Who Is Michel Foucault?

John Haber
in New York City

A Primer for Pre-Post-Structuralists

What helped me most to think about Michel Foucault was a query that I myself had. I knew that people often associate artistic creativity with madness, and I wondered if the idea had a history. I was referred to R. Wittkower's fine book, Under the Sign of Saturn, but it is history in a different sense: the idea is static, artists and madness, but the instances are historical. I wanted to see how the idea developed and changed—and especially, what purposes it might have served in culture and what modern idea of The Artist (with the ostentatious capitals) it helped to create. Diego Velázquez's Las Meninas (Museo Nacional del Prado, 1656)

I was looking for the cultural history of an idea, discovering that my needs had long been surprisingly neglected. Philosophers of the past tended to take concepts as a given, waiting to be applied to burst the veil of everyday lives. Philosophers of the present had tried to analyze ideas, but history seemed unnecessary baggage on top of right and wrong. Historians had little truck with ideas as artifacts amid the stream of important events. Yet the history of ideas matters to an understanding of events, and that was precisely the field that Foucault nurtured.

A "Foucault for Dummies" would take at least a book—perhaps a book willing to criticize its own place in the history of ideas. I can offer only a kind of extended footnote for mad art fans. Had something like Wikipedia existed, I might never have written it. Think of it as a mild apology for an assumption of this whole Web site: criticism can and should invoke ideas without burying the art. The essays on this Web site refer to Foucault often enough, though, for a primer.


He said he was pursuing the "genealogy" of an idea, and he might be said to have given a founding push to the hot trend of "cultural studies" or "the New Historicism" in literary criticism. He is closely paralleled by the British-born historian Stephen Toulmin, who placed Newton and Descartes in context of half-forgotten political turmoil. However, he did not really match what Americans had called philosophy, sociology, or history before him.

It does have affinities with the complexity and yet also the bombast or confusion of the first. It certainly reminds me of the special currency of the second, not to mention its sloppy games with data. It could stand, too, for the breadth and pedanticism of the third. And in its shift of attention from great events to mundane experience, it may have been preceded by academic French historians (the annales school, such as Ferdinand Braudel). Such "microhistory" has flourished in English as well, thanks to Robert Darnton on the Enlightenment and Simon Schama on the great age of Dutch painting. Yet there is really nothing like it—in France or here—even now.

Foucault's version of cultural history is influenced by structuralism. He, too, liked to see a whole connected nexus of terms and ideas operating at a given time. Yet he rejected that too. In the introduction to The Archaeology of Knowledge, perhaps his most straightforward statement of purpose, he explicitly claims that he is not applying structuralism to history. Rather, he goes on, he is studying the principles and consequences of that transformation.

It is also not unlike what T. S. Kuhn, the influential historian of science, famously termed a paradigm, but Foucault called it an epistème, out for the arcane Greek touch. (That accent over the e should really be a macron, a horizontal bar, but html has limits to its paradigm, too.) For a provocative example of his method, I can only return to madness, a concern of his as well. In Madness and Civilization, he looked at how madness turned—or rather, was turned, consciously and less than consciously—slowly into a medical category, creating an us versus them that justified "normal" society.

But madness, to Foucault, is only a symptom of ideas since the Enlightenment. Influenced by Marxists and others on the left, he developed a particular story, one that traces a growing ethic of individualism. However, he changes the valuation given the story by humanists. In Discipline and Punish, he finds the discovery of individuals to parallel the development of some areas not of increased freedom, but of increased authority—prisons out of Giovanni Battista Piranesi and scientific analysis of behavior. It has served Peter Halley and others as a critique of modern art as well.

Knowledge and power

What is doubly surprising is that he sees deep connections between the parallel trends that he identifies: individualism and central authority. Or perhaps I might say unsurprising, for back in the 1960s—the time of Ken Kesey—books of his such as The Birth of the Clinic were not alone in lumping medical institutions in with prisons as crucial objects of study. Contemporary artists, such as Maddy Rosenberg, too, look as much to Piranesi as to landscape. Yet could even Kesey have taken the point of view of a long-dead crazed murderer, like Foucault in I, Pierre Riviere?

He could have developed his parallel by looking at the notion of individual responsibility, with individual freedom conceived in opposition to universal laws, and yet the individual always answerable to the rule of law. He could have opposed this ethic to a picture of lives caught up in the life of their community. Interestingly, however, he mostly constructs his history through a metaphor, appropriate to someone thinking so much about language, like a structuralist. That is, he argues that individualism has a lot to do with the individual point of view, and I take the word "view" literally indeed.

