Tuesday, November 15, 2005

McWhorter - Oksala's 'Foucault on Freedom'

"Johanna Oksala has produced a provocative reading of Michel Foucault's work on the issues of freedom and resistance to normalizing oppression. Although many commentators have contended that Foucault's historicization of subjectivity leads to metaphysical determinism and eliminates the very possibility of freedom in human life, Oksala argues that his radical rethinking of both bodies and freedom largely escapes the simplistic criticisms routinely put forward since the early 1980s. She does subject Foucault's work to criticisms of her own, however. While the title of her book leads the reader to expect a tight focus on the question of freedom, much of the text is actually devoted to an explication of Foucault's account of subjectivity, culminating in a discussion of his work in ethics, and it is in this late work where Oksala finds serious flaws in Foucault's thought.

Oksala divides her book into three major parts in which she reads Foucault against the background of three major thinkers: Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Emmanuel Levinas. In the first third of her book she argues that Foucault's philosophical point of departure is Husserl, perhaps to a greater extent than many readers realize (although those who know the interview material well are aware that Foucault himself made this claim). She offers a stimulating analysis of Foucault's early work The Order of Things as (following Gerald Lebrun) "an anti-Krisis" (40). However, she holds that Husserl's work serves Foucault as a springboard both in that he rejects much of Husserl's account of subjectivity and moves away from it and in that he learns some important lessons from Husserl's account of intersubjective constitution. I will discuss the latter point in a bit more depth momentarily. Oksala devotes the middle third of her book to an analysis of Foucault's work on the body and offers a very interesting parallel reading of Merleau-Ponty along the way. She suggests ways in which Foucault's account could be strengthened if supplemented by Merleau-Ponty's work and, equally interestingly, ways in which Merleau-Ponty's account (and the accounts of embodiment that feminist theorists such as Iris Young have derived from Mealeau-Ponty) could benefit from supplementation by Foucault. Finally, in the last third of the book, she draws heavily from Levinas to critique Foucault's account of ethics and the constitution of the ethical subject." - NDPR.

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