Discipline, Punish, and Confuse
September 16, 2006 10:35 AM   Subscribe

Explain Foucault to me like I was a 10 year old.

I've read bits of Discipline and Punish and I've read many secondary sources... but I always feel like I'm missing a very large piece of the puzzle and it's never really clicked for me. Everything I've read is very intreaguing. Anyone care to take a stab?

For what it's worth, I think I understand a bit of The History of Sexuality and I understand Bentham's Panoptican, but I don't nessecarly see the totality of the connection. It's primarly Discipline and Punish I'm trying to understand, but I'm open to less known work too.
posted by trinarian to Religion & Philosophy (24 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
It's all about power: power, its manifestations, its structures, and the relationship of the subject (and subjection) to those structures, whether physical or discursive.
posted by holgate at 10:46 AM on September 16, 2006

Try this.
posted by lalochezia at 10:54 AM on September 16, 2006

Response by poster: lalochezia: I'm in China... English books are hard to come by.
posted by trinarian at 11:07 AM on September 16, 2006

OK, you asked for simple. In Foucault's view (and he cribs a lot of this from Nietzsche), there are two basic kinds of power:

1) The 'pre-modern' form of power is what most people think of when they think of power: the power to force people to do things, or prohibit them from doing them; a kind of power founded on the threat of direct, bodily violence. The primary metaphor for this kind of power is the king's public execution of those who have transgressed his law.

2) The 'modern' form of power is different. In the simplest terms, it is the power to define the standards of what is right and wrong, normal and abnormal, acceptable and perverse. This power is obtained by constantly surveilling people, collecting information about them, and eventually getting people to perform surveillance on themselves; it is founded not on the threat of violence, but on people's general aversion to being classified as abnormal, bad, or perverse, and thus their internalization of these standards. The primary metaphor for this kind of power is the "panopticon" - the jail that arranges prisoners around a central watchtower, so that they are always under surveillance; eventually (in theory at least), actual jailers become useless, as the prisoners come to monitor themselves. This metaphor can be applied to sexuality as well: e.g., whereas in the past certain sexual activities were prohibited as morally wrong, forcing people not to do them; now they are classified as abnormal in some way, convincing people not to do them.

In Foucault's view, many attempts to reform things and make them more humane merely replace one type fo power with another: prisons to not inflict as much physical suffering, but subject prisoners to constant surveillance and management; the insane are no longer cast out of society, but are classified as 'abnormal;' and people in general are no longer subject to the arbitrary violence of the king, but are now subject to constant classification and surveillance, so that power is constantly at work, even if it cannot be directly traced back to a particular powerful person or institution.

Depending on your point of view, all of this is (1) extremely profound, relevant, and disturbing; (2) mildly interesting but only somewhat relevant to today's world; or (3) total hogwash. I personally am in camp (2).
posted by googly at 11:10 AM on September 16, 2006 [9 favorites]

I just read this, and it's great:
Understanding Foucault
posted by girlpublisher at 11:12 AM on September 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

Here are the SparkNotes for Foucault's work...Foucoult is definitely worth reading, but having some assistance is certainly helpful. I used the guide in conjunction with reading Discipline and Punish in a philosophy class, and I found that the guide was very well-written and clear. I read the book, read the notes, then read the book again, and it all clicked.
posted by apple scruff at 11:16 AM on September 16, 2006

Response by poster: i get stuck here a lot... so he's suggesting there was no normative social behavior before the modern era? that just seems ludicrous.
posted by trinarian at 11:22 AM on September 16, 2006

It can seem that way, but he isn't making a real historical argument, more a conceptual one. The two kinds of power ('pre-modern' and 'modern') coexist side-by-side, but the latter has become more dominant in the past ~200 years.
posted by googly at 11:29 AM on September 16, 2006

Response by poster: it seems ancient times were even less private and more normalized, rich with religon and taboo and custom, than modern societies.

i know i'm missing something...
posted by trinarian at 11:31 AM on September 16, 2006

Best answer: The key thing here is the importance of modern forms of collecting information and categorizing people. You're right that there have always been classifications of good and bad, right and wrong, etc. What is new IFNSHO* is the finely-grained forms of classification we have now: not just sane/insane, but hundreds of DSM-IV pages of different kinds of psychological illness; not just saint/sinner, but hundreds of kinds of social and sexual deviancy; not just healthy/sick, but thousands of different ways of being sick, or at risk of illness, or predisposed to illness, or possibly ill. IFNSHO, this endless classification establishes standards against which we are all constantly measuring ourselves and each other - and this is an exercise of power, not a neutral collection of facts.

