08 May 2017

Review: On the Government of the Living by Michel Foucault

Hardcover, 365 pages
Published 2014 (contents: 1980)

Acquired September 2014
Read May 2017
On the Government of the Living: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1979-1980
by Michel Foucault

At the beginning of this series of lectures (God, I hope I'm revered enough a professor someday for my lectures to be recorded, transcribed, and published, though mine will have many more Doctor Who jokes than Foucault's), Foucault promises something that I thought would be very interesting. He tells the story of Septimius Severus, a Roman emperor who ostensibly presided in an audience hall whose ceiling was painted with the stars in the sky at the moment of his birth. This is because, Foucault, asserts, there is an intrinsic relationship between power and knowledge: "it would [...] be very difficult to find an example of a power that is exercised without being accompanied, one way or another, by a manifestation of truth" (4). Not necessarily utilitarian knowledge (because surely astrology does not make Severus a better emperor), but just that power requires "a ritual of manifestation of the truth" (6). To me this sounded fascinating: one of my recurrent interests is the way scientific knowledge is deployed to justify violence, and there seems to be a connection there in that so often (in fiction at least) it matters less that actual science has been utilized, and more that someone has said that science is at work.

It seems a potent idea (for example, Roger Green discusses alethurgy, Foucault's term for the way we make something true, in the context of President Trump), but as I feel often happens with Foucault, the book I imagined based on his stated project is nowhere near as interesting as the one I got. Which, to be fair, could be my fault and not his, but On the Government of the Living mostly consists of detailed readings of Oedipus Rex and early Christian practices of repentance. These were not interesting to me at all. Near the end of the lecture series he gets to the idea that the way Christianity requires one to know oneself in order to repent is a precondition for power: "the need to drag interiority from itself, to bring it out in order to display it in a relationship of exteriority and obedience" (308). But this insight comes at the end of three hundred pages of monotony, and it was too little, too late.

(Also: never trust an academic who says they have "limited" their critical apparatus to the necessities, as the general editors of this series claim (xv). Most of the twelve lectures here have at least sixty end notes, some as many as ninety, drowning the text in incomprehensible detail. One shudders to think what the unlimited critical apparatus looks like!)

No comments:

Post a Comment