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An Uncritical Summary of an Interview with Michel Foucault

What follows is a recapitulation of “Polemics, Politics and Problemizations” (An interview with Michel Foucault conducted in 1984, just before Foucault's death, by Paul Rabinow and translated by Lydia Davis). The interview itself can be found on pages 381-390 in The Foucault Reader, edited by Paul Rabinow (Pantheon Books, New York, 1984).

(This interview is an important discussion of Foucault's thoughts on the place of his own work)

This interview, as the title makes obvious, deals with three related subjects: polemics, politics and problemizations.


Foucault is opposed to the polemical trend in academia for a number of reasons. This is mainly due to the fact that polemics are, by definition, “an obstacle to the search for truth” ((382)). This is because the polemicist presupposes and self-legitimates a position from which to attack their ‘opponent’. So, rather than questioning what a certain position means and how it works within a specific situation, the polemicist assumes that such a position is unassailable and attacks any perceived threat. Foucault is more interested in the form of a dialogue, a discussion or an interview. Rather than presupposing the end of the debate, the dialogue works toward a mutual discovery of the truth. Unlike the polemicist who “tells the truth in the form of his judgment and by virtue of the authority he has conferred on himself” ((382)), the parties of a dialogue play a mutual game; “questions and answers depend on a game—a game that is at once pleasant and difficult—in which each of the two partners takes pains to use only the rights given him by the other and by the accepted form of the dialogue” ((381-382)).


Foucault’s discussion of politics in this interview is intimately connected with his discussion of polemics: his decision to not engage in polemics is a result of his belief that “a whole morality is at stake” ((381)) in an academic question; rather than separating the realms of politics, academics and ethics, Foucault is interested in how all these spheres are connected through relations of power and truth. Thus Foucault is directly interested in “the real consequences of a polemic attitude” ((383)). Because of his antipathy towards the application of a predetermined standpoint, Foucault has been (and continues to be) situated in every division of the political spectrum, from neo-conservative to crypto-Marxist. He states that “the “we”((i.e. the theoretical standpoint or community)) must not be previous to the question; it can only be the result— and the necessarily temporary result—of the question as it is posed in the new terms in which one formulates it” ((385)). So rather than simply a Marxist or an anti-Marxist, a structuralist or an anti-structuralist, Foucault is interested in posing the question of what it means to adopt any theoretical or political stance in a given situation: what does it mean to ask Marxist questions in the field of psychiatry, what does it mean to structurally analyze madness? Rather than posing political questions, he poses questions to politics itself.


This questioning of politics relates directly to what he calls ‘problemizations’. He wants to write the history of thought as the “development of a given into a question, this transformation of a group of obstacles and difficulties into problems to which the diverse solutions will attempt to produce a response, this is what constitutes the point of problemization and the specific work of thought” ((389)). Rather than discussing the genealogy of specific viewpoints, Foucault wants to work with the generation (out of a given) of certain problems. This history of thought-as-problemization is, for Foucault, far “from an analysis in terms of deconstruction” ((390)). It is interested in how contradictory solutions to a problem are constructed, rather than in constructing contradictions in order to illustrate their common ground (as in Derrida’s work). It is historical rather than productive; it intends, as deconstruction does, to enable us to recognize (and perhaps overcome or subvert?) the common root of our historical/political/philosophical differences: rather than any given thesis/antithesis couple, Foucault (with Derrida) is interested in questioning how that opposition comes about, and also in illustrating that it is rooted in a common problemization.

Direct Quotes


It's true that I prefer not to identify myself and that I'm rather amused by the diversity of the ways I've been judged and classified. Something tells me that by now a more or less approximate place should have been found for me, after so many efforts in such various directions; and since I obviously can't suspect the competence of the people who are getting muddled up in their divergent judgments, since it isn't possible to challenge their inattention or their prejudices, I have to be convinced that their inability to situate me has something to do with me. ((384))


I have never tried to analyze anything whatsoever from the point of view of politics but always to ask politics what it had to say about the problems with which it was confronted. I question it about the positions it takes and the reasons it gives for this; I don't ask it to determine the theory of what I do. I am neither an adversary nor a partisan of Marxism; I question it about what it has to say about experiences that ask questions of it. ((385)).

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