Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Michel Foucault: Three Works (An Analysis)

Michel Foucault, who was the Professor of the History of the Systems of Thought at the College de France, is considered as the most influential thinker in recent memory. His works have a profound influence on psychology, feminism, history, and the social sciences. His theory of truth as "power relations" presents the critical perspective of the post-structuralist approach to epistemology, ethics, and economics as the science of man, demystifying all that we have come to believe about the way things are.

The Archaeology of Knowledge

In the Archaeology of Knowledge, Michel Foucault employs an archaeological method of analysis, in which he retraces the formation of concepts, objects, modalities and strategies. The notion of any historical unity or succession is abandoned, and instead, Foucault shows how discourse, or the relations, rules, and conditions by which statements emerge, determine our knowledge. According to Alan Sheridan, Foucault intends to set the record straight on those “fundamental misunderstandings which all revolve around a single problem: the status and role of the human subject, the concept of man, in history and in the human sciences.”[1]

Foucault begins with the writing of history. As what is often said, the victors write history while its victims are at the receiving end of its continuity. Foucault says, “what one is seeing, then, is the emergence of a whole new field of questions, some of which are already familiar, by which this new form of history is trying to develop its own theory: how one is to specify the different concepts that enable us to conceive of discontinuity?”[2] This question is most important in terms of its ramifications for research as it sets how the various disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences may operate in a field where knowledge is not founded on a telos or aim.  For Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, Foucault herein analyzes a search for a “fundamental experience outside history which founds history as one of the essential forms of modern thought.”[3]

Foucault also sets to explain the level of discourse in contrast to that of logic and language per se, thereby radically changing the landscape with respect to how historical knowledge comes to emerge. In the early part of the book, Foucault mentions the history of medicine, and how the treatment of the pathological condition of the patient appears to determine the mode of relations between the knowing subject and the object of investigation. In Part I of the book, Foucault writes that “these problems may be summed up in a word: the questioning of the document.”[4] Therein, he questions how history is conceived, which for him is mere historiography, or the documentary collection of events.

According to Dreyfus and Rabinow, the novel archaeological analysis employed by Foucault intends to study the structure of the discourses of the various disciplines that have attempted to theoretically explain society, human beings and language.[5] Foucault’s project is characteristically post-modern/post-structuralist, while Foucault may not want the description, insofar as he says that we cannot reduce history into some form of a totality where it can be grounded in a center or a dominant point of intersection on the basis of which things, characters or events are to be interpreted. Foucault notes, quite clearly, the distinction between a general and a total history: “A total description draws all phenomena around a single center – a principle, meaning, a spirit, a world-view, an overall shape; a general history, on the contrary, would deploy the space of dispersion.”[6] This is crucial, insofar as it provides a critical context upon which history may be viewed, written, and understood, away from the totalizing perspective of those who are in positions of power and the business of truth manipulation.

The above consideration sets the stage for the real objective in the book, which is to aptly describe what the history discourse is all about. Foucault explains that “discourse must not be referred to the distant presence of the origin, but treated as and when it occurs.”[7] In my reading, Foucault also soundly overturns the whole analytic tradition by overhauling the meaning of a statement as opposed to that of a sentence. The rationality, or in this regard, the Eurocentric logic of analytic philosophy is confronted by Foucault, although this may not be part of his intent. But his analysis renders as useless, if not downright absurd, what Bertrand Russell and Peter Strawson have done for the Anglo-Saxon tradition during the first half of the last century, by asserting that a statement is not a linguistic object but rather, an occurrence, an event or an irruption which opens up a field in which things are said/unsaid on the basis of specific rules not characterized by succession or continuity. 

