Foucault and the role of the intellectual

The final section of the interview discussed in a previous post, Truth and Power, deals with the role of the intellectual. This is particularly of interest  to me because of current discussions of the public role of intellectuals and Bauman’s writings on the appropriate role of sociologists. Foucault talks specifically about Left intellectuals who had considered themselves to be offering universal truths based upon their analysis of the subject-object of universal history, the proletariat. The assumption had been that an obscured, collective form of this universal truth is embedded in the fate and experience of the proletariat. The intellectual is claimed to be the bearer of this universality in its conscious, elaborated form (page 126).  This pretension is exposed as unsustainable and its period is now gone, according to Foucault, and intellectuals need to find another basis upon which to forge the connection between ‘theory and practice’. We are no longer able to pronounce upon the universal, or a once and for all truth. As intellectuals we are now obliged to work, to theorise and ‘practice’ within the specific locations of our experience and knowledge – housing, education, the laboratory, family and sexual relations, and so on. Here we deal with problems that are specific to us and different from those of others. The forms of knowledge, explicit and tacit, formal and informal, and the types and degrees of reflectivity and ‘cognitive surplus’ vary. The problems that specific intellectuals confront are  not universal. They are not, for instance,  the terrain and experience of a putatively homogeneous, cohesive and collectively conscious class, either first hand or at a remove.

Having said that, Foucault believes none the less that intellectuals since the 1960s have been drawn closer to the proletariat (a term he still seems happy to use!) and the masses, for two reasons. Firstly there is a common context to their disparate real, material, everyday experiences and troubles. Secondly, and related to the first, they are often confronted (albeit in different forms) by the same adversaries – the multinational corporations, the judiciary and police apparatuses, the property speculators, and we could add to Foucault’s list the new and growing accretions of neoliberal managerialism, hedge fund managers, ‘embedded’ Goldman Sachs alumni in undemocratic layers of State and government, interpenetrating networks of politicians, State executives and major corporation leaders – in fact the whole cancerous excrescence of corrupt and suppurating undemocratic forms and modes of corporatism.

In this sense Foucault sees that the age of delusional universal intellectuals has given way to a more realistic age of ‘specific’ intellectuals. There seems to be some, useful, overlap here between what Foucault is describing and Gramsci’s notion of ‘organic’ intellectuals. It also hints that intellectuality itself is situated and located in its material circumstances and in its forms of reflexivity. Universalism is now replaced by the over-arching system that all specific instances are part of and from which are constructed their specific problems, opportunities, and possibilities for understanding and action. This is not a relapse into universality since the ‘system’ is itself not universal or fixed. It is historically contingent and changeable. It is the exposure and demonstration of this fact that is crucial; the fact of historical contingency, the fact that what seems unalterably real today, what we are persuaded  is ‘just the way things are’, has in fact had a history, it could have been different and can be different. As a matter of fact, it will be different, one way or another.

In the circumstances Foucault describes, every individual’s activity is a basis for politicisation. Every corresponding  form of knowledge is capable of lateral connection, of the linking of one focus of politicisation to another.

Magistrates and psychiatrists, doctors and social workers, laboratory technicians and sociologists, have become able to participate, both within their own fields and through mutual exchange and support, in a global process of politicisation of intellectuals. (127)

To this list we could  add teachers, administrators, accountants, in fact any occupation to which the addition of the prefix ‘radical’ does not seem completely ludicrous or oxymoronic. And how about the fertile and fulminating hoards of trade unionists and the myriad and variegated ranks of Gramsci’s organic intellectuals?

Foucault singles out for particular significance the University and the academy. It is here, manifest in the feeling of crisis in the university sector, that the antennae of the educationally situated intellectuals feel the currents and reverberations of their specific experience, problems and struggles but also have the resources to see and forge the lateral connections with distant and other instances of struggle and politicisation and their situated ‘particular’ intellectuals.

However, Foucault points to obstacles and a danger. We have a disparate and dispersed collection of only potentially networked specific intellectuals. The danger identified is that of

… remaining at the level of conjectural struggles, pressing demands restricted to particular sectors. The risk of letting himself (sic) be manipulated by the political parties or trade unions apparatuses which control these local struggles. Above all, the risk of being unable to develop these struggles for lack of a global strategy or outside support: the risk too of not being followed, or by only very limited groups. (130)

So the focus of the specific intellectual is on his or her own particular experience, problems and issues and the attempt to understand and make sense of these in order to have some control, some exercise of autonomy, some say on how they perform their function. This does not necessarily and automatically link to others, their experience and problems, their specific location of potential politicisation. Foucault considers that each intellectual has a three-fold specificity. Firstly, class position (“whether as a petty-bourgeois in the service of capitalism or ‘organic’ intellectuality of the proletariat”); secondly, the conditions of their life and work linked to their intellectual field (professional practice, research or laboratory, etc.) but also the political and economic demands to which they must submit or rebel, in university, hospital, whatever their work location; and thirdly, “the specificity of the politics of truth” in our society. It is here, Foucault feels, that the specific, sectoral  intellectual can have wider effects and implications, beyond the narrow concern with their particular circumstances and problems. This is the ability, as a consequence of their more sectoral concerns and struggles, to challenge the ‘regime of truth’ that that is “so essential to the structure and functioning of our society”.  My way of understanding this, although it no doubt misses a lot of the subtlety and nuance of Foucault’s thought, is that in the act of critiquing his or her own disempowerment, alienation and dissatisfaction, the specific intellectual is calling into question some of the pervasive and powerful assumptions and procedures that bring the specific circumstance being critiqued into being – organises, regulates, legitimates and justifies, sets in motion myriad self-fulfilling and self-reproducing processes and routines, creates a whole ecology of attitudes and behaviours, and so on. But this ‘regime of truth’ and its strategies are not entirely specific to one sectoral set of problems, obstacles and site of resistance. Each act of critique and/or resistance has the potential to challenge and undermine these assumptions and the ‘reality’ they both produce and maintain. Perhaps the most valuable contribution intellectuals of all types and shades can make is, ultimately, to challenge the constitution of the reality they are fighting against and, if nothing else, expose its historicity and contingency and open up the possibility to common consciousness that things can be different and it is not counter to common-sense or Utopian to both hope for change and actively to strive to achieve change.

It seems to me there are some parallel strands here with Bauman’s ideas on the tendency for intellectuals to have shifted from being legislators of knowledge in the service of the State to being interpretors of knowledge in the service of the public domain with a distinct emancipatory intent. I’ll write a piece on the similarities and differences between Bauman and Foucault in due course focused specifically on the role of intellectuals and the nature of knowledge.

The last post and this are a commentary on chapter 6, Truth and Power, in the collection of interviews and lectures Michael Foucault; Power/Knowledge edited by Colin Gordan, Harvester 1980. I’d be happy for any help on clarifying Foucault’s ideas in this chapter and on what its contemporary significance might be for today’s crisis in education and intellectual life. The whole article is available for download at but for some reason the pages are in the wrong order, first to last. They can be printed in the correct order of course.