Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A Note on Foucault

Disclaimer: I've read 123 pages into The History of Sexuality Vol 1. That's about it for my reading of original Foucault. Obviously, I've read what other folks have to say about Foucault's thought. For example, specifically on money he features in Nigel Dodd's work, over on Lord Keynes' blog Foucault has recently been subject to a character assassination. I also read Elly Tams' Scribbling On Foucault's Walls in 2013 which imagines what would have happen if Foucault had a daughter (its available as a pdf). Elly's work delves more deeply into sex.

Mention philosophy and sex this always pops into my head - perhaps indicating that Elly was on track with her emphasis on the sexual - the sex lives of philosophers and its importance by a cheeky Derrida


So, anyway I'm about as far from an authority on Foucault as you can get. It's taken me a while to get to him. Basically my path to him (and Derrida) has been Freud>Norman O Brown>Bataille>. 

In this note, I just want to mention something that's been bugging me as I read. 

I picked up the three volume set of The History of Sexuality in the LSE Waterstones back in 1999. My head was full of Freud at the time. When pursuing the books, I noticed Foucault was questioning notions of repression, so I returned the books to the bookshelf and kept my credit card in my wallet. I take it as significant that I can so clearly remember doing so. When Sally did her Gender Studies degree she ended up studying a bit of Foucault so the three volume set appeared on the bookshelves at home, popping up like a bad penny. So the actual set of books has, in its physical form, acted out the return of the repressed ! (Jung would not be surprised). And this leads me to my criticism (misunderstanding?) of Foucault.

Perhaps because I was taught about Freud by Chris Badcock for whom the return of the repressed was a hugely important feature - in his book The Psychoanalysis of Culture he tried to construct a broad history of civilization based this principle - I'm quite sensitive about how 'repression' is presented. I've been a little obsessed by Hayek's complete misunderstanding of Freud and repression. I can also remember having a twitter conversation with Elly & someone else (name escapes me) - the suggestion was that repression buries things deeply in our unconscious and our task is to uncover that which is repressed. Both Elly and myself said that this isn't quite right. I've tried to think about a better metaphor for repression over the years - rather than the common 'burying' one.

It's not great - but I prefer to think of repression as like pushing down a ball under water. You have to expend energy all the time to stop it rising to the surface. When finally your mind wonders or when you get an itch you must scratch, the ball slips from your hands and pops up in a different place to where it started. My feeling is that Foucault sometimes slips into a more static idea of repression. He is rightly critical that casting history as a gradual lessening of repression (which is the general theme of The History of Sexuality) is a misguided way to view the past - but I'm not sure that this was really the way that Freud saw it. Even Norman O Brown - whose whole project is about achieving 'psychoanalytical consciousness' - doesn't really frame repression in this way. I think the key is thinking about the relationship between time and mind..... and the possibility that repression is constitutive of our experience of time passing (or I'd say, of time itself).

I completely accept that I simply might not have read enough Foucault (or maybe I'm getting him wrong). And I am enjoying him. Although, I really want him to tell me what power is..... I want him to explain where it is in the metaphysical landscape. 

[I'm also very glad that I read Bataille first. Foucault tends to throw in reference to the economy and the general economy without giving much away in the text. Having a bit of Bataille in my head has definitely helped give those references some context]


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