One notable aspect in Foucault’s work is how he upends the analytic criteria set forth by Russell [on denoting] and Strawson [on referring] in the logical analysis of language, whereby Foucault makes clear that it is somewhat obvious that statements do not exist in the same way in which a sentence exists, and for that matter, language, if one is to give emphasis on the structural analysis of grammar, which for Foucault follows no strict logical pattern, explaining that “language and statement are not at the same level of existence,” because, according to Foucault, “one cannot say that there are statements in the same way as that there are languages.”[8]

In Part II, discourse is analyzed by means of retracing its roots in the various formations of objects, modalities, strategies and concepts, and Foucault cites the study of madness to drive his point: “The unity of discourses on madness would not be based upon the existence of the object ‘madness’, or the constitution of a single horizon of objectivity; it would be the interplay of the rules that make possible the appearance of objects during a given period of time…”[9] In view of such, it might be asked, how do objects might come to be interpreted? Foucault cites those rules, using the history of madness as a specific instance, where he says that “the establishment at the beginning of the century of a new mode of exclusion and confinement of a madman in a psychiatric hospital,” which gives us a clue with respect to the existence of the objects of discourse, in which, according to him, one considers “the surfaces of their emergence,” “the authorities of their delimitation,” their “grids of specification,” and he adds, that “these are the relations that, operating in psychiatric discourse, have made possible the formation of a whole group of various objects.”[10]

Foucault overturns any claim of a foundation, or that center in which meaning emerges, and instead, presents the idea of an “enunciative modality” which determines the very possibility of knowledge as a product of power relations. This enunciative modality, which defines how statements come to appear in specific discourses, is examined through the “speaking subject,” “institutional sites,” and “the position of the subject.”[11] Enunciation, Foucault argues, is about “a set of rules for arranging statements in series, an obligatory set of schemata of dependence, of order, and of successions…”[12]

In Part III, Foucault describes the field of discourse – from statements to the archive. Statements are not entities or the objects of discourse. Rather, statements appear as a way of articulating, not on the basis of some form of a monolithic block of truth, but in view of a disparity or of differences. Here, Foucault tries to bracket discourse from “the social practices and institutions in which it is embedded.”[13] Foucault shows how discourse emerges as an articulation of both the said/unsaid and the visible/unseen, which he calls proximity. In Part IV, Foucault explains the difference between his archaeological method and that of the history of ideas. And he does so by presenting the meaning of the historical a priori. He writes that “the term a priori is not a condition for the validity of judgments, but a condition of reality for statements.”[14] In view of the method that he has well-elucidated, he says that the historical a priori “is defined as the group of rules that characterize a discursive practice.”[15]

Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge offers a very radical way of understanding history by interpreting the history of discourse, in contrast to the interpretation of history on the basis of documents or facts, which one finds in the history of ideas. He says, for instance, that “the history of ideas, then, is the discipline of beginnings and ends, the description of obscure continuities and returns, the reconstitution of developments in the linear form of history.”[16] The book attacks the notion of continuity in history, which for Foucault means like being condemned to hearing what has already been said by the patient in a repetitive manner, history being that patient, like some “codes of knowledge.”[17] This point can be linked to the linear continuity of Eurocentric and Western dominion over human history, especially on the history of their colonies, and how such has defined arbitrarily, in favor of the white man, the agenda of the human sciences, thereby silencing other modes of self-expression or the other-oriented identity formation. It brings the human sciences and its method down to its knees, for through Foucault, the peripheries and margins of society have found an ally, perhaps accidentally or otherwise. What Foucault makes clear is the fact that certain conditions determine the practice of discourse. For instance, science has dominion over myths or legends, and technology has power and control over the subject.

The Order of Things

In his most prominent work, The Order of Things, Michel Foucault says that money, like words, assumes the role of designating meaning and value to things. This function comes in the form of representation. Thinking, in this sense, is simply the employment of ideas that represent similitude or sameness. Knowledge is all about knowing the things or how things are assembled, like orange and lemons on a crate, in our head. The order of things is reminiscent of how Descartes sought to ground everything at some center. In our contemporary world, money is that center.

