Foucault’s Oscillation

Richard Wolin on Foucault’s shift.

In American academe, that’s the gist of the Foucault story. He has been venerated and canonized as the messiah of French antihumanism: a harsh critic of the Enlightenment, a dedicated foe of liberalism’s covert normalizing tendencies, an intrepid prophet of the “death of man.”…Considerable evidence suggests that, later in life, Foucault himself became frustrated with the antihumanist credo. He underwent what one might describe as a learning process. He came to realize that much of what French structuralism had during the 1960s rejected as humanist pap retained considerable ethical and political value.

And triumphantly reinvented the wheel. Okay, I know, cheap shot, but still – bobbing about as we are these days on a frothing sea of irrationalism, it is hard not to wish Foucault had figured that out a lot sooner.

It would not be a misnomer to suggest that in fact the later Foucault became a human-rights activist, a political posture that stands in stark contrast with his North American canonization as the progenitor of “identity politics.” The major difference between the two standpoints may be explained as follows: Whereas human rights stress our formal and inviolable prerogatives as people (equality before the law, freedom of speech, habeas corpus, and so forth), identity politics emphasize the particularity of group belonging. The problem is that the two positions often conflict…Thus identity politics risks regressing to an ideology of “groupthink.”

The two positions often conflict very drastically. If you put ‘the group’ (or the community, or the culture) first, then if it is the group’s custom to subjugate all the women in the group, there is no recourse, whereas if you put rights first, it is possible to argue that gender subjugation is a violation of rights.

French critics have long pointed to the central paradox of the North American Foucault reception: that a thinker who was so fastidious about hazarding positive political prescriptions, and who viewed affirmations of identity as a trap or as a form of normalization, could be lionized as the progenitor of the “identity politics” movement…

Yeah, well, we North Americans don’t do fastidious. It’s not part of our identity.

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