Armistice Day and the Ghost of Michel Foucault

It’s surprising that we’ve recruited four historians to write about the meaning of modernity, and in four lengthy responses — now five — no one has yet dropped the name of Michel Foucault. I am curious whether doing so will advance the discussion any, particularly because Foucault’s story of modernity, like Davies’, also proceeds from elite power.

Foucault, notably in the book The Order of Things and in his essay “Governmentality,” proposed that the modern way of thinking can be understood as proceeding by a certain style of mental ordering — of number, demography, and territoriality. To be modern is, literally, to measure.

In the modern world, techniques both in government and in private life are ordered, systematized, and increasingly described in mathematical terms. For example, how does one make a modern headache medicine? Apply many different compounds, to many different subjects, using many different delivery mechanisms. Catalog the effects they produce. Perform statistical tests. The winner is your medicine.

This way of thinking replaced an older approach, one which took its cues not from number and measurement, but from semblance and contagion. How does one make a pre-modern headache medicine? Grind up some walnuts, which resemble the head, complete with a brain inside. Apply them directly to your noggin: Headache medicine!

The epistemic shift to modernity took place all across human knowledge, from medicine, to economics, to physics, even to politics. Modern man is the product/inheritor of it all — encompassing both the “engineering culture” that Jack Goldstone (in my view rightly) praises, but also Foucault’s governmentality, a far more sinister force.

Foucault found that pre-modern states were typically likened to families, with the ruler as father and the subjects as children. The modern populace is understood quite differently, not as a set of possibly fractious children, but as — we might say — a data set. It’s much easier to be inhuman to a data set, and something of modern systematization almost seems to demand it. We don’t make examples of lone miscreants anymore. We identify all miscreants, and we hide them away forever. When people cease being fictive sons and daughters and instead become points in a data set, it is easier to imprison them by the millions, to send them to death camps, to march them off to the slaughter after we know that the Armistice is signed.

Much has been made of Foucault’s insight, at least among academic historians. Yet it’s possible to overstate the case — even given the industrial-scale horrors of the twentieth century and the unparalleled destructive power of the engineering culture’s new weapons, one’s worldwide chances of dying violently during the twentieth century were considerably less than those found among supposedly “noble” savages.

But, a Foucauldean might say, what about all of the rest? What about forced conscription, forced taxation, forced medical treatment? What about the more rigorous policing of behavior, speech, and even thought? Are we not more oppressed? Are we not more confined? Are we not more obedient, more sheep-like? Foucault clearly believed that we were.

The key dilemma of modernity is how to win the benefits of the engineering culture, including advanced technology, free markets, mass literacy, and all the rest — while denying the state the more sinister aspects of governmentality. This seems to be a genuinely new problem in human history, and it shows the magnitude of the change we have experienced.

Are the benefits and the drawbacks at all separable? Or not? Governmentality seems important to this discussion particularly if Steve Davies is intent on using cultural and political elites as a driving force in his story, as Foucault himself certainly was. For Foucault, however, elites usher in modernity for the sake of the power it grants them over the habits, the mentalities, and ultimately the bodies of others — not for their productiveness or their freedom. It’s not always a modernity worth wanting.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • How the World Got Modern by Stephen Davies

    In this month’s lead essay, historian Stephen Davies tackles one of the biggest of big questions: How did the world we live in – the modern world – so radically and rapidly diverge from the world of our pre-modern ancestors? Davies starts with a multitude of proposed explanations and winnows them down to three: the advent of empirical science and engineering, a shift in cultural attitudes toward commerce and trade, and the development of the Westphalian system of nation-states. Yet these factors emerged over a century before modernity really took off. Why the lag? Davies argues that the missing ingredient was the unique climate of competition among ruling elites in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, which combined with the other elements to produce the scientific innovation and economic growth that created the modern world.

Response Essays

  • How an Engineering Culture Launched Modernity by Jack Goldstone

    In his reply to Stephen Davies’ lead essay, Jack Goldstone argues that modernity was launched when “elites developed a new ‘engineering culture’ ” that departed sharply from European tradition. In order to gain from the commercial application of new knowledge by private entrepeneurs, Goldstone argues, political rulers were led to allow non-conformity with traditional religious authority and to “give up attempts to control the access of private firms and entrepreneurs to scientific knowledge and to market opportunities.” These developments helped overturn older ideas of absolute royal authority and guild privelege, which in turn contributed to the political and social revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries and a decisive break from prior Western conceptions of society. Though the liberal idea of “a community of free individuals sovereign over a limited state” arose first in the West, political and economic liberalization do not require a commitment to pre-modern Western values, Goldstone concludes.

  • Have We Ever Been Modern? by Anthony Pagden

    In his reply, UCLA historian Anthony Pagden doubts that the historical discontinuity created by the onset of modernity is “as sudden or as all-pervasive” as Stephen Davies makes it out to be. Pagden points both to much earlier and more recent changes that seem at least as dramatic as the changes between modern and pre-modern Europe, and he questions Davies’ revised periodization of history. Pagden agrees that the emergence of the scientific method partly accounts for “the rise of the West,” but “then we have to ask ourselves why it was that Copernicus, Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, Leibnitz, Pascal, Boyle, Newton, etc. were not Chinese or Mughal or Iranian or Arab.” Pagden submits that the answer is “the advent of secularism” following the post-Reformation sectarian wars, which drove “theological modes of reasoning forever from the public sphere.”

  • A Little Late to Early Modernity by Jason Kuznicki

    In his reply to Davies, Cato Unbound’s own Jason Kuznicki worries that the alleged gap between the beginning of distinctively modern thinking in the late 17th century and the economic and demographic takeoff in the late eighteenth century is no gap at all. “I’m tempted to invert the supposed gap,” Kuznicki writes, “and to suggest that in the earliest of early modernities … a set of social practices, and substantial concomitant rewards, generally arrived before any modern ideology existed to justify them.” Kuznicki notes that new ideas spread unevenly and over time, and he argues that the early emergence of upwardly mobile English and Dutch middle classes imply that “[i]f there was a modernity gap, its chief dimension was not temporal, but spatial.” Kuznicki suggests that, pace Davies, elites and their new ideas did not precipitate the rise of modernity, but played an intermediate role. Kuznicki challenges Davies to clarifiy “what exactly the elites are doing” in his story.

The Conversation