How To Read Foucault by Johanna Oksala
How To Read Foucault (2007)
by Johanna Oksala (Author), Simon Critchley (Series editor, New School for Social Research)
Publisher: Granta Books
ISBN-13 : 978–1862077676
Paperback: 112 pages
“If you want new ideas, read old books.”
–attributed to Ivan Petrovich Pavlov.
It was just happenstance that I stumbled upon a video that was the famous debate between Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault. The Dutch philosopher Fons Elders invited both of them to the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands in 1971. They discussed the reality of human nature. If you stream the video you see Foucault’s provocative and animated spar with Chomsky. Intense eyes, effective French, and a penchant for captivating delivery. I wanted to read what this man was talking about. For many readers like me, diving straight into philosophical texts without a background is difficult. Whenever in doubt, check Five Books for recommendations. Thanks to Gary Gutting’s list of best books on Foucault I found Johanna Oksala’s How To Read Foucault (2007).
Oksala is a Foucault scholar with many books on the philosopher’s work under her belt. It’s rare to find such an accessible introductory text for general readers written by an expert. But make no mistake the book is not a diluted version without substance. Every chapter begins with sections from Foucault’s writing followed by Oksala’s clear commentary. She provides precise context and pulls relevant sections from Foucault’s work to showcase them.
The difficulty in introducing Foucault to readers is partly because of his multifaceted nature. He trained as a philosopher at the famous École Normale, where some of the most famous 20th-century French philosophers like Sartre, Beauvoir, and Derrida studied. The 1960s saw the dominance of existentialism, the study of human nature and human existence. But philosophers like Foucault and Derrida focused on social and linguistic determinants of thought and discarded the central role of human nature. This new wave is now classified as post-structuralism. Foucault became an intellectual historian using a novel method of historiography to address philosophical questions of contemporary society and its problems.
Foucault’s work is broadly classified using historical terms. The first phase spanned the 1960s and was called archaeologies: works like History of Madness (1961) and The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969). The 1970s was the genealogical phase: Discipline and Punish (1975) and The History of Sexuality, vol. 1(1976). The final ethical phase was in the 1980s: the final two volumes of The History of Sexuality (1984). Rather than seeing these works as clearly demarcated phases readers must see them as three branches of his large study. Different yet concatenated. After I read the book I saw Foucault as a polymath-philosopher because all three phases involve the excavation of historical works from a wide range of subjects. As Oksala writes,
Foucault’s thought, similar to his life, defies categorization under a single motif.
Why should anyone read Foucault today? He studied the historical development of prisons, the history of sexuality and sexual practices, history of mental illnesses and institutions among many other subjects to explain contemporary social and medical discourses and power relations in society. I was particularly interested in the historiography of incarceration and how the power structures necessitate the existence of prisons. The television series Time (2021) is a good companion for readers when you read about Discipline and Punish (1975). The series is about a newly imprisoned man and a prison guard both of whom grapple with guilt, ethics, and fears. It begs the question about the efficacy of incarceration in social reforms.
Similarly, in The History of Sexuality, Foucault insists that ‘homosexual’ was a name that emerged in the 19th century as a result of pathological discourse and power relations as opposed to a biological construct. Oksala writes,
Foucault characterised his work as a genealogy of the modern subject: a history of how people are constructed as different types of subjects — as delinquents, homosexuals, mentally ill, or, through such exclusions, as normal and healthy. Such a history is essentially linked to political struggles: it is possible to contest and ultimately transform oppressive and degrading identities when they are exposed as social constructions rather than expressions of natural facts.
We require similar tools today not to opinionate on the state of things but to cultivate alternative ways of thinking. Oksala covers all major themes and works of Foucault in this book. It is rich with resources and put together deftly. Never slacking. Never boring. Pavlov was right about reading old books for new ideas.