Problem(s), Problematization, Archaeology

Before coming to the heart of my argument, I need to spell out my research method in order to indicate what an approach—that might be called foucauldian in its method and concepts—can tell us about contemporary societies.

Problem(s), Problematization and Theoretical Practice

When, from 1980 onwards, Foucault returned to his work to pull it together under the concept of “history of problematizations,” a number of slippages occurred in his discourse. In fact, Foucault continually oscillated between the history of “problems” and the history of “problematizations.” These slippages raise a number of legitimate questions, first about what Foucault calls “problematization,” and then about the status and place of a problem in a history of (forms of) problematizations.

From Problem to Problematization

It will be remembered that in his reflections on problematization Foucault seeks to distance his work from a history of solutions and, even more, from a search for alternative solutions. Neither search for solutions nor history of solutions, the history of forms of problematization is much more focused on problems, without being reducible to the history of a problem. Instead, the history of problematizations consists in showing how a problem—which will be called specific here—expresses a particular form of problematization of a more general problem.

That is what Foucault is referring to in the quotation with which I began, when he says that he wanted to “start with a problem and construct its genealogy.” Faced with a general problem (illness, punishment, security, violence, etc.), his stance is not moral, but analytical. Furthermore, the analyst is not faced with a problem that arises in its specificity and whose history he or she proposes to construct, so as to show how it was constituted as such. There are domains of practices bound up with very general problems and, on the basis of the established forms of knowledge (savoir) at the time, they seize on a specific problem encountered by the deployment of savoir faire in practice.

Starting with a very general problem (illness, punishment, sex, security and, in our case, violence), and the questions that are attached to it, the history of problematizations will therefore consist in showing how, when dealing with a specific practical problem, these practices give rise to a redistribution of the constitutive elements of a more general problem— that is, to a new form of problematization. We can also infer from this that a problematization is the outcome, not the starting point, of analytical- interpretative work; the interpretative dimension of the analysis enabling the possibility to bring out the urgency associated with a new form of problematization.

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