Great Teachers Series: Michel Foucault

2. Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

Michel Foucault is my avatar. He is the bald-headed man you see when you visit this site and the Facebook page that goes with it. There are many reasons why I chose Foucault, reasons that should be clear by the end of this post. Years ago, as I was sitting in the teacher’s lounge during a relatively light day, I started reading my copy of Madness and Civilization on which I had been working for a while. Before I could get into a sentence, a young teacher sarcastically said “oooh, you’re reading Foucault”, as if I had taken out the book to impress her. I did not bother to explain that Foucault’s work was the type of stuff I just read for pleasure, the same way people read Twilight or Harry Potter.

I chose Foucault as my avatar just in case she, or people like her, are reading this blog. It is an indication of who I am, or at least strive to be. It is also a foreshadowing of the types of ideas one will encounter upon reading the posts here. That is because Foucault’s dense historical works have worn deep channels in my brain. Foucault represented to me the final frontier. He brought my two favorite intellectual pursuits, history and philosophy, together in a way no other thinker could begin to touch. It was initially a maddening experience. My first encounter with the world of Foucault was The Order of Things, which starts by describing in painstaking detail Diego Velazquez’s famous painting, Las Meninas. Interlaced with these details were allusions to how it all fit in with the topic of the book, which was nothing less than how the western world has organized the human sciences. After 5 or 6 attempts to make it through the introduction, I threw the book down in disgust, convinced that Foucault was a nutcase with nothing really to say.

That all changed a few months later when I picked up a free copy of Discipline and Punish. Thankfully, there were no giant, esoteric metaphors through which to wade before getting to the actual book. Although tough going at first, I was able to catch the flow of his writing, allowing me to ride the wave all the way to the end. Until this day, I count it as the second most important book I have ever read.

Discipline and Punish is ostensibly about the history behind the European prison reforms of the 1800s. Before that time, prisons were places where society exacted revenge on the people who had violated its laws. Prisoners would be stuck in dark cells and neglected, oftentimes as a prequel to some sort of physical punishment. Then along came the enlightened reformers. They believed prisons should be places where criminals are rehabilitated. This led to more humane treatment of prisoners and fairer standards of sentencing. The success of the reformers pretty much gave us the template for the prisons of today.

But there was much more behind the efforts of the reformers than just a concern for prisoners. As the book progresses, Foucault ties in their agenda to wider changes overtaking the western world at the time. The 1800s represented a fundamental rupture in historical time, an era when the entire power structure of the western world was shifting. Europe was changing from a monarchal world, where power was concentrated in a dynasty, to a capitalist world where power was diffused throughout a democratic marketplace. The efforts of the reformers were in step with this new power structure.

The new regime exercised discipline through many different channels. Rather than just the state, discipline began to be exercised by entities outside of the state: hospitals, schools, banks and anything else that dealt with masses of people. Its goals were not necessarily to enforce laws, but to enforce norms. Norms are determined by the bell curve. When your doctor tells you that you are overweight, it is because she is comparing your weight to the average of everyone else in your age or height group. When the school tells you that you are failing, it is comparing your grades to average grades of your peers. When a bank tells you that you have a bad credit score, they are comparing your score to an overall average. If found deficient in these areas, these institutions have ways of correcting you so that you eventually fall within that meaty part of the bell curve where most other people can be found. Doctors can recommend diet and exercise regimes, schools can provide extra tutoring and banks can refuse to give you a loan until you square away your other debts. This is what discipline looks like on an everyday basis.

In order to keep track of your progress, or lack thereof, each of these institutions treat you as a case. Your doctor has a file on you, the school has a permanent record and the banks have your credit history. These institutions have the facts of your case because they each exercise a certain type of power over you. Doctors can strip you naked and invade your body with any type of device they see fit. Schools can demand that you take a test to prove what you know. Banks can access your bills and other sensitive information. In short, they all have their own forms of examination. These examinations require that you expose certain parts of yourself to what Foucault calls a “normalizing gaze”. In a sense, your most private effects are constantly on display for these institutions, all so they can determine if you need some sort of correction.

The normalizing gaze is part of a society of surveillance. There are eyes on us constantly. Cameras and wiretaps are only the most explicit forms of this surveillance. The goal is always the same. We are under watch so much that we begin to behave as if even our most private actions will always be seen. In this way, we discipline ourselves so society does not have to. It is an efficient way to keep society under control.  It is a far cry from the type of discipline exercised in a monarchal regime, where secret police and informants watch our physical actions and the punishment for wrongdoing involves something done to our physical bodies. Hence the poor conditions of prisoners in such a regime. Hence also the efforts of the prison reformers of the 1800s. They represented not so much a more humane alternative to punishment as they did a more efficient alternative. It was the perfect form of punishment in a capitalist society obsessed with cost-effectiveness. Their prisons were not better because they aimed at rehabilitation but because they folded up all of the devices of the surveillance society under one roof.

The panopticon, from the perspective of a prison cell.

The modern prison combines all of the forms of discipline found in the outside world. Foucault uses the example of the panopticon. The panopticon comes out of the work of the English thinker Jeremy Bentham. In the middle of the prison floor there is a tower on top of which there is a compartment where one guard can see out but nobody can see in. Surrounding the tower are all of the cells of the prison. The prisoners in each cell have no way of telling whether or not the guard is watching them at a particular moment, so they must assume they are being watched at all times. In this way, they are forced to internalize the camera that they did not internalize in the outside world. On top of this, prisoners can count on the normalizing gaze of psychotherapists, doctors, educators, religious activists and everyone else that can be found in the outside world. The modern prison is the single most complete place of surveillance anywhere. It is the ultimate manifestation of an entire society structured around the panopticon.

