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Michel Foucault

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 Michel Foucault (1926-1984)


Foucault was born in Poitiers to an eminent surgeon. His schooling was mediocre until he attended a Jesuit college, where he excelled. until he attended the Jesuit Collège Saint-Stanislas, where he excelled. During his High School years he lived under German occupation. After the War, he gained entry to the École Normale Supérieure - a traditionally prestigeous gateway to an academic career in the humanities. While there he became interested in phenomenology - particularly the works of Martin Heidegger, but he was also interested in Hegel and Marx, and attended the lectures of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. During this time he also experienced periods of deep depression and undertook psychiatric analysis. This probably led to his interest in Clinical Psychology, which he eventually gained a license to practice. He also acquired a degree in philosophy. The combination of the two interests led him to devote much of his professional life to the philosophical investigation of state institutions for the criminal and the insane. His earliest writings - a long "Introduction" to his translation of Dream and Existence by Ludwig Binswanger, (arguably the first existential psychiatrist), and Maladie mentale et personalité, (Mental Illness and Personality - a short book on mental illness) are clearly influenced by his twin interests in Marxism and Existentialism. He untimately abandoned and criticised both, undertaking instead, his own particular brand of "archeological" analysis of the relationship between culture and the social construction of identity. From 1950-1953 he was inducted into the Communist Party by his friend  Louis Althusser, but he abandoned his membership in protest against the policies of the Soviet Union under Stalin.


Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault


From 1953-4 he taught psychology at the University of Lille, from where he moved to the University of Upsala in Sweden. He left therein 1958 to move to the University of Warsaw and then the University of Hamburg. He returned to France in 1960 to finish his PhD before teaching philosophy at the University of Clermont-Ferrand. He acquired his doctorate in 1961 and published a part of it under the title Madness and Civilisation in 1965.

Originally published as The History of Madness in the Classical Age it comprioses a study of the emergence of the modern concept of "mental illness" in Europe, and is formed from both Foucault's extensive archival work and his intense anger at what he saw as the moral hypocrisy of modern psychiatry. It excavates the process by which the insane became an institutionalisable category, by which the social construction of insanity came to be. Standard histories saw the nineteenth-century medical treatment of madness (developed from the reforms of Pinel in France and the Tuke brothers in England) as an enlightened liberation of the mad from the ignorance and brutality of preceding ages. But, according to Foucault, the new idea that the mad were merely sick ("mentally" ill) and in need of medical treatment was not at all a clear improvement on earlier conceptions (e.g., the Renaissance idea that the mad were in contact with the mysterious forces of cosmic tragedy or the 17th-18thcentury view of madness as a renouncing of reason). Moreover, he argued that the alleged scientific neutrality of modern medical treatments of insanity are in fact covers for controlling challenges to a conventional bourgeois morality. In short, Foucault argued that what was presented as an objective, incontrovertible scientific discovery (that madness is mental illness) was in fact the product of eminently questionable social and ethical commitments. Foucault's next history, The Birth of the Clinic (1963) can similarly be read as a critique of modern clinical medicine.(Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ).

In 1965 he moved to Tunis with his five-year partner Daniel Defert and accepted a position at the University of Tunis in 1965. In 1966 he published Les Mots et les choses (The Order of Things), which was enormously popular despite its length and difficulty. This was during the height of interest in structuralism and Foucault was quickly grouped with scholars such as Jacques Lacan, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Roland Barthes as the latest thinkers to challenge the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre.  In the fall of 1968, following the student uprising, he returned to France, where he published L'archéologie du savoir (The Archaeology of Knowledge) in 1969.

His particular brand of analysis involved turning Kantian philosophy on its head. A quote from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy makes this point very clearly:

"Since its beginnings with Socrates, philosophy has typically involved the project of questioning the accepted knowledge of the day. Later, Locke, Hume, and especially, Kant developed a distinctively modern idea of philosophy as the critique of knowledge. Kant's great epistemological innovation was to maintain that the same critique that revealed the limits of our knowing powers could also reveal necessary conditions for their exercise. What might have seemed just contingent features of human cognition (for example, the spatial and temporal character of its objects) turn out to be necessary truths. Foucault, however, suggests the need to invert this Kantian move. Rather than asking what, in the apparently contingent, is actually necessary, he suggests asking what, in the apparently necessary, might be contingent. The focus of his questioning is the modern human sciences (biological, psychological, social). These purport to offer universal scientific truths about human nature that are, in fact, often mere expressions of ethical and political commitments of a particular society. Foucault's "critical philosophy" undermines such claims by exhibiting how they are just the outcome of contingent historical forces, and are not scientifically grounded truths."

