foucault and over-determination

foucault, student of althusser, is known by many independently of his teacher’s influence.  traces of althusser’s method can be found in foucault’s work – even the most ‘radical’ moves that one might not initially attribute to an althusserian influence.

one of the most (non)obvious examples is foucault’s almost obsessive research on the production of truth through the manufacturing of speaking subjects.  like althusser’s subjectivity without a subject, foucault similarly posits subjectivity as a process of bodies caught up in their own subjection.

althusser’s system of “over-determination” builds in a humility that doesn’t rely on a single determinate cause – borrowing from the strategies of freud’s dream interpretation used to carefully break the frustration of mis-recognition.  in contrast to the all-too-common notion that foucault was rabidly anti-psychoanalytic (quickly broken by even a small foray into his biography would find that he received psychology training), i would argue that foucault’s own concept of immanent causality borrows heavily from althusser, and thus also sharing a heritage in freudian dream interpretation.

i don’t wish to push this too far, for even althusser later recognizes the limitations of condensation/displacement for describing the immanent encounter of elements, except to note an interesting tie-in: excess.  in particular, how an excess (of content, in particular) prevents the systematization of causality – a common post-structuralist theme (derrida, for example, will talk about it in terms of the supplement, differance, or trace).

now for the money quote from “nietzsche, genealogy, history” (Lang, Counter-Mem, Prac p148):

even though a “field of discursive events” is “finite and limited,” the events “may, in sheer size, exceed the capacities of recording, memory, or reading.”

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2 thoughts on “foucault and over-determination

  1. Hi!
    I like that picture of Foucault with his hair! Better than the bald ones.
    Also, What you said is too condensed itself.
    I wish you had elaborated a bit further on Foucaul’s though himself.

    1. Thanks for the comment! I like that picture too. So weird that the ‘popular’ images seem so unflattering. Maybe they were more timely than he ever wanted to be ; )

      There are a few places where the connections for the immanent causality would be pretty obvious. “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” is the cheat-sheet version. Order of Things and Archaeology of Knowledge would be the two monographs where these ideas are developed thoroughly.

      Order of Things is a bit complicated because it relies defamiliarizing a reader’s prior understanding of landmark thinkers in the french philosophy of science popular in the mid-20C. Althusser was a philosopher of science and not doubt had an influence on Foucault’s understanding of these theorists. I’m not sure what the exact connection is, though, because I haven’t read Eribon or anyone else’s biography of Foucault. The benefits of the OT approach is that the examples are very specific and Foucault ends the book with an optimistic prescription.

      AOK is more general/abstract and therefore provides a more ambitious look at an immanent causality. Because the subject is discourse, however, the topic is still limited. The connection to Althusserian causality is more obvious in this book. Foucault differentiates himself from a psychoanalytic approach by arguing that there is nothing ‘behind’ discourse, in the sense that one can’t do a ‘symptomatic reading’ of ‘latent content’, but also outlines what an immanent reading would look like. If we consider Althusser less as an orthodox Lacanian than someone willing to use the most innovative models of the time, then we can shift our attention from the texts that ‘made Althusser’s career’ like “For Marx” – which utilizes psychoanalytic models, especially overdetermination – and toward the shifting terrain that ends in the ‘aleatory materialism’ found in his later writings (“Philosophy of the Encounter”). Returning to Foucault’s Archaeology, he outlines that ‘history of ideas’ should _explain_ rather than explain-with i) genesis, ii) continuity, & iii) totalization — specific concerns he shares with Althusser!

      Deleuze did such a comparison in the text “How do we recognize structuralism?” (it can be found in ‘Desert Islands’). He sent the text to Althusser for comments, and included major theorists (Lévi-Strauss, Lacan, Althusser, Foucault, etc). Deleuze’s comparison is quite a bit more systematic than the one I’ve done above. The only way to get a closer comparison to Althusser and Foucault would likely look at biographical, intellectual, and historical information in addition to a close reading of both of their texts. And while I know Foucault’s work pretty extensively – I only know a few of his monographs and articles well.

      Lastly – the ‘subjectivity without a subject’ seems a bit more interesting. The structuralist insistence that the subject is secondary-effect but folds back on the structure is extremely innovative. I’ve found Deleuze’s systematization of this process in the “Foucault” book to be unparalleled in both creativity and extendability. Other people have already done of this closer work – Warren Montag comes to mind, or even some Badiou.

      In general, I think the original post was meant to be more of a reminder that the ‘assumed reception’ is contrary to good work that has already shown the connection.

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