Ahhh summer. If you are not melting on the East Coast or Southeast then hopefully you are relaxing on the left coast or surviving the brutal heat of the Midwest. As such, it seems a perfect time to reflect on how we got to where we are intellectually. Here at T of M, we are revisiting some old classics that shaped our thought in our younger years along with, as is true of any work, their flaws
Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 1975
Foucault’s influential classic can be credited (blamed in some people’s eyes) for fueling a shift in how historians and others think about discourse and the creation of social norms. Along with works such as The History of Sexuality Vol. I (1976) and The Origin of Things: An Archeaology of the Human Sciences (1966), one could argue Foucault almost single handedly altered what we consider to be “fact” or “truth,” suggesting that often each operated much as a social/political construct rather than an innate reality. Some of his more ardent followers would even go so far as to argue that the idea of empirical fact itself is problematic.
My first encounter with Foucault occurred as a nineteen year old freshman in the mid-1990s (ahh the “salad days” of mid tempo grunge rock facsimiles – Bush anyone?) meeting my university’s three quarter sociology requirement. Having never encountered Foucault’s brand of history and logic, I remember not completely understanding much of his argument the first time around. Undoubtedly, Foucault’s opening scene, a public execution, serves as a striking introduction into the kind of systems of surveillance and control at the heart of his work. Still, though much of Foucault remained opaque in my initial reading, I remember also drawing out a very simple but valuable theme: the most powerful systems of surveillance and control were those we imposed on ourselves out of fear of an invisible (and possibly non existent) regulatory structure. As a high school and college jock, all I could think about was how I attempted to regulate my own behavior in the hopes of avoiding condemnation (and subsequent loss of playing time) from my coaches. In my mind, coach was always ruefully watching my each and every action.
Even with this understanding, Foucault’s writing style confused me. I remember asking the prof at the time, “Did Foucault write any of this, it just seems like block quotes?” Talk about naïve. To his credit, my professor answered my inquiry without a note of condescension, almost bemused by my idiocy. As I got older and had to reread Foucault for classes in grad school, the wider effect of his arguments began to sink in. In my early 30s, I even had the opportunity to visit Philadelphia’s Eastern State Prison, subject of part of the book, giving me a physical and spatial understanding of Foucault’s muse.
Undoubtedly, others found Foucault’s works inspiring much earlier. Writer Edmund White reflected on Foucault’s effect (one should note White is speaking of Foucault’s collection of works not just Discipline and Punish) on him in the 1970s:
His central idea had a liberating effect on me: that we are all – philosophers, children, and chemical engineers alike – constricted as to what we can think by prevailing discourses of our period. As he put it, “We cannot think no matter what no matter when…” (City Boy, 149)
Nonetheless, as White’s own reflection illustrates Foucault had flaws. First, the idea of agency seems almost non-existent. If one adheres too strictly to Discipline and Punish’s arguments, people seem less like people and more like vessels that dominant forces in society simply fill and shape or as the aforementioned White summarized, “no one was immune to the subduing power of discourse.” (City Boy, 149) What about those individuals and movements that oppose dominant forces? How do we explain such developments? Another issue regarding Foucault regards how he has been used over the past four decades. Is there any scholar who is referenced more than Foucault over the past 20 years and sometimes in ways that require far greater explanation? Anyone who has taken a grad school history course has undoubtedly been in class with someone who dropped a couple catch phrases from Foucault’s work (bio-politics anyone?) to make a profound point that in actuality lacked true profoundness.
Granted, Foucault himself resented such developments. Identity politics remained anathema to the French philosopher. The confessional society that oozes from reality TV and Oprah served as cautionary tales for him. As White notes, Foucault rejected “‘the culture of avowal’ by which he meant a culture that thought every individual had a secret, that that secret was sexual, and that by confessing it one had come to terms with one’s essence.” Moreover, even White disagreed with Foucault’s intransigence on this issue: “Yes, it might be wrong to consider one’s sexuality to be the key to one’s identity — and in the ultimate scheme of things perhaps gay identity politics have led to the easy packaging and commodification of our experience, a trivialization of the bacchic rites. Nevertheless what we desire is crucial to who we are.” (City Boy, 186). However, whatever Foucault thought of identity politics, it failed to stop others from employing his arguments too widely. Of course punishing Foucault for the faults of his acolytes hardly seems fair, but no one ever said life was.
Clearly, Foucault deserves far more praise than condemnation. Discipline and Punish, along with his other works, shaped my own approach to history and writing. Discourse does have power. It does shape us, just maybe not quite as much as Foucault argued. Still, it goes without saying that Foucault’s discourse certainly influenced me.