Archive for the ‘Controversies’ Category

[Editor:] This article is causing quite a stir at present so I am posting it here. Read with a large grain of salt. Perhaps the problem is more that intellectuals such as Foucault and Lyotard have been misread and their warnings ignored. A current reading of Discipline and Punish provides insights into how much further things have advanced down the disciplinary track since Foucault wrote the book in 1975.

See a link below this extract to a response on The Disorder of Things blog.

Helen Pluckrose, How French “Intellectuals” Ruined The West: Postmodernism And Its Impact, Explained, Aero Magazine, 27 March 2017

Michel Foucault’s work is also centered on language and relativism although he applied this to history and culture. He called this approach “archeology” because he saw himself as “uncovering” aspects of historical culture through recorded discourses (speech which promotes or assumes a particular view). For Foucault, discourses control what can be “known” and in different periods and places, different systems of institutional power control discourses. Therefore, knowledge is a direct product of power. “In any given culture and at any given moment, there is always only one ‘episteme’ that defines the conditions of possibility of all knowledge, whether expressed in theory or silently invested in a practice.”[1]

Furthermore, people themselves were culturally constructed. “The individual, with his identity and characteristics, is the product of a relation of power exercised over bodies, multiplicities, movements, desires, forces.”[2] He leaves almost no room for individual agency or autonomy. As Christopher Butler says, Foucault “relies on beliefs about the inherent evil of the individual’s class position, or professional position, seen as ‘discourse’, regardless of the morality of his or her individual conduct.”[3] He presents medieval feudalism and modern liberal democracy as equally oppressive, and advocates criticizing and attacking institutions to unmask the “political violence that has always exercised itself obscurely through them.” [4]

We see in Foucault the most extreme expression of cultural relativity read through structures of power in which shared humanity and individuality are almost entirely absent. Instead, people are constructed by their position in relation to dominant cultural ideas either as oppressors or oppressed. Judith Butler drew on Foucault for her foundational role in queer theory focusing on the culturally constructed nature of gender, as did Edward Said in his similar role in post-colonialism and “Orientalism” and Kimberlé Crenshaw in her development of “intersectionality” and advocacy of identity politics. We see too the equation of language with violence and coercion and the equation of reason and universal liberalism with oppression.

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L.J Shepherd, In defence of the apparently indefensible (or, French ‘intellectuals’ did not ruin the West and can we please stop postie-bashing because it’s not actually terribly helpful thank you). Disorder of Things blog, April 6 2017

Foucault was profoundly concerned with medico-legal texts, government documents, and carceral practices. Derrida and Said were concerned with literature, cultural texts and film. All of them read their chosen set of empirical materials as communicative acts, asking What kinds of realities are made possible in the way that these texts claim to understand or represent political life?. It is manifestly not the case that these theorists avoided or were suspicious of ‘empirical evidence’.


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Casey Williams, Has Trump Stolen Philosophy’s Critical Tools? The Stone, The New York Times, April 17, 2017

Truth is pliable in Trumpland.

In March, the president fired off a tweet accusing former President Barack Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower. Republican members of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, dismissed the claim. But the Trump team doubled down, writing off media reports and insisting that evidence of wiretapping would soon surface. It didn’t.


For decades, critical social scientists and humanists have chipped away at the idea of truth. We’ve deconstructed facts, insisted that knowledge is situated and denied the existence of objectivity. The bedrock claim of critical philosophy, going back to Kant, is simple: We can never have certain knowledge about the world in its entirety. Claiming to know the truth is therefore a kind of assertion of power.

These ideas animate the work of influential thinkers like Nietzsche, Foucault and Derrida, and they’ve become axiomatic for many scholars in literary studies, cultural anthropology and sociology.


Call it what you want: relativism, constructivism, deconstruction, postmodernism, critique. The idea is the same: Truth is not found, but made, and making truth means exercising power.

The reductive version is simpler and easier to abuse: Fact is fiction, and anything goes. It’s this version of critical social theory that the populist right has seized on and that Trump has made into a powerful weapon.

Trump and Stephen K. Bannon probably don’t spend evenings poring over Jean Baudrillard’s “Simulacra and Simulation” or Michel Foucault’s “The Archaeology of Knowledge” (although Bannon’s adviser, Julia Hahn, did write her undergraduate thesis on the psychoanalytic theorist Leo Bersani). But the parallels between Trump’s attacks on accepted knowledge and critical philosophy’s insistence that we interrogate truth claims suggest that not all assaults on the authority of facts are revolutionary.

