Getting to know Michel Foucault

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“Don’t ask me who I am,

and do not ask me to remain the same”.

Michel Foucault

 

Michel Foucault was a French 20th century philosopher and historian who spend his career forensically criticizing the power of the modern bourgeois capitalist State, including its police, law courts, prisons, doctors, and psychiatrists. His goal was to workout nothing less than how power worked and then to change it in the direction of a Marxist anarchist utopia. Though he spend most of his life in libraries and seminary rooms, he was a committedly revolutionary figure; he met with enormous popularity in elite Parisian intellectual circles; Jean Paul Sartre admired him deeply, and he steal maintains a wide following among young people studying at University, in the prosperous corners of the world.

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His background, which he was extremely reluctant ever to talk about, and tried to prevent journalists from investigating at all costs, was very privileged. Both his parents were inordinately rich, coming from a long line of successful surgeons in Poitiers, in west central France. His father, Dr Paul Foucault came to represent all that Michel would hate about bourgeois France. Michel had a standard upper class education; he went to elite Jesuit institutions, was an altar boy, and his parents hoped he would become a doctor. But Michel wasn’t quite like other boys. He started self-harming and thinking constantly of suicide. At university he decorated his bedroom with images of torture, by Goya. When he was 22 he tried to commit suicide and was forced by his father, against his will, to see France’s most famous psychiatrist, Jean Delay, at the Hospital Saint Anne, in Paris. The doctor wisely diagnosed that a lot of Michel’s distress came from having to keep his homosexuality, and in particular his interest in extreme sadist masochism, away from the censorial society. Gradually, Foucault entered the underground gay scene in France, fell in love with a drug dealer, and then took up with a transvestite. For long periods in his twenties, he went to live abroad, in Sweden, Poland, and Germany, where he felt the sexuality would be less constraint. All the while, Foucault was progressing up the French academic ladder.

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The seismic event of his intellectual life came in the summer of 1953 when Foucault was 27, and on holiday with a lover in Italy; then he came across Nietzsche’s book, Untimely Meditations, which contains an essay called ‘On the Uses and Abuses of History for Life’. In the essay, Nietzsche argued that academics have poisoned our sense of how History should be read and taught; they made it seem as if one should read History in some sort of disinterested way in order to learn how it all was in the past. But Nietzsche rejected this with sarcastic fury; there was no point learning about the past for its own sake. The only reason to read and study history is to dig out from the past, ideas, concepts, and examples, which can help us to lead a better life in our own times. This essay liberated Foucault intellectually, as nothing had till then. Immediately, he changed the direction of his work, and decided to become a particular kind of philosophical-historian: someone who could look back into the past to help us sort out the urgent issues of our own time.

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Eight years later he was ready to publish what’s recognized as his first masterpiece: Madness and Civilization. The standard view is that we now treat people with mental illness in so much more of a humane way than we ever did in the past; after all we put them in hospitals, give them drugs, get them looked off by people with PhDs… But this was exactly the attitude that Foucault wished to demolish in Madness and Civilization. In the book, he argued that things way back in the Renaissance were actually far better for the mad than they subsequently became. In the Renaissance, the mad were felt to be different rather than crazy; they were thought to possess a kind of wisdom because they demonstrated the limits of reason; they were revered in many circles and were allowed to wander freely. But then, as Foucault’s historical research is shouting, in the mid 17th century, a new attitude was born that relentlessly medicalized and institutionalized mentally ill people; no longer were they allowed to live along side the circle of the sane; they were taken away from their families and locked up in asilements and seen as people we shall try to cure, rather than tolerate for just being different.

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You can recognize a very similar underlying philosophy in Foucault’s next great book, The Birth of the Clinic. His target here was medicine more broadly. He systematically attacked the view that medicine had become more humane with time; he could see that, of course, we have better drugs and treatments now, but he believed that in the 18th century the professional doctor was borne, and that he was a sinister figure who would look at the patient always with what Foucault called, “the medical gaze”, denoting a “dehumanizing attitude”: to look at the patient just as a set of organs, and not as a person. What was under the medical gaze? Merely a malfunction kidney or liver, not a person to be considered as a whole entity.

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Next in Foucault’s oeuvre came Discipline and Punish. Here Foucault did a standard thing on State punishment. Again, the normal view is that the prison and punishment systems of the modern world are so more humane than they were in the days when people just used to be hung in public squares; not so, argued Foucault. The problem, he said, is that power now looks kind but isn’t, whereas in the past it wasn’t kind and therefore could encourage open rebellion and protests. Foucault noted that in the past in an execution the convict body could become a focus of sympathy and admiration, and the executioner, rather than the convict, could become the locus of shame. Also public executions often led to riots in support of the prisoner, but with the invention of the modern prison system, everything happened in private by locked gates; one can no longer see and therefore resist State power. That’s what made the modern system of punishment so barbaric and properly primitive in Foucault’s eyes.

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Foucault’s last work was the multivolume, History of Sexuality. The manoeuvres he performed in relation to sex are again very familiar; Foucault rebelled against the view that we’re all now deeply liberated and at ease with sex. He argued that, since the 18th century, we have relentlessly “medicalized” sex, handing it over to professional sex researchers, and scientists. We live in an age of what Foucault called scientia sexualis (“science of sexuality”). But Foucault looked back with considerable nostalgia to the cultures of Rome, China, and Japan, where he detected the rule of what he called an ars erotica (erotic art), where the whole focus was on how to increase the pleasure of sex, rather than merely understand and label it. Once again, modernity was blamed for pretending that being progress, when there was in fact just a loss of spontaneity and imagination. Foucault wrote the last volume of this work while dying of aids, that he had contracted in a San Francisco gay bar.

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He died in 1984, age 58. Foucault’s lasting contribution is to the way we look at History; there are lots of things in the modern world that we’re constantly being told are fantastic, and were apparently very bad in the past, for example, education, or the media, or our communication systems. Foucault encourages us to break a way from an optimistic smugness about now, and to go back and see in History many ways of doing things, which were perhaps superior. Foucault wasn’t trying to get us to be nostalgic; he wanted us to pic up some lessons of way back in order to improve how we live now. Academics Historians have tended to hate Foucault’s work; they think it inaccurate and keep pointing out things they haven’t quite understood in some document or rather. But Foucault didn’t care for total historical accuracy; History for him was just a storehouse of good ideas, and he wanted to raid it rather than keep it pristine and untouched. We should use Foucault as an inspiration to look at the dominant ideas and institutions of our times, and to question them by looking at their histories and evolutions. Foucault did something remarkable: he made History life enhancing and philosophically rich again; he can be an inspiring figure for our own projects.

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