Genealogy, Problematization, and Normativity in Michel Foucault

Colin Koopman's excellent Genealogy as Critique argues that Michel Foucault's genealogies—and, in fact, his archaeologies—should be read as historical accounts of the emergence of particular “problematizations.” The idea of a problematization, which Foucault introduces late in his career, has two sides. First, there is the idea that the situation whose emergence a genealogy traces is problematic in the sense of being fraught or dangerous. Second, by tracing the genealogy, Foucault problematizes the situation itself, showing how it calls for attention. Koopman argues that Foucault's genealogies are not themselves normative, but they instead outline situations or practices in a way that allows for normative investigation and political intervention. What is required, then, are normative approaches that complement Foucault's genealogies. Koopman argues that Foucault's own late discussions of self-transformation are inadequate to fully accomplish the task; they need to be complemented by recourse to Deweyan reconstruction or Habermasian normative reflection. However, and in turn, such reflection cannot be had on an absolutist ground but rather must be seen as historically contingent, universalizing rather than universalist in Koopman's vocabulary. I argue that there are several reasons to think that the strong separation between genealogy and normative posited by Koopman may be too strict. Foucault's rhetoric, his choice of certain problematizations, and Koopman's own commitments to problematizations as requiring attention all seem to point toward a more intimate, although admittedly implicit, relation between genealogy and normative positions in Foucault's work.