In these modes of discipline and punishment, we see the fingerprints of the two greatest developments of modern western civilization: democracy and capitalism. Democracy is represented by the bell curve. Where most people can be found is considered “normal”. Capitalism is represented by the ruthless efficiency of our disciplinary regime. There is no need to employ armies of Cossacks to watch and terrorize the population in the name of the monarch. Instead, people can be trained to discipline themselves with a just a small investment on society’s part. There is more bang for the buck, so to speak. Foucault ends up by calling attention to the parlance surrounding modern day criminal justice. Someone who is incarcerated is said to be paying their “debt” to society. A trial can expect to uncover not only the facts of a case, but the character history of the defendant as well. Everyone who has had, or can have, a normalizing gaze on the defendant is called in to testify. In this way, not only can the judge discern the severity of the crime, but the severity of the dysfunction within the criminal. Like money changers, the years they mete out must be roughly equal to the crime and the criminal. They weigh everything on the scales of justice to ensure both society and the criminal get a fair deal. It is the convergence of the marketplace and the courtroom.

In all of this, we see the major tendency of all of Foucault’s thought. Ideas are more than just ideas. Ideas take hold or recede based upon power structures. The reformers were genuine in their humanitarian concern for the incarcerated. However, their brand of reform was only possible in an age that was becoming more democratic and market-oriented. Their agenda eventually won out because it was compatible with the power structure of the time. Looking at their words and deeds is a study in what Foucault would call archaeology. Words are artifacts that say something about the age in which they were conceived. We can examine them the way an archaeologist examines a stone tool or a piece of pottery from an ancient civilization. They give us a window into the culture of an entire historical epoch. Through examining the words of an era, we can say something about the societal forces that gave those words sense and made those words possible.

Some people have criticized Foucault for making too much of power. They have taken his ideas to mean that change can only happen if the ruling elite of the time allow it. The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called Foucault “the last rampart of the bourgeoisie.” He believed Foucault ended up supporting a power structure that crushed free will and human agency.

Yet, Foucault was one of the most actively progressive thinkers of the 20th century. He marched in the streets for prison reform and believed in what he called “unmasking” all of the forms of discipline that existed throughout society. More than most thinkers, Foucault joined philosophy and action together. He believed activism to be more than just a struggle for social justice. Instead, activism was the way we made new ideas real and new historical epochs possible. One of his more famous quotes illustrates this:

“We have to be there at the birth of ideas, the bursting outward of their force: not in books expressing them, but in events manifesting this force, in struggles carried on around ideas, for or against them.”

While philosophers loved irresistible logic, Foucault understood that ideas were messy affairs, forged in the fires of historical struggle and change. Rather than seeing Foucault as a supporter of the status quo, we must look at the example he set through his actions.

He believed people must live the change they want to see in society. This requires not only being aware of the type of change you want, but the type of society you want to change.


5 responses to “Great Teachers Series: Michel Foucault

  1. While I haven’t read a lot of Foucault, I read a paper recently that discussed his approach to authorship and power insofar as it could relate to the political ideas of Jacques Derrida.

    Many will say that Derrida often seems short-sighted and self-centered in his political articulations (although I personally don’t agree with this), but through Foucault it can easily be seen as much more of a self-fashioning.

    To read what you say about Foucault believing ‘people must live the change they want to see in society’ reminds me again that I really should put aside some time to get to read some of his writings in their entirety.

    • Thank you for taking the time to read. Derrida was always a huge critic of Foucault, but I never got around to reading his work. I need to put aside the time to peruse some Derrida so I can understand where his criticisms are coming from.

  2. Not sure what you mean by Foucault being accused of making “too much of power.” My understanding is that he is accused (not by me) of making it impossible to productively resist power because he sees it as so diffuse – not lodged in a ruling elite. It’s easier to see what the criticism is when you consider Foucault’s impact on academic scholarship and the move from, for instance, a more overtly political Marxist historiography toward a more “postmodern” cultural-history approach.

    • It means that Foucault (and this has been one of his more common criticisms) sees all ideas as functions of power. Instead of judging great ideas on their own merits (proof, logic, etc.), he usually ignores those traditionally philosophical pursuits to explain what those ideas say about the societies in which they evolved. It was one of his fundamental differences with Noam Chomsky on the issue of justice. Chomsky thought we could deduce what justice is from human nature and experience, while Foucault said our nature and experience are too tainted by our culture to get at a true meaning of justice.

      You’re right in that he believed power had become more diffuse by the 20th century. While this might not be able to be pinned on a ruling elite, it can certainly be traced back to a dominant ethos or zeitgeist. Foucault believed that, by unmasking all the forms of power (as diffuse as they are), we get a better understanding of the zeitgeist and a clearer idea of what to attack. This really helps explain his whole quote about struggles carried on around ideas in the above post.

      Po-mo, structuralism, I think Foucault, much like Nietzsche (who was one of his main inspirations), eschewed all labels. He certainly was a force for an “alternative” form of education in the College de France, call it whatever you like. His position as chair of “The History of Systems of Thought” speaks to his crusade to unmask and attack power structures, no matter how diffuse they might be.


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