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Comrade Thompson and Saint Foucault
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There’s this story going around; perhaps you’ve heard it. Long ago, there was a man named Edward Palmer Thompson who wrote a book called The Making of the English Working Class. His unorthodox assemblage of Marxist and Romantic concerns and his passionate advocacy of socialist humanism won him many followers. But despite the wide embrace of Thompsonian methods of practicing history, including the practice of thinking about practicing history, his politics marked him as a man stuck in the nineteenth century. Then came Foucault, who washed away the shallow traces of humanism and Marxism both with a single book before stunning the world with a series of provocative studies of the penitentiary, of sexuality, and of the will to know at the heart of the human sciences.

Like all stories told in our late capitalist world, this one has an audience, even if, as with all others, a portion of its audience is already bored with it. In the Canadian context, its circulation is likely most associated with Mariana Valverde, whose regional variant portrays Canadian historians as hesitant about, if not afraid of, capital-t Theory because of Thompsonian polemics, until a brave few took up the Foucauldian call in the 1990s. Valverde translates a selective set of reading habits of an equally selective post-Fordist academic generation, fashioned according to the expansion and contraction of job markets, administrative changes in the measurement of cultural capital, and the transformation of the technological forms of knowledge-circulation, into a historicist account of stage-by-stage progress. It recommends (if not impels) Canadians to adopt a fully mediated reading strategy that keeps us at a careful distance from the original texts. We are to approach Thompson and Foucault only through an already existing national experience, a pre-digested canon of our very own.

The diminishing of experience entailed by this approach is truly unfortunate, given that The Making initially appeared during what were certainly interesting times. Beyond a Boundary, The Birth of the Clinic, Eichmann in Jerusalem, The Feminine Mystique, The Fire Next Time, One-Dimensional Man, The Raw and the Cooked, The American Way of Death, Understanding Media, The Virtues of Selfishness, and the first edition of Quotations from Chairman Mao: surfacing in the midst of this greatness, that The Making received the audience it did should in retrospect be considered a significant feat.

For several years, I taught a seminar course on Thompson, Foucault, and their critics. After a reading of David Halperin’s Saint Foucault, a brilliantly conceived act of Foucauldian criticism reminiscent of Foucault’s polemical responses to Derrida, it struck me that the world was unlikely to ever see the equivalent of Saint Thompson, an equally Foucauldian account of the technologies of the self that made The Making. As I began to quickly work through the detail, I realized that I had scribbled biographical notes about Thompson and Foucault, creating a single chronology. Not antipodes but twins: this became my provisional argument. Eventually, I crafted a course that moved chronologically through their published works, stopping occasionally to jump forward in time and consider prominent examples of criticism. I cannot help but experience the move from Morris to madness to The Making to The Birth as a dizzying dialectic that opens up myriad possibilities in historical interpretation and in narrative form, even while closing off others. So too does the process of working through Discipline and Punish, Whigs and Hunters, and The History of Sexuality, as well as a handful of articles, especially “The Crime of Anonymity,” and Foucault’s lectures on historical knowledge and biopower. In terms of the biographical, the differences between these sets of readings underline the extent to which both men continually revised and discarded concepts and arguments of particular relevance to historical research. And this simple chronological reading demands recognition that both men cycled through the Apollonian and the Dionysian in ways that belie any straightforward narrative of conceptual progress. This realist method of accumulating knowledge thus comes with its own immanent critique, exposing proper names as inadequate containers for the methods and analysis that results from historically-oriented projects.

Finally, such a method affords us the opportunity to reconnect with...

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