Foucault in Education 2016

Welcome to the wiki site for CI529: Foucault in Education.


To get us started, I’ll provide an outline of some opening background for reading Foucault.Michel Foucault

Its important before we start to consider that there is not one Foucault, but as many Foucaults as people and disciplines who read him. I had a grad student a few years ago who took the Foucault class with me and then had another course in which Foucault was discussed. Her response was that she didn’t much recognize the Foucault in the second class. Foucault was what Deleuze called a “follower”, not in the sense of being unoriginal, but in the sense of following phenomena and generating new ideas with abandon. If we take off from any one point in his thinking, we can develop entire worlds that we call Foucault, but they are, rather, and assemblage of Foucault-self-time-place-mood rather than being “the truth about Foucault.” The Foucault we come to in this class will be unique. At the same time, this does not mean that there are not better and worse readings of Foucault. We can’t simply argue that what he is writing could mean anything. We can argue that we are free to think anything, but that doesn’t mean that Foucault’s writing doesn’t have some reality or resistance to being turned into whatever we like. We can’t claim the considerable authority of Foucault to bolster just any idea we have. Therefore, we need to try to understand what he was trying to argue, at the same time as we understand that this is me-Foucault or us-Foucault.

A Disclaimer

In the notes that follow, I make no claims to these being original or even my sentences. I poached many of these notes years ago from multiple on-line sources, making especially heavy use of Wikipedia. I put these together at a time when I simply lectured from them rather than putting them in print, so I wasn’t so much worried about attribution. In the years since, I’ve puttered with them, changing wording and ideas here and there. I no longer have any idea what was mine and what was pure poaching. I know that if this went into, I would be in trouble. So while the particular assemblage of ideas is mine, creating a particular whole, the parts are not mine. So thanks Wikipedia and all you other forgotten sources. In your course papers, DO NOT follow my example!

Biographical notes (mostly from Wikipedia)

Foucault was born in France in 1926, the son and grandson of a physician. He later said that school offered something of a refuge from the ravages of the war that was raging around them. He was able to enter University Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris in 1946, at the end of the war. He studied psychology and philosophy and graduated in 1952. He began a career that took him abroad quite often – Sweden, Poland, and Tunisia – as a cultural attaché as well as working in a variety of mental hospitals and teaching at universities. He was briefly a communist, which he then rejected especially in response to the terrors of Stalinism. He defended his doctoral dissertation in 1961. It was called Folie et déraison: histoire de la folie à l’âge classique (Madness and Unreason: A History of Madness in the Classical Age) and later published in England as Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in an Age of Reason. With his publication of The Order of Things in 1966 and thenThe Archeology of Knowledge in 1969, he gained an ever growing reputation as one of the most original and controversial thinkers of the modern era. He was appointed to a chair at The College of France, France’s most prestigious university, in 1970. In addition to numerous shorter pieces, between 1970 and 1984 he wrote Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison and three of four intended volumes of A History of Sexuality. He spent time in the U.S. as a visiting professor at Cal Berkeley. In 1984 at the age of 58, Foucault died as a result of complications from AIDS.

A Conveniently Oversimplified Story of Foucault’s Forerunners

descartes-comicDescartes 1596 – 1650  Descartes is called the father of modern science and philosophy. It is instructive to understand how those two are intertwined.

  • rejection of the Catholic Church’s Aristotelian model of science, from belief to proof
  • argued for a model of science that moved from proof to belief
  • the human mind shares a unity with God and can know the natural world through the disciplined assertion of will and rationality

However, for Foucault, knowledge cannot be understood as something that objectively exists, but rather it is a production more properly understood as “power/knowledge.” For example, what what going on in the world during and after the Cartesian revolution that that allows us to see power united with knowledge,  one as an expression of the other? What happened in the name of knowing the world?

Hegel 1770 – 1831 Hegel is often characterized as bringing what Descartes started to its pinnacle of development. He claimed to have developed philosophy to the point where there was a single solution to all problems of philosophy.

  • hegelThere is one point of view – The Nature of Being – that transcends all particular and separate perspectives and grasps one truth.
  • In this perspective, nothing is foreign to the competence of science and philosophy.
  • This thought system deprived all of the implicated elements and problems of their autonomy and particular authenticity, reducing them to simply being manifestations of that one process which is the Absolute Spirit’s quest for its own true self – the world coming into order, inevitable evolution toward truth. Think of Darwin and think of the justification of history. The west is preeminent because that’s how it is supposed to be; it’s the emergence of the true order of the world. History is unfolding progressively, evolving toward an ever higher state.

What does this mean, imply, make possible? Think of this in relation to the great structuralist thinkers of the 19th century — Freud, Marx — and how these beliefs were at the heart of their projects.

Foucault stated that the modern task is to escape Hegel. Lyotard (1962,The Post-Modern Condition) argued that in the name of a unified truth, the world has had as much terror as it can take.

Nietzsche 1844 – 1900

quote-Friedrich-Nietzsche-the-individual-has-always-had-to-struggle-41452In 1952, Foucault became enamored of the work of Nietzsche, which shaped the whole rest of his career and thinking.