All of Foucault's excavations of the historical basis for our normative perceptions of social relations lead him to an analysis of the State. For Foucault, the emergence of the State has mirrored the parallel emergence of modern identity, and both have been deeply implkicated in the emergence and development of capitalism - particularly during the modern movement and since (and because of?) the Enlightenment. Foucault has suggested that the emergence of the State was contingent upon the parallel emergence of philosophies of Enlightenment which simultaneously constructed a concept of individualism and liberated it from the feudal limitations of birth and social destiny.  However, it would be more appropriate perhaps to suggest, along with Marx, that the process operates in the opposite direction, and that the philosophies themselves as well as the laws which they helped to frame and which supported them, while contributing to the general tendency of capitalism, were themselves shaped by the changed economic and social circumstances of their time, by the greatly increased accumulation of wealth occasioned by the process of colonisation:

"Legal relations as well as forms of the state are to be grasped neither from themselves, nor from the so-called general development of the human mind, but rather have their roots in the material conditions of life... In the social production of their life, men enter into relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite state of development of their material production forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of a society, the real foundation, on which rise a legal and political superstructure and to which corresponds definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness." 
He has described, for instance, how with the rise of the bourgeoisie, the old feudal rights of the peasantry were swept aside, and redefined as criminal activities. He suggests that what he calls the Great Confinement - the dramatic increase in prison population in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries - was directly connected to the development of increased capital accumulation and property which dispossessed and displaced the multitudinous peasantry. This was paralleled by a decrease in crimes of violence and a corresponding increase in crimes against property. This is not to be taken to mean that there were less crimes of violence, but only that a higher value was now placed on property relations than on human relations. 

Resistance to the new definition of property was immediate and widespread. In seventeenth century England, the Levellers, agitated for a panoply of reforms: the abolition of the Monarchy and House of Lords, law reform, security of tenure of copyholders, the abolition of the privileges of Peers, corporations and trading companies, election (rather than appointment) of sheriffs and Justices of the Peace, and most specifically, the immediate institution of universal franchise and the opening of the enclosures.  They recognised that the alignment of voting rights with property ownership and the ability to frame the legal conditions of social life constituted an assault upon the already-poor. For their resistance they were consistently persecuted and silenced. In the Eighteenth Century, their call was taken up by the Chartists, who agitated continuously for universal franchise and a change in the property laws. If such repression was commonplace within the State, and if the State legitimated notion of property ownership was recognised as a consolidation and extension of power at home, the same realisation did not escape the colonised abroad.
In this social construction of insanity, Foucault notes that the Great Confinement operated at one level as a general solution to the problems of poverty, by absorbing all of the indigent under a single system.  The poor were seen as a necessary corollary to national wealth, partly because they produced, but consumed little. Their absorption by the State reflected an attempt to rationalise their productivity, the more efficiently to manipulate it. The Great Confinement came to an end as it was realised that the costs of Confinement outweighed the profits - particularly at the larger social scale. It was at the time of the Revolution, in France, that the system was disbanded and a distinction was finally made between the poor on the one side and the insane and criminal on the other.
In village after village, enclosure destroyed the subsistence economy of the poor. Peasants without legal proof of rights were rarely compensated. Those who were able to establish a claim were left with land inadequate for subsistence and a disproportionate share of the very high enclosure cost. Enclosure was "class robbery, played according to fair rules of property and law laid down by a parliament of property-owners and lawyers"  The legal authenticity in terms of newly inscribed capitalist property relations, created a rupture of the traditional integument of village custom and of right. The class robbery, the decimation of village life, the abandonment of the countryside for the towns, the burgeoning anarchy of a landless majority created a great deal of social unrest. But it created much more - a whole class of "deviants" confronted by the might of the State and the law, behind which stood the men of property.

