Abnormal & Society Must Be Defended
Michel Foucault
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Abnormal: Lectures at the College de France, 1974-1975 & "Society Must Be Defended": Lectures at the College de France, 1975-76
Michel Foucault
374 pages
December 2003
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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To read the work of Michel Foucault is to experience the true force and effect of life. Never has there been a more influential thinker with a more resonant and overtly political voice. The variations and themes that he explored are as boisterous as they are provocative. Most notably, with his examination into the social, economic and historical conditions that pervade modern discourse and practice, he attempted to reveal a more accurate conception of the actual determinations that inform madness, punishment and sexuality – as they arise, correlatively with the institutions of confinement. By uncovering the web of disciplines and norms that constitute those institutions at the margins of society like the mental asylum and the prison, Foucault revealed the unwritten laws of normativity and conformity that pervade modern societies.

With this approach, Foucault pioneered a new academic field and unleashed the possibilities of entirely novel and different worlds. For Foucault, the new archivist, what is passed over in silence must find expression. Rather than explore the obvious solutions to an aforementioned problem, he set out to construct the framework in which it was possible to ask an entirely different and more incisive set of questions in a rigorous and precise manner.

With the publication of two lecture courses that Foucault delivered between 1974 and 1976 at the prestigious Collège de France, the English reader now has access to two seminal studies that complement Foucault’s hitherto available body of work as much as they expand it. Both Abnormal and “Society Must Be Defended” offer lines of thought that Foucault had touched upon elsewhere, yet what distinguishes these lectures is their narrow focus and an abundance of meticulously compiled historical detail, which offer the reader a rare insight into Foucault’s thought processes and working methods. Naturally, the lectures are less polished and concise than texts that were intended for publication, but it is precisely this feature which conveys the impression that one is accompanying Foucault in his research. It appears as if the archeological findings presented in the lectures had just been recently unearthed and still show traces of mud, so that Foucault’s site of research and the place of his thinking become discernible to the reader with astonishing immediacy.

Foucault’s penchant for exuberance and lightness led to luminous and off-kilter inquiries: What are the forces and functions that exist between relations? Where are the thresholds and limits of resistance? How are concrete elements and statements encountered? What are the practices and what of their productions? We are still in the wake of his immanent devaluations. His aesthetic, critical and historical developments never seemed more philosophical.

For instance, in “Society Must Be Defended,” Foucault propounds that, by generating a discourse of legitimacy, the Hobbesian theory of juridical souvereignty effectively conceals relations of domination. Instead of examining the static nature of a contractual arrangement between individual and state, Foucault’s line of inquiry leads him to uncover the field of forces that pervade the social body. "In thought and political analysis we have still not cut off the head of the king," Foucault asserted, pointing out that every political discourse that remains grounded within the logic of souvereignty and legal rights ultimately fails to acknowledge the effects of subjugation that the Hobbesian social contract necessarily entails.

What these brilliant and vivid lectures present are a philosophical task in the spirit of liberation: an invocation to investigate the various problematic areas and fields of research in a manner that is resolved but emancipated. In a rather unusual or different mode, these transcripts convey another, more intimate side of Foucault: Foucault as educator, as orator, as a bold and meticulous thinker whose approach is as concentrated and arduous as it is intense – but above all else, what we locate is a man adamant about his work, laborious in his preparation and passionate in his presentations. Reading these lectures, it is at times astonishing to what extent Foucault’s voice regains presence, relocating the reader into the crowded lecture auditorium at the Collège de France where those words were spoken.

Based on Foucault’s manuscripts as well as tape recordings of students, these two courses are revealed from the perspective of both master and disciple, an indiscernible position that Foucault would cherish, where the reader is captivated by the eloquence of his work and at the same time inspired with the childlike modesty and lucidity of his voice. Foucault inspires one to write, to read, to invent, to create, but most of all, to live…

© 2004 by Bobby J. George and Felix Grisebach for Curled Up With a Good Book

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