In a consumerist society, money symbolizes what we are. Or to be more precise, money possesses the power that diminishes who we are as human beings. For instance, a degree in an expensive school defines for some people the meaning of success in professional life. For some, professional life is tied to city life, to condominiums and to endless parties among like-minded folks who are no more than social automatons. Money has for a long time been the symbol of the order in the New World. It has also become the impetus for the creation of value or possibly, in the destruction of values. Such has various implications. Socially, we can point to the lifestyles of people in the West and how their choices come to affect the well-being of the people in the poorest regions of the world. In a way, we can mention how money, as a standard for what one considers as valuable in life, can substantially reduce the meaning of life. It is hypocritical, of course, to say than money is not important. Aristotle has stated that resources are necessary in order to attain the good life. The real danger, however, is that situation wherein one equates money to a life that is worth living. Obviously, there are things that money can’t buy. Money can’t buy love, honor or real happiness. Those are the things that the science of economics will not be able to explain. Yet, just like in the Classical Age, it is studied like a thing in nature.[18]

In his analysis of wealth and how the science of economics has comfortably enunciated the meaning of the material world, Foucault speaks of man’s lost sense of freedom for thought is now reduced to the mere representation of things. In the same manner, it can be said that the sacred right of suffrage of the electorate has been reduced to a mere profanity. It now belongs to a world of deceit and measurable satisfaction that the lure of quick money offers. This subtle form of control has the capacity to manipulate persons and for this reason, the use of money in human life becomes normative.

This sets everything into play, whereby money represents the economic world of man and how it is used as a standard of measurement in terms of assessing human well-being. Here, the market or consumer society represents man, and man is determined on the basis of his mirror-images of himself in that market. He appears as a label of apparel or a brand on a pair of sneakers – man is no more than an obedient or docile client in a consumption-based economy.

The individual no longer sees beyond. He sees human life in terms its economic value and all other values, are reduce to their economic function or worth. In this regard, the positioning of peoples and nation-states is determined on the basis of economic power. The same economic power imposes who has the right to say what. We do not find truth in what is said, but who possesses the power to dictate the order of things in the world, on how things function. Foucault also says that “though the meaning itself is entirely on the side of the sign, its functioning is entirely on the side of that which is signified.”[19]

This has severe implications to the moral limits of the market. For capitalists, as long as the market serves its purpose of expanding wealth, any form of control is unwarranted. And so conglomerates can become intolerant to various forms of discourse. Legitimacy becomes a rule defined by those who are in positions of power whose rationality dominate and thereby repress the sentiments of the powerless and marginalized who are rendered mute.

By implication, the same analysis on wealth holds true in the analysis of man as a natural being and in language as mere representation. For Foucault, the analysis of wealth sheds light into how man is defined on economic terms, one that is indicative of the idea that wealth as a form of power determines how human beings are assessed, and in the process, are characterized, treated or mistreated, and recognized in the universe.

The greater implication to human society is that how money comes to define the very meaning of happiness and fulfillment for man. The wealth of people now become the standard norm of their social standing which enable them to command respect if not obedience from those they consider as inferior. Wealth now becomes the very manifestation of desire and it is what people will desire. As such, utility or pleasure marks what we mean by human life. Money is that sort of object that determines.

Discipline and Punish 

Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish begins with the description of the fate of Damiens the regicide at the church of Paris as a punishment in his attempt to kill his King:

“On 2 March 1757 Damiens the regicide was condemned ‘to make the amende honorable’…he was taken and conveyed in a car, wearing nothing but a shirt, holding a torch of burning wax weighing two pounds, to the Place de Greve, where on a scaffold that will be erected there, the flesh will be torn from his breasts, arms, thighs and calves with the red-hot pincers, his right hand, holding up the knife with which he had committed the parricide, burnt with sulfur, and on those places where the flesh will be torn away, poured molten lead, boiling oil, burnt with sulfur, burning resin, wax and sulfur melted together, and then his body drawn and quartered by four horses and his limbs and body consumed by fire, reduced to ashes and his ashes thrown to the winds.”[20]

