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The Review

Understand the big ideas and provocative arguments shaping the academy. Delivered on Mondays.

From: Len Gutkin

Subject: The Review: Foucault and Politics; an Interview With Mark Dery

The historian and social theorist Michel Foucault was, after Freud, the most influential intellectual in the academic humanities active in the 20th century. And like Freud, Foucault transcended his ideas proper; for left-leaning scholars in the humanities, he became a kind of icon, a charismatic image of the force of critique, a fantasy of what oppositional intelligence might look like. Any sociology of American intellectual life over the last 50 years or so would have to account for the figure of Foucault not just as thinker but as ego ideal.

On the political right, this fantasy is met by another: Foucault as corrupter of youth, traducer of scholarship, arch-sponsor of a nihilistic “postmodernism.” The conservative British politician Liz Truss, for instance, last year blamed Foucault for a host of intellectual ills, including what she felt was the moral relativism she imbibed as a schoolchild in the 1980s. And Lynne Cheney’s 1995 book Telling the Truth purported to draw links between Foucault and every Democratic idea she disapproved of.

All of which makes Ross Douthat’s recent New York Times column — which suggests, a bit ruefully, that Foucault has been adopted by conservatives — somewhat surprising. For Douthat, the use of Foucault by authors like Geoff Shullenberger (who has written for the Review) and Blake Smith to criticize aspects of left-liberal consensus on topics from social-justice movements to mask mandates indicates “a strange right-wing respect.”

I asked Shullenberger and Smith whether they consider themselves conservatives. They do not. The notion of an emerging block of right-Foucaultians may be mostly in Douthat’s imagination. But the idea surfaces something that the myth of Foucault on the academic left can sometimes obscure: It is hard to make Foucault’s method entail a politics. Shullenberger quotes a telling exchange between Paul Rabinow and Foucault. “You have been read,” Rabinow says, “as an idealist, as a nihilist, as a ‘new philosopher,’ an anti-Marxist, a new conservative, and so on.” Foucault responds:

“I think I have in fact been situated in most of the squares on the political checkerboard …: as anarchist, leftist, ostentatious or disguised Marxist, nihilist, explicit or secret anti-Marxist, technocrat in the service of Gaullism, new liberal, etc. … None of these descriptions is important by itself; taken together, on the other hand, they mean something. And I must admit that I rather like what they mean.”

“Most of the conceptual tools that Foucault provided for us,” Johanna Oksala, a professor of philosophy at Loyola University Chicago and the author of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Foucault, told me, “are analytic/descriptive rather than prescriptive. They can be used more or less effectively depending on the political situation and appropriated for different political ends.” This alone makes Foucault either threatening or appealing in these highly prescriptive times.

On the other hand, part of the thrill of reading Foucault is the strong sense that the scrupulous objectivity of his style and tone nevertheless implies a definite prescriptive angle — it’s just impossible to say what it is. This ambiguity is part of his charisma. The difficulty of disentangling descriptive neutrality and normative implication in Foucault’s most famous books is one of the themes of the philosopher Charles Taylor’s 1984 essay “Foucault on Freedom and Truth,” which begins, simply, “Foucault disconcerts.” He still does.

The Latest

A Conversation With Mark Dery

Recently, Mark Dery wrote a fascinating, and disturbing, profile of Mark Crispin Miller, an NYU scholar of media studies who has, in recent years, embraced a host of outlandish conspiracy theories. I spoke with Dery about his article and about conspiracy theorizing more broadly. Here’s some of that conversation.

Would you hazard a rough diagnosis of the sociological situation here? What gives rise to this?

The thing about Miller that could be generalizable is touched on in a book I’ve just been reading, Rob Brotherton’s Suspicious Minds: Why We believe Conspiracy Theories (2015). He does a kind of a Dick Hebdigian subcultural scholarship take on conspiracy theorists.

The old knock on conspiracy theory is that it is religion for a secular age. That presumption haunts the canonical work on conspiracy theory, which is Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Hofstadter suggests that conspiracy theory presents a kind of paranoid cosmology for a secularized landscape. It renders a complicated world simple.

Brotherton suggests that, in fact, we now have some decent sociological data on conspiracy theorists, which we didn’t have in the age of Hofstadter. Hofstadter presumed that people who embraced conspiracy theories aren’t terribly intelligent; they’re uncomfortable with nuance; they crave a simplistic explanation.

It turns out the opposite is true. Many highly intelligent people succumb to conspiracy theories. One aspect of the conspiratorial mind-set is in fact an urge toward complexification, a desire to read between the lines, to be hermeneutic, to be Talmudic.

In The Consequences of Modernity, the sociologist Anthony Giddens points out that all of us in the modern world are taking enormous quantities of information on faith — we have no technical knowledge of the expert systems that govern our lives. Even if we ourselves are technicians in one or another of those systems, like say an airline pilot, our areas of illumination are quite limited. But we have rough and ready heuristics for figuring out what’s plausible and what’s not. For somebody like Miller, those heuristics break down — he loses any capacity to weigh relevant probabilities. So the most preposterous theories will seem appealing to him. To what extent is the question one of psychopathology?

My inclination would be to say that it’s an ideological tropism, that the strange flowers of conspiracy theorists have a tropism toward this sensibility — they tilt toward the black sun of conspiracy theorizing, not for reasons of psychopathology or individual neurosis. I think it’s a curious hybrid: an ideological pathology.

Recommended:

  • “Chances are that even if you haven’t seen Midnight Cowboy, you’ve seen Midnight Cowboy: It’s one of those classics-by-osmosis that generates — and, give or take, withstands — rip-offs and homages.” At The Nation, Adam Nayman on Glenn Frankel’s new history of Midnight Cowboy.
  • At The Point, Rhian Sasseen with an overview of the career of the Austrian novelist Elfriede Jelinek, who, despite winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2004, remains underappreciated in the English-speaking world.

I’m always hoping to hear from you — write to opinion@chronicle.com.

Yours,
Len Gutkin

Len Gutkin is a senior editor at The Chronicle Review. His first book, Dandyism: Forming Fiction From Modernism to the Present, was published in February 2020 by the University of Virginia Press. Follow him at @GutkinLen.