- Reading Cultural Studies, Reading Foucault
This article attempts to track the reception of Foucault within cultural studies and examines the difficulties involved in mobilizing Foucault’s ideas within the field as it exists in its current orthodoxies. The theoretical and methodological problems that arise when deploying Foucault’s ideas turn largely on cultural studies’ conceptualizations of power, subjectivity, and discourse, and reveal a dialectic between structure and agency that appears to define and constrain cultural studies’ critical agenda. The article surveys some of the ways in which the investigative possibilities raised by Foucault’s work have been put to use within cultural studies—including figures such as Stuart Hall, Judith Butler, Tony Bennett, and Ian Hunter. It is argued that the tenets of cultural studies’ criticality manifest themselves as a series of ongoing, irresolvable tensions. Following Hunter, it is contended that these dilemmas are imbricated with a more profound opposition that is central to the formation of the modern subject. It is, however, also a certain reading of Foucault that opens up a less burdened space of analysis—providing the tools for generating an alternative pragmatics that enables tangible interventions into specific historical problems. —rk
Because there is commonly such a buzz of contradictory comment going on around him—as his friends and enemies push him to the left, right, and centre or sometimes off the political spectrum altogether—Foucault could assert that it proves what he contends: conventional categories really don’t fit him; he is posing an entirely new and different set of questions about a whole range of sometimes unthought of matters. . . . The academic effort to appropriate, correct, or dismiss Foucault has gone on even more intensely—sometimes brilliantly, sometimes stupidly, and sometimes with troubling seriousness.Paul Bové, “The Foucault Phenomenon” viii
In a commentary on cultural studies’ “theoretical legacies,” Stuart Hall describes the field as “a project that is always open to that which it doesn’t yet know, to that which it can’t yet name” (“Legacies” 278). Proclamations of this sort are easy enough to find throughout cultural studies’ accounts of its own history—they serve as a generalized reference to its self-image as an interdisciplinary, and, consequently, self-reflexive set of pedagogical and investigative practices. Given the currency that such thinking still carries within cultural studies, it is important to continue to ask what it is actually possible to say and do in cultural studies’ name.1 In particular, I want to consider, after Meaghan Morris, “how it comes about that people keep posing problems at a level of generality where you simply can’t solve them” and, in doing so, to point toward less burdened modes of analysis that enable cultural studies to be politically significant in new ways (Hunter, “Aesthetics” 371).
On these questions, I have found Foucault’s work—and a review of the ways in which his work has been received within cultural studies—to be particularly instructive. Deleuze writes that “Foucault is not content to say that we must rethink certain notions; he does not even say it; he just does it, and in this way proposes new co-ordinates for praxis” (30). This article considers some of the ways these investigative possibilities have been put to use within cultural studies. My aim is, in part, to document encounters that precede and enable this present set of counterpoints, but also, I hope, to intervene in this awkward intellectual terrain.
Relatively little has been written on the history of appropriations of Foucault within cultural studies.1 Some works—for example, Gavin Kendall and Gary Wickham’s Understanding Culture: Cultural Studies, Order, Ordering and Tony Bennett’s Culture: A Reformer’s Science—have examined secondary readings of Foucault, commenting generally on cultural studies’ attempts to use Foucault’s insights on power within a broadly Gramscian framework. Both of these works are concerned to demonstrate the problems involved with early Foucauldian influence. As Bennett contends,
in effect, Foucault was admitted into the cultural studies roll-call only on the condition that he brought no troublesome Foucaultian arguments with him. The role accorded his work was not that of reformulating received problems so much as being tagged on...