In Nietzsche’s later writings, he was preoccupied by the origin and function of values in human life. In other words, why do we say something it right?

  • Life neither possesses nor lacks any intrinsic value or meaning, yet life is always being evaluated, explained, made meaningful.
  • The evaluations then, what we say is true or good, can be read as a symptom of the condition of the evaluator.

Foucault’s Work

Foucault took up Nietzsche’s critique of the utterly self-serving and chauvinist view of Truth. This is the foundation of his work. The ultimate Foucauldian question is not “Why is it that…?” Its “Why do we say that…?” “How did we come to believe that…?” Foucault’s project is epistemological, historical and analytic, exploring the historical archives, the relationships of power/knowledge that circulates in institutions and structures, the webs of discourse, and the development of the modern self, all to understand how it is that we come to function and experience via certain modes of belief.

It is critical to understand that Foucault does not believe that the truth is there to be found by stripping away the layers of false belief. There is no truth there to be found. There is no outside to discourse. There are just circumstances in which certain things are normative and true and other things are not, and there is the question of how we can and do and do not live freely or not among all of this.

House of Bedlam

For example, Foucault’s dissertation, which became Madness and Civilization was his application and extension of Nietzsche’s work in understanding the history of the concept of madness. He was not trying to answer questions of truth such as “What is madness really?” Rather, he writes a history of the birth of the modern conception of madness. In showing that beggars and vagrants were once classified as madmen, his goal was NOT to argue that today we have a clearer or truer understanding of madness, but rather to recount how it happened that these things came to be seen as self-evident truth – that of course anyone who was homeless or poor was suffering from mental illness.

burnedIn both Madness and Civilization and in Discipline and Punish, in which Foucault explores the history of punishment and imprisonment, Foucault suggested that we think we are more free now because treatment is more humane, but he is arguing that we are not more free, although we certainly experience the punishments differently. Rather, we submit ourselves differently to being disciplined in each scenario. Whereas in the past, it was the body that was disciplined, in the contemporary world, it is the spirit, the mind, soul, belief, or self that is shaped and disciplined. The distinction that Foucault is trying to make is a bit subtle at first glance but it is absolutely central to understanding his work. He is arguing that there is a shift in history when the question that came to the fore was what human beings ought to be like – what human beings ought to know and believe, how they ought to behave and what they should believe about themselves and each other, what sorts of disciplines and interventions they should be willing to submit themselves to – that one can trace historically how this came to be. Foucault’s famous statement in Discipline and Punish is “The soul is the prison of the body,” meaning that our beliefs about what we are supposed to be like, beliefs we have accepted from larger societal discourses, mean that we monitor and discipline ourselves even in the absence of external suasion, because we have come to believe it is what we should be like.

So Foucault does not ask questions like, “What does it mean to be a proper human being? What is natural to people?” Philosophy since Descartes has been obsessed with arguing that the pinnacle of humanness is to give meaning to one’s life and choices, to ground morality in a theory of human rights, for example. “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” If they were so self-evident, they wouldn’t have to be stated, would they? But this was the struggle of philosophers — to understand what governs human behavior. What was the moral order of the universe, dictated by God or the rule? Or in the absence of a god or ruler with god-like authority, what can we call on to create order or judge right from wrong? How do we decide what to do and to be like and to what authority do we submit ourselves and on what basis can a government govern or can police, for example, judge and punish someone? Grounding and regrounding this authority has been one of the central tasks of philosophers across history.

Foucault is trying to do something different. Rather than asking, “What does it mean to be a proper human being?” Foucault’s questions are, “What is the history that causes us to say that this is a proper human being and what interests does it serve to say that?” For example, how did we come to say that all human beings are created equal and what happens and doesn’t happen because we say that?

Foucault draws from Habermas to study the major techniques or discourses humans have turned to lay claim to being a subject who can act or be recognized in the world. He says Habermas argues that there are three major techniques through which we lay claim to being subjects in the world. These are 1) the techniques that allow us to physically act on the world, to produce, manipulate or transform things, in other words, to work or act purposefully; 2) the techniques that allow one to use sign systems – to use language; and 3) the techniques that allow one to determine the conduct of others, to impose certain ends or objectives. He calls these:

  • techniques of production
  • techniques of communication
  • techniques of domination

But Foucault adds to these a fourth. In his work he is much concerned with another type of technique, which is the technique that permits individuals to effect a certain number of operations on their own bodies, their own souls, their own conduct, their own thoughts, and in this manner, to transform and modify themselves and to strive to attain a certain state of perfection or happiness or purity or power. He called these

  • techniques of the self

Two Sets of Schema for Understanding Foucault’s Projects

Schema #1

In the original preface to The History of Sexuality, vl 2, Foucault lays out the trajectory of his work as follows: that in his attempt to understand the constitution of the modern subject, he follows three axes.

  • How are reason and knowledge defined and where did this come from?
  • What are the rules of normality and where did they come from?
  • What are our relations to the self and where did these come from?

