Amy Allen | (How) Should We Pay Tribute to Foucault?

By Amy Allen

“For myself, I prefer to utilize the writers I like. The only valid tribute to thought such as Nietzsche’s is precisely to use it, to deform it, to make it groan and protest. And if commentators say that I am being faithful or unfaithful to Nietzsche, that is of absolutely no interest.”[1]

This is one of the more frequently quoted passages from Foucault’s interviews, often cited in discussions of Foucault’s relationship to Nietzsche, but just as frequently used to justify creative appropriations of his work. I myself cited this passage in my first published article, a paper on Foucault and feminist theories of power that later became the core of my dissertation and first book. I quoted the passage as a way of making a point about what I took to be the appropriate way for feminist theorists to engage with Foucault’s work: not to ask whether Foucault’s work was itself feminist or not but rather to ask what feminists could do with his work, specifically, how we might use it to produce new understandings of power, domination, resistance, and agency.

That might seem like a strange thing to bother arguing about now, but at the time (the early 1990s) there were actually rather heated debates about whether Foucault’s work was ‘good’ for feminism, whether because of its non-Marxist analysis of power, its alleged cryptonormativity, its presumed undermining of individual and collective agency, or because of Foucault’s deeply problematic comments about rape (that it should be treated no differently than a punch in the face) and the sexual abuse of children (his discussion of the Jouy case in History of Sexuality volume 1). Many prominent feminists were skeptical of the value of Foucault’s work (Benhabib, Hartsock) or were keen to emphasize its limitations (Fraser, Alcoff) or just didn’t see why feminists needed it in the first place since radical feminists had produced their own complex analysis of power (Frye). Nowadays, in the wake of Judith Butler’s groundbreaking and enormously influential feminist creative appropriation of Foucault, this may seem surprising. This is not to say that Butler’s work is ‘merely’ Foucaultian, both because she has many other influences, including psychoanalysis, Derrida, Levinas, Adorno, and others, and because as a great thinker in her own right her work is not reducible to any one of these influences. That her creative appropriation of Foucault has had a greater and more lasting impact on the field of feminist theory than the assessment of whether feminists can or should also be Foucaultians (or vice versa) speaks volumes about what is the most productive way to read critical texts and authors.

All of which is to say that I’m completely sympathetic to the guiding theme of this year’s seminar, and to the suggestion that the best way to approach classics of critical theory now is to ask what we can do with them: how we can use them for our own critical projects, how they can help shed light on our present and open up spaces for potential transformation, in short, what work they can do for us now.

And yet, I think it is worth noting the context in which Foucault makes the above quoted remark. It comes in response to a question from an interviewer, who asks Foucault to comment on Nietzsche’s increasing prominence on the French philosophical scene (the interview was originally published in 1975), and whether Nietzsche is beginning to eclipse Marx as a paradigmatic figure. Foucault’s initial response is to say that although he used to lecture frequently on Nietzsche, he now prefers not to do so, but that if he had to choose a general title for his project at this point, it would be “the genealogy of morals” (though he acknowledges that this sounds a bit pretentious). Then he says this: “Nietzsche’s contemporary presence is increasingly important. But I am tired of people studying him only to produce the same kinds of commentaries that are written on Hegel or Mallarmé. For myself, I prefer to utilize the writers I like…..”[2]

In other words, the somewhat pedantic point is that Foucault suggests that there is something distinctive about Nietzsche’s work such that the only valid tribute to him (but not, by implication, to Hegel or Mallarmé) is to put his work to use. Whereas it might be fine simply to produce commentaries on other philosophers, there is something about Nietzsche’s work—and, by extension, Foucault’s as well?—that resists this type of treatment.

Note this is not to say that producing philosophical commentaries on either Nietzsche or Foucault is not a worthwhile enterprise. I think it quite obviously can be and very often is. But it is to say that to do so is in some way to go against the spirit of their work. This is especially the case when doing so involves treating their work as static and fixed, monumentalizing their thought. If this is right, then the Foucault acolyte who cites chapter and verse of the master’s work without even considering whether he agrees with it or finds it useful (or, even worse, assuming that Foucault must always be right) is the least Foucaultian thinker of all.

But to say this is also, I think, to say that it matters—and not, I would add, solely as a matter of intellectual interest or integrity—whether we get Foucault right. In other words, it is to say that there is something about Foucault’s work—its open, experimental, non-systematic character? its perceptive analysis of the distinctiveness of contemporary relations of power? its problematization of our own present and its historically specific conditions of possibility for thinking and acting? all of the above?—that lends itself to being deployed as a set of critical tools in our present historical context. This needn’t be something as cohesive as a philosophical method, but it does imply some more or less coherent modality of critique that is, in some sense, still relevant for the major challenges that face us today.