The new property relations were class relations created by the law, which, while purporting to universal even handedness, and supposedly based upon the principle of universal emancipation and enlightenment but which in their application were designed specifically facilitate the repression of the majority of the community by the small and powerful minority. The application of the law demonstrated that crime was now almost exclusively committed by a certain social class, from the lower ranks of the social order. Noting this, Foucault observed that:
"... it is not crime that alienates an individual from society, but that crime is itself due rather to the fact that one is in society as an alien, that one belongs to that 'bastardised race'.. to that 'class degraded by misery whose vices stand like an invincible obstacle to the generous intentions that wish to combat it'; that this being the case, it would be hypocritical or naïve to believe that the law was made for all in the name of all; that it would be more prudent to recognise that it was made for the few and that it was made to bear upon others; that in principle it applies to all citizens, but that it is addressed principally to the most numerous and least enlightened classes; that, unlike political and civil laws, their application does not serve everybody equally; that in the courts society as a whole does not judge one of its members, but that a social category with an interest in order judges another that is dedicated to disorder... so that the language of the law, which is supposed to be universal, is, in this respect, inadequate; it must, if it is to be effective, be the discourse of one class to another, which has neither the same ideas as it nor even the same words."   
The legal re-definition of private property was accomplished, as Foucault has pointed out by creating a reciprocal distinction between the illegality of property from the illegality of rights:
"The illegality of property was separated from the illegality of rights. The distinction represents a class opposition because,  on the one hand, the illegality that was to be the most accessible to the lower classes was that of property - the violent transfer of ownership - and because of the other, the bourgeoisie was to reserve to itself the illegality of rights: the possibility of getting round its own regulations and its own laws, of ensuring for itself an immense sector of economic circulation by a skilful manipulation of gaps in the law - gaps that were foreseen by its silences, or opened up by de facto tolerances. And this great redistribution of illegalities was even to be expressed through a specialisation of the legal circuits: for illegalities of property - for theft - there was the ordinary courts and punishments; for the illegalities of rights - fraud, tax evasion, irregular commercial operations - special legal institutions applied with transactions, accommodations, reduced fines etc. The bourgeoisie reserved to itself the fruitful domain of the illegality of rights. And at the same time as this split was taking place, there emerged the need for a constant policing concerned essentially with this illegality of property... (Hence) a penal system must be conceived as a mechanism intended to administer illegalities differentially, not to eliminate them all"
The law, then, is an invention of the powerful who constitute the law-making class, to create a world of private property of which they themselves are the sole beneficiaries, and to consolidate and protect their social power and status. The State, as the agency of this transaction (and as also constituted of the law-making class) has therefore operated from its very inception directly in the interests of its own powerful representatives.

The notion of private property as an exclusive right of possession was and is a convention invented and sustained by the already-propertied, only through the ironic agreement of the non-propertied, but this agreement was not voluntary. The English peasants who vacated the land did not always do so peacefully. But the demands of the new owners were backed up by the might of the State, by the army and the constabulary, and ultimately by the newly constructed institutions of "correction".
What held true of the social construction of instanity (in the Great Confinement) for Foucault also held true of the social construction of criminality. And along with the new institutionalisation of property crimes and property criminals there developed in parallel an institutionalised system of surveillance. Foucalt's other enlightening (no pun intended!) conception involved the epitome of this culture of surveillance, - the conceptual design of the Panopticon by the English philosopher and social reformer, Jeremy Bentham. Foucault goes to some lengths in his Discipline and Punish (1975) to chart the origins and development of criminality and to interrogate the symbolic importance of Benthgam's concept. For Foucault, the power of the Panopticon resided not in its actual physical existence, but as a conceptual mechanism of power-through-total-surveillance.

Accordingly the idea of the Panopticon flowed out into all of the institutions of cultural and social control - barracks, schools, factories, hospitals, and, of course, prisons. In short, the Panopticon represented the inauguration of the disciplinary society, in and through which social control became an automatic and self-perpetuating function, tied, we must remember to the social diffusion of the mechanisms of surveillance, ordering, verification and reflection - a society which controls itself and where the locus of control is at one and the same time everywhere and nowhere, but carried along on the framework of self-imposed social discipline. 

