“What the Foucault?” and Other After-Dinner Musings


Arts & Culture

Michel Foucault


Twenty-five years ago, Marshall Sahlins, professor of anthropology emeritus at the University of Chicago, devised some bons mots to deliver after a dinner at the Association of Social Anthropologists in Great Britain. They were soon collected and published in a book called What the Foucault?, now out in its updated fifth edition. A selection of entries appears below:

Some Laws of Civilization

First law of civilization: all airports are under construction.

Second law of civilization: I’m in the wrong line.

Third law of civilization: snacks sealed in plastic bags cannot be opened, even using your teeth.

Fourth law of civilization: the human gene whose discovery is announced in the New York Times—there’s one every day, a gene du jour—is for some bad trait, like schizophrenia, kleptomania, or pneumonia. We have no good genes.

Fifth law of civilization: failing corporate executives and politicians always resign to spend more time with their families.

David Brooks

To the G-S tune of “I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General”:

I am the very model of a public intellectual.
My op-eds in the New York Times are never ineffectual.
I’m expert in all matters from political to sexual,
I am the very model of a public intellectual.


A people who conceive life to be the pursuit of happiness must be chronically unhappy.

The Chinese-Restaurant Syndrome

Why are well-meaning Westerners so concerned that the opening of a Colonel Sanders in Beijing means the end of Chinese culture? A fatal Americanization. Yet we have had Chinese restaurants in America for over a century, and it hasn’t made us Chinese. On the contrary, we obliged the Chinese to invent chop suey. What could be more American than that? French fries?

Economic Development

Developing countries, with American help, never develop.

Postmodern Terrorism

One of the more poignant aspects of the current postmodernist mood is the way it seems to lobotomize some of our best graduate students, to stifle their creativity for fear of making some interesting structural connection, some relationship between cultural practices, or a comparative generalization. The only safe essentialism left to them is that there is no order to culture.

World-Historical Best-Selling Book Title

Publishers used to speculate a lot about what would be the best-selling book title in the business. For a long time, the best by consensus was Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog. I was trying to think what would do for the human sciences these days. My candidate would be The Neoliberal Ontology of the Anthropocene.

Re the Selfish Gene and other Forms of Bourgeois Self-Regard

The simple and universal fact of the incest taboo signifies that the incorporation of otherness is an essential condition of human identity and being.

Ethnology as Western Ontology

The myriad ethnographic statements of the form, “The So-and-So believe that … ,” typically referring to something Europeans would disbelieve, should actually be written “The So-and-So know that … ” To cite Jean Pouillon, “It’s the non-believers who believe that the believers believe.” What is anthropology but Talmudic exegesis by nonbelievers?

Chances of Success

There are two categories of people who generally have no realistic idea of their chances of success: politicians and authors.

On Existence

“I think, therefore I am,” said Descartes.
I also think.
Therefore, I am Descartes.

The Poetics of Culture II

In speaking of culture as a superorganic order, in which individuals counted for next to nothing, A. L. Kroeber liked to use the metaphor of a coral reef: a vast edifice built by tiny microorganisms each of which, acting simply according to its own nature, secretes an imperceptible addition to this structure whose scale and organization by far transcends it. Just so in culture:

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And in passing leave behind us …
A small deposit of lime.


Marshall Sahlins is the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology Emeritus at the University of Chicago.

Excerpted from What the Foucault? by Marshall Sahlins.