* In Foucault's not-so-humble opinion.
posted by googly at 11:42 AM on September 16, 2006

I imagine you are having trouble with Foucault because, as Gertrude Stein (Foucault's writing has strong resemblances to hers, interestingly) said in another context, "there is no there there," or, for a parallax view, as J. H. Conway said of G. Spencer-Brown's Laws of Form, Foucault's work is "beautifully written, but content-free."
posted by jamjam at 11:58 AM on September 16, 2006

Best answer: I think that in order to really get at this, it's important to take a step back and look at Foucault's more fundamental claim about the relationship between Knowledge and Power.

Broadly, he merges the idea of Knowledge and Power into a single concept called Power/Knowledge. By doing this, he is attempting to show that whoever is in charge of dictating what we, collectively, 'know' is therefore in a position of great power.

For instance, scientific 'knowledge' is responsible for ordering the world into the categories that googly described above which allowed for the institutions of hospitals, prisons, etc. to emerge in the way that they did. It allowed the naturalization of an idea of 'normal' in contrast to which the institutional society could then define as 'abnormal'. If these claims can be demonstrated 'scientifically', then they will take on signficantly greater authority.

In this sense, the real difference between the 'modern' and the 'pre-modern' in Foucault is what he calls an 'epistemic shift' -- a change in the way we, collectively, think about knowledge. The modern 'episteme', the emergence of which can be broadly mapped onto the Enlightenment and the subsequent Industrial Revolution, makes a claim about the type of knowledge that it is possible to have -- a claim, basically, that we as human subjects and as a society in general CAN know things. This is the basic supposition of scientific rationalism, right?

But as a result, those claims which are made with the authority of scientific rationalism -- which are often fallacious and often motivated by some sort of political agenda -- have a stronger 'truth' claim than those which cannot claim the same authority. Lots of people like to pair this idea up with the thinking of Thomas Kuhn, whose idea of 'paradigmatic shifts' shows pretty convincingly that what 'knowledge' IS changes pretty dramatically over time, based on what sort of practical questions the scientific community has to solve at any given moment.

So in many ways, Discipline and Punish is simply about how a certain social and political order reproduces and naturalizes certain kinds of knowledge -- what is an acceptable truth claim, what is morally/ethically acceptable, what are accepted narrations of history, etc.

One important point, however, which I believe is very often ignored to the great detriment of those who try to use Foucault to justify their poltical thinking, is that Foucault is NOT saying 'and therefore, we need to have a revolution.' His claim is that every social relationship and every social order will -- by its very definition -- be constituted by relationships of power/knowledge. Any institutional order, therefore, must be replaced by another. In an interview titled "On the Genealogy of Ethics: An Overview of Work in Progress", which might be a good resource (he is often clearer in his interviews than in his writing because the interviewers are asking for exactly the same clarifications that you and i often want when we are reading), he says:

...I am not looking for an alternative...My point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous, which is not exactly the same as bad. If everything is dangerous, then we always have something to do.
I think Foucault is very useful, but that people often want to make him into a kind of poltical activist in a way he never intended -- he's an important critical historian who is urging a certain kind of skepticism about how we are socialized to think about political possibilities, but he's not a revolutionary.

I hope this helps a little.
posted by milkman at 12:17 PM on September 16, 2006 [2 favorites]

Foucault can't be explained in simple declarative sentences, such as would be appropriate for a reasonably bright ten year-old.

This is largely because he's a fucking charlatan who, throughout his career, articulated essentially incoherent arguments.
posted by enrevanche at 12:41 PM on September 16, 2006 [3 favorites]

This power is obtained by constantly surveilling people, collecting information about them, and eventually getting people to perform surveillance on themselves; it is founded not on the threat of violence, but on people's general aversion to being classified as abnormal, bad, or perverse, and thus their internalization of these standards.

