Duncan Kelly at the Times Literary Supplement:
In 1970, after various appointments in France, Germany, Poland, Sweden and Tunisia, the French philosopher and epistemologist Michel Foucault took a Chair at the Collège de France in Paris. His job title was Professor of the History of Systems of Thought, and his inaugural lecture offered a retrospect and prospect of what that meant to him. Yet only by the end of the 1970s, in a recap of a course given on the birth of modern “biopolitics”, published in English as “History of Systems of Thought” (1979), did Foucault explain what this meant more explicitly. Asking how, from the eighteenth century onwards, governmental practices had sought to rationalize the attention they paid to their subjects and citizens, he considered the range of policies and systems of thought that justified them, targeting the practical problems of governing a population (health, hygiene, care and welfare, births, deaths, diseases, etc). These were forms of “governmentality” and, he continued, they were “inseparable” as systems of thought from the dominant form of “political rationality” that overlay them, namely, modern “liberalism”. The history of systems of thought, it turns out, covers it all.
If Foucault wanted to cover it all, that is also the ambition of the new two-volume Pléiade edition of his works. He has become part of the classic modern canon of French culture, fixed on pages tracing-paper thin in an eye-wateringly small font. Such enterprises more often than not kill their subjects on the page, sanctifying them as objects of devotion, rather than reviving their earlier words as the weapons they once were. The rather conventional retrospectives puffing the publication of these volumes in the French press indicated ambivalence about Foucault’s contemporary relevance.