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Embracing the Contradictions in Foucault's Work


At the Verso blog, social theorist and Foucault scholar Thomas Lemke reflects on the apparent contradictions, both theoretical and political, that characterize Foucault’s work. Lemke writes that he used to feel compelled to defend Foucault’s writing against charges of inconsistency from his critics. But then he realized that these inconsistencies, of which Foucault was fully aware, were not meant to be resolved, but instead are central to the meaning of Foucault’s theoretical project. Here’s an excerpt:

It became clearer and clearer to me that aporias, contradictions and paradoxes do not represent a defect or mistake in Foucault’s work – something to be explained away or resolved. On the contrary, they constitute its theoretical significance and define its ‘problematic’.

Perhaps the question whether Foucault’s critics are right or not is a matter of secondary interest – or simply idle. Whether justified or not, criticism exists. It amounts to a (discursive) fact, and the existence, or positivity, of this fact is where I had to start. Surely, I was ‘on the right side’: misunderstandings and misreadings of Foucault are legion. However, the point is not to be, or prove oneself, right. Nor is the decisive and final question whether Foucault ‘really’ contradicts himself or not – or whether interpreters have read him ‘correctly’ or not. The key item is the empirical reality that his works have been perceived as contradictory.

Thus, the difficulty of situating Foucault politically does not follow from inept or faulty assessments of his work; instead, it is both the result and the goal of the same. Foucault’s critics have also read him ‘correctly’. Their objections should not be viewed in terms of truth content so much as ‘symptoms’ – hence the need for a symptomatic reading when approaching them.

Image of Michel Foucault via Aeon.