Key Theories of Michel Foucault

Over three decades after his death, Michel Foucault’s (1920–1984) legacy continues to impact upon the humanities. Key phrases and concepts drawn from Foucault’s historical work now form part of the everyday language of criticism and analysis. Foucault’s texts continue to resonate with contemporary readers, and this resonance can be misunderstood in a chronological survey of his key ideas and works, since the man who rejected notions of historical progress – preferring to work with the notion of what he called the epistemic break – produced works that cannot be neatly fitted into a condensed and orderly summary that appears to move smoothly from one text to another. In other words, it is important when reading any summary of Foucault’s life and work, to think of his theories as forming a critical constellation, rather than a developmental, logical system. Born in Poitiers, France, Foucault studied at school with the great commentator on Hegel,

Madness and Civilization (1961) was a huge tome in its manuscript form, published in French at over six hundred pages, and in much abbreviated form in its English translation; regardless of which version is read, it is a powerful and moving account of different historical perspectives on defining and confining ‘madness’. Foucault’s central thesis is that of epochal shifts, or alignments, between those subjects deemed mad, and those who are part of the ‘unreason’ of the human world: the subjects who have transgressive and excessive sexualities, ideas and modes of behaviour. In charting these alignments throughout history, Foucault arrives at the birth of the asylum, the constitution of the ‘insane’ subject, placed in confinement and under scientific surveillance. Rather than seeing this as progress, Foucault projects such a procedure as being repressive and punishing. Foucault’s companion text to this study was his next book, Naissance de la clinique: Une Archéologie du regard medical (1963) translated in 1973 as The Birth of the Clinic: An Archeology of Medical Perception. While the leading semiotician Roland Barthes praised Madness and Civilization as ‘a cathartic question asked about madness’, it was Jacques Derrida’s critique – ‘Cogito and the History of Madness’ – that received the most explosive reply from Foucault, in the form of an angry essay published nine years later as ‘My Body, This Paper, This Fire’. Foucault would receive a much more widespread response from the public to his third major historical study Les Mots et les choses: Une Archéologie des sciences humaines (1966) translated in 1970 as The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences.

Michel_Foucault_sithumThe ‘archaeological’ method utilized by Foucault owed a great debt to the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: where historians had once looked for connections and developmental continuity through time, Foucault, following Nietzsche, now looked for historical breaks and ruptures. In The Order of Things, he sketches out the a priori discourses that constitute knowledge of the world and of being, discourses that create the ‘episteme’ of any particular period. For example, in what Foucault calls ‘Classical’ thought, metaphysics is possible because of the concept of human finitude (in relation to forces that transcend humanity); for Foucault, an epistemic shift occurs when human finitude is measured not in relation to something else (say, God), but when it is measured in its own terms (say, physiology or the sciences of the body). In other words, modernity is constituted by the epistemic break whereby metaphysics is replaced with self-reflexive knowledge of actual human existence (the human sciences, the humanities, etc.). But modernity, in turn, gives way to another violent epistemic break: that of the period in which Foucault ends his book (the late 1960s), with its political and intellectual upheavals in France, and the rise of structuralist and poststructuralist thought. Now the a priori or paradigm of existence becomes, for Foucault, language – the rise of the language philosophies, communication models, Saussurian linguistics, semiotics, and so on. These are what constitute ‘the subject’ and in the process thereby begin to erase and efface prior notions of self-centred subjectivity, humanity and that historically located entity known as ‘man’. Foucault’s controversial thesis in The Order of Things triggered much enthusiastic debate, but in retrospect it is intriguing to note how in an interview Foucault called this enthusiasm a ‘passion for concepts and for what I will call “system” ’.6 The Order of Things was, for Foucault, more than simply another way of doing history: it was a revolution in thought. To explain his methodology and its full implications, Foucault went to work on a highly abstract work called L’Archéologie du savoir (1969), translated in 1972 as The Archaeology of Knowledge. The
poststructuralist theorist Gilles Deleuze sketches Foucault’s approach:

there is nothing prior to knowledge, because knowledge, in Foucault’s new concept of it, is defined by the combinations of visible and articulable that are unique to each stratum or historical formulation. Knowledge is a practical assemblage, a ‘mechanism’ of statements and visibilities.

