Foucault for Beginners, Chris Horrocks and Zoran Jevtic (Icon Books), £8-99
Horrocks and Jevtic’s Foucault For Beginners is part of the Icon Books “For Beginners” series. In common with the other books in this series, it relies on a combination of text and captioned illustrations to introduce the theories and ideas of its subject. To adopt this kind approach with a writer as complex as Michel Foucault is a gamble because it runs the risk of over-simplification, but in this instance Horrocks and Jevtic have produced a book which is simultaneously readable, entertaining and a valuable introductory text.
Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was a philosopher and historian in the post-modern tradition, rejecting the possibility of a definitive science and the idea that history marks out a progression towards some discernible final state. In his work, he was concerned to examine how individuals are constituted, through social practices, techniques and power-relations, as knowing, knowable and self-knowing beings. In concrete terms, this meant analyses of, for example: the birth of the clinic; mechanisms of discipline and punishment; and the history of human sexuality.
Horrocks and Jevtic’s strategy in order to explore Foucault’s work is to situate it in its biographical and political context. Thus, we learn about Foucault, for example, that he was prone to depression, attempted suicide and underwent psychotherapy; that he was active in revolutionary politics; that he enjoyed the pleasures of gay sex; that he experimented with cocaine and LSD; and that he had a number of brushes with the law. The concordance between biography and oeuvre is striking, but we must be careful in ascribing it causal significance, because it is precisely Foucault’s claim – as Horrocks and Jevtic recognise when they talk early in the book about the “fictionalizing” of Foucault – that discourses are not the product of freely acting, creative authors, but rather are governed by the rules of formation that determine the conditions of possibility of all that can be said at a particular time.
Horrocks and Jevtic’s have adopted a chronological and inclusive approach to Foucault’s oeuvre, outlining the major claims of all his important publications, beginning with Psychology from 1850 to 1950 and ending with The Care of the Self, the third, and as it turned out final, volume of The History of Sexuality. As a result, in an introductory text that is considerably less than 200 pages long, the summary of each book is relatively short. This is a strategy that in the main works to the betterment of Horrocks and Jevtic’s book. However, there are a number of occasions where the reader is left wishing that perhaps a little more exposition had been attempted. In particular, the treatments of The Order of Things and The Archaeology of Knowledge – two notoriously difficult texts – are just too brief to enable the reader to get to grips with the complexities of the ideas.
However, Discipline and Punish and the three volumes of The History of Sexuality are handled very well. The significance of the first of these works cannot be underestimated, since it represents Foucault’s most important analysis of surveillance society. In this book, he shows how Bentham’s panopticon idea has extended into society as a whole. This is a process which continues today at pace, as one can see if one considers, for example: the introduction of electronic tagging for prisoners on remand; the explosion of CCTV in town centres; the founding of a central list of paedophile sex-offenders; and calls for a register of DNA profiles.
Michel Foucault, whilst perhaps not accorded the same reverence as ten years ago, is an important philosopher, whose influence will undoubtedly continue. He once stated that: “the only law on the press, the only law on books, that I would like to see brought in, would be a prohibition to use an author’s name twice, together with a right to anonymity and to pseudonyms so that each book might be read for itself [An Aesthetics of Existence].” However, on reading Horrocks and Jevtic’s book, I think we can be glad that such a law has not been introduced.