Episode 7 – Michel Foucault

Historyish wishes to discipline your bodies. Episode 7 delves into the world of Michel Foucault. Could Camile Paglia have been more offensive if she’d called Foucault a “slap head Frog”? Could Harriet get more indignant? Could Martin keep his monologues under 30 minutes? Find out all this and more; including Siegfreid and Roy’s magic word.

As always, drop us an e-mail on podcast@pgfhom.org, find us on Twitter @PGHistMed and subscribe to us on iTunes.

Points of discussion include…

Massive explosions in New Jersey.

Massive arguments over Derrida.

Massive controversies over the death of Edgar Allen Poe.

Massive laughter about OJ Simpson’s demise.

Michel Foucault (1926 – 1984)

I never met or saw Foucault in the flesh. (He died in 1984.) My low opinion of him is based entirely on his solipsistic, mendacious writing, which has had a disastrous influence on naïve American academics. ~ Camile Paglia

Paul-Michel Foucault was born on 15th October 1926 in Poitiers, France. The son of a doctor, he was educated in Vichy France before gaining entry to the École Normale Supérieur after the end of the War.

At the ENS that Foucault suffered depression and was referred to a psychologist. This engendered a curiosity in the subject that led to him taking a degree in psychology and eventually becoming a psychology teacher in Lille in 1953. There, in 1954, he published his first book, Maladie mentale et personalité, before deciding to leave France and teaching altogether and moving to the University of Uppsala in Sweden. He submitted a doctoral thesis, but it was rejected. After a brief stint at Warsaw and Hamburg, he returned to France in 1960 to complete his doctorate at Clermont-Ferrand.

Part of his submission for his doctorate would go on to become Madness and Civilisation (submitted in 1961, published in English in 1964). Two years later he published Birth of the Clinic (published in English in 1973). Both books would have an enormous effect on the way the history of modernity is studied.

In both books, Foucault showed the process by which modern societies developed medical tools for controlling the behaviour of others. In an age of reason, those who are irrational are “bad”. New technologies of measurement and rational inquiry allowed societies to categorise people as “mad” or “sick” in ways they had never done before. In doing so, madness becomes reified – made into something real – even though there is no absolute historical truth to the concept. That is not to say that people do not have psychiatric disorders, suffer anxiety or pain or difficulty forming social relationships. But the concept of “madness” – of “insanity” – is a modern construction which modern societies have created out of a new rational understanding of the universe.

At Clermont-Ferrand, Foucault met his long-term partner Daniel Defert. For his military service, Defert was sent to Tunisia, and Foucault followed him in ‘65, taking up a post at the University of Tunis. In Africa he published The Order of Things (French: ’66; English ’70).

Then came “’68 and all that”, and Foucault returned to France with the new Paris VIII. He was made head of the philosophy department, but he got into a bit of trouble. The Ministry of Education banned graduates from the college from becoming secondary school teachers because it was seen as too radical. Foucault had not only created too many courses with the phrase “Marxist-Leninist” in the title, but he was frequently going on demos with his students, occupying buildings and fighting the police.

Foucault had a history of left-wing activism. In the 50s he had been a member of the Communist Party, but left disillusioned after only a couple of years. In 1970 he was transferred to the Collège de France as the Professor of the History of Systems of Thought. While Defert joined a Maoist organisation, Foucault set up a group to give prisoners a way to express their concerns. This coincided with another of his influential works, Discipline and Punish (French’75; English ’77).

Foucault was no something of a celebrity across the world. After the French left realised that China and the Soviet Union were not exactly the poster boys of good socialism, a lot of the more radical political activity became muted. He spent the next few years writing a multi-volume History of Sexuality (although he never finished it before his death). On top of that he was teaching and touring in the United States.

He died of an AIDS-related infection on 25th June 1984. This was a big deal at the time as AIDS was only just becoming recognised as a disease, and certainly Foucault was the first French “celebrity” to be linked with it. Despite his relatively short life, however, he has had an enormous effect on the humanities. Camile Paglia may call the effect ‘disastrous’, but he brought to a wide audience ways of analysing modernity, science and medicine which were a radical departure from the main stream. While we can see the roots of his philosophy in Marx, Weber, Gramsci and the Frankfurt School, nonetheless it was Foucault who popularised it, propagated it and changed the way many of us see the world in which we live.

So we shall end, as ever, on a quotation:

“Michel Foucault’s sudden death at the age of 57 is surely a tragedy. Death has robbed us of a thinker without peer at the height of his powers. This death indeed reeks of ‘injustice’ and ‘absurdity’ […]. It remains for us who come after Foucault, and who in many ways owe him so much, to accept the gift of his scholarly toolbox and thereby, perhaps, begin to repay our debt to a great thinker and, above all, to a great scholar.”

John Lechte, Thesis Eleven, 9(1) May 1984, p. 176

Further reading…

Lots of information and quotations at Michel-Foucault.com
Plato project
Camile Paglia’s rant at Neoliberalismo.com
Buy your own Foucault finger puppet!

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