One small addendum here: As I understand it, a key element of the panopticon concept is the idea that the "prisoners" don't know if they are being surveilled at a particular time or place, but know that they could be surveilled at any time or place, which thus reduces the amount of actual power or control needed to maintain order. One invisible guard who might be anywhere vs. an army of highly visible guards everywhere, to simplify.

In Bentham's version, the panopticon was an actual building designed to house actual prisoners with minimal supervision. To Foucault, as I understand it, the panopticon was a sort of metaphor for the way that a ubiquitous mass media culture and the information age generally extended this sort of control to all of modern life.

Of course, I've read more about Foucault than I've actually read Foucault, so I might be a bit off in this. And am finding this thread very useful. Carry on, folks.
posted by gompa at 12:55 PM on September 16, 2006

You see, if you accept the non-dualism, or holism, implicit in the post-structuralist approach generally (ie, if you reject teleology, deferral, metanarratives, and any search for an ultimate ground for reality or law or ethics or anything), that commits you to two choices.
Note that nearly all of religious/enlightenment thought IN THE WESTERN TRADITION, generally, HAS committed to the search for an ultimate ground for reality/law/ethics. (from christianity to positivism to marxism and even to liberal individualism).
When you read Foucault thus, the "grand gesture", the "disruptive gesture", is thus quite a "sweeping" one. He (and many in the broad movement of which he was a part) did precisely that: they argued that the search for ultimates is, AT BEST, a RHETORICAL DEVICE. That there can never be (or, can never be known, which amounts to functionally the same thing) any ultimate ground for human activity/decisions/law/politics/ethics/society/ or knowledge.
This group - call them postmodernists or poststructuralists, whatever - argue this in various ways (and dont always agree with each other, by the way). So Derrida does it from a linguistic/literary approach, pointing out that if meaning can never be contained within a text, then the search for absolute meaning is impossible. Foucualt takes a different approach: he points out that meaning (and our ideas ABOUT meaning) have always evolved over time, in the context of our institutions and their work.
Both tend to highlight thus that meaning is as much a constructed ("invented") product and can never be an entirely 'discovered' product. Hence: we have no path towards absolute or universal knowledge/meaning/ethics, etc.
Now, if you're already an anarchist or a libertarian, (ie, you've already dismissed the 'ultimate' validity of institutional authority, whether secular or religious), then this is not really news. Is it? No. Tho it would buttress your position in a variety of ways.
On the other hand, not all that many people are libertarians or anarchists or religious radicals (in the 19th century dissenters tradition). For them, much of this can seem very threatening. That includes: those who believe in institutional/textual religion; positivists and "civilizing mission" types; as well as, on the left, Marxists (ie, teleological/dogmatic marxism). All these groups, and others, were threatened by the development of this school of thought. So thats part of the "big deal" of foucault and the general school of thought he was a part of; these sorts of political consequences for the status-quo.
Now, once you commit to such a non-dualist/holistic approach (ie, no absolutes; everything is related, and we humans play an active role in shaping our history by our own decisions), there are actually two alternate conclusions you might come to, as a result of such a holistic understanding of human history and society.
1) THEREFORE, its a war of all against all. IE, if everything I have comes at your expense, and vice versa, and all relations are relations of power, then lets have at it: lets go to war and decide it that way; there's no ultimate ethics anyway. This is what you might call the "Right-interpretation" (ie, politically Right/realpolitik) of the poststructuralist/postmodern movement; this is what has lended the reputation of relativism, as well, to this approach. You can see though, that this, again, is not really new. All kinds of traditional ideologies already embrace this view, from evangelical religion to laissez-faire theories of capitalist competition to marxist theories of simultaneous world revolution: its all or nothing for each of us. You also see echoes of it in the multiculturalist movement when it plays out as a form of zero-sum-game identity politics.
2) The other conclusion, however, if you commit to such a non-dualist understanding of history and society, is that: If its a zero-sum-game, then we had better learn to share, and be responsible for each other, out of a purely practical need. This interpretation emphasizes personal accountability to the other and to the whole. (as opposed to #1, which emphasizes the LACK of accountability to the whole). And again you'll notice this interpretation or its implicit ethics/politics, is not really new in any sense. Even within Enlightenment history, it is as old as Spinoza's holism and as old as the dissenting tradition in western religion and as old as the environmentalist movement and the transcendentalist movement out of whcih it grew. All these movements - LIKE #1 - ACCEPT the non-dualist/holistic nature of knowledge/existence. Thats not where they differ. They differ only in the conclusions they come to ON the basis of that premise.

