Five paragraphs from Michel Foucault ought to be enough to dig POMO. Let’s take those that start his concluding remarks to the Seminar Discourse and Truth: the Problematization of Parrhesia. Parrhesia refers to the act of speaking candidly:
My intention was not to deal with the problem of truth, but with the problem of truth-teller or truth-telling as an activity. By this I mean that, for me, it was not a question of analyzing the internal or external criteria that would enable the Greeks and Romans, or anyone else, to recognize whether a statement or proposition is true or not. At issue for me was rather the attempt to consider truth-telling as a specific activity, or as a role.
As you can see, Michel doesn’t deny that truth exists. It’s just not what he’s auditing. Truths need to be told, i.e. by someone, in a context, etc. So let’s skip to the third paragraph:
But, in fact, my intention was not to conduct a sociological description of the different possible roles for truth-tellers in different societies. What I wanted to analyze was how the truth-teller’s role was variously problematized in Greek philosophy. And what I wanted to show you was that if Greek philosophy has raised the question of truth from the point of view of the criteria for true statements and sound reasoning, this same Greek philosophy has also raised the problem of truth from the point of view of truth-telling as an activity. It has raised questions like: Who is able to tell the truth? What are the moral, the ethical, and the spiritual conditions which entitle someone to present himself as, and to be considered as, a truth-teller? About what topics is it important to tell the truth? (About the world? About nature? About the city? About behavior? About man? ) What are the consequences of telling the truth? What are its anticipated positive effects for the city, for the city’s rulers, for the individual, etc.? And finally: what is the relation between the activity of truth-telling and the exercise of power, or should these activities be completely independent and kept separate? Are they separable, or do they require one another? These four questions about truth-telling as an activity — who is able to tell the truth, about what, with what consequences, and with what relation to power — seem to have emerged as philosophical problems towards the end of the Fifth Century around Socrates, especially through his confrontations with the Sophists about politics, rhetorics, and ethics.
Forgive the many questions. It’s more than a tic, it’s a trick French students use to write dissertations. These questions help enumerate conditions for truth-telling. In the following paragraph, notice how Michel distinguishes the logical aspect from the extra-logical aspect of truth, which he calls analytical and critical:
And I would say that the problematization of truth which characterizes both the end of Presocratic philosophy and the beginning of the kind of philosophy which is still ours today, this problematization of truth has two sides, two major aspects. One side is concerned with insuring that the process of reasoning is correct in determining whether a statement is true (or concern itself with our ability to gain access to the truth). And the other side is concerned with the question: what is the importance for the individual and for the society of telling the truth, of knowing the truth, of having people who tell the truth, as well as knowing how to recognize them. With that side which is concerned with determining how to insure that a statement is true we have the roots of the great tradition in Western philosophy which I would like to call the “analytics of truth”. And on the other side, concerned with the question of the importance of telling the truth, knowing who is able to tell the truth, and knowing why we should tell the truth, we have the roots of what we could call the “critical” tradition in the West. And here you will recognize one of my targets in this seminar, namely, to construct a genealogy of the critical attitude in the Western philosophy. That constituted the general objective target of this seminar.
(The emphasized bit is recurrent in ClimateBall ™.) Note that Michel speaks of genealogy in a philosophical sense. No need to delve into that nuance, let’s stick to problematization. What’s that beast, you may ask? Wait for it:
From the methodological point of view, I would like to underscore the following theme. As you may have noticed, I utilized the word “problematization” frequently in this seminar without providing you with an explanation of its meaning. I told you very briefly that what I intended to analyze in most of my work was neither past people’s behavior (which is something that belongs to the field of social history), nor ideas in their representative values. What I tried to do from the beginning was to analyze the process of “problematization” — which means: how and why certain things (behavior, phenomena, processes) became a problem. Why, for example, certain forms of behavior were characterized and classified as “madness” while other similar forms were completely neglected at a given historical moment; the same thing for crime and delinquency, the same question of problematization for sexuality.
So POMO is minimally a (derogatory) term to designate any way of asking ourselves about the conditions by which some “things” became topical. While Kant asked himself what are the a priori conditions for knowledge to be possible, POMOs ask themselves about the all the conditions for “things” to become problems. That includes the concept of “thing,” it goes without saying, and even kinds of things.
This way of looking at problems provides great latitude. One can explore about anything under any angle, to a point the studies can be read like novels. Sometimes, such freedom can lead to overweening verbosity or worse:
That shouldn’t always be the case.