The body must bear the suffering replicates the weight of the crime of the condemned; the violence inflicted by the executioner on it must resemble the same intensity and atrocity the crime of the condemned was to cause the sovereign. The body represented the individual who is in shackles or perhaps, the image of a helpless and crying woman who is stoned to death; the body, stripped of its soul and dignity, becomes the manifestation of the person at his lowest state of being, objectified in his material existence, and therefore, it is diminished into that entity that can be easily manipulated, unjustly pushed into the margins of oblivion, burnt like a piece of useless rag, ergo, annihilated and destroyed. The body is powerless without the soul; it becomes dirty and expendable on all counts when subjected to objectification.

The body, held in chains in the theater of terror, is like an old temple that is being desecrated; it is, in this regard, that vessel where under any cruel regime, it suffers the ultimate humiliation and the unbearable shame that can possibly be inflicted upon any man by a dominant regime. The spectacle at the scaffold hence was not only meant to instill in the highest possible order fear among the constituents of the sovereign; it also sends forth the message in the strongest term that anyone who defies the majesty of the king are to suffer the same fate as that of the condemned.

In Foucault’s unveiling of the history of the present, power transformed itself, disguised in so many ways, yet, its effect and impact remain, if not, more imminent and unforgiving in its cruelty and magnitude. So Foucault retraces how, by means of the history of the prison, that among so many changes that he observed, there emerged “the disappearance of torture as a public spectacle.”[21]The body was no longer the target of punishment. Hence, he writes, “at the beginning of the nineteenth century, then, the great spectacle of physical punishment disappeared; the tortured body was avoided; the theatrical representation of pain was excluded from punishment.”[22] Therein, he cites how “eighty years later, Leon Faucher drew up his Rules for the House of young prisoners in Paris.”[23] This was of great significance, for it would mean that punishment would now have a new target; a new object whereupon the full weight of the law can be applied and its most terrifying impact is to be felt. The same intent of the sovereign to control the mind of the populace must be maintained; and it must do so with a different target but with the same cunning that was to be characterized by quietude and versatility. 

According to Foucault, since it is no longer the body is no longer the new locus of punishment, it must be the soul.[24] This is not by accident. The soul, being the new target, makes more apparent how the sovereign can exercise full control over its subjects, without the latter’s awareness of the demeaning intent of their rulers. The person becomes a participant to his subjugation insofar as he submits himself to the apparatus of control that is the institution. Human society, in this regard, is the scaffold; it is the very same theater where man is subjected to the condemnation of an angry and malevolent public, expressed most clearly in the indifference of a crowd that rejoices in the march to perdition of human being whose only mistake is that he belongs to the other end of the spectrum – he is assumes the role of a victim, of the conquered, of the vanquished. Foucault writes, 

“If the crowd gathered round the scaffold, it was not simply to witness the sufferings of the condemned man or to excite the anger of the executioner; it was also to hear an individual who had nothing more to lose curse the judges, the laws, the government and religion.”[25]

Foucault’s intent in drawing how punishment, from being a gory spectacle in the scaffold, was transformed into the strict rules that prisoners have to follow, was to show how the power of the sovereign metamorphosed into disciplinary power, the power to control people and reduce them into mindless and obedient subjects, that makes itself manifests in social institutions, in clinics and schools, and in those places where human beings are expected to act and behave like docile bodies under the control and dominion of a regime configured by power-relations. In this way, power is to be defined as that situation where the human being becomes a subject; to be a subject means to be the subject of power-relations; and for Foucault, “this subjection is not only obtained by the instruments of violence or ideology; it can also be direct, physical, pitting force against force, bearing on material elements, and yet without involving violence; it may be calculated, organized, technically thought out;”[26] Policies are not meant to do what is good; rather, policies are meant to be erected as panoptic gazes that relentlessly pursues anyone who disobeys.