Sidebar: Is there a corollary to this? Can the toolbox metaphor can be taken too far? To say that Foucault’s work should be thought of as a toolbox for radical, critical political praxis (or even for the development of critical approaches to nursing or sport and exercise science or what have you) is one thing; to say that it can be a toolbox for the scholarship and practice of public relations ( or for conservative, alt-right political projects (for discussion of the cooptation of critical theory by the alt right, see strikes me as a bridge too far. It seems like this could only be the case if it makes sense to say that one can get Foucault more or less right (or wrong, as the case may be)—in other words, that it is possible to make his thought groan and protest too much, that it matters whether we are if not faithful to Foucault himself then at least to his style of thinking. Would Foucault himself have said that it is of absolutely no interest to him that his thought is now used to justify Trumpism and the alt-right? Should the answer to that question matter to us?

I have argued that Foucault’s distinctive modality of critique consists is a kind of historico-philosophical method that reveals the historically contingent conditions of possibility for thinking and acting in the present. The aim of this is neither to subvert nor to vindicate our present but rather to problematize it, to open up the space for its critique. To do this is also at the same time to create a space for freedom and potential transformation, both individual and collective. I have also argued that Foucault’s embrace of this method or modality of critique is tied to his understanding of the historical a priori that forms the historical conditions of possibility for thinking and acting for us. It is because our age is marked by historical self-consciousness that history has a privileged role to play in Foucault’s critical method. Given that our (late modern, Western) self-understanding is so deeply historical, it can only be opened up and transformed by historical means, by transforming how we think of history from within (which includes, among other things, replacing the idea of history a continuous, cumulative, rational learning process with an non-progressive reading of historical change as prompted by discontinuous, contingent events). If our historical a priori was structured differently, then different means would be necessary—and, correspondingly, the very concept of the historical a priori would itself no longer be a useful critical concept.

In his recent book, How We Became Our Data,[3] Colin Koopman makes the compelling argument that to do justice to Foucault’s work now means not so much talking about what he said but rather doing what he did: constructing new genealogical analyses of our own present that can illuminate the dangers that have emerged since Foucault’s death (or the ones that he didn’t examine himself). For Koopman, our present is profoundly shaped by the ubiquity and hegemony of data and information science to such an extent that we are now informational persons, constituted from birth by a range of data that accumulates over our lifetimes, including our birth certificates, social security numbers, school, employment, and driving records, credit histories, internet and social media activity, and more. As each new data breach scandal reminds us, those who are in a position to make use of this data wield tremendous power. In order to make sense of this pervasive and consequential shift, Koopman maintains that we need a new power-concept, which he calls infopower, and also a new way of thinking about resistance and counterpower, which he calls technics.

Does this mean that our age is no longer marked by the kind of historical self-consciousness that renders the distinctive historico-philosophical method that I have reconstructed in Foucault’s work no longer relevant? I don’t think so—at least not yet. Even Koopman contends that the other forms of power analyzed by Foucault—sovereign, disciplinary, and biopower—have not disappeared with the rise of infopower but rather than infopower (which cannot be reduced to any of these three) has now become entangled with them in complex ways. Further, he understands himself to be doing genealogical work, excavating the forgotten historical roots of our informational personhood. He thus seems clearly committed to the idea that this type of work has value in that it reveals the contingency of our current modes of subjectivity and also helps us understand how they were complexly made up (thus how they can be transformed).[4]

At least for now, it still makes sense to think, as Faulkner famously wrote, that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past”[5] and, relatedly, that working through the past is a way of transforming the present. But the deep challenge posed by Foucault’s work—what makes it such a useful toolbox for a radical critique of the present and at the same time raises the possibility that it may outlive its own usefulness—is the question of whether that will always be the case.


[1] Michel Foucault, “Prison Talk,” in Colin Gordon, ed., Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977 (New York: Pantheon, 1980), 53-54.

[2] Ibid., 53.

[3] Colin Koopman: How We Became Our Data: A Genealogy of the Informational Person (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019).

[4] For a compelling reconstruction of the genealogical method, see Koopman, Genealogy as Critique: Foucault and the Problems of Modernity (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2013).

[5] William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun (1954) (New York: Vintage International, 2011), 73.