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19 March 2007

The Archaeology of Porridge

This barely deserves the tag "Essay" -- more like scattered first impressions...

I am forcing myself to slog through this book. Foucault makes some excellent points, especially for the time, but his language is so hyperdense it takes forever to finally figure out his point. I realize that style is part of the point -- self-exemplifying and all that -- but it annoys me to death.

Also, he makes just plain factually incorrect statements, such as claiming that Marx's view of history was NOT progressive. Find me nineteenth-century Westerner who wasn't at least partly in thrall to progress, let alone Marx. Even Nietzsche had a kind of transcendent, individualistic progress in mind.

Anywho, the extreme rejection of the human being -- "humanism," what he confusingly calls "anthropological" ("anthropocentric"???) -- and worship of "the text" (yes, "discourse field" or whatever), sans author, is, one would think, not only unnecessary to his larger goals but also self-refuting.

His larger goals of urging people not to take current categories and genres and fields of thought too seriously, and especially not to project them backwards into history, is important. So is the notion of discontinuity in history, and the biases against that in our intellectual inheritance.

But by completely killing off the human mind, which creates texts of all sorts (yes, in a web of interactions with other minds and texts -- very important), he just makes himself ridiculous. I think I read somewhere that he was arguing against Sartre's humanistic leanings. OK, great; why throw over everything?

He eschews searches for origins, but then lets that in the backdoor (as he has to) when he gets into the nitty gritty about when a certain style of thought about, say, medicine came about, even if one restricts oneself to the various discourses (legal, medical, etc.). Personally, I see no reason to limit the study to discourses, and the "mystical" connections of ideas F derides become a lot less mystical when you consider institutions like educational systems, professional societies, networks of publication and discussion -- you know, all that human-centered stuff that uses language imperfectly, but gets the actors' ideas across, according to their own lights. Change -- "discontinuities" -- can come from an individual, a law, a general reaction to a political event, changes in economics, climate, whatever. There is no rule; it's an open question as to how change occurs, and to what degree a concept is continuous or not with previous uses of that concept. "Atom" to Democritus meant something different than "atom" to Bohr; maybe there the continuity snapped, but even that judgment is relative to the specific question asked about continuity. But surely "atom" to Bohr and Heisenberg was a hell of a lot closer, relatively speaking? The hard work is weighing the balance of or interplay between continuity and discontinuity in a specific study, whatever the timescale.

Frankly, F is stuck in a close analog to the old debate about whether species were real or nominal. Darwin solved that one, and the solution applies to intellectual history rather well, even if the mechanisms for change are much different. It's the time element -- funnily enough, the relativism of time element -- that seems to confuse or throw F: species are real from the moment of speciation to the moment of extinction (and those moments can be fuzzy indeed the closer you look -- the tighter your timescale resolution). Yet they ultimately are continually changing populations; hence "incipient species," "subspecies," and so forth. Ideas are more slippery, especially since species don't do propaganda for their own "kind", but pull back far enough and you see the discontinuities. Zoom in close enough, and all you see is continuous change. It's kind of a pseudo-problem.

Funny, I thought Marx nailed it when he said, "Men make history, but do not make it in circumstances of their choosing." That's a dynamic (or, if you like, dialectic) and nonreductionist view of how things change. No need for "progress" -- but one must account for why daily life is so different between different times and places. As well as for the similarities -- why daily life (or thought, or whatever) in other times and places is both shockingly familiar and shockingly strange. Can't do justice to history without addressing both shocks to the historian.


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