Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The importance of teaching Foucault in a time of conformism

Every time I teach a course on that inimitable “archaeological” and simultaneously “genealogical” thinker Michel Foucault I realise how important it is for students to be exposed to, and engage with, his unique mode of transformative thinking and praxis, or perhaps, thinking AS praxis. For make no mistake, to discover Foucault as a philosopher is to engage in a philosophical exercise in self-transformation — if you emerge from your acquaintance with his work unchanged, you have not really encountered it.

Contrary to what most “philosophers” today believe — those who still move within the ambit of the conception of philosophy as a theoretical discipline, operating strictly within the “transcendentally” demarcated boundaries of reason (founded by Kant in the 18th century) — in Foucault’s philosophical practice new philosophical possibilities have been actualised. These point forward to a time when, as more than one Foucault scholar has remarked, Foucault will probably be seen, like Kant before him, as having left his imprint on the very character of philosophy in the late 20th century and beyond.

To be sure, the strange, paradoxical poststructuralist “logic” that pervades his work is also found in that of other poststructuralists, like Deleuze, Lacan, Nancy, Kristeva and Derrida, but nowhere with more conspicuous suggestiveness regarding possibilities of “transformative” action.

Why should this be the case? Foucault did not formulate a programme of political action, as far as I am aware. But he did better than that. Unlike doctrinaire Marxists, for example, who believe that society must of necessity develop dialectically towards the telos of a classless society, Foucault (like Machiavelli) knows that a struggle for power in all human relations — social, political, institutional, personal — will never cease.

His unique contribution to the issue of power and transformation may be stated in different ways, for instance relating to his early “archaeological” work as well as his later turn to “genealogy”.

What Foucault dubbed his “archaeology” consists in a painstaking uncovering of the “epistemic” presuppositions of the thought of an age — that is, those (mostly tacit or unconscious) beliefs about the nature of knowledge, or of science, that underpin the more overt philosophical or scientific work during a certain historical period.

For example, for Darwin to have written The Origin of Species, the tacit assumption, that species can, and do (under specific circumstances) emerge at certain historical, developmental stages, has to be presupposed. Someone living in the medieval period (or, for that matter, a “creationist” in the American mid-West, today) whose thinking about the differences among living beings rests on the tacit assumption, that God created all existing species “ex nihilo”, simultaneously, at the dawn of creation, just cannot factor the historical appearance of different species, at different times, into their thinking. In Foucault’s terms, the thinking of these distinguishable people is underpinned by what he terms different, incompatible “epistemes”, each recognisable by distinct classes of “objects”, distinctive “concepts” to describe these, and new kinds of “authority” relating to the knowledge of the objects in question.

It may appear as if this approach, which Foucault adopted in his archaeologies of insanity, clinical medicine and the social sciences, doesn’t have anything to do with what I initially referred to as “transformative action” in his project. Although the emphasis on such transformation becomes more evident in his later, “genealogical” work, it is already at work here, too, however. By foregrounding the different, irreconcilable “epistemes” on which the treatment of the insane during the so-called “classical period” (+- 1650-1800), as opposed to the modern era (from 1800 onwards) is tacitly predicated, Foucault is intimating that, in human affairs, nothing is cast in stone. Things have periodically changed, fundamentally, and they can change again. This is revolutionary stuff.

As Foucault himself indicated, at this stage of his work he lacked a method to explain the causality involved in change, and hence thought it better to focus on the distinct epistemes underpinning the thought and practices of different historical epochs instead. It seems to me that it was in the course of investigating, together with his seminar group, the remarkable case of Pierre Riviére, a young peasant who murdered his mother, sister and brother in the early 19th century that Foucault discovered a way of understanding the causality involved in such change. The case constituted the arena, he indicated, in which what would become characteristically “modern” discourses — such as those of psychiatry, of medicine and of law — squared off against each other, each claiming Riviére “for itself”, as it were, with the result that, when the court documents reflecting the perspective of each discourse on the case is examined, one can hardly believe that they refer to the “same” case. It confirmed, for Foucault, that “discourses” — which had been thoroughly theorised in his archaeologies — have to be reconsidered with regard to the power relations that are inseparable from the manner in which different discourses construe meaning.

No discourse, in other words, is innocent — be it that of a father, a mother, a child, a manager, a worker, an economist, a judge, a doctor — in each case the meaning of words is in the service of specific interests.

To be sure, in his monumental historical study of punitive practices — Discipline and Punish — Foucault added something in his “genealogical” understanding of how fundamental changes are effected from one recognisable era to the next. One might say that, while his archaeologies mapped the conceptual epistemic terrain of distinct periods, his genealogical study of modes of punishment foregrounds, in meticulous detail, the “material” changes, the developments in terms of micro-practices such as the way in which soldiers were taught to assemble a rifle in the 19th century, or children taught to use their pens in writing, or — most paradigmatically, perhaps — the “ideal prison” (or “panopticon”) was imagined, that eventually tipped the scales towards a radically new period.

Archaeological analysis still plays a role in Discipline and Punish regarding new objects, concepts and modes of authority, to which one may add another, viz, new avenues of strategic action (does that sound familiar?). But the genealogical moment is found in the material changes which, imperceptibly slowly while they are occurring, reach “critical mass” at a certain point, as it were, resulting in a recognisably novel state of affairs.

