I first encountered the work of Michel Foucault in college. Intrigued but confused, I decided to look for videos of the intellectual giant explaining his theories in a way that might be more intelligible than his obscurantist writings. To my excitement, I encountered a fascinating debate between Foucault and Chomsky aired on Dutch television in 1971. The exchange between the figureheads of the European and American Left, respectively, was a true clash of titans. By the end of it, however, I had lost most of my short-lived obsession with Foucault and had sided instead with the radical linguist Chomsky.
Later, while doing graduate studies in Paris, I was taken aback by the extent to which intellectuals are still revered in French culture, as if they were some kind of postmodern priests. Thinking back of Foucault, it struck me how ironic it was that the founding father of discourse analysis should be praised for speaking a discursive dialect that no sane person could believably claim to fully understand. What is the point of criticizing the reproduction of power through academic institutions if you willfully reproduce that same very power through your own unintelligible language?
Given the fact that Foucauldian discourse analysis is meant to reveal the obscured power relations undergirding social interactions in everyday life, there must have been an exclusionary purpose to Foucault’s flamboyant style of writing and speaking. In my own discourse analysis of Foucault, his was a desperate attempt to turn commonsensical statements about the role of language into seemingly profound truths backed by the culturally-respected veil of social theory — common sense dressed up in the hot air of ‘philosophy’.
Or, as Chomsky himself would later go on to say:
Quite regularly, “my eyes glaze over” when I read polysyllabic discourse on the themes of poststructuralism and postmodernism; what I understand is largely truism or error, but that is only a fraction of the total word count. True, there are lots of other things I don’t understand: the articles in the current issues of math and physics journals, for example. But there is a difference. In the latter case, I know how to get to understand them, and have done so, in cases of particular interest to me; and I also know that people in these fields can explain the contents to me at my level, so that I can gain what (partial) understanding I may want. In contrast, no one seems to be able to explain to me why the latest post-this-and-that is (for the most part) other than truism, error, or gibberish.
remember a cashier at Barnes & Noble ringing up a book by Nietzsche for me and enthusiastically asking if I liked Foucault too. “No, I tried reading him, but it just seemed… I dunno… pointless.” I knew Foucault considered himself in intellectual debt to Nietzsche, and I really wanted to find something of value there, but my youthful gut response still holds true for me. People I respect like Brian Leiter seem to think highly of him, but I just couldn’t find any there there.