For example, in art it allowed the great achievement of realism, including perspective and a more and more painterly style, a style based on a kind of optical illusion. A privileged viewpoint reminds Foucault of the idea of surveillance—say, the prison guard looking through a peephole into a cell. He clearly influenced the feminist interest in culture as about men looking at women, a criticism that associates "just looking" with a kind of power. Indeed, he titled a volume of lesser essays after that theme: Knowledge/Power.

Foucault thus sees authority deriving from the rebellion of individuals and, in turn, asserting itself through its influence on individual desires. The connection resonates strongly with critics of today's mass media. Even more, it gives ammunition to feminism and gender studies. In their influential study of capitalism as an Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri call the idea "biopower."

Words and philosophers

I have not mentioned perhaps his greatest influence and his greatest target, Sartre, whom (so far as I know) he never addresses at length explicitly. Sartre had introduced "the gaze" into philosophy as a crucial definer of the self. Everyone leads an alienated existence, Sartre believed, because without how others see us, we would never come to be who we are. Foucault shifts this concept from self-definition into partisan politics.

For Sartre, a self-assured fighter who violently distrusted revolutionaries, alienation is normal. For Foucault—a homosexual who died of AIDS in the midst of composing an ambitious, unfinished History of Sexuality—accepting normalcy as others define it is out of the question.

Sartre had also first suggested the importance of human language, ordinary discourse, in defining what we mean. Just as Foucault titled his explication of paradigm shifts Les Mots et Les Chose ("words and things," translated into English as The Order of Things), Sartre called his autobiographical reflections just Let Mots ("words").

However, Sartre's focus on the individual conscience never prepares one for Foucault, whose look at language closely resembles contemporaneous attack on Sartre's humanism—by Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan especially. To Foucault, discourse is just one of the rules of society he examines critically. Language too, he argues, transcends and even obviates individual perception rather than allows our independent existence to flourish.

Post Foucault

Foucault's vast ingenuity helps explain the range of its contemporary influence. I have had to cite micro-history and historicism, Marxism, structuralism, Postmodernism, gender studies, and others along the way. Indeed, perhaps Foucault's greatest strength lies in connecting so many battlefields of the culture wars. He himself often seems to forget which battle he was last fighting. His vision of individualism as a mask for repressive institutions depends strongly, as Jacques Derrida argued, on an equally totalizing, almost totalitarian, faith in structures with their own vocabulary.

What makes it all tolerable for me, though, is that he also has a post-structuralist side. He actually likes Western culture, the artier the better; he actually uses scientific methods freely, even if he seems critical of them. More confusing and rewarding still, when he sees scientific analysis as loaded, he disrupts the tidy structuralism on which he relies. Better yet, he often does something playful to exploit the disruption, as if he is determined to make his own work look silly. Well, maybe it will in the long run, and he might be pleased.

For a wonderful example, I have to mention his joyful little paperback on René Magritte and the paradoxes of This Is Not a Pipe. However, he is most often read for the introductory chapter to The Order of Things. There he develops associations between individualism and perspective by looking at Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez, trying to trace the mirror reflections and the place of the viewer—much as in contemporary photos after the scene by Yasumasa Morimura. (Note that consistent theme again, point of view.)

Foucault finds the painting a lot messier, more paradoxical, than most art historians. Indeed, he thinks its points of view cannot be reconciled. He begins his most philosophical book with this essay, because not just the book but his entire career hinges on finding the Achilles heel of individual perspective. This introductory tour de force appeals to people who cannot deal with all that convoluted history of science of his any more than David Hockney's bizarre application of science to art history, like me—not to mention artists and literary critics.

It also infuriates many historians, even the most innovative ones, by its all-too-rapid play with ideas. The same criticism has been leveled at his longer works on specific institutions, for all their air of accumulated detail. For instance, a recent historian has studied how twentieth-century psychiatry broke decisively with the kind of authoritarian clinic that Foucault describes. In fact, modern psychiatry was out to create attention to a patient as needy person rather than diseased individual, just as an earlier age had shifted its focus from demonic possession to disease. Sober history casts doubt on Foucault's easy association of individualism and totalitarianism.

Some leftists, such as Michael Walzer in The Company of Critics, also find Foucault's cynicism less than liberating. If power governs everything, one hardly knows what to criticize and how to begin. Foucault's uneasy place between structuralism and after may also add contradictions of its own. When he looks on power games angrily from without, his gaze may echo the very dreams of objectivity that he had turned into nightmares.

Nonetheless, his work remains decisive in framing all these questions, from philosophy to criticism in the arts. I shall never look at, say, Manet's A Bar at the Folies Bergère and its weird mirror—or its counterpart by Jeff Wall—without remembering Foucault. I can never doubt that he loves Manet's anxious reflections, for he finds the excitement of Western culture all too real. For him, culture has been a bomb waiting to explode—and the explosion is Postmodernism.

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