From the Philosophy’s Other blog

Taylor, Dianna, ed. Michel Foucault: Key Concepts. Chesham: Acumen, 2011.

Review by Cynthia Coe.

Michel Foucault: Key Concepts is an anthology by contemporary Foucault scholars explaining and applying, as the title suggests, Foucault’s most important ideas. The volume is divided into three parts — power, freedom, and subjectivity — with four essays addressing each topic. Taken as a whole, the essays provide succinct and insightful explanations of Foucault’s contributions to our understanding of those concepts as well as demonstrations of how they can be put to use, both within Foucault’s own work and in original applications. Particular attention is paid to the concepts associated with works from Foucault’s “middle” and “late” periods: discipline, assujettisement, biopower, power/knowledge, parrhēsia, and the care of the self. Although the introduction begins by highlighting the unsystematic nature of Foucault’s work, the essays together reveal the strong connections between the forms of analysis Foucault pursued and the concepts he developed to address those questions.

In addition to presenting a fascinating exposition of Foucault’s work, the essays constitute a sustained defense of the political importance of his thought, in response to critiques from Nancy Fraser, Charles Taylor, Nancy Hartsock, and Jürgen Habermas (among others). These critiques have often culminated in the claim that Foucault’s positions on power, agency, and freedom undermine the possibility of political activity in the service of any normative vision whatsoever; to the extent that Foucault attempts to avoid moral nihilism in critiquing disciplinary power or offering alternative models based in the care of the self, for instance, he is engaging in “crypto-normativity” (Habermas’ term in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, 1992).

As Dianna Taylor claims in the introduction, Foucault challenges us to understand power, freedom, and subjectivity differently, and in relation to each other, in order to reflect critically on our own present — a project the essays in the book admirably advance. In a Nietzschean vein, he refuses the polarity of nihilism and normative foundationalism. If we are searching for normative foundations, what Foucault is up to will look like nihilism. But the purpose of his genealogical work is to illuminate the contingency of our intellectual quests in order to open up new practices of resistance to particularly modern forms of oppression. In that sense this anthology continues recent work by English-speaking Foucault scholars, including Ladelle McWhorter, Amy Allen, and Judith Butler, to address the contradiction of the genealogical subject — as both the product and author of a genealogy. The task is more precisely not to resolve the contradiction but to draw out the powerful and productive consequences of this ambivalence in our lives. . . .

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