Michel Foucault


Foucault, Michel (1926-1984), French philosopher, who attempted to show that the basic ideas which people normally take to be permanent truths about human nature and society change in the course of history. His studies challenged the influence of German political philosopher Karl Marx and Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. Foucault offered new concepts that challenged people's assumptions about prisons, the police, insurance, care of the mentally ill, gay rights, and welfare.

He sees himself as a transdiscursive author: this term identifies an author (like Foucault) as not just the author of a book, but the author of a theory, tradition, or discipline.

Foucault has influenced various fields like the study of subjectivity, power, knowledge, discourse, history, sexuality, madness, and the penal system. He is considered as a great influence in new historicism because its not just literature being studied, but the discourse of power, knowledge, sexuality, discipline, different social, political, and cultural practices.

Foucault looks at various topics as discourses: ways of constituting knowledge, together with social practices, forms of subjectivity and the power relations which inhere in such knowledges, and the relations between them.

Example: the discourse of language is not looked at as the linguistic codes that generate a set of statements , rather it deals with rules that govern the practice of language, who is entitled to speak , and how language prohibits some and marginalize others . These rules are not mysteriously imbedded deep in the discourse , but are to be found by looking at the contexts and institutions in which discourse is spoken , such as hospitals and asylums or professions and disciplines. " (Foucault As An Author , p10)

Language can be used to classify people (sometimes permanently) with some socially charged labels: criminals, terrorists, communists, gays, insane, etc. This is how power is practiced in this discourse. Therefore language is an exchange of power between a label and the labeled (like signifier and signified).

However, unlike Saussure's structuralism, there is no universal "truth" or model for language; in Foucault's point of view, the power relation in these different discourses are always in a state of changing history, a temporary thing with no final truth/knowledge to be discovered.

Example: Foucault shows how the discourse of language on homosexuality shifted from describing a practice to describing a person or state, and explores the social consequences of this shift in language. (“The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.”

Standards and classifications are a central part of our lives, and establish a social and moral order of which we are largely unaware.

The History of Sexuality (1976)

The discourse of sexuality:

Foucault points out the changes that occur throughout the history of sexuality.

Repressive Hypothesis: Foucault believes that the victorian age was a time of expression rather than repression.

A comparison between sexuality in western cultures and nonwestern cultures

     -Ars Erotica 

     -Scientia Sexualis


Discipline and Punish:The Birth of the Prison (1979)

Foucault charts the historical transition in (western) cultural practices, from 'sovereign power' to 'disciplinary power', in Discipline and Punish:The Birth of the Prison (1979). The focus of his approach is not on the prison itself , but on the ways that physical control has changed into psychological control in prisons, as well as other institutions like schools, hospitals, factories, etc. Foucault looks at how the classification of criminality creates the criminal. (related to discourse of language)

The Gaze: Foucalt compares modern society with Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon:

The Panopticon is a survellience machine used in prisons to create the discourse of power. We cannot see the person watching us but the presupposed power "normalizes" the prisoner, imposing discipline.

-This should remind you of Bordo's theories.

The Exchange of Power:

An important factor in Foucault's ideas of power, is what his theory is in opposition to. Old models of power would always argue that power was held exclusively by dominant groups in society. For Marxists, power could only be exercised by the rich ruling class who owned the means of production (Think of Althusser's ideology); and for feminists, power was something held by men. These models rely on stable identities.

Foucauldian work runs against this idea that power can be possessed by certain people and not by others. Instead, Foucault points out that power is something which can be practiced by people in specific situations, which will produce other reactions and resistances, and isn't tied to specific groups or identities. This fits in well with developments in theories such as feminism, where it has been noted that 'women' are not one unified group. This should remind you of Butler's theories of "Gender Trouble".