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Foucault, Michel

Page history last edited by Robert Goldman 15 years, 4 months ago

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was a French philosopher and historian who wrote about power and the Enlightenment.

He is one of the most important and influential thinkers of this age. He is the author of several books, including Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception, The Order of Things, Archaeology of Knowledge, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, and The History of Sexuality, a three - volume set.  In The History of Sexuality, Foucault makes it abundantly clear that he is opposed to the idea of a grand "meta - narrative." He argued that the Enlightenment began with a meta - narrative, and that it tried to depict the whole of human history through one linear movement. He argues that such conceptions of history are limiting in so far as they portray power as a negative repressive force and as something that flowed in one direction and from one location. He believed that domination, liberation, and resistance had a spiral link in history. 


Power, according to Foucault, is  more than a negative repressive force and it is available to everyone. Foucault argues that power can be positive, pleasurable, and cannot be held or exchanged. Power is in the fabric of lived reality and is always negotiated, and is as productive as it is restrictive. For this reason, it is inherently unstable and is capable of being expressed in innumerable ways. Foucault argues that society tries to discursively deconstruct the makeup of power (ie., the "powerful" vs. the "disempowered") but this is a simplistic construction that does not represent the complexity of relations of power. 


Foucault also explored areas where institutions will utilize the decentralized and internalized experience of power to exercise control in specific situations. 'Disciplinary punishment' is a mechanism in the modern era that give experts and professionals such as psychiatrists power to make judgments that greatly impact people's lives. He saw this clearly in modern prison systems. He used Jeremy Bentham's design for a 18th century prison called the panopticon to illustrate how he saw power working over the prisoners. In the panopticon, a guard tower is placed in the center of a prison camp. The guard in the tower can see into all of the prison cells and all of the cells face the tower. However, the windows of the tower are tinted. The prisoners can never know if there is even a person watching them and begin to patrol and control themselves in case some one is observing them. Foucault saw this as a metaphor for the way that the criminal justice system has decentralized power and placed a panopticon in the minds of citizens. It is the most effective way of securing a non-oppossitional society in that the criminal justice system has found a mechanism for embedding itself into the psyche of individuals and the very structures of societies. Instead of having to be ubiquitous, it has created an internalized awareness of its own rules so that individuals police themselves and others. Criminal justice and the legal standing of laws become an inflection in the fabric of power that permeates us inside and out. 


He believed that language was reflexive and that it contained its own power relations. Discourse is unstable, as power is unstable, but it allows the exercise of power to be infinitely reconstituted. He argued that resistance is as infinite as power. Focault's conceptualization of power relations exposes the complexity of social interactions and the manners in which they are always capable of being negotiated. 


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