The development of the Panopticon is a natural corollary to Rousseau's call for an open society, where secrecy is abolished and where freedom of expression is total.  It stands as both a metaphor and a shining example of what the Enlighten-ment regarded as the epitomé of the perfect society - that the light of reason illuminating every corner of the social fabric, of total social transparency. And, of course, as materialist conceptions of social reality became more prevalent, positivist science itself became both the primary mechanism and the most vivid example of the enlightening, disciplinary process. The Panopticon represents more than just a novel building form through which institutionalised inmates could be subjected to a regime of total supervision. 

The Panopticon was the quintessential expression of an evolving cultural policy of total social supervision. In the Panopticon it was not only the prisoners who were supervised, but the supervisors themselves, and what the Panopticon represented was therefore rather a regime of social discipline which permeated the whole of society - in other words, a society of surveillance contingent upon, representative of and embodying structures of power which are increasingly diffused throughout the social fabric. The development of regimes of examination and classification represents one important element in this continuing emphasis upon social discipline and surveillance, and connects the later Disciplines to these processes and structures of power.

Nevertheless, in spite of the fact that the physical geometry of the Panopticon was integrated into the design of the great prisons of the Nineteenth Century - prisons such as Wormwood Scrubs and Pentonville, within the framework of the larger society, the principle  of the Panopticon - of universal and diffused surveillance was implemented in a partial manner, by one social class against another. It was not the propertied who were filling the prisons, but the poor and landless, and the increasing systems of surveillance (police, informers etc.) which appeared at that time were organised and applied by the propertied specifically to protect their material interests.  
Until the 17th and 18th Centuries, social expectations were relatively predictable and unchanging. With the advent of capitalism there occurred a socio-political vacuum, so to speak, between the aristocracy and the peasants. To differentiate themselves from the peasants, the newly emerging class of the bourgeoisie adopted as a standard of behavioural expectations, the noblesse oblige of their "superiors". The mores and values of the existing aristocracy in this way became the normative standard against which the bourgeoisie measured their success, their status, their proximity to "old" power and wealth.

What is important to notice is that it also took place alongside the appearance of other key social concepts of "insanity", "criminality" etc. as Foucault has so well described. Children cannot commit murder because they have not yet qualified for full human status recognition. Similarly, someone who is labelled "insane" is not seen as fully responsible, and is therefore allocated similar prescriptive rights to those "enjoyed" by children with respect to criminality.

The insane are seen as having "something missing", and that something, which reduces them down to their essential animalness, is their very humanness.  Foucault goes on to note that the original prescription of madness began to take place, in France, in the late Seventeenth Century, and that is coincided perfectly with the alienation of the peasants from their land - by crowding the indigent and unemployed, the poor and the starving into the large the Hôpital Général and similar institutions vacated by the retreat of the Plague. The numbers of beggars and poor were swelled by the unemployed, by peasants driven from the land, by refugees from religious wars, disbanded soldiers etc. - all of these were recipients of a new form of social control - the asylum, intended to "mop up" the indigent.

There was, initially, no distinction made between the insane and the other poor. What ultimately distinguished the former and led eventually to their separate incarceration and treatment was their inability to work.

"It is not immaterial that madmen were included in the proscription of idleness. From its origin, they would have their places beside the poor, deserving or not, and the idle, voluntary or not. Like them, they would be subject to the rules of forced labour... In the workshops in which they were interned, they distinguished themselves by their inability to work and to follow the rythms of collective life. The necessity, discovered in the eighteenth century, to provide a special regime for the insane, and the great crisis of confinement that preceded the Revolution, are linked to the experience of madness available in the universal necessity of labour."

Confinement was reserved not only for those without property, but also (significantly in an emerging industrialised market economy) for those without the will or ability to labour. Property  ownership and work, in other words, became defined by the Establishment as measures of relative humaneness. We can see from this, that our present concept of humanness (that is, the one associated or influenced by the idea of having an ability to work) originated during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries at the same time that Enlightenment philosophies were promoting the ethic of individualism and when the closely related economic theories of  Hobbes, Locke, Adam Smith, Bentham, Mill Sen., Mill Jun., Malthus etc. were promoting free-market competition as the epitomé of rationality, when they were promoting the essence of man as, in a word - economic man - disciplined man,  man willing to subject himself to the yoke of industrialised capitalism. It was this particular conception of humanness therefore which helped to shape emergent conceptions of a particular, invariant human nature, and the human nature which it helped to shape was that of the disciplined animal.

