Experience Books

One thematic of Foucault’s work is to write what he calls ‘experience-books’.  By this, he means a de-familiarizing book, a book that makes something expected and usual appear strange and unfamiliar.  Foucault presents this approach in his interview with Italian Marxist Duccio Trompardori (Remarks on Marx), where he states:

Let’s return for a minute to the book on prisons. In a certain sense it is a historical investigation. But its audience appreciated or detested it not as a historiographical work. All its readers felt or had the impression that it was about them, the world today, or their relations with “contemporaneity,” in the forms by which the latter is accepted and recognized by everyone …. We feel that something contemporary has been brought up for discussion. And in effect I began writing this book only after having participated for some years in work groups – groups involved in reflections “upon” and struggle “against” penal institutions. It was complex and difficult work, carried out with prisoners, their families, prison guards, magistrates, etc.

When the book came out, various readers – particularly prison guards, social workers, etc. – gave this singular judgment: “It is paralyzing. There may be some correct observations, but in any case it certainly has its limits, because it blocks us, it prevents us from continuing our activities.” My reply is that it is just that relation that proves the success of the work, proves that it worked as I had wanted it to. That is, it is read as an experience that changes us, that prevents us from always being the same, or from having the same kind of relationship with things and with others that we had before reading it. This demonstrates to me that the book expresses an experience that extends beyond my own.  The book is merely inscribed in something that was already in progress; we could say that the transformation of contemporary man is in relation to his sense of self.  On the other hand. The book also worked/or this transformation; it has been, even if in a small way, an agent. That’s it. This, for me, is an “experience-book” as opposed to a “truth-book” or a “demonstration-book. (40-3).

To envision The Archaeology of Knowledge as an ‘experience-book’, is to refuse it as a methodological advancement of the history or science or historical inquiry more generally (though, it is one).  And even moreso, it shouldn’t be taken as a normative celebration of the discontinuity of discursive formations.  But rather, the oddly phenomenological question of what it ‘does’ to the reader.

The result Foucault is trying to provoke is a specific form of critical thought.  In general, this critical thought can equated with the ‘reflexive turn’, though Foucault means it in a particular and rigorous sense.  There are two places where this form of critical thought is most thoroughly explicated.  First, at the very end of the second part of The Order of Things, where Foucault claims that humanity now stands at a unique place, able to critically reflect on and enact his own future.  There are three forms of knowledge that ‘wakes man from his anthropological sleep’: history, psychoanalysis, and ethnology.  The second, is Foucault’s work on Kant that spans from his dissertation work to the lectures he was presenting close to his death.  The thrust of this argument is that the Enlightenment inaugurated critical inquiry but carries with it a humanist baggage that must be left behind.


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