Foucault’s approach, moreover, was peculiarly suited to the university environment. He held that the main revolutionary struggle was not against political or economic institutions; rather the true radicals were the ones who challenged the major Western philosophies or ‘systems of thought’. This was a radicalism perfectly suited to practice in the academic realm of tutorials, conferences, cafes and bars. There was no longer any need to do anything as concrete or practical as working for political parties or trade unions, going on strike, or demonstrating in the streets. Instead, followers of Foucault could spend their time reading, debating and writing their criticisms of the academic disciplines of philosophy, history, sociology, criminology and psychiatry. None of this, Foucault argued, was a less practical or inferior variety of politics. ‘Theory’, Foucault declared, ‘does not express, translate or serve to apply practice: it is practice.’
…Despite its logical untenability, the genealogical method holds a great attraction for Foucault and his followers. In debates with their opponents, especially if the opponent is a ‘positivist’ or a ‘piecemeal empiricist’, they hold what they believe is an unassailable position by focusing on who is speaking rather than what is being said. They use the genealogical method to absolve themselves from the need to examine the content of any statement. All they see the need to do is examine the contents of its production — not ‘is it true?’ but ‘who made the statement and for what reasons?’ This is a tactic that is well-known in Marxist circles where, to refute a speaker, one simply identifies his class position and ignores what he actually says. If someone can be labeled ‘bourgeois’ everything this person says will simply reflect the ideology of that class.
The Foucauldian version is little different. In debate, any question about the facts of a statement is ignored and the focus is directed to the way what is said reflects the prevailing ‘discursive formation’ or how it is a form of knowledge that serves the power of the authorities concerned. One of the reasons for Foucault’s popularity in the university environment is that he offers such tactics to his followers — tactics which should be regarded as the negation of the traditional aims of the university: the gaining of knowledge and the practice of scholarship. Foucault’s influence on the type of debate so frequently found today should be a matter of great concern. Instead of talk about real issues, all we get is talk about talk. Instead of debates based on evidence and reason, all we get is a retreat to a level of abstraction where enough is assumed to have been said when one has identified the epistemological position of one’s opponent.
Suddenly, it all becomes clear. You can see countless examples of his legacy in effect every day on the left side of the twitosphere, in the marriage of identitarian narcissism and obfuscatory intellectual pretension. A radicalism that has abandoned any pretensions of creating actual change in the world becomes, of course, little more than fashion. Theories and jargon become ever more convoluted, not in response to changing conditions in the real world, but order to maintain a fashionable aura of novelty. You wouldn’t want to be seen wearing last year’s radical feminist poststructuralism, would you?
Wow, what an informative and engrossing book. I’m kicking myself for not getting around to it sooner.