A Foucault Primer: Discourse, Power, and the Subject

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NYU Press, 1997 - Literary Criticism - 140 pages
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More than any other writer, perhaps, Foucault is the poster-child of postmodernism. What little of him I knew I thought was accurate: his emphasis on the concept of power, for instance, I had mistakenly held to mean the dialectic of the powerless and disenfranchised against the rich and powerful. This book helped me to discover that this simplistic view of power is a serious misconception. Foucault's version is much more complex and profound. And I would go so far to say that until you have encountered his important ideas on this subject, you will be at a serious disadvantage in understanding the present age. This book at first blush looks like an easy read, but rest assured it is not. The first page has a striking sentence, which I kept coming back to: "We do not believe that F provides a definitive theory of anything in the sense of a set of unambiguous answers to time-worn questions." I finally interpreted this to mean that the authors do not consider F to be a philosopher per se but rather a social theorist. Without doubt, the most difficult chapter in this little book is the second, "Discourse." Discourse is a nebulous term, not only referring to an academic field of study such as history or psychology, but also, in F's sense of the word, to "a set of conditions which enables and constrains the socially productive imagination." Such discourses "can come into contention and struggle. This struggle is no more clearly seen than in the social sciences . . . where what Kuhn calls paradigms may compete for dominance in a particular field." The authors gradually relate discourse to what passes for truth at a particular historical period, and thence to politics and the subject of power. Chapter three, "Power", is unquestionably the most rewarding. In brutally short terms, F writes: "We must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms: it "excludes"; it "represses"; it "censors"; it "abstracts"; it "masks"; it "conceals".

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About the author (1997)

Alec McHoul teaches at Murdoch University.

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