The other important statement that needs to be added here is that the various permutations of knowledge do not proceed towards some final grand goal; thus Foucault’s archaeological method is resistant to Hegelian thought:

one can see to what extent it has freed itself from what constituted, not so long ago, the philosophy of history, and from the questions that it posed (on the rationality or teleology of historical development (devenir), on the relativity of historical knowledge, and on the possibility of discovering or constituting a meaning in the inertia of the past and in the unfinished totality of the present).

Apart from being an attack upon a generalized notion of more traditional historical studies, this is an implicit critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of History and Phenomenology of Spirit. Thus, Foucault says that in the traditional approach, by making the history of thought the ‘locus of uninterrupted continuities’, the subject is constructed in advance in a highly abstract manner, simultaneously providing ‘a privileged shelter for the sovereignty of consciousness’. Such an analysis suggests that the philosophy of history invests in the discontinuous only to gain a secure return: the discontinuous is thereby placed in a series controlled by the forces of a progressive development/evolution. Foucault’s focus on a methodological level of analysis is an attempt to question generalized teleological categories and ‘totalizations’, exemplified by Hegel’s ‘Absolute Spirit’, as well as being an attempt at providing a non-subject-centred account of the intersecting fields of study that surround and construct the sciences of the subject.

In the shift away from what Foucault calls the ‘unities’ of discourse exemplified by classical notions of: the book; the oeuvre; authorial intention; the recovery of self-presence and the return to origins, all of these humanist notions are rejected with a consequent re-focus away from interpretation to functional description. Thus, as critic Gary Gutting notes, the ‘archaeological’ method formulated in the Archaeology is ‘a historical method of inquiry, concerned not with structural possibilities but with actual occurences and their effects’. Foucault delimitates what he calls the discursive formation which has four basic elements. As Gutting notes, these are: the objects its statements are about, the kinds of cognitive stature and authority they have [enunciative modality], the concepts in terms of which they are formulated, and the themes or theoretical viewpoints they develop. Gutting stresses that the same discursive formation may be used as

a vehicle for discourse about different systems of objects, categorized in terms of different conceptual frameworks, and its statements will have a variety of enunciative modalities and may develop very diverse theoretical viewpoints . . . Foucault does not regard a discursive formation as distinguished by unity (of, e.g., objects, concepts, method) provided by its elements. Rather, a discursive formation is a ‘system of dispersion’ for its elements: It defines a field within which a variety of different, even conflicting, sets of elements can be deployed.

The ‘unity’ of any particular discursive formation is defined by the rules of its operation. Foucault argues there are four ‘types’ of rules governing the formation: (1) rules for the formation of objects; (2) rules for the formation of concepts; (3) rules specifying various procedures of intervention; (4) rules governing the formation of strategies. There is a certain degree of post-theorizing here, in that Foucault is rearticulating the methodology of his earlier works, thus there is more stress on the ‘unity’ of the earlier discursive formations, than upon their status as systems of dispersion. This can also be seen in the extent that certain ‘rules’ are given priority over others. However, Deleuze regards this as Foucault laying ‘the foundations for a new pragmatics’,  in that the ‘rules’ define ways in which the elements of the system operate in relation to one another; there is no transcendental set of rules that rises above the discursive formation to order and describe all others.

While all of Foucault’s texts rapidly impacted upon the worlds of literary theory and other methodologies within the humanities – especially once he started to visit the US in the early 1970s – it is perhaps his Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison (1975), translated in 1977 as Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, that has continued to inspire literary critics. This is not so much for the subject matter of the book, but for the metaphor of internalized surveillance, embodied most memorably in Jeremy Bentham’s prison design called the panopticon. Foucault’s concept of the ‘microphysics of power’ suggests that modern disciplinary methods are internalized and produce subjects that are constituted via a network of relations. The traditional ‘top down’ notion of power is thus replaced with one that is horizontal, not vertical. The panopticon, a prison where the prisoners believe themselves to be under total surveillance, functions as a metaphor explaining how and why subjects thereby modify their own behaviour. Applied to countless literary texts, the panopticon lives on in myriad  works of literary theory. Self-regulation is explored from another perspective in Foucault’s final works, a series of studies called A History of Sexuality. In many respects, this apparent shift of focus, from disciplinary discourses and institutions that have radically transformed and reinvented themselves, to that of the body and sexualities, may indeed be the major continuity in Foucault’s work, since bodily regimes have always been a subtext, be they overt or covert, textual or autobiographical, in his approach; Foucault’s impact remains high as the contemporary humanities follows the trajectories of his thought, and the discontinuous, but traceable, contours of his map of knowledge production and being.

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