Indeed, the social theorist Bruno Latour saw Trump coming back in 2004. In his essay “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” Latour observed that conservatives had begun using methods similar to those of critical theory to muddy debates around issues, like climate change, that required immediate and decisive action. Conservatives were casting doubt on the reality of planetary warming by pointing to “the lack of scientific certainty” around the issue. Latour had made a career questioning “scientific certainty” and worried that his critical “weapons” had been “smuggled” to the other side:

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See a response to this article here:

Russell Smith: How postmodernism is infiltrating public life and policy
Special to The Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, Apr. 18, 2017 2:58PM EDT

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Editor: With thanks to the researcher who sent me this dossier. Foucault’s work is invoked in this media controversy.

François Ewald, Apologie de Claude Allègre Les Echos.fr 2/3/10

Voir aussi ce lien

Le travail de Claude Allègre montre que la thèse du réchauffement climatique produit par l’activité humaine suppose tout un dispositif à la fois scientifique et politique qu’il démonte dans ses différentes composantes. Il ne fait rien d’autre que ce qu’un Michel Foucault a pu faire pour expliquer d’autres propositions qui nous sont devenues familières comme « la folie est une maladie mentale » ou « la sexualité est fondamentalement réprimée dans nos sociétés ». Il démonte le mythe d’une science du climat qui serait pure et désintéressée comme les écolos le font de leur côté pour les OGM et autres technologies.


Olivier Godard dénonce «l’imposture du climat» de Claude Allègre, Libération, 10 mai 2010

L’économiste Olivier  Godard, directeur de recherche au Cnrs et enseignant en économie à l’Ecole Polytechnique, vient de publier un texte percutant dans le N° de mai de la revue Esprit. Son titre ? «De l’imposture au sophisme, la science du climat vue par Claude Allègre, François Ewald et quelques autres». Il y dénonce en particulier le dernier livre de Claude Allègre «L’imposture climatique» (Plon).


Olivier Godard, Le climat, l’imposteur et le sophiste, Alternatives Economiques, 12 mars 2010

Olivier Godard, directeur de recherche au CNRS, économiste du développement et de l’environnement, répond aux « sophistes » et aux « imposteurs » qui, de Claude Allègre à François Ewald, prétendent s’appuyer sur la science pour contester les études du Giec sur le dérèglement climatique.


C’est dans ce contexte que le 2 mars, Les Echos publiaient une « apologie de Claude Allègre » signée François Ewald, cet ancien assistant de Michel Foucault devenu l’intellectuel de la Fédération française des sociétés d’assurances puis le titulaire d’une chaire au Conservatoire national des arts et métiers (Cnam). Ewald s’en prenait aux journalistes qui auraient fait preuve d’intolérance et cédé à leurs convictions militantes. Protestant avec gravité, il le faisait, prétendait-il, au nom de l’éthique des sciences : pointer les erreurs serait une manière d’esquiver la thèse centrale de l’ancien ministre. Et Ewald de juger impératif un débat national sur les conditions de transformation d’une « hypothèse douteuse » (sic) (celle du réchauffement climatique en cours et à venir) en « dogme »(sic). Et de voir en Allègre un nouveau Michel Foucault déconstruisant l’imposture climatique née des amours adultères de la science et du pouvoir ! Pauvre Foucault !


De l’imposture au sophisme, la science du climat vue par Claude Allègre, François Ewald et quelques autres. Esprit, mai 2010. Full PDF

Le dernier livre d’entretiens de Claude Allègre publié en février 2010 est un livre de dénonciation d’une soi-disant imposture climatique. La théorie selon laquelle les émissions de gaz à effet de serre dues à l’activité humaine depuis le début de la révolution industrielle seraient en train de bouleverser le climat de la planète, théorie dont les prémisses ont été le fait de savants du XIXe siècle comme Joseph Fourier ou Svante Arrhenius , est présentée comme un mythe sans fondement scientifique. Qui plus est, un mythe imposé à la communauté internationale à la suite d’une prise du pouvoir par un petit groupe d’hommes sans scrupules, avides de fortune ou de gloire, ou emportés par une idéologie écologiste totalitaire – quelques scientifiques mafieux, quelques responsables politiques dont Olof Palme, Premier ministre socialiste suédois assassiné en 1986, et Margaret Thatcher, Premier ministre du Royaume-Uni de 1979 à 1990, et quelques hauts fonctionnaires onusiens. Cette prise de pouvoir n’aurait de précédent, aux yeux d’Allègre, que celle des bolcheviks lors de la révolution russe de 1917.


A voir aussi

Olivier Godard, Dossier Adaptation aux changements climatiques.

François Ewald, The Precautionary Principle and Water Management.