We witness here, with great clarity, the connection made earlier by Foucault, between power, property and deviance. We see writ large that:
"It is not immaterial that madmen were included in the proscription of idleness. From its origin, they would have their places beside the poor, deserving or not, and the idle, voluntary or not. Like them, they would be subject to the rules of forced labour... In the workshops in which they were interned, they distinguished themselves by their inability to work and to follow the rythms of collective life. The necessity, discovered in the eighteenth century, to provide a special regime for the insane, and the great crisis of confinement that preceded the Revolution, are linked to the experience of madness available in the universal necessity of labour."
In other words, it is the wage-labour individual, expelled from the land, unable or unwilling to work in an alienating and degrading social context who is labelled "deviant", "dependent", "antisocial" and, in the last analysis, "insane". Sanity, in this context is a category reserved for those who are willing to acquiesce to domination and degradation, to bend to the will of the dominant culture and its enforcement agency, the State. Socialisation, as it happens in education, is then seen as a process of training-in-quiescence, and work itself is framed as an uncreative, alienating and inhuman activity, devoid of intrinsic value, which must be accepted in return for the delayed reward of possibly increased consumption.

Seen in this context, normative explanations of sanity as biological dysfunctioning, chemical imbalance etc., can be seen as diversions which preclude a deeper analysis of possible social and cultural causes, and which, with the assistance of the very profitable pharmaceutical companies, therefore prevent critical analysis which might lead to structural change. In this way, the continued reproduction of capitalist relations proceeds unchecked, albeit for the numerous "dysfunctional" victims who are required to accept the blame for their own degraded circumstances.
We must not forget, in all of this, the important link which has been forged in western capitalism between normativity and work - that what is "normal" comes down, in the end, to an ability to passively accept the degraded notion of "work" that capitalism demands. As conceptions of "work" have changed and developed, so also and in tandem, have conceptions of what is "normal" human behaviour - that is, the normative scientifically-legitimated conception of humanness. Science has developed its conceptual categories of humanness in ways which directly serve the interests, and simultaneously legitimate the social relations of capitalist production.
The idea that education is a major influence in reproducing existing structures of power, and conversely, that it can be transformed to be a springboard for cultural and political change brings to the foreground the issue of knowledge itself as a medium for ideology - as a major way in which power interests reproduce their version of reality as the paramount reality in society. This linkage has been accepted since Foucault's studies in the late 1960s and early 1970s,  and other authors have expanded his earlier analysis. The work of  Gramsci has figured prominently in these later works - developing his notion of hegemony, of the organic intellectual and his model of education as a vehicle for cultural transformation.

Knowledge, though, is not a uniform category. There are different forms of knowledge, some legitimated by power interests and others marginalised, but each, according to  Berger and Luckmann, corresponding to different realms of public discourse and legitimation. At the overarching level of what they term the symbolic universe, they suggest that science is the paramount form of discourse and legitimation - that science has, since the seventeenth century, provided the structure and details of the paramount reality, and its ultimate legitimation. It has done this by virtue of its apparent objectivity and apparent value-neutrality -claiming to describe the world as it actually is, rather than as it is witnessed from any particular human vantage point.

Since Foucault, this view of science has been largely discredited, and numerous other epistemologists -  Lyotard, Levi-Strauss etc. have pointed to the partiality of the scientific paradigm. The partiality of the view of the world portrayed by science leaves a great deal unsaid and untheorised, even though, from a scientific point of view, knowledge is characterised as a unified field.  Furthermore, a significant aspect of the partiality of science is embedded in its supposed objectivity. It portrays the world from everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Scientific utterances about reality are without human agency. It describes the world as it is, not as any particular scientist views it. Yet science itself is the product of human agency. Its proponents have beliefs and prejudices which they purport to leave aside when they are engaged in the business of science. The power of Foucault's analysis, is to show that this objectivity is an illusion. What he suggests is that science, the paramount foundation of knowledge in our society, is ideologically contaminated - that it operates for and through specific power interests whose view of the world it reinforces. Since almost the entire edifice of knowledge and education is built upon this foundation, the assertion clearly requires further explication.  
Foucault's philosophies as well as his methods of analysis have been criticised by many, but one thing is clear, despite whatever failings he may have had as a philosopher, he has changed our understanding about the nature of society, the State and the creation of identity forever.
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