Thats one way to look at it, I suppose.

SO all that is new here, is a) the language, approach, and vocabularies that this group of intellectuals used, especially leveraging off the structuralist movement's vocabulary (from the mid 50s, especially in France). b) That this group somehow managed to achieve preeminence and authority and an audience within certain sections of elite western academy (notably in America and France), which was something that these approaches had previously not been able to influence at this level before.

The idea that Foucault or poststructuralism solved everything; or that it is UNambiguously an aid for leftists, is nonsense.

It just highlighted in new ways, some age-old problems with certain western traditions (institutional tradictions) of knowing, whcih in western history were tied up with western institutional politics and the bases of their social authority.

Thats all.
posted by jak68 at 1:08 PM on September 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

Now, once you commit to such a non-dualist/holistic approach (ie, no absolutes; everything is related, and we humans play an active role in shaping our history by our own decisions)
I should clarify something here: cuz one vein of interpretation of poststructural thought, says that no human makes their own decisions; that since power-knowledge operates as an all encompassing web or relations, none of us is ever really 'free' in this sense (and the search for such absolute agential freedom would be - like all other similar searches - in vain).
You'll see this interpretation a lot, in the literature on poststructuralism/postmodernism.
However, keep in mind this is only one interpretation. Foucault did not agree with this conseqeunce (see his writings on "local knowledge", for instance). This was one of the points on which Foucault disagreed with the deconstructionists and derrida and baudrillard and other more radical poststructuralists. For Foucault, one could not declare the end of agency any more than one could declare its discovery. Foucualt was more interested in simply pointing out that you can talk about agency but dont mistake it for a 'substance'; it is there or isnt there on the basis of your relations in your immediate local environment; not as an absolute metaphysical reality.
posted by jak68 at 1:16 PM on September 16, 2006

I think that Jak68 is pretty much on the money, however i also think that there is an important third possibility -- one is not required to simply choose between what i would call realpolitik cynicism and a utopian egalitarianism. It is possible to recognize the dialectic (or maybe 'agonistic' is better, because it avoids Hegal) nature of social institution building and the contingency of all forms and categories of knowledge, but also be willing to identify and remain committed to self-consciously situated preferences. Those preferences can remain constructive and can even remain consistent with traditional liberal and humanist values, at leat up to a point.

I think that there is an important difference, therefore, to what the anarchists and liberatarians have long known, as jak68 suggests, and what is the implict project of Foucault (and, in a different way, Derrida as well). They specifically were interested in existing forms of social order. They wanted to better understand them -- and often that meant to push against the weaknesses in their foundations -- but they both implicitly placed value (or at least saw the necessity) in social order as such. That makes the utility of their 'critique' less sexy than people want it to be, but it is also more responsible, in some sense, because it is not naive about alternative possibiilities.

To me the critique is useful because it helps navigate the potentially dangerous incoherences in popular liberal humanism by allowing us to see that humanism as both inescapably the source of how we think (now) and as historically contingent, politically motivated, and deeply contradictory.
posted by milkman at 1:32 PM on September 16, 2006

This was quite a helpful thread.

I'd have thrown in something explicit about, for instance, Foucault's notion (if I remember my reading, it's been a handful of years) that an area of disciplinary knowledge - e.g. what is known/believed by physicists at a given moment - is likely to have more in common structurally with, say, what's believed at that moment by economists than the state of play in physics 50 or 100 years hence. He's dipping his toe there into a crowded pool of pomo knowledge-structure theorists, but I was taught these notions in an explicit and politically-relevant way re: Foucault. Whereas your Lyotards, your Derridas, were more gesturally political.

