Two interesting reviews of my books in Thesis Eleven. Mitchell Dean reviews Foucault’s Last Decade and Ben Golder’s Foucault and the Politics of Rights; and Peter Beilharz reviews Foucault: The Birth of Power. Both reviews require subscription, unfortunately.
Dean is generous in his praise, but also points out some things the book does not do. A couple of passages should give an indication of both arguments:
A condition of answering these questions is that we should know what he said. Stuart Elden’s book presents itself as a detailed intellectual history of his project of a history of sexuality that occupied much, but not all, of his last decade. It is an exhaustive and dense account of everything Foucault said and wrote during this time, including material still unpublished, and is based on prodigious research. As a kind of advanced intellectual primer, it works very well, particularly for the, now large, Foucauldian audience. One can follow, for instance, the different plans for the multi-volume History of Sexuality from 1976, when the first volume was published, to 1984, when the second and third finally appeared. There are long and central trajectories followed here that are reformulated and recast, particularly the genealogy of confession. There are others that are less central but emerge and are transformed in different places and form part of Foucault’s vocabulary…
Elden’s book is thus a model of erudition, addressed to the converted, and stylistically makes little concession to undecided and less informed readers. It reports on Foucault, rather than making use of him in any sense, and thus might have the unintended effect of contributing to his sacralisation. It is only an intellectual history in the narrowest sense of an almost purely textual one that barely considers Foucault’s work in its context, its relation to its immediate interlocutors, how it responds to events, political movements, and so forth. It brings into focus what the work says but not what Foucault is doing in that saying, if I can put it that way. Elden undertakes an important task, but it is only a beginning in understanding what Foucault meant and what this meaning might be for us today, at our very different moment.
Beilharz’s review is very positive, noting the archival approach and the process of work. It also makes a nice comparison to a great novel and film.
The quantum shift here is towards the archive. Elden works at a level of detail that is astonishing, so deep is it in nuance and insight. This also makes his a difficult book to review, given our incapacity to follow it step by step, like the imaginary map of the world that is one to one. The scholarship is forensic, painstakingly given to detail, and also has a heightened sense of its own contingency. For there are always more archives…
There is much in this book outside Discipline and Punish, of course: madness, illness, the state, the normality of civil war as it inhabits the interstices of civil society; and underneath all this, so to speak, the architecture of space, and the legacies of the Greeks…
How does the logic of Elden’s practice reflect or refract this persona? Foucault’s self- characterizing claims are appealing, even if they are less than entirely convincing. He was also a scholar, of most serious intent. And he was also, in this moment, politically active, and committed to team work as well as to lobbing the odd solo Molotov. Watching Elden at work is intriguing. What is this process? It is as though in reading his book we are watching a movie, or a movie about a movie – The Name of the Rose?
The logic of Elden’s prose and persona is that we are only at the beginning of the task, if our purpose is to understand Michel Foucault. Brian [Bernard] Harcourt does not oversell when he says of this book that ‘it is the perfect reading companion to Foucault’s “power- knowledge” period’. We can look forward to the further work that follows, as to the spectacle of watching the scholar follow the scholar.
My thanks to Mitchell Dean and Peter Beilharz for taking the time to engage with this work. More reviews and other information about these two books, and the two forthcoming ones on the first parts of Foucault’s career, can be found here.