories based on that science seem too simply by half, from time to time. He stretches himself thin, in other words, but in pursuit of ideas which are themselves quite rich.

And so he's still worth the reading. Great thinkers overreach, and give us great insights. Lesser things trim their sails, tack to the winds, and keep our knowledge safe. "Safe" knowledge is dull and, kept safe too long, dead as well.

As Stanley Greenberg said of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson: Jonson wrote footnotes to his Roman inspired plays. Shakespeare laughed, and scribbled obscenities.

When was the last time you saw a film of a Jonson play?

Phila said...

Great thinkers overreach, and give us great insights. Lesser things trim their sails, tack to the winds, and keep our knowledge safe. "Safe" knowledge is dull and, kept safe too long, dead as well.

Agreed. Sums up my feelings precisely.