I should say though: I'm not convinced people should read Foucault himself. There are good explications of Foucault, and reading the original is gonna stick you in the middle of a translation into laboured English of a particular French academic vernacular. I'm with Camille Paglia on this one, partially: it's kind of a waste of time to read a lot of these products-of-the-60's French critics firsthand, because their laboured, mannered prose is best untangled. You can make a case for, say, A Thousand Plateaus, but not an airtight one. And Foucault's prose is largely unpalatable in English. I've no idea re: the original French.

But I wouldn't hold my breath for that either.
posted by waxbanks at 1:55 PM on September 16, 2006

Best answer: Broadly, he merges the idea of Knowledge and Power into a single concept called Power/Knowledge. By doing this, he is attempting to show that whoever is in charge of dictating what we, collectively, 'know' is therefore in a position of great power.

Sorry, but many, many of the comments in this thread are really on the wrong track. jak68's answer, in particular. This is the banal critique of Foucault that attempts to demote Foucault to a political philosopher. Foucault's conception of a power-knowledge (use a dash, huh) is much deeper than this; it's a metaphysical argument about the very nature of human knowledge and the world. Foucault is not making the trite observation that knowledge can be a means for power, he's saying that power and knowledge are functional forms of one another. This is not unlike the theory of electromagnetism that posits the existence of a single force which acts in two modes. Again, power-knowledge applies not only to human societies and disciplines, it applies to individuals and the world itself. D&P attempts to show how power-knowledge has propagated itself through European history in the same way an electromagnetic wave might propagate across space.

All of this has nothing to do with relativism and it's not a political argument at all. Foucault gets dragged out as spokesman for the big scary "Relativists" all the time but it's silly.

As for D&P, it's simply not something to be explained to ten year olds. If you had specific questions, that might be something, but there is no 'bite size' understanding available.

If you really want to understand Foucault the best you can do is to read Nietzsche. N is foundational for Foucault and if you can grasp the basics of N's "will to power" then Foucault will make a lot more sense. (He may even make too much sense; some people dismiss Foucault as "applied Nietzsche", using the difference between theoretical and applied physics.)
posted by nixerman at 3:01 PM on September 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

Forgive the banality of this particular deployment, but i think nixerman's answer is case in point. One way to obscure the mechanisms by which power-knowledge (both hyphens and dashes have been used at various points, thank you) operate politically is to obfuscate political arguments by making claims to metaphysics.

Those of us who are interested in political philosophy -- which, if one is to approach seriously, also requires ontological, epistemological, and ethical investigations -- would not necessarily see the move from metaphysics to politics as a 'demotion'. Regardless, Foucault was neither a political thinker, nor was he a metaphysical philosopher -- but he used the tools and insights of both at various times to achieve his real project, which was that of a cultural historian.

It is also important to note that Foucault was not always consistent with himself, and that although he never adequately resolves the structure-agency conflict in his work, it is simplistic (in the most sophistic way) to presume that the subject of his history is power-knowledge, which is the implication of nixerman's analogy with electromagnetic waves.

I agree that reading Nietzsche will help to illuminate Foucault. But I also think that it's hard to grasp Nietzsche if you haven't read Kant, Schopenhauer or Plato. And so on. So what to do?

The fact that Foucault has been deployed as political philosophy is reason enough to look at it as political philosophy. And to presume that students and scholars cannot interrogate his ideas on the level of political philosophy is to shut off the only way in to metaphysics that makes sense -- because doing politics, at bottom, requires it.
posted by milkman at 3:55 PM on September 16, 2006

What is new IFNSHO* is the finely-grained forms of classification we have now

Which is a concept that he derives to some extent from the work of Georges Canguilhem on the emergence of 'normative' and 'pathological' (and nosology in general) in post-Cartesian medicine.
posted by holgate at 4:57 PM on September 16, 2006

Milkman writes: one is not required to simply choose between what i would call realpolitik cynicism and a utopian egalitarianism.

Milkman is right about that, of course. A good exposition of a 'navigational' interpretation of Foucauldian 'ethics', is Falzon's Foucault and Social Dialogue. Its an interpretation I tend to agree with as well, that the consequences of Foucault's approach is not a "choice" between cynicism and utopia (tho my argument was merely that thats how its usually received), but rather a way to transcend that choice by a particular notion of "necessary dialogue" and its imperitive/inherent role in human society. However, this is an interpretation (brought out most fully by Falzon) that is not yet the popular interpretation of Foucault or his intellectual movement more generally.