Some key principles here:

  • Foucault’s work can roughly be understood as divided into three eras, by primary concentration on these three axes. Although Foucault says that these concerns were present throughout all of his work, it seems clear that his understandings and his foci changes over time.
  • what-the-foucault-knowledge-and-power-1Foucault’s understanding of power is very different than that which comes through Marx. What Foucault means by power is one of the hardest things to get our heads around. Power is not a possession or a quantity. With Foucault, you cannot say that some people have power and some people don’t or that some have more or less. It is not a thing that can be possessed. For Foucault, power is a relation or a set of relations. It is more like potential, or the ability to act, but it is not primarily ideological (although ideology may be useful to the enactment of power relations but is rather opportunistic, moving and shifting. Power does not move from the top down; it moves from the bottom out; it is rhizomatic, taking advantage of whatever opening is available, building and abandoning, and full of contradictions. Power can be thought of as a physics, meaning that it can only be thought of or experienced as power if it pushes off of something or in other words, sets in motion resistance to whatever it is. We will spend much time trying to get a grip on this, because it means that although we are used to thinking of power as primarily repressive, in Foucault we have to see it as we have to see power as primarily productive.
  • From Walshaw (p. 21) In order to understand the operation of power, we need to
    understand the particular points through which it passes. It is local, continuous, and
    present in the most apparently trivial details and relations of everyday life. The
    upshot is that analyses should focus on the local and regional points of the
    destination and on the diverse and specific manifestations of power. Foucault
    claims that one needs to investigate the historical ‘conditions’ of the mechanics of
    power in ascending order of social levels. That means that … we
    need to look to the fringes or to the micro-level of society …to
    investigate how mechanisms of power have been “invested, colonised utilised,
    involuted, transformed, displaced, extended” (Foucault, 1980, p. 99) by more
    general forms of power, leading to those types of social domination that are readily
  • For Foucault, power is neither inherently good or bad. This relativism does NOT imply that there no grounds for political action or for taking political positions. This is the issue of ethics that we will take up in a concentrated manner later in the semester. To be clear for now, however, Foucault will never advocate an ethic of living; he argues that the moment you seek to justify your beliefs or actions, you are headed down the wrong path. Rather, he will do a historical analysis of the ethics or aesthetics of living that characterized various human ages. His goal in doing this is to denaturalize what we take for granted about proper values in our own era. He believes that if we see that there have been many different ways to think about what constitutes an ethical life, we will understand just how free we really are to determine our action in the world.

Foucault comic

Schema #2

Foucault characterized his work as consisting of

  • archaeology
  • genealogy
  • ethics

Archaeology, genealogy, and ethics can be understood as the methodologies used to explore the three axes of reason and knowledge, normality, and the self.

MadnessIn Madness and Civilization, The Order of Things, and Archaeology of Knowledge the early Foucault was focused primarily on what counts as reason and knowledge. His primary method of research was archaeology. Archaeology is primarily concerned with the discursive realm and can be visualized as the archive, as Foucault searching through historic documents, doing the history of how discourses evolve. It is the historical research that analyzes relations among discursive forms that indicate regulations, of stratifications of knowledge. As Walshaw suggests, “As a methodological approach, archaeology offers a means of analysing ‘truth games’ by looking at history and uncovering the rules of construction of social facts and discourses, or the rules of discursive systems” (p. 9).

D&PThe middle Foucault focuses on power organized around the rules of normality and the method used is genealogy. Genealogy analyzes relations among institutions and especially practices as forces that indicate exercises as strategies of power. This can be conceptualized as creating a diagram (like a genealogical family tree) of the relations among institutions and the idea of the self. Here we need to understand that what Foucault is offering is a history of the present, or in other words, why we believe what we believe to be true today. As Walshaw says, “Foucault argues that a history of the present cannot be systematised and interpreted in terms of the meanings it reveals, but must be understood as a conflict between different power blocks. It is the task of the genealogist to shed light on associations that have not been readily apparent and discover how discourses of truth operate in relation to the dominant power structures of a given society” (p. 14). Walshaw also says that Foucault demonstrated that, “the historical processes that spark the emergence of events or discourse, are in fact discontinuous, divergent and governed by chance” (p. 14). This was a direct challenge to the narratives of history or human development as unfolding in a meaningful or progressive way. Discipline and Punish is his premiere work of this period.

HSThe late Foucault drew on the method of ethics to analyze how the other two axes – reason/knowledge and norms – are interiorized by individuals. This is the inward turning of self on self. It can be conceptualized as memory, or how we naturalize and explain why we are who we are. This part of Foucault’s work is often characterized as a corrective to what is experienced as the overly-determining and overly-pessimistic perspectives that characterize his middle work. As Walshaw notes, “his earlier formulations tended to overstate the efficacy, of disciplinary power, and this had the effect of precluding the possibility of one’s resistance to forms of dquote-where-there-is-power-there-is-resistance-michel-foucault-43-14-82isciplinary domination” (p. 15). History of Sexuality Part 1 and the latter works of the semester will exemplify his formulations on subjectivity and what Walshaw calls “the potential of creativity and agency within social constraints” (p. 15).


So when Foucault says “archaeology”, think “history”; when he says “genealogy”, think “institutional analysis” and when he says “ethics,” think keep-calm-and-read-foucault-with-your-friends-1

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