I'm taking a break from a massive Twitter storm fight with anti-vaccine people, something I occasionally treat myself to, to mark the publication of the new Pleiade of Foucault. There's a long essay in the Times Literary Supplement about it. It may be behind a paywall but let me know if you want it and I'll download it and send it to you. As with most everybody I know, Foucault can tie me in knots. I know I should understand him, at least in translation because I don't read French, but I struggle. I read The Birth of the Clinic for a graduate school seminar and all of us were in the same boat. Essentially that this guy is famous, so we should grapple with his work, even though we find it alternately fascinating and silly. It was like reading Zen -- beautiful phrases (which of course were really the translator's) mixed into dense impenetrability. I do think I understood how much of his work was an analysis of power, and how special knowledge gives special power. His writings about mental illness remind us the power of defining things, of naming things, itself brings a special power. I've heard that called the "Rumpelstiltskin Effect": naming something can give power over it.

The essay is useful because it describes how his thought evolved over time. It was far from static, and he continued to build on similar notions his entire career. From the essay:


Taken as a whole, reading Foucault from start to finish is like reading the major works of Henry James consecutively as self-conscious historical fictions. It is a mildly disconcerting experience, seeing conscious evolutions and experiments in style; baroque, ornate, urgent, dyspeptic; the repetitions and modalities at various points and the stylized categorizations and oppositions – prudes and perverts, monsters and insanity, measures and tests, inquiries and examinations, bodies and boys, punishment, pleasure, asceticism, suicide; the going back over old themes in new ways; how the old becomes new but how the new can never entirely disown the old; the desire for both fidelity in the evocation of moods and worlds, but not necessarily strict historical accuracy, whatever that might in the end be taken to mean; and the desire to write all this up somehow as a history of the present.
That massive sentence is worthy of Foucault himself. Look at all the semicolons! It's worse than Gibbon.

Anyway, if anybody has any insight into the guy, or anecdotes of how and when you encountered him, I'd love to hear about it.