We the Modern Foucauldians: Ian Hacking QOTD

I don’t remember when I first came across this article by Ian Hacking, “Between Foucault and Goffman”, but I have returned to it a few times over the past few years. Even though I’m always annoyed that the first ten pages are more about Sartre than Foucault or Goffman, Hacking never disappoints when he gets to the punchline:

The genes of an individual determine the extreme limits of possibilities, but it is choices that create one’s character, one’s veritable essence, one’s soul. Here is a credo for an existentialism without dogma for our time: our genetic essence is not our essence. The possibilities that are open to one, one’s character and potentialities, are formed during one’s life, even if for many they become petrified at an early age. As Sartre well knew, at any place and time only some possibilities even make sense. So we pass to the next question. How is the space of possible and actual action determined not just by physical and social barriers and opportunities, but also by the ways in which we conceptualize and realize who we are and what we may be, in this here and now?

Hacking proceeds to compare Goffman’s (1961) Asylums and Foucault’s (1961) History of Madness to argue that they are useful, necessary complements – the first about how people are made up “from below”, the second about how they are made up “from above”. But both address the central question – “How is the space of possible and actual action determined not just by physical and social barriers and opportunities, but also by the ways in which we conceptualize and realize who we are and what we may be, in this here and now?”

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4 Comments

  1. Thomas

     /  October 1, 2010

    I have another favourite Hacking quote, this one from Mad Travelers:

    “Readers of Michel Foucault have deluged us with descriptions of mental illness using the linguistic metaphor of discourse, or of a discursive formation. This is undoubtedly the most popular metaphor of the moment.

    I find this sad. Foucualt carved numerous turns of phrase into ice sculptures, which had, for a moment, sharp contours. Then he walked away from them, insouciant, and let them melt, for he no longer needed them. His less giften readers put the half-melted shapes into the freezer and, without thinking, reproduce these figures as if they still glistened in the midnight sun and meant something.” (Hacking, 1998: 85)

    • That is a wonderful quote. I will remember it! Hacking is such an amazing writer, and so artfully brings together the best from such divergent disciplines and perspectives.

    • Also, it reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Foucault himself, from Archaeology of Knowledge:
      “Do not ask me who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order.”

  2. Thomas

     /  October 1, 2010

    You are certainly correct about the divergent perspectives. After reading some of the anti-sociological sociology of some other Foucauldians (I am sure you know who I am talking about!) it was refreshing to read the 2004 article, where Hacking lets us know that there is still room for classic theory alongside Foucault. It gave me the confidence I needed to advocate for a middle route!