Nixman's worries that we are not paying enough attention to the metaphysical implications of postmodernism, isnt off the mark. However, it would also be unwise to think that "All of this has nothing to do with relativism and it's not a political argument at all.", as Nixman suggests. Foucault's metaphysical challenges certainly have consequences for western politics and its metaphysical bases; Foucault himself was quite the political activist, all his life, campaigning for prisoners rights and other such things. (much more of an activist than Derrida, for instance). He was well aware of the political implications of his work. SO why shouldnt we be, too?
And as milkman points out, nixman's interpretation of Foucualdianism as 'uninvolved knowledge' goes against the very premise of foucault's work.

I'd also disagree with nixman's assertion that there is no 10 year old version of foucault. If the significance of these works cant be brought out in common language, I'd suggest the fault is ours, our inability to understand and articulate or connect these movements with a plain language presentation. I'm not as ready as nixman to declare or imply any intellectual elitism and thus flee from the problem of exposition. This stuff isnt religion and it isnt faith; its social science and political science and literary theory. Its significances should be ultimately communicable in ordinary language to interested persons. (and you'll notice Foucault was much more willing to do just that - more so than the more radical side of postmodernism as exemplified in Deconstruction and post-marxism, both of which tended towards a 'zen-like' and cultish (deliberately obfuscating) use of language).

Lastly, Neitzche certainly is important to Foucault, but Foucault himself once commented that the single most important influence on his thought, though a person whom he has rarely cited explicitly, was Heidegger, not Neitzche. And if you understand Foucault's obsession with the intersection of power and discourse on the body, that makes a lot of sense.
posted by jak68 at 10:10 PM on September 16, 2006

Best answer: trinairan, to speak more directly to your question on D&P: D&P has two main themes. One is Foucault as cultural historian, interested in showing and investigating how "unstable" and "discontinuous" western notions of justice, punishment, authority etc - have been. This is the cultural historical tendency in the book, starting out with that much celebrated 10 page grotesque description of a drawing and quartering - which is always popular with undergrads in a teaching environment. As is the question he immediately raises: within a few decades, such spectacles vanished: Why? Its a great question, and goes to the heart of F's point about unstable regimes of knowledge.
The second theme is a phenomenological one: How these regimes of knowledge, in modernity, have multiplied (tho he doesnt explain why they have multiplied), and how in their very multiplication (which constitues the 'invention of man in the 19th century" - another great foucauldian provocative statement; by this he means that the discourses that describe man, as an economic being, a biological being, a social being, etc - all developed (institutionally*) starting in the 19th century). For F, these institutional-discourses have resulted in a minute-level knowledge-control of the human body. That is, for Foucault, in the modern era, man is less free (in this sense) than he has ever been.
Those are the two themes of the book. The book is also a good example of other Foucauldian obsessions, for instance, his locating these problems in the context of the modern "institution", (in this case, the development of the modern prison), and using institutional history as proxy, an archive, and a method, by which to draw out these problems. That approach alone has proved to be extremely fertile in academic socio-cultural history writing, since Foucault. The institution, for Foucault, is a very special site of intellectual-historical interest, a special site of socio-cultural events; a site on which all these issues that he's interested in neatly converge and interact.

Within the larger framework of poststructuralism tho, his argument is part of the larger argument about changing our understanding of what "free" means in the first place. For example, the paradox I mentioned: How can we be more free when our body is more tightly watched and controlled than ever before in history? F suggests we need to change our understanding of what it means to be free; especially, to move away from treating it as a substance to be acquired and held, discovered and known. Here though F runs into some problems because he never quite develops (except thru implication or vague hints) what this alternate discourse about justice or freedom would look like. (that problem in general has stymied the movement). however, its main criticisms of the cartesian approach (especially its contradictions and paradoxes) have been largely accepted by many in academe.

