Transgression or Stasis? Challenging Foucault in LIS Theory

by Elizabeth Lieutenant

Buschman, J. (2007). Transgression or stasis? Challenging Foucault in LIS theory. The Library Quarterly, 77(1), 21–44.

This article focuses its critique on Michel Foucault’s concepts, their representation in the LIS literature, and the limitations of LIS theorists who uncritically adopt Foucauldian themes in their scholarship. Buschman analyzes four common Foucauldian themes in LIS: discourse, power/knowledge, fantasia, and genealogy/archaeology; Focault’s critiques of positivism are not included due to the comprehensive coverage of this concept in the LIS literature. Buschman critiques the flaws and limitations of Foucault’s concepts and their representation in LIS, including rejecting economic analysis and critique, the self-centered focus of LIS discourse and its associated analyses, preoccupations with the librarian image, and an ignorance of the socio-historical position of LIS. Familiarity with Foucault’s work and that of the author’s referenced in this article is needed to fully appreciate Buschman’s critiques.


Having not (yet) deeply read Foucault’s work or the LIS authors Buschman’s cites as heavily influenced by Foucault, I can’t determine the validity of Buschman’s critiques, nor comment substantively on this piece or its claims. There are a few key parts that resonated, others that raised counterclaims, all that require further exploration. I found Buschman’s brief discussion of response to LIS critiques with critique closely mirrored what I’ve witnessed (and at times played some type of role in) in our field (p. 36). There seems to be a reflexive need to defend our institutions and professional practices when they are the subject of critique, yet we are all too willing to critique the individuals who have or have not committed a perceived harm or good within LIS. This not just the “we slaughter our young” trope within the archives profession, its deeper, more systemic. It seems that operating from a powerless position of fear (which Cram and others have discussed) leads us to focus on the trivial (e.g. Buschman’s discussion of the librarian image) and tear down rather than build up. When we do build up, it’s an attempt to advance our power and social standings grounded in the feel-good generalizations spouted by purported key allies, who often conform to the hegemonic population LIS has catered to throughout it’s “modern” conception (p. 37-38). We are not wolves; we are better than this.

Foucault’s reconception of power from subject and position-based to an influential network of relational forces is particularly intriguing, given the behaviors described above (p. 32). Instead of an erasure of oppressive power (Marx) or a dismissal of power as influence (Foucault), the latter which this piece seems to support, can these two types of power not co-exist? I interpret these two perspectives as complimentary; Marxism applicable to macro-level critiques of economic and class-based oppression, Foucault applicable to micro-level analysis of subjects within the context of socio-historical discourse. It makes it a bit easier to see how Foucault’s conception of power plays out in our daily lives; it grounds power within the self and those we interact with. It’s relational, highly adaptable, and capable of exertion by even those with little power within a particular system (of oppression or otherwise). From my reading of this piece, along with Olsson, (2010)¹, Foucault did not ignore systemic exertions of oppression. While Foucault’s conflation between the power exerted in the penal institutions vs education and mental health (even library?) institutions can be problematic, that seems to be dependant on one’s individualized experiences as either an object or subject operating within said institutionalized system (Walzer in Buschman, p. 30). Foucault’s Panopticism is structural oppression, made “oppression lite” not necessarily by Foucault himself, but by the focus on the self detached from the structural reality of the system (Olsson, p. 70-71; Buschman, p. 33).

As Buschman would probably ask: “What is the point” of this piece, of this independent study, of all the strands that I’m trying to connect at this particular moment in time (p. 35)? It is my attempt to understand not what is, but what could be. Although Buschman critiques Foucauldian themes in LIS for lacking examination of LIS’s historical and social roots and its potential for development, I still find great value in the literature (albeit limited) that I’ve read (p. 39). Is the lack of LIS theory that applies Foucault’s “strategy to project” a reflection of the shallowness of the author’s Buschman cites, or is it a to-be-actualized potential that LIS has yet to capitalize on, as Olsson (2010)¹ concludes. It could be one, the other, both, neither, or more; it depends on the lens, discourses, and socio-cultural and historical forces that influence our perspectives. Personally, it would require more reading, reflection, and discussion on my part. It would also lay the foundation for potential. Let us hope that the wolves in LIS are no longer hungry at that point in time.


1. Olsson, M. R. (2010). Michel Foucault: Discourse, power/knowledge, and the battle for truth. In Buschman, J., Given, L. M., & Leckie, G. J. (Eds.), Critical theory for library and information science: Exploring the social from across the disciplines. (63 – 74). Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.