Canadian Journal of Sociology Online May-July 2000

Samantha Ashenden and David Owen, editors.
Foucault Contra Habermas: Recasting the Dialogue Between Genealogy and Critical Theory

London: Sage, 1998, 216 pp., $US 27.95 paper

This collection of essays, as the title suggests, takes the side of Foucault against Habermas. It rather mirrors the recent European soccer championship (Euro 2000); a rather tired and elderly German team is eliminated early while French flair and panache goes on to triumph. The bright and enthusiastic Foucauldian authors stage an engagement between genealogy, capturing the intellectual orientation of Foucault, and critique, the rationalist project pursued by Habermas. This is a contest that has been fought over both by the principals and their supporters for what now seems a long time.

The question which I addressed to this work was: Is there anything new to say about the intellectual differences between these two giants of the late twentieth century? While there is much in the restatement of the respective positions which is familiar, these essays have the merit of providing a clear account of the primary issues in contention, although they presume a considerably familiarity on the part of the reader with the texts of the principals. This is not a book for a reader without considerable knowledge of the writings of both Foucault and Habermas.

These essays offer two features which, if not exactly novel, do press ahead with issues that we may engage with by thinking them through the contrasting perspectives provided by Foucault and Habermas.

First, there are those essays which argue that there is a fertile terrain in which, if not shared by the principals, they can fruitfully be brought closer together. This is the scenario sketched by the editors in their introduction and in the longer opening essay by David Owen.

While most of the essays are unapologetically pro-Foucault, Daniel Conway is at pains to suggest that despite their differences their work can communicate. Using the metaphor of a ‘pas de deux’ he hails them as “inseparable partners,” “wayward twins,” engaged in successful communication in that both continued to work within the historical shadow of humanism. Foucault’s greatest weakness is his ‘cryptonormativity’ (the appeal to undeclared values) to answer such questions as why we should side with prisoners rather than with prison guards. That Foucault does have such values is what continues to link him to the Enlightenment project despite his denials. But at the same time this feature validates his genealogical method in that it provides contextualised solutions to questions such as ‘Why resist?’ And Habermas himself, Conway suggests, recognises the significance of such genealogical inquiry. Hence there is a possibility of productive exchange since both can be located within this genealogical space.

Similarly in his discussion of the problem of ‘recognition’ of others, Simon Thompson argues that Habermas’ explicit concern with a politics of recognition can contribute to deepening Foucault’s account of radically different ‘others’ so as to engage with intersubjective relations. In a rather similar vein Samantha Ashenden explores the respective approaches of Habermas and Foucault to problems that have historically been discussed under the umbrella of the concept of ‘civil society.’ She comes down unambiguously on Foucault’s side, urging that Foucault’s concept of governmentality offers much more potential than Habermas’ concept of the ‘lifeworld’ since its location outside the state makes it inadequate to address the political questions of contemporary state-society relations.

The second novel feature is provided by essays that are directed to the extension and elaboration of the Foucauldian legacy. James Tully advances a sustained attack on Habermas in the course of which he provides significant extensions of the Foucauldian tradition. His essay is structured around the four criticisms that Habermas, in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (1987), advances against Foucault and reconstructs Foucault’s response to these criticisms. The most interesting feature emerges in his reconstruction of Foucault’s reply to the objection that his genealogical approach is context bound rather than context-transcending. Habermas insists that in order to provide an adequate account of inter-subjective relations it is necessary to posit a conception of the subject (the decentred subject) that transcends the specificity of the agent locked within some given context.

The core of Foucault’s alternative to Habermas’ decentred subject is contained in his various genealogies of the ‘juridical subject.’ His aim is to present a subject able to “think and act differently” via critical histories of the contingent features of our specific forms of subjectivity (107). Such a subject can only be imagined if we are able to escape from the constraining forms of the subject envisaged within juridical modes of thought (whether as subject of the monarch’s sovereignty or the rights bearing citizen of representative democracy). So pervasive has been the influence of this view of the subject that it is difficult to escape it.

In order to effect this escape Foucault does not seek to do away with the juridical subject, but rather to show that it is but one of a number of forms of subjectivity, of ‘subjectivisation’ (assujectissement). Of particular importance are the forms of the subject associated first with the rise of the disciplines and then those associated with ‘biopower.’ The distinctive feature of these forms is the central role attributed to ‘the norm’ (not the norm in the sense of normative, expressive of values), but norm as ‘normal’ and ‘normalization.’

It is this issue of the role of ‘the norm’ that is taken up by Mitchell Dean. The dominance of the classical legal form of rule of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries does not end with the rise of biopower; indeed as Foucault famously proclaimed we have not yet ‘cut off the King’s head.’ Styles of thought premised on sovereignty, legality and citizenship (rights and duties) still dominate contemporary political thought. Foucault insists that the law itself “operates more and more as a norm” (History of Sexuality 1978:144). The consequence is that legal institutions are increasingly incorporated into a continuum of apparatuses (medical, administrative). It is obviously debatable whether any such ‘incorporation’ has taken place in face of the jealously guarded autonomy of legal, medical and other expert systems.

What is significant about this discussion, particularly from Tully and Dean, is that it brings together the key issues of the plural forms of subjectivisation with important, if controversial, theses about the trajectory of major institutional apparatuses. What is perhaps surprising is that there is rather little discussion of the techniques and technologies through which these processes are made effective.

The essays not mentioned in this review are all of a high standard and only limitations of space inhibit discussion of them. Overall this collection sustains a high standard and should be read by all interested in one of the most important intellectual engagements of our times.

Alan Hunt
Departments of Sociology/Anthropology and Law
Carleton University
June 2000
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