Again, how does this tie in with my claim, that Foucault is a “transformative” thinker? It should be even more evident than in the case of his archaeological thinking that the genealogical approach foregrounds radical, irreconcilable changes — the contrast between pre-modern and modern modes of punishment is striking, and undeniable, although the latter, while being ostensibly far less violent than the former, are far more efficient in their insidious subtlety.

What gives one pause is Foucault’s conclusion, that we live in a “carceral” society, today — prisons, he points out, exist to mask the fact that the whole of society is like a panoptical prison. But the message is clear: even this may, and can, be changed. For students who live in a social world which (given the growing “culture of compliance”) is increasingly less free — and I’m not talking about “economic freedom” — learning this from Foucault is invaluable. As Foucault pointedly indicates in Discipline and Punish, in the modern world, economic productivity goes hand in hand with political powerlessness and docility.

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    • Jessica Goldstone

      Personally, I have found Foucault to be very influential to my thinking. I like to think that generally I am not swayed easily and that I am able to view all material that is given to me with a critical mind-set. Yet Foucault has become so integrated in my thinking that I am no longer able to view humanity as something concrete, rather I find myself constantly conscious of the fluidity of humanity. As Foucault claimed “the individual is no doubt the fictitious atom of an ideological representation of society, but [s/]he is also a reality fabricated by [a] specific technology of power”. This is a significant shift to the more common ideology that there exists something that the Marxist would refer to as the “human essence”. Foucault opposes this through both his “archaeological” and “genealogical” work, in his work he claims that humans do not obtain any “intrinsic” characteristics. He emphasizes this in his “archaeological” studies in which he refers back to ancient Greece and “The cultures of the self” significant of that era and the compares them to the “carceral society” significant of the modern era. He does this by monitoring how various ideologies and paradigms have shifted over time, for example he explores the shifts in discipline (e.g. the shift from public execution or solitary confinement in prisons) and the shift in the perception of madness or nowadays the ‘mentally ill’. Sadly what these paradigm shifts have amounted to so far is what Bert refers to as…

    • Susann Timpel

      The question what is power and where it comes from, seems to be a question of the existence of something like power? In this case, I agree with Foucault that there isn´t something like pure power; it is more something like power relations. Nevertheless it is very hard to get a real concept, what Foucault understood as power.
      The freedom of every human subject plays between power relations. Where power is has to be freedom as well, because there are connected to each other. Every government which has power has an influence in everybody’s self-determination. Positive and negative punishment to certain behaviors influences everybody’s personal rationality. So that the aim of the subservient is to do what the government wants to. The government rejects freedom for subjects but on the same hand subjects have freedom to do it or not. You can find the same system in universities as well, the teachers have power against the students. Students can decide if they want to set against something, but teachers can punish them with marks. This could influence your whole life.
      I don’t think you are really free in this case, you have an opportunity to choose, but on the same hand there isn´t really an opportunity. I mean you go to university to get jobs or to educate yourself, and if you have this aim there isn´t an opportunity. You restrict yourself for an aim and enslave yourself under the power of university.

    • Susann Timpel

      It is not easy to understand what freedom is for Foucault. On one hand it seems to be an illusion at all and on the other hand you get the feeling that there is something like freedom and it exists as a kind of even in our society. It is clear that for Foucault freedom (for subjects) is to see every time in a power relation and rationality. Everybody as subject of a society is governed and at the same time part of the government. But is it true that everybody in a society is restricted by the society (power relation) in their personal freedom? And is it true that it´s going to be more and more, nowadays?
      In my point of view, you cannot think about the world as a prison. It is clear that you come to this conclusion if you see society generally as a prison. Then you will never live in a world with freedom and you will never live in a world with other living beings. If you want to respect the freedom of other human beings as well you have to restrict yourself in your personal freedom, so if you want to be really free, you have to live without other living beings. I think there is no way out, if you understand the society as a prison, then freedom is just an illusion for people who live in an idealistic dream.

    • Deirdre Kohler

      @Maria May I assume that you are insulting my ability to understand challenging concepts? Is this due to the fact that you believe I have business experience and therefore can never reach the intellectual abilities of academics? An interesting concept as many business people are actually a stunning example of transformative ‘thinkers’ and ‘doers’ (even if they haven’t read Foucault) and the primary source of philanthropic activities. My plant metaphor was to point out Foucault’s obsession with archeology.

      My boredom purely lies in this article’s bold statement that if you are not unchanged by Foucault’s work then you have not encountered it. To me, this article suggests that if you don’t become a Foucaultian druid you do not have the ability to be a transformative thinker (or doer). As said above, his teachings are note worthy but not at the level of demi-god.

    • Ziphozakhe Hlobo

      @Deirdre- To say that in order to be a philosopher one must stop digging up the past means to disregard previous writers, because the only way we know of the past is through historical documents. With that said, how would we problematize without knowing what preceded the current beliefs? Can you honestly say that the present is not in any way affected and influenced by the past? So I think Foucault’s obsession with the past is not to say we are not capable of thinking, but to show how we have come to be where we are. In addition to that, as a writer, whether of philosophy or prose or theology, I believe it is very important to have a conversation with other writers, because I think being a philosopher or an artist means you have an obligation to participate in the on-going debates between other writers, and this is Foucault’s contribution to the care of the self (or his conversation with Plato). While I respect your opinion (since you have a right to it), I appreciate Foucault’s digging the past to show how humans have been made subjects throughout the eras because I now understand that any political emergence is a game of truth, and because of that, I have come to be a bit reluctant of the Marxist position because it too could easily be turned to a game of truth.