Deploying Ignorance Usefully; my subject and my method

by zunguzungu

I’ve been thinking a bit lately about how badly the insights of social theory so often fare when you try to make them do the job of historical writing. One example is Weber, but I’m going to go to a better example: Foucault, whose Madness and Civilization is similarly both brilliant and, apparently, quite off base in how it gets to some of its claims. I base that statement on no personal knowledge–this being the internet–but simply on the fact a new translation was published fairly recently and, shortly afterwards, Andrew Scull used the occasion to broadside Mr. Foucault from both the broad sides and the narrow sides, on such charges as having not done his recherches to the much more serious offense of consorting with bearded radicals in the sixties. This may or may not have been warranted, and while it isn’t clear to me whether or not Foucault’s footnotes actually hold up, I’m hardly at all interested in that question.

That’s partially because I’m not a real historian, but it’s mostly because what I’m interested in here is the ways social theory and history as separate disciplines talk to each other, or don’t. This may be largely a function of the eccentric ways I might be here defining social theory and history work, but I mean something like the difference between understanding in an abstract and structural sort of way how things work, and understanding in a very empirical and specific sort of way how the worked at a somewhat specific point in time and/or space. The difference, for example, between governmentality and the House of Representatives, between criminology and the Baltimore Police department, and so forth.

The kerfuffle which ensued–which I’ve been reading up on here and here–revolved partly around the question of whether or not Foucault’s responsible use of archival data matters, and I want to hold onto that question, as a question, rather than try to answer it. In his post, Scott Kaufman grabbed onto some stuff that Foucault later wrote in “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” illustrating that he did, as it happened, hold himself to the high methodological standard of not just making stuff up. But farther down in the comment pool, someone pseudo-named Swifty offered this nugget from an interview, apparently, in Foucault Live:

“I am not merely a historian, nor a novelist. What I do is a kind of historical fiction. I know, in a sense, that what I say is not true. Take madness: I know very well that what I have done from a historical point of view is single-minded, exaggerated. But the book had an effect on the perception of madness. So the book and my thesis have a truth in the nowadays of reality…What I want is to provoke an interference between our reality and the knowledge of our past history. If I succeed, this will have real effects in our present history. My hope is my books will become true after they have been written–not before.”

Now back to that question, which is hovering in the air above us, unanswered but patiently waiting its turn. Why would Foucault’s use or misuse of archival sources matter? If his goal is, as in the second quote, to “provoke an interference between our reality and the knowledge of our past history,” I’m not sure it really does. If what he wants to do is question whether what we think we know about madness, where it comes from, and how we should treat it, then whether or not there was a “great confinement” in the seventeenth century isn’t really the point. As Jpool put it earlier in that thread, Scull’s main point seems simply to be that

“There was no great confinement in the 17th century,” and that “it happened in the 19th and 20th centuries.” Scull may even be right about this, and what little expertise I have on the subject would lead me to place my money on the nineteenth century (The seventeenth century? Pshaw. It wishes it could have a great confinement). On the other hand, it may also actually have happened earlier; as Jpool continues: “Colleagues of mine who study Early Modern Europe tend to make the corollary argument that the growth of disciplinary institutions actually happened a lot earlier that Foucault thinks it did in D&P.”

This is a familiar dilemma for people who try to understand where the hell things went off the rails between the enlightenment and the second Bush presidency. The trouble is, every time you decide on a particular landmark, the point when whatever you’re studying got started or changed or shifted or whatever, you discover that it didn’t really happen then, it sort of happened earlier than that. But then, it also sort of happened latter than that. The vertigo inducing escalator sequence in The Country and the City, which I will go on about at the drop of a hat, is a great example: pick a year between 1600 and 2008, and chances are good that you can find someone talking about how the city is ruining the countryside, and the real old way of life of one generation ago is gone forever. But how, as Raymond Williams puts it, can the georgic past be in a state of constantly having just disappeared, decade after decade, century after century? That’s one persistent present perfect.

