Review – Foucault, “The Birth of the Clinic”

Michel Foucault, “The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception” (1963) (translated from the French by Alan Sheridan) – I think this is the only one of Foucault’s monographs I had yet to read? I haven’t read the second through fourth volumes of “History of Sexuality” (I get the impression few do), or all of the extant translated College de France lectures, if those count. It might seem like a big investment in the guy! He was a name to conjure with when I was in school, even if people who even claimed to understand what he was saying were few and far between in history programs. This always surprised me. The reason I’ve read his books is simple- I find them interesting. Sometimes they’re obscurely-written (apparently there’s circumstantial evidence that Foucault deliberately made the language harder in order to fit in with French academia) and sometimes I disagree with them. But I never invested the old guy — or any of the other old guys, or gals, or new ones either — with magic. Like Zaphod Beeblebrox, “Foucault is just this guy, you know?” I find reading goes better when you’re aware of big reps but don’t take them on board.

Having now read this one, I see it mostly as a rehearsal for his next book, “The Order of Things.” Like that one, “The Birth of the Clinic” traces a change in the order of knowledge and practices — one is tempted to say “praxis” but the bald old point-monger always avoided Marxist language, even when he was supposed to be in Marxist formations — that occurred between the ends of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In “The Order of Things” he discusses such changes in a number of fields, in “The Birth of the Clinic” he focuses on medicine (European medicine, to be precise- one thing about Foucault is he stayed in his Eurocentric lane). I don’t remember all the details of the intellectual (another word Foucault avoided- wouldn’t want to come off as a “mere” intellectual historian, heavens to Betsy, no!) transitions he detailed in “The Order of Things” but from what I recall, a lot of them were pretty similar to those in “The Birth of the Clinic.” They’re not so much down to “advances” as shifts in how to organize data (another word he’d never use). Firmly early modern doctors tended to ascribe/describe in somewhat earthier, wide-ranging tones, and work with bewildering ranges of variables and what they could mean; those further down the on-ramp to what we would call “modernity” tended to be more stripped down and given to isolating variables, etc., though honestly even late eighteenth century medicine sounds pretty baroque and weird to my ears.

Truth be told I had less interest in this one both because it wasn’t as thoroughly fleshed out as “The Order of Things” and because I’m less interested in the subject matter, weird old medicine that didn’t work, than I am in rhetoric and other topics Foucault discussed later. I will say Foucault’s a clever spark, and I think encouraged his reputation as a shifty pseudo-magical genius, using techniques any stage magician would know- in this instance, framing. The book stops before the germ theory of disease takes hold, and before vaccinations really get going, either. If he did that, he really would be telling a story, unavoidably, of discovery and medical progress. He cuts the story off before anybody fucking knew anything, so of course, he doesn’t talk about objective truth, and the people who get real mad when the humanities people don’t give the science folks their gold stars do their thing, all good for the Foucault brand.

I don’t think that’s all Foucault was doing here, or even most of it, and I’m sure he had valid reasons to tell this story the way he did. But the “legend of Foucault,” if you will, that obtains even (arguably exclusively) with educated people is that he’s a subjectivist weirdo who doesn’t even think medicine is objective. Of course, other people (often devotees of other aspects of Saint Foucault) debunk that idea as a misreading of the man, at tedious length, but the guy himself just gave that nice toothy smile and stayed noncommittal. It doesn’t really worry me either way. ****

Review – Foucault, “The Birth of the Clinic”

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