MICHEL FOUCAULT

How Foucault Matters Today

As noted above, Foucault has served as theoretical inspiration across a multitude of disciplines, so much so that the term “Foucauldian” is often applied to analyses that utilize his theoretical approach. Outside of academia, Foucault’s work is of interest to anyone looking to better understand and appreciate the subtle ways that power works in social life, particularly with regard to how seemingly mundane practices and ideas structure our personal experiences and senses of self. After reading Foucault, it’s hard to think about your society or yourself in quite the same way.

Despite these early obstacles, Foucault eventually became one of France’s most notable intellectuals. His thesis on the history of the concept of “madness” (eventually accepted in France in 1961) was immediately well received, and Foucault continued to write influential books on some of the West’s most powerful social institutions, such as medicine, prisons, and religion, as well as groundbreaking works on more abstract theoretical issues of power, knowledge, sexuality, and selfhood. While the objects of Foucault’s studies seem to range widely, they all tend to focus on how knowledge of human beings is inextricably connected to power over them. For Foucault, the many modern concepts and practices that attempt to uncover “the truth” about human beings (either psychologically, sexually, or spiritually) actually create the very types of people they purport to discover.

Foucault was also well known in France for his political activism. Foucault took a number of leftist (and sometimes unpopular) political stands, like supporting prisoners’ rights in France and protesting the Vietnam and Algerian wars.

Foucault died in 1984 from an AIDS-related illness. Today he remains one of the most influential and widely read social theorists in recent history. Foucault’s work has been groundbreaking not only for sociology, but also for anthropology, cultural studies, psychology, gender studies, gay and lesbian studies, philosophy, and literary criticism.

Key Concepts: 

Discourse

Foucault was interested in the phenomenon of discourse throughout his career, primarily in how discourses define the reality of the social world and the people, ideas, and things that inhabit it. For Foucault, a discourse is an institutionalized way of speaking or writing about reality that defines what can be intelligibly thought and said about the world and what cannot. For example, in The History of Sexuality, Foucault argued that a new discourse of "sexuality" had fundamentally changed the way we think about desire, pleasure, and our innermost selves. In Foucault’s argument, discourses about sexuality did not discover some pre-existing, core truth about human identity, but rather created it through particular practices of power/knowledge (see next entry).

Power/Knowledge

For Foucault, power and knowledge are not seen as independent entities but are inextricably related—knowledge is always an exercise of power and power always a function of knowledge. Perhaps his most famous example of a practice of power/knowledge is that of the confession, as outlined in History of Sexuality. Once solely a practice of the Christian Church, Foucault argues that it became diffused into secular culture (and especially psychology) in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Through the confession (a form of power) people were incited to “tell the truth” (produce knowledge) about their sexual desires, emotions, and dispositions. Through these confessions, the idea of a sexual identity at the core of the self came into existence (again, a form of knowledge), an identity that had to be monitored, cultivated, and often controlled (again, back to power). It is important to note that Foucault understood power/knowledge as productive as well as constraining. Power/knowledge not only limits what we can do, but also opens up new ways of acting and thinking about ourselves.

 

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