Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Foucault is #1

Michel Foucault was the authority most often cited in scholarship published in the humanities during the year 2007, according to Thomson Reuters’ ISI Web of Science. The French historian barely edged out his countryman Pierre Bourdieu, the radical sociologist, by fewer than a hundred citations. Jacques Derrida trailed badly in third place.

You have to drop pretty far down the list to trip over a scholarly authority who wrote longer than ten minutes ago. Max Weber finished seventh, with just over a third of the references to Foucault. At least he edged out Judith Butler, however, whose self-serving obscurity limited her to nine hundred and sixty nods. Yet Butler is now apparently more important to humanists even than Freud, who struggled to top nine hundred.

The list was not entirely devoid of original thinkers. Kant finished ahead of Heidegger, somehow, and Arendt and Wittgenstein both received slightly fewer than six hundred notices—although Edward Said, the late Egyptian Christian, got more than both of them.

Names missing from the list include Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, Maimonides, Aquinas, Descartes, Pascal, Hobbes, Spinoza, Hume, Adam Smith, Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Husserl—to name only philosophers.

The “enchanting crisscrossing of names” from France—Foucault, Bour­dieu, Derrida—suggests that humanists remain bogged down in the slough of Theory. They are engaged in a common pursuit, all right, but it is not the pursuit of truth. It is the pursuit of intellectual fashion, even if the fashion is a little worn and threadbare after four decades.

Update: The most frequently cited authors on A Common­place Blog:

(  1.) Philip Roth (164)
(  2.) God (160)
(  3.) Vladimir Nabokov (99)
(  4.) Henry James (78)
(  5.) Patrick Kurp (76)
(  6.) Francine Prose (68)
(  7.) J. V. Cunningham (66)
(  8.) John Updike (62)
(  9.) Toni Morrison (56)
(10.) Saul Bellow (53)

Until today, I managed to restrict any mention of Foucault to just fifteen occasions.


R/T said...

God cited as author? The postmodern French literary critics would have a fit! To my mind, though, based on my simple familiarity with and interpretation of Vico (unfairly neglected in your list), I would wholeheartedly agree with you about God, as He is the catalyst (and the behind the scenes poet) for all that is in Judeo-Christian scriptures.

D. G. Myers said...

Well, I really included the name of the Creator of the Universe for the humorous effect of his finishing second to Philip Roth.

D. G. Myers said...

On the other hand, when I teach Bible As Literature and submit a book order (the campus bookstore requires an author’s name on all book orders), I list God in the author’s box.

R/T said...

Alas! My mind seems too often nearly closed to irony/humor. As I am regularly accused by others in my profession of being too literal, Harold Bloom would be disappointed in me. Perhaps my tendency toward the literal has its roots in my fundamentalist Protestant childhood during which I eagerly believed in the most remarkable things. Now, with effort, I try to see everything in life more figuratively. Irony and humor, though, remain my Achilles' heel.

D. G. Myers said...

Don’t be too hard on yourself, Tim. After all, God did receive more than twice as many references as Patrick Kurp.

Steven said...

Dear Mr. Myers,

As much as I do not care for some of the authors on your list (Morrison), I find it far more palatable and convivial than the list you discuss in the main body of the post.



D. G. Myers said...

If you remove God from the list, everyone except Roth would move up a spot, and the tenth position would be occupied by Raymond Carver (52).

Kevin said...

Hello. An interesting post. Thank you. Reminds me of an interview with Searle, a modern-day Kant, with his emphasis on constitutive rules, who famously quips about Derrida:

[Long snippet, sorry]

With Derrida, you can hardly misread him, because he's so obscure. Every time you say, "He says so and so," he always says, "You misunderstood me." But if you try to figure out the correct interpretation, then that's not so easy. I once said this to Michel Foucault, who was more hostile to Derrida even than I am, and Foucault said that Derrida practiced the method of obscurantisme terroriste (terrorism of obscurantism). We were speaking French. And I said, "What the hell do you mean by that?" And he said, "He writes so obscurely you can't tell what he's saying, that's the obscurantism part, and then when you criticize him, he can always say, 'You didn't understand me; you're an idiot.' That's the terrorism part." And I like that. So I wrote an article about Derrida. I asked Michel if it was OK if I quoted that passage, and he said yes.


D. G. Myers said...

Yeah, well, “Michel” should talk!

Unknown said...

I think you are being unfair to Theorists and Theory, who have clearly stood the test of time, according to your post, and have not faded away. Unnecessarily obscure at times maybe, but theory seems to be dismissed by only those who fear, every time they read a theorist, that the foundations of their lifetime's reading are crumbling. Anyway, I would like to suggest Roland Barthes and Milan Kundera as inexhaustibly quotable authors.

D. G. Myers said...


You need to answer the question that I pose in the post linked above: namely, what is the common feature or characteristic that justifies your speaking of Theorists and Theory (with capital-T’s).

My own view, exposited in the post linked above, is that Theorists are united only in their repudiation of what came before them—or, to turn your self-flattering phrase, their success at “crumbling” the “foundations of a lifetime’s reading” (previous generations’ reading, that is) is really very little more than the substitution of different foundations.

The validity of these new crumble-resistant foundations is nowhere established. They are merely accepted on faith—as this list of the authorities cited in the humanities proves. The anti-foundationalists have become the new foundationalists.

Unknown said...

What I said was not meant to seem like an unreserved defense of theory. Theory went to extremes that could never work and it was arrogant in the face of previous schools.

It is probably an exaggeration to say that theorists are the new foundationalists. I would rather see their influence as that important element of doubt when it comes to reading and interpreting. No more. The author still exists but maybe he is not the absolute authority on his text anymore.

It is the extreme extent to which theory goes that makes it provocative and quote-worthy, yet it is this very nature that brings it down in the end. The foundations they set out to destruct are still there.

D. G. Myers said...

The author still exists but maybe he is not the absolute authority on his text anymore.

Unless he is Foucault, Boudrieu, or Derrida.

By citing their authority, scholars are given license to dispense with the authority of their primary sources.

R/T said...

Cynic that I am, literary theory (especially in since the 1970s, and especially from European theorists) has been academia's attempt to create a language/jargon that gives literary studies equal footing with other, better established departments at universities. By adopting a singular language (like scientists, psychologists, lawyers, etc.), literary scholars sought to give themselves credibility in a competitive university environment. Speaking and writing "theory" became like the "secret handshake" among those who know the "secret." It excludes other disciplines, reinforces the singularity (and usefulness?) of literary studies, and gives the insides (within the "secret handshake" brotherhood) a feeling of being special. You see, simply relying upon the literary text became insufficient because it was too accessible to almost everyone; esoteric theory, on the other hand, especially the kinds espoused by Foucoult, Derrida, et al became a means to an end: entrenchment of literary studies as a credible discipline within the academy. And there--in a nutshell--you have my cynical assessment of contemporary literary theory.