People are not wary of the panoptic gaze of the state, for they are cast under its spell. Power has that insidious capacity to undermine its targets. According to Foucault, “torture is a technique; it is not an extreme expression of lawless rage.”[27] Torture as technique, and its ability to exercise dominion over an individual, becomes manifest in institutional practices that subjugate persons and transform them into docile or obedient subjects. The law, determined by the rule-makers who are in the position to create and promulgate its due course, is not intended with the interest of the unsuspecting population; justice is just another name for what suits the desires and purposes of the powerful. 

The law and its fullest expression in rules, policies and institutional practices and norms are meant to represent the sovereign’s control over its subjects. The law expresses not or exemplifies what the constituency of the state expects from their rule-makers; rather, it is meant to sow terror and threaten anyone who intends to defy its might. In this sense, the law, which is no more than the monstrosity of the sovereign in a veil of written provisions, who deems as an absolute and renders as non-negotiable requirement the unfailing obedience of its subjects; and any form of defiance is met with the law’s unfathomable might and unforgiving capacity to inflict unimaginable pain and suffering. This, for Foucault, remains a public spectacle, publicity being a requirement in the pursuit of absolute domination and the unrelenting exercise of the will of the sovereign over malleable and mindless subjects. Defiance can only mean one thing – death! Foucault says,

“Every death agony expresses a certain truth; but, when it takes place on the scaffold, it does so with more intensity, in that it is hastened by pain; with more rigor, because it occurs exactly at the juncture between the judgment of men and the judgment of God; with more ostentation, because it takes place in public.”[28]

Here, Foucault reveals the intent why death to the condemned has to become public. It is meant not only to control and terrorize people. It is intended to restore balance in the state, an equilibrium that is characterized by the asymmetrical relation between the king and his subjects. This balance was put to challenge in the commitment of a crime and so, to restore an old order, to bring back the pure and unchallenged lordship of the sovereign, someone has to serve the ceremonial purpose of the ritual at the scaffold. It is, in this sense, the way of the state to exact vengeance to those who challenge its authority. Foucault says, henceforth, that “the public execution, then, has a juridico-political function. It is a ceremonial by which a momentarily injured sovereignty is reconstituted. It restores that sovereignty by manifesting it at its most spectacular.”[29]

The hardest part is that the subjugated celebrates almost at will the triumph of the strong over the weak. The rule-makers are heralded while the innocent victims are buried into obsolescence, thrown into the wind, like a speck of dust, forgotten and reduced into sheer nothing, nameless and erased from the memory of humanity. And this is because ruler possesses one privilege that subjects do not – the exclusive power to pardon the guilty. Thus, Foucault explains, that “behind this punishment of the unskillful executioner, stands a tradition, which is still close to us, according to whom the condemned man should be pardoned if the execution happened to fail.”[30]

And so how does the power to punish become operative to an unsuspecting society? Foucault introduces the idea of truth-power relation which, according to him, “remains at the heart of all mechanisms of punishment and that it is still to be found in contemporary penal practice – but in a quite different form and with very different effects.”[31]



[1] Alan Sheridan, Michel Foucault: The Will to Truth, (New York: Routledge, 1980), 89
[2] Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972), 5.
[3] Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982), 11.
[4] Ibid., 6
[5] Dreyfus and Rabinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism, 17
[6] Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, 10
[7] Ibid., 25
[8] Ibid., 85
[9] Ibid., 32-33
[10] Ibid., 40-44
[11] Ibid., 50-52
[12] Ibid., 57
[13] Paul Rabinow, “Introduction,” The Foucault Reader, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), 9
[14] Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, 127
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid., 137
[17] Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic, (London: Routledge, 1973), 90.
[18] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, (London: Routledge, 1966), 39
[19] Ibid., 73
[20] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, (New York: Vintage, 1977), 3
[21] Ibid., 7
[22] Ibid., 14
[23] Ibid., 6
[24] Ibid., 16
[25] Ibid., 60
[26] Ibid., 26
[27] Ibid., 33
[28] Ibid., 45-46
[29] Ibid., 48
[30] Ibid., 52
[31] Ibid., 55