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Posted on my site michel-foucault.com

Delacampagne But don’t the public expect the critic to provide them with precise assessments as to the value of a work?

Foucault I don’t know whether the public do or do not expect the critic to judge works or authors. Judges were there, I think, before they were able to say what they wanted. It seems that Courbet had a friend who used to wake up in the night yelling: “I want to judge, I want to judge.” It’s amazing how people like judging. Judgment is being passed everywhere, all the time. Perhaps it’s one of the simplest things mankind has been given to do. And you know very well that the last man, when radiation has finally reduced his last enemy to ashes, will sit down behind some rickety table and begin the trial of the individual responsible.

I can’t help but dream about a kind of criticism that would not try to judge, but bring an oeuvre, a book, a sentence, an idea to life; it would light fires, watch the grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea-foam in the breeze and scatter it. It would multiply, not judgments, but signs of existence; it would summon them, drag them from their sleep. Perhaps it would invent them sometimes – all the better. All the better. Criticism that hands down sentences sends me to sleep; I’d like a criticism of scintillating leaps of the imagination. It would not be a sovereign or dressed in red. It would bear the lightning of possible storms.

Michel Foucault. (1997) [1980]. ‘The Masked Philosopher’. In J. Faubion (ed.). Tr. Robert Hurley and others. Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth. The Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954-1984. Volume One. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, Allen Lane, p. . [trans. mod]


Random thoughts in response
I am currently buried in an enormous pile of marking – the volume of which can be attributed to one of the increasingly regular endemic and pandemic financial crises to which universities are globally subject at present. There is no money to pay already exploited and poorly paid part-time teaching staff, so full-time staff have to pick up the short-fall while somehow miraculously maintaining their expected research output at the same time.

One of the consequences of an increased marking load is that the volume of complaints from aggrieved and pained students convinced they were worthy of much better grades also increases. Providing more detailed feedback in response simply aggravates the situation in a culture where self-esteem is promoted at the expense of a realistic assessment of capacity to perform in a given area.

Given current staff student ratios, neither can these students be given the instruction that they need to genuinely improve their work. Much as the warm and fuzzy rhetoric produced by educational researchers would like to argue otherwise, assessment is not a teaching tool in the context of enormous student to teacher ratios – it can only be the simple grading of lemons – the disciplinary mechanisms of examination Foucault speaks of in Discipline and Punish aimed at assigning and fixing individuals to their designated social niches. A further problem is galloping credentialism which forces people to rely on the imprimatur of educational institutions to clamber up the social and career ladders. This is a firm requirement in a society based on performance and the expectation that every individual should be the ‘entrepreneur’ of their own lives and subjectivities as they stare bleakly down the barrels of ‘life-long learning’ and mandatory annual ‘professional development’ requirements.

Under these difficult institutional conditions, I cannot help but think of this passage from Foucault – only in my own case I wake from a nightmare of undergraduate essays, postgraduate dissertations and requests to referee journal articles stretching into the mists of an infinite horizon, yelling ‘I don’t want to judge! I don’t want to judge!’ I can only consider wistfully the utopian alternative that Foucault proposes and wonder if there is some practical way in which one could bring just a tiny element of this into the forced march of the endless assessment of one’s students and peers.

The introduction of these kind of resistances or elements of hope and human feeling into the system are increasingly difficult to imagine, let alone implement, in an environment where holes in the chain mail of the meshes of power, as described by Foucault, have become smaller and smaller. Lyotard argues that cracks in the system are papered over by terminally overloading people with busy work, allowing them no time to repair those cracks or to even become aware of their existence in the first place. Even more difficult is the option of tearing down the entire building to replace it with something more in line with some of the more positive aspects of what it means to be human. But it is essential that one keep trying, somehow. This is one of the great forces of Foucault’s work – that constant hope that in spite of everything and under difficult circumstances we can always do better.

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