Michel Foucault

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Media Archaeography, Ernst; Archaeology of Media Archaeology notion of an archaeology of knowledge
media-archaeological desire to be freed by machines from one's own subjectivity; Archaeology of Knowledge; a method of analyis purged of all anthropomorphism; autochthonic (originating where found) transformations
archaeology of media follows Foucault in not discovering metaphorical uses of media in public discourse but instead reconstructing the generative matrix created by mediatic dispositifs
important formative experience for media archaeologists
archaeology of knowledge; binary division between socially and culturally oriented Anglo-Am studies and the techno-hardware approach of German scholars
archaeology of conditions of knowledge
"descent" as key term in his genealogical method
the archive is a condition of any statement; conveys documents not as narratives, but as concrete, factual objects--becomes the monument of time

Introduction to Foucault and Poststructuralism

Michel Foucault is one of the supreme voices of French poststructuralist theory. In brief, poststructuralism is a school of thought that emerged in the 1960s in reaction to the structuralist ideas of objective knowledge and absolute truth. Poststructuralist thinkers emphasized the instability of meanings and sought to undermine theoretical systems that claimed to have universal validity. In essence, they sought to show how meaning and knowledge is constructed, not absolute, and examined “how we know what we know.” Poststructuralism is often understood from a literary angle, especially in the United States, although Foucault didn’t necessarily intend his work to apply particularly to literature. Indeed, it has influenced a variety of disciplines, including philosophy and history. His two major works from the 1960s, The Order of Things and The Archeology of Knowledge, address the historico-ontological status of language and, especially in The Archeology of Knowledge, provide a methodology for approaching the history of thought. His major works in the 1970s, Discipline and Punish and History of Sexuality, explore the genealogy of power relations. In this presentation I will mainly address the work Foucault produced in the 1960s, along with discussing his life and his strategies in approaching his work.

Foucault's Life

Michel Foucault was born on October 15, 1926 in Poitiers, France to Dr. Paul Foucault and Anne Foucault. Although his father hoped Michel would go on to be a doctor, he took a strong interest in literature and history during his early school years in Poitiers. In 1943 he prepared to enroll at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, but did not initially pass his entrance exams.

He left Poitiers for Paris in the autumn of 1945 to study at the Lycée Henri-IV. Here he studied further for the École entrance exams and began to take an interest in philosophy. He was finally admitted into the École in 1946. Although a brilliant and dedicated student, he was considered socially awkward, didn't enjoy communal living at the university, and struggled with his homosexuality. Here he became friends with Louis Althusser, a fellow student, and went on to receive degrees in philosophy, psychology, and psychiatry.
In 1950 he became an assistant lecturer at the University of Lille. In 1954 he published his first book Maladie mentale et personnalité (Mental illness and personality). Meanwhile, he left France to teach at the University of Uppsala in Sweden. He left Uppsala in 1958 to direct the French Institutes at Warsaw University and the University of Hamburg. This long exile from France indicated Foucault's disinterest in a career in the French academy and represented his growing disillusionment with psychiatric science. During this period, he began to take an interest in history and started to look at the historical details in change in the history of psychiatry. The result of his new inquiries was Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique, which he presented in 1960 as his thesis for his doctorate. That same year, he returned to France to become the head of philosophy at the University of Clermont-Ferrand.
The question of relations between power and knowledge he posed in his thesis and later in The Birth of the Clinic (1963) failed to capture the interest of the French Left. Foucault believed it failed because of the political climate at the time: the Communist party (which he had been part of in the late 1940s) set the intellectual agenda in France and was more interested in gaining political respectability than in revising systems of thought. Surprisingly, The Order of Things (1966), despite the political climate and the book's complexity, was extremely popular. Structuralism was fashionable at the time and Foucault was quickly grouped with these thinkers. His next book, The Archeology of Knowledge, explained the methodology he used in The Birth of the Clinic and The Order of Things.
1968 marked a period of increased political and activist interest for Foucault. The May 1968 student demonstrations seem to have affected him strongly and influenced his work. He became head of philosophy at the University of Paris at Vinceness, an experimental university and haven for young leftist academics. In 1970 he was elected as Professor of the History of Systems of Thought at the Collège de France. His increasing political involvement and interest in social action was reflected in 1975's Discipline and Punish, which examines "technologies" of organization and control.
He embarked on writing The History of Sexuality in 1976, although the work was never completed. His reputation grew in the 1970s and 80s and he lectured throughout the world, spending more time at American institutions, namely the University at Buffalo and UC Berkeley. He also made two tours of Iran, writing essays on the Iranian revolution for an Italian newspaper. Foucault died of an AIDS-related illness on June 25, 1984 in Paris.

Foucault's Strategies

Due to the lack of traditional theoretical positions in Foucault's work, it is helpful to approach it, as David R. Shumway points out in Michel Foucault, through an understanding of the four major strategies Foucault uses to understand his subject matters (14). They are: reversal, discontinuity, specificity, and exteriority.

