School of
Social Sciences
___Introduction to Sociology
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Identity And Embodiment -
Foucault For Beginners

 


 

Michel Foucault (1926 - 1984)
by Jane Louis-Wood

(Foucault is pronounced foo-coh, if you are concerned with impressing your mates)

Foucault has been lauded as one of the foremost thinkers of the twentieth century. His work, a radical fusion of historical and philosophical investigation that confounds the claims of both disciplines to provide a rational, evolutionary framework for the human story, is passionately debated in his native France and has been revered - and reconfigured - by the humanities faculties of the principal American universities.

Born in Poitiers and educated at the prestigious and fiercely competitive ENS (Ecole Normale Superieure) in Paris, his earlier works draw on the Hegelian tradition which dominated the intellectual climate of post-war France. From that tradition Foucault retains two key elements: the impulse to theorise and problematise the relationship between general history and the history of ideas, and a preoccupation with the human subject - how individuals are constituted as knowing, knowable and self-knowing beings. However, he clearly rejects from the same tradition the notion that history is a total process with a coherent overall meaning and progressive linear direction, and that the human subject can be effectively mapped by discrete or definitive sciences.


"I wondered how it was that knowledge could have arisen, changed, developed and offered scientific theory new fields of observations and objects, and how scientific learning had been imported into it."


Re-reading Hegel through Nietzsche and Heidigger, and in the context of a post-wars I and II, post-Holocaust Europe, Foucault sought to account for the way in which human beings have, historically, become the subject and object of political, scientific, economic, philosophical, legal and social discourses and practices. His work analyses how subjectivity becomes both the product and source of knowledge and power through the operation of:


dividing practices: how, for example, psychiatry divides the mad from the sane;

scientific classification: how science classifies the individual as the subject of life (biology), labour (economics) and language (linguistics);

subjectification: the way the individual turns his or herself into a subject of health, sexuality, manners etc.


Foucault examines the intimate and sometimes disconcerting relationship between these forms of scientific knowledge and and the social practices, techniques and power relations through which they are developed and applied. His historical researches consider concepts - madness, criminality, sexuality - and how they have been used and constituted in particular periods (generally Europe from the seventeenth century onwards, though his later books concentrate on Greek and Roman antiquity) and particular disciplines or thematic fields (psychiatry, medicine, linguistics, penal practice, sexual conduct) to articulate systems of thought about human beings and the way human identity is constituted and codified.


"Unknown to themselves, the naturalists, economists and grammarians employed the same rules to build their theories. It is these rules of formation, which were never formulated in their own right, that I have called, some what arbitrarily perhaps, archaeological."


"Archaeology", as the investigation of that which renders necessary a certain form of thought, implies an excavation of unconsciously organised sediments of thought. Unlike a history of ideas, it does not assume that knowledge accumulates towards any historical conclusion. In this way, archaeology, as Foucault's designates it, ignores individuals and their histories. It prefers to investigate the impersonal structures of knowledge and power. However, in each of his major texts Foucault was to return to the effects and actions of knowledge and power on the body.


Foucault's recurring lesson is that the nature and limits of the thinkable, both in theory and in practice have changed more often, more radically and more recently than science - be it philosophy, astronomy or sociology - tends to assume. Concepts such as normality or sexuality, through which we know think ourselves and our identities are divined by Foucault as contingent and potentially dispensable historical constructs. He created the term genealogy to reveal discourse at the moment it appears in history as a system of constraint upon the subject:


Genealogy allows for historical change, is not bothered with finding a truth to history or describing neutral, archaeological structures of knowledge, but is interested in history as the will to power.


And he created the term episteme to articulate the concealed or "underground" pattern or structure which allows thought to organise itself and creates, or appear to create, historical change. Each discernible historical period has its own episteme, which limits the totality of experience, knowledge and power as it is thinkable in that period, and how it consequently governs the boundaries of scientific thinking in that period. Even whilst creating a new vocabulary for the articulating the pattern of history and thought, Foucault was aware of its insufficiency - an inability to account for the way in which one scientific episteme shifted to another, or how two epistemes overlapped. It was a problem whose insolubility he acknowledged.


Rejecting the Enlightenment concept of ultimate truth or truths about human society, Foucault repudiates the search for such truth as a path to intellectual or political freedom. The implications of Foucault's analyses are complex and challenging: that power and freedom are not seen as incompatible; that power or our capacity to act on others and ourselves, is not an intrinsic evil, but an ineluctable social fact, and that freedom is a practice that can never be made safe by institutional guarantees.


Political activity and pot plants


There is a strong reluctance amongst contemporary academics to consider the private lives of philosophers or theorists, but Foucault's private life deserves some consideration, both for its significance to his academic stature, and to provide an additional form of historical context for the work he produced.


Foucault was raised in a bourgeois Catholic home, a difficult and antisocial young man who, during his years at the ENS attempted suicide and attacked another student, he was a queer who never entirely left the closet, a heavy drinker, a dope smoker who grew hash plants on the window ledge of his Paris flat and was familiar with opium, cocaine poppers and LSD, a charming host and bon viveur who numbered the glamourous and the notorious amongst his friends, a frequenter of San Franciscan bathhouses who declared that S&M was not an aggressive practice, but one which created new pleasures.


In common with a number of his academic peers in post-war France he was to join the PCF (Parti Communiste Francaise, the French Communist Party) but he was never at ease within a political movement that would have rejected his homosexuality as evidence of bourgeois decadence. Although keen to introduce the issue of homosexuality to left wing political life, he was reticent about active engagement with the FHAR (Front Homosexuel d'Action Revolutionnaire) and feared that such groups would lead to ghettoisation, declaring that the label "gay" could be as oppressive as any other. He joined with other public figures in vociferously condemning the brutally harsh political regime in Poland (where he taught briefly), and the French government's laissez faire attitude towards that regime. He helped to found the GIP (Groupe d'information sur les prisons) which collated and distributed information on the state of the French prison system, attempting to expose its inadequacies and inequalities via questionnaires sent to the prisoners and their families. His support of a thief he believed wrongly imprisoned, whose release he assiduously campaigned for, and who subsequently reoffended, considerably damaged his reputation.


His death in 1984 was from an AIDS-related illness. It is not unreasonable to deduce that the fact of his sexuality and the illness he contracted as a result of it, informed his writing, particular where it deals with confinement, pleasure and the social construction of sexuality and accounts for his repeated return from the archaeology of the development of social practices and power relations to how they are applied and enacted upon the human body.



More Material On This Website  External Link
Two excellent essays on Michel Foucault by Jane Louis-Wood:  
Foucault For Beginners Foucault Pages (External Link)
Madness And Civilisation  


These pages were originally written by: Angus Bancroft and Sioned Rogers
Redesigned and updated by: Pierre Stapley - 2010