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Simon Dawes, Foucault-Phobia and the Problem with the Critique of Neoliberal Ideology: A Response to Downey et al. Media Culture Society, December 3, 2015
doi: 10.1177/0163443715610922

For full article visit Simon Dawes’ blog

Among a spate of recent articles addressing the legacy of Stuart Hall’s work on ideology and the media, John Downey, Gavan Titley and Jason Toynbee have recently argued for the urgent need to recover the key dimensions of Hall’s ideology critique. While affirming the need for an effective critique of neoliberalism, this article takes issue with two aspects of Downey et al.’s article: first, their principal claim that ideology critique has been marginalised within the neoliberal academy, and second, their flippant dismissal of the benefits of a Foucauldian approach for critiquing neoliberalism and thinking more reflexively about ideology.

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Editor: See Colin Gordon’s response from the comments section of this blog post below.

Michel Foucault’s Iranian Folly
Jeremy Stangroom on Michel Foucault’s political naiveté, TPM Online (The Philosopher’s magazine)

Everywhere outside Iran, Islam serves as a cover for a feudal or pseudo revolutionary oppression… The Left should not let itself be seduced by a cure that is perhaps worse than the disease.”

Foucault, unfortunately, was precisely seduced by the popular uprising in Iran, which he claimed might signify a new “political spirituality”, with the potential to transform the political landscape of Europe, as well as the Middle East.

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Guest – Colin Gordon, Oxford, UK
[Editor:Foucault’s birthday was 15 October 1926]

Your site’s taste in posthumous birthday offerings is duly noted.

Mr Stangroom is a promising parrot – good at recycling other people’s smears; but short on forensic and reading skills – checking allegations against evidence. Or perhaps one should say he is a talented manipulator of evidence, like the American authors he relies on. The second text he quotes – including the words on the rights of women – is not Foucault’s manifesto for Iranian government, it is a summary of comments by a senior Shi’ite cleric, forming part of Foucault’s newspaper reports on ideas current in Iran at the time of an uprising which mobilized overwhelming popular support – a fact which at the time impressed many international observers besides Foucault. Foucault stated more than once before the fall of the Shah’s regime that there were disquieting aspects to the agenda for Islamic government and that he did not find its assurances about human and minority rights entirely reassuring. He did not endorse a Khomeini regime, either before or after the fact. He did not recommend ‘political spirituality’ as an elixir for the West. He did, on the other hand, refuse to treat all contemporary manifestations of Islam with uncomprehending or a priori contempt – a position which continues to earn comments such as these from some philosophers and other trolls.

By the way, the first text Stangroom has managed happens to open with a mistranslation. Foucault did not write that the Iranian situation could be understood as a great joust – he wrote that it seemed at that point in time to be tied to (‘semble être suspendue à’) the highly visible public confrontation between two personal figures, Shah and Khomeini. Anyone who bothers to read Foucault’s reports will find that they contained a broad and nuanced picture of the sociopolitical, economic and cultural background and components of the uprising, a shrewd analysis of the unfolding conflict, and an accurate assessment of the survival prospects of the regime – at a time when the New Left’s renowned middle eastern expert, the late Fred Halliday, was predicting it could stay in power for decades.

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Just in case you missed it: This post, Searching for Foucault in an Age of Inequality posted yesterday on Foucault News was the latest entry in the neoliberal debate.

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Mark G. E. Kelly, Foucault and Neoliberalism Today, Contriver’s Review, March 2015

Late last year, a PhD student in Belgium, Daniel Zamora, published a smallish edited collection of essays in French called “Criticising Foucault” (Critiquer Foucault). An interview he gave in relation to the book was translated into English for the Leftist journal Jacobin and then widely shared on social media. This interview contains some interesting and worthwhile discussion, but the strapline of the English translation (absent in the French original) focuses on an allegation that Michel Foucault had an “affinity” for neoliberalism, and indeed it is this claim of Zamora’s that leads the subsequent interview. The interviewer sets up the claim that Foucault was a neoliberal as something new and shocking, but it has been aired in Foucault scholarship for a decade at least (not least in articles now reprinted in Zamora’s collection). Despite this, search online for “Foucault” and “neoliberalism” and it’s now this interview that pops up first.

It is not so much that I have a specific gripe with Zamora—whose work I have not read, though I have read other work in his collection—but rather that I want to contradict both the likely impression that the allegation of neoliberalism against Foucault is some new scandal, and also that there is substance to that claim. And I won’t do the latter full-frontally, through point-by-point refutation. I will leave that to future scholarly work. I find these allegations almost entirely without merit and, here, I will explore the political motives and effects.

The first time I encountered the accusation that Foucault was a neoliberal was at a conference in London in 2004. The accuser was an American graduate student from Harvard’s history program, Eric Paras, who would go on to publish a reading of Foucault, entitled Foucault 2.0, which cherry-picked the most extreme moments in Foucault’s output and assembled them to make him into a figure of wild contradictions.

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