I'd second waxman's suggestion to approach F via secondary sources first. There's no shortage of secondary literature on F, tho it varies in quality. Your best bet is to browse thru them over time and see what you like. Some of them are quite good.
posted by jak68 at 11:34 PM on September 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This has been a fascinating discussion, but quite a specialised one. I'd like to go back to the original question, and try to explain Foucault -- as far as I understand him -- as clearly and simply as I can. This may be (indeed, will be) crude and oversimplified, but I hope it may be helpful to people who are encountering Foucault for the first time and still struggling to get their bearings.

(Caveat: I am a historian, and I read Foucault as a historian. This means that I tend to go for a 'practical' rather than a 'theoretical' reading of his work. THIS IS NOT THE ONLY WAY TO READ FOUCAULT and I fully expect other people to disagree with my take on him.)

The first thing to realise about Foucault is that his work challenges the idea of historical progress. Most of us, if we are honest with ourselves, would like to believe that we are living in an era of progress -- that the last 500 years have seen a gradual shift away from 'power' (the power of kings, the power of emperors, the power of the church) towards 'freedom' (liberal democracy, individualism, etc). Foucault says that this is an illusion -- because power is ubiquitous; power is as ever-present as the air we breathe.

One of the recurring themes of Foucault's work is that every apparent step towards 'freedom' has, in fact, involved a reassertion of power in a more subtle form. A couple of examples:

1. (From Discipline and Punish:) In modern times, European societies have chosen to lock deviant individuals up in institutions (prisons, mental hospitals, etc). Why is this? One interpretation would see it as a shift away from retribution (kill them! torture them!) towards reformation (help them to get better). Foucault challenges this simplistic idea of progress. In his view, prisons and reformatories are part of a more subtle system of power, exercised not through outward, physical violence but through inward, mental surveillance.

2. The last fifty years have witnessed a sexual revolution in European society -- marked by the decline of traditional sexual morality, and the rise of a more libertarian sexual ethic. Does this mean we now have more freedom? Foucault says no. The sexual revolution exacts a terrible price on its children, who now tell themselves: 'yes, I can have sex with whoever I want, but I must be young, I must be beautiful, I must be sexy, and I must stay that way ..' Once again, what appears to be 'freedom' actually proves to be a more insidious form of power.

Foucault's challenge to 'progress' is, of course, chiefly directed against Marxism. But it can also be read as an attack on liberalism -- which is why so many people are frightened of Foucault, and why there are such desperate attempts to discredit him as an 'intellectual charlatan' and so forth. Anyone who likes to invoke 'Enlightenment values' (i.e. modernity, the pursuit of secular reason, etc) will find themselves threatened by Foucault's work. (This has particular resonance in France because of the totemic significance attached to the French Revolution as the pivotal event in modern history.)

But to say that Foucault rejects historical 'progress' does not mean that he rejects historical change. Indeed, most of his work is devoted to the question of what historical change might look like if you take progress out of the equation. (This is really Foucault's 'big idea' .. and everything I've said so far is really nothing more than a preliminary clearing of the ground.) In The Order of Things he uses the idea of the 'episteme' (basically, a system of knowledge; a 'mindset', you might say) to distinguish between different historical periods; though he never really manages to explain how one episteme can make way for another, how (e.g.) a 'medieval' episteme can be replaced by a 'Renaissance' episteme. In his later work he goes more deeply into the question of how knowledge is structured and organised (or to put it another way, how ideas fit together to make a culture), and uses the metaphor of an 'archaeology of knowledge' to help him express this.

The final point I want to make about Foucault is that he is a deeply moral writer -- which makes it odd that he should be characterised, as he so often is, as the patron saint of a morally irresponsible, anything-goes postmodernism. His work is fuelled by a deep moral anger at the misuse of power. Until you've understood that, I don't think you can begin to understand Foucault at all.

OK, I'll stop there. Apologies to Foucault experts for the over-simplifications; but everyone needs to start somewhere, and I hope some people find this helpful. With all due respect to jak68 and others, I do think that Foucault is actually a very accessible writer, much more accessible than he is often thought to be, and the best way to approach him is simply to plunge in, without feeling that you have to do a lot of background reading first.
posted by verstegan at 4:01 AM on September 18, 2006 [8 favorites]

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