In reversal, Foucault's strategy is to take a traditional interpretation of a historical or social event and, as the method suggests, look at it in an opposite direction. The strategy urges us to disregard the notion that human thought is essentially rational, positive, and progressive and that any departure from this is a departure from its true nature. For example, in his discussion of madness in Madness and  Civilization, Foucault urges us to think of madness not as an essential thing but, rather, as a term or concept reinvented at different points in history in accordance with the social and political atmosphere of the community.
Foucault approaches the subject of history as though it were discontinuous. That is, he rejects traditional notions of history as progressive and causational and looks for ruptures, breaks, shifts, and mutations in the traditional narrative.
Specificity begins, as Shumway writes, "with the reversal of our common assumption that discourse is a more or less accurate representation of a nondiscursive reality" (21). In other words, it rejects the notion that discourse has a one-to-one relationship with an essential reality. Specificity could also be called the strategy of "otherness." Foucault asks us to assume that historical periods before our own were radically different and tries to give us a sense, or "feel," for what that period's discourse was like. The strategy here is to make you experience the period's discourse as a separate, self-sustaining world, separated from other periods by those breaks and ruptures we talked about in discontinuity.
This approach asks us to reject the notion that we must understand, or try to reach, the deeper meaning of discourse through understanding its surface meaning. For example, systems such as psychoanalysis and literary criticism have attempted to understand the deeper meaning, or the meaning behind, their surface discourses (these would be, say, symptoms in psychoanalysis or features of a text in literary criticism). Foucault tells us that meaning can be found in these surface discourses.

The Order of Things

In The Order of Things, Foucault offers an analysis of the modern social sciences and critiques the modern concept of man. He divides modern history into three discontinuous periods (the Renaissance, the Classical Age, and the modern era) defined by their individual epistemes and places them in a vertical sequence to discover their relations. Thus he attempts to show how the social sciences were constructed by each historical period and how they (the sciences) are related to forms of knowledge that characterize the period. So although The Order of Things is in chronological order, Foucault is not interested in showing how thought evolved from era to era or how the sciences progressed from age to age. In fact, he shows their discontinuity by examining how thought systems are mere artifacts of each historical formation.

He also argues that man is merely a construction of the modern era, not an essential reality. This relates to Foucault's attempt to disprove that the sciences deal with fundamental human questions and that each historical period is involved with addressing these questions in a progressive way.
He is also interested in examining how language has referred to the world in different eras. During the Renaissance, language was studied like any other natural object, not as a separate entity. This changed in the Classical Age, when language was perceived as related to, but not essentially a part of, the world it describes. In the modern period, language once again becomes part of the world, but it is perceived as a historical phenomenon hindered by constraints and distortions.

The Archeology of Knowledge

In The Archeology of Knowledge Foucault explains the methodology he used in Madness and Civilization, The Birth of the Clinic, and The Order of Things. In essence, it is Foucault's attempt to show how his work is different from traditional means of understanding history. He describes his strategy of discontinuity and argues that disciplines like grammar, medicine, and economics have no positive unity.  What unites them are the "rules of formation" that determine how new statements can be made within a given discipline. That is, they are united by the system that creates fields of discipline.

The word statement in The Archeology of Knowledge is a translation of the French énoncé. The concept of énoncé an important one in The Archeology of Knowledge: Foucault argues that the statement itself does not create meaning. Rather, statements create a network of rules that determine what is meaningful. He is also interested in the idea of "truth production," or how truth emerges from what is said and written during a certain historical formation.


Deleuze, Gilles. Foucault. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota P, 1986.

Offers an examination of the philosophical foundations and principal themes of Foucault's work. Examines his views on knowledge, punishment, power, and the nature of subjectivity.
Eribon, Didier. Michel Foucault. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1991.
Chronicles the life and work of Foucault from his upbringing in Poitiers to his death in Paris. Discusses his major works against his biographical background but resists commenting on them extensively.
Gutting, Gary. The Cambridge Companion to Michel Foucault. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Provides a comprehensive review of Foucault's major themes and texts. Also discusses the thinkers and movements Foucault impacted.
Macey, David. The Lives of Michel Foucault. New York: Pantheon Books, 1993.
A chronological biography of Foucault's life, supplemented with interviews and conversations with his friends and colleagues.
Miller, James. The Passion of Michel Foucault. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.
Studies Foucault's life in philosophy. Although it is not a traditional biography, it moves chronologically through Foucault's philosophical preoccupations and offers interpretations of his texts.
Racevskis, Karlis. Critical Essays on Michel Foucault. New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1999.
Offers 15 critical essays on Foucault's ethics, politics, and philosophies. Includes essays by Gilles Deleuze, Gary Gutting, and David R. Shumway.
Shumway, David R. Michel Foucault. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989.
Offers a breif overview of Foucault's work, including the characteristic strategies he used in approaching his subject matters. Each chapter discusses an idea or set of ideas that is tied to one of his major works.

Foucault Websites


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