The Industrial Revolution is another classic example; in the second book of Wallerstein’s big World Systems Theory opus, he chases that thing from the nineteenth century back to the sixteenth, concluding that the elusive moment where everything shifted and changed (where pre-industrial became industrial) is impossible to locate by any reasonable standard. Things might be getting more industrialized at every point, and it actually does mean something to say so (just like Williams would never deny that the city does encroach on and transform the country), but you can’t find that magical moment when it happens. Instead, it’s always happening, as a single process in multiple variations, and the clearly marked before and after landmarks we’d like to impose on the archive actually tell us more about the narratives we’re trying to construct out of it than about any objective sense of history. Wallerstein says all sorts of smart stuff about this, but I’ll let you read him if you care too.

Foucault walks right into this problem, writing (in Madness and Civilization) that:

“It is common knowledge that the seventeenth century created enormous houses of confinement.”

My first though is this: How can a century confine people? Of course that’s precisely not his point–which is that the ways confinement operated were much weirder (and more invasive) than we realize–but I want to grab onto the fact that the structure of this particularly mistranslated (and extremely influential) sentence manages to imply that the motive force here wasn’t people or structures but time. Hegelian Historicism (as opposed to small-h historicism) always finds a way to sneak in the back door if you leave it open, and this is no exception: by so closely addressing the critical question of what happened, the questions of why it happened vanish from view and it becomes simply a development out of itself, capable only of being articulated only in temporal terms. People unsympathetic to Foucault’s project, like Mr. Scull, can use a claim like this to smash down what Foucault is trying to do. “He’s wrong!” they can point out, “The Great Confinement actually happened in the 19th C! Foucault didn‘t do his research!” And having tugged at that one thread, they can go on to try to unravel the entire housecoat from it.

Have fun guys. As others have already observed, this is a mountains and molehills situation precisely because the real accomplishment of M&C was in making it necessary for even people who disagree about when it happened largely agree that it happened, and to agree to a certain extent what it is. That’s the accomplishment that matters, and quibbling about when it happened (when it was something that happened over and over again in different but similar ways for centuries) doesn’t take away from that. Which is why, to go back to where I started, a book like M&C is an excellent piece of social theory even if it isn’t good history writing. He isn’t, in the final analysis, talking about the seventeenth century nearly as much as he’s talking about the twentieth, and beyond. While one cannot simply invent one’s archival sources (nor does Foucault think you can), the real work being done in a book like that is the model making and breaking that allows him to conceptualize what is going on in those archival sources in new (and suggestive) ways. And in doing that, it’s less important to be right about where exactly the lepers squatted as the haunted the outskirts of the towns and villages than to have an interesting and useful way of understanding what that squatting meant, and how it worked.

In that sense, I wonder if a book like Madness and Civilization could be so influential precisely because its theory gets so detached from the concrete historical specifics of how it was practiced. If Foucault were more careful in making an argument about a specific historic moment, maybe the theory produced by the encounter wouldn’t be so portable to other historical moments? After all, the underlying paradigms that Madness and Civilization puts into play, after all, are not limited to the French seventeenth century, so the fact that he plays fast and loose with that century doesn’t really cause problems unless its that century you’re specifically interested in.

I wonder how often this is the case. Marx, too, would be a good example. If you want to understand what we’ll call, for the gestalt of it, the “Late Capitalism” we currently know and love, it doesn’t really seem to me that the historical data that would have been available in 1867 would be a promising place out of which to start formulating your archive. Is the British East India company really useful for understanding Enron? Or, God help us, the mortgage meltdown? Or this frightening chart? Again, if you dislike Marxism as an approach, this is your opportunity to deplane: it’s exactly the kind of confirmation you’ve been looking for that Marx didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. But if you’re still with me, I would suggest that this is, in a counterintuitive way, exactly why parts of Marxism are still so helpful in de-mystifying liberalism, neo- and otherwise. Precisely because Marx and Foucault were tilting not with data but with political ideas, the data they used to support their counterintuitive notions were somewhat beside the point, and could be allowed to fall away like flower-petals with the passing years. The counter-intuitivity was the thing to catch the conscience of a, well, of a relatively small number of eggheads who were predisposed to be convinced by the argument. And that’s something, right? Um, right?