Wednesday, May 17, 2006

A Former Editor Cites Foucault

A while back, we posted about the firing of the editors of the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ), noting this seemingly unfortunate example of a power struggle within a medical organization. However, the firing of Dr Hoey has generally been presented in terms of abuse of power as a violation of editorial independence.

For example, in 2005, Hoey wrote an unsigned editorial in CMAJ that started with the premise, "freedom from interference in editorial decisions stands at the heart of the credibility of any reputable journal." He then announced "we have a transgression to report," and then went on to recount how "a CMA [Canadian Medical Association] executive objected strenuously to a news article we were preparing on behind-the-counter access to levonorgestrel (Plan B)."(1) Similarly, the editor of the British Medical Journal responded to Hoey's firing, "this is a sorry tale that shows how little the CMA (its officers and - since there is no sign of a concerted outcry from them - its members) understands what it means to be the custodian of an international academic medical journal."(2)

There has been much more discussion of the firing of Hoey and then the departure of many other CMAJ editors. The New England Journal of Medicine ran a commentary in March.(3) Last week, it ran another, this time written by Dr Hoey, himself.(4) Would this more clearly delineate what happened?

Hoey's article, however, took an unusual stance. He chided "owners [who] may wish to limit to limit the scope of their journal, to restrict its editorial perspective to matters of bedside medicine and the narrower interests (as perceived by the usually nonphysician publishers) of their physician readership." He then denied this "vision." Instead, he proclaimed, "for Foucault, medicine is a political act."

That is where he lost me, decisively. The Foucault he cited, assuredly is Michel Foucault, one of the "postmodern vanguard," authorities repeatedly cited to justify the fashionable post-modern concepts that have swept through the academic humanities and social sciences. Foucault is cited:
  • For his hostility to the Enlightenment. For example, he wrote, "it is meaningless to speak in the name of -or against - Reason, Truth, or Knowledge."(5) Hicks explained, "Postmodernism rejects the entire Enlightenment project. It holds that the modernist premises of the Enlightenment were untenable from the beginning and that their cultural manifestations have now reached their nadir. While the modern world continues to speak of reason, freedom, and progress, its pathologies tell another story. The postmodern critique of these pathologies is offered as the death knell of modernism: 'The deepest strata of Western culture' have been exposed, Foucault argues, and are 'once more stirring under our feet.'"(6)
  • To support the self-contradictory and ultimately meaningless assertion that there is no external reality, that reality is "socially constructed." "Foucault at times suggested that underlying what counts as objective knowledge is a power relation, one category of people benefiting at the expense of another category of people. The radicals thus see the social construction of reality...."(7)
  • To support totalitarianism. "As part of the attack on the Enlightenment, the critique of truth suffers from a tendency to reinforce pre-enlightenment despotism. The Enlightenment replaced individual and institutional power with more objective measures of validity, and it is no surprise that the rejection of objectivity collapses back into power as a means for defining absolute truth."(8) Foucault's belief that "liberal democracies are actually more oppressive than medieval despots or even modern totalitarians,"(9) was consistent with his occasional embrace of totalitarian rulers. In 1971, he said, "when the proletariat takes power, it may be quite possible that the proletariat will exert toward the classes over which it has triumphed a violent, dictatorial, and even bloody power. I can't see what objection could possibly be made to this."(10) Similarly, he extolled the 1978 Iranian revolution, "exulting in the 'intoxication' of revolution and the violent expression of 'collective will,' and praised its leaders 'political spirituality,' which he thought reflected a health 'religion of combat and sacrifice.'"(11)
In my humble opinion, citing Foucault as an authority suggests a sympathy for post-modernism that would not be helpful to a journal editor. Most of editing is about science, and science does not fit with the notion that external reality does not exist. Readers of Health Care Renewal are certainly aware that medicine and health care are influenced by politics. But the notion that politics is all of medicine, or a totalitarian world view will not help us address concentration and abuse of power.
But perhaps Hoey's citation of Foucault was a mistake, or misinterpretation. After citing Foucault, Hoey admonished journal editors not to discuss or even divulge editorial decisions to their publishers, for that would "gut the editorial independence of a journal." However, the editor's outlook and assurance should include "an eager propensity to poke a stick into something or somebody." That proclamation suggests that Hoey's reliance on Foucault was not some mistake. Characterizing an ideal journal editor as an undisciplined trouble-maker fits Foucault's fascination with "limit experiences."(12) Yet editors whose main joy is in poking sticks into something or somebody without restraint or accountability will only add to concentration and abuse of power.
Thus, it still seems like our original characterization of the dispute at CMAJ was apt, "A classic power struggle within medicine's increasingly less-hallowed halls. Here it seems drearily familiar." That's too bad.
1. CMAJ. The editorial autonomy of CMAJ. Can Med Assoc J 2006; 174: 9.
2. Godlee F. A big mistake. Brit Med J 2006; 332:
3. Shuchman M, Redelmeier DA. Politics and independence - the collapse of the Canadian Medical Association Journal. N Engl J Med 2006; 354:1337-1339.
4. Hoey J. Editorial independence and the Canadian Medical Association Journal. N Engl J Med 2006; 354: 1982-3.
5. Hicks SR. Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault. Tempe: Scholargy Publishing, 2004. P. 2. (Link here)
6. Hicks, P. 14.
7. Farber DA, Sherry S. Beyond All Reason: the Radical Assault on Truth in American Law. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977. P. 24. (Link here)
8. Farber, Sherry. P. 106.
9. Farber, Sherry, P. 29
10. Lilla M. The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics. New York: New York Review of Books, 2001. P. 150. (Link here.)
11. Lilla. P. 154.
12. Lilla. P. 150.


Liz Stevenson said...

Yeah, but to be fair, Hoey cited Foucault almost as an aside for the proposition to *some* people medicine was a political act. My naive read of the article left me with the sense that he didn't seem to agree or disagree with Foucault, but that there was a wide variety of stances one could take towards the view of medicine. And an editor's job should be to have the entire range available to him/herself.

Stephen Hicks said...

The Foucault reference does stand out from its context. It's one thing for the Dr. Hoey to decry what he takes to be inappropriate interference by owners in editorial matters--to inject their politics or economics, so to speak. But it's another thing to use Foucault against the owners, since Foucault's point is that editors are unavoidably political-economic animals themselves--that all discourse is just such a struggle between competing political-economic interests.
In that case, Foucault would not object to the intrusion of politics and economics--he'd just be plugging for the intrusion of a different sort of political interests.
So I can't tell if Hoey is pushing for a principled separation of powers between owners and editors--or if he's speaking out of both sides of his mouth.
Stephen Hicks

Anonymous said...

I dont think its that there is no objective reality but more so that pragmaticaly objectivity is written over with claims to truth. The point is to trace what is perceived and the perceived actions. No one acts on pure objective knowledge and so we trace the shaded perceptions. Totalitarian points are blatantly untrue, Foucault has in first hand interview stated despots are worse, he just says that current systems are hidden and more insidous.. And that there corruption would be less detectable.