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Michel Foucault: the Life and Work of the Renown Philosopher

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Paul-Michel Foucault (15 October 1926 – 25 June 1984), usually known as Michel Foucault, was a French philosopher, historian of ideas, social theorist, and literary critic. Foucault’s theories primarily address the relationship between power and knowledge, and how they are used as a form of social control through societal institutions. Though often cited as a post-structuralist and postmodernist, Foucault rejected these labels, preferring to present his thought as a critical history of modernity. His thought has influenced academics, especially those working in communication studies, sociology, cultural studies, literary theory, feminism, and critical theory. Activist groups have also found his theories compelling.

Born in Poitiers, France, into an upper-middle-class family, Foucault was educated at the Lycée Henri-IV, at the École Normale Supérieure, where he developed an interest in philosophy and came under the influence of his tutors Jean Hyppolite and Louis Althusser, and at the University of Paris (Sorbonne), where he earned degrees in philosophy and psychology. After several years as a cultural diplomat abroad, he returned to France and published his first major book, The History of Madness (1961). After obtaining work between 1960 and 1966 at the University of Clermont-Ferrand, he produced The Birth of the Clinic (1963) and The Order of Things (1966), publications which displayed his increasing involvement with structuralism, from which he later distanced himself. These first three histories exemplified a historiographical technique Foucault was developing called ‘archaeology’.

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From 1966 to 1968, Foucault lectured at the University of Tunis before returning to France, where he became head of the philosophy department at the new experimental university of Paris VIII. Foucault subsequently published The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969). In 1970, Foucault was admitted to the Collège de France, a membership he retained until his death. He also became active in a number of left-wing groups involved in campaigns against racism and human rights abuses and for penal reform. Foucault later published Discipline and Punish (1975) and The History of Sexuality (1976), in which he developed archaeological and genealogical methods which emphasized the role power plays in society.

Foucault died in Paris of neurological problems compounded by HIV/AIDS; he became the first public figure in France to die from the disease. His partner Daniel Defert founded the AIDES charity in his memory.

Educational Impact

Michel Foucault has influenced all fields of social sciences. His books, I think, should be integrated as part of the curriculum in education for the close relation between power, knowledge and discourse, three variables of great impact in the development and conception of education.

Foucault already influences education his concept of body and control are at the centre of his prison concept keeping an eye on the prisoners in the same way governments exercise control over people. Police control through law and order and educational institutes control how students behave and learn in class.

Classroom set up and time table

Considerations of time and space allows for greater control ‘in discipline, it is the subjects who have to be seen. Their visibility assures the hold of power that is exercised over them. It is the fact of being constantly seen, of being able to always be seen, that maintain the disciplined individual in his subjection.’ (Foucault 1979, pp 187)

Hierarchical observation

Relationship between power and knowledge

‘It is a type of location of bodies in space, of distribution of individuals in relation to one another of hierarchical organisation.. which can be implemented in hospitals, workshops, schools and prisons.’ (Foucault 1979, pp 205)

Examination techniques

“It was a question both of making the slightest departures from correct behaviour subject to punishment, and of giving a punitive function to the apparently indifferent elements of the disciplinary apparatus: so that, if necessary, everything might serve to punish the slightest thing; each subject find himself caught in a punishable, punishing universality” (Foucault 1979, pp 178).

Michel Foucault on education: a preliminary theoretical overview Roger Deacon. Michel Foucault’s oeuvre is a vast resource not only for social and political theorists. However, for educators too. It deserves to be mined and exploited more thoroughly, in a manner not unlike the way Foucault approached Nietzsche’s work: The only valid tribute to thought such as Nietzsche’s is precisely to use it, to deform it, to make it groan and protest (Foucault, 1980:53-54). The research project to which this preliminary theoretical overview refers is an attempt to develop the implications of Foucault’s work for education in all its facets. From a Foucauldian perspective, it seeks to show, not what education is but, how it operates in concrete and historical frameworks, in the sense of the actual processes, techniques, and effects which come into play when some individuals teach, or are taught by, others. What kinds of power relations govern the process, what bodies of knowledge are called into being, which different institutions are involved, what forms do the interactions take, and what effects do they have? Questions such as these, as well as the initial findings of this project, will help in addressing more concrete future applications of Foucault’s work to education.

The Effects of Power Mechanisms in Education: bringing Foucault and Bourdieu together Susanna Hannus & Hannu Simola. The results of this conceptual analysis and reconstruction of Foucault’s and Bourdieu’s power conceptions are convincing in terms of the number of similarities and common areas of coherence there are. The basic However, simple distinction between them must still be borne in mind, however. Whereas Foucault could be characterised as a historian of truth, a philosophical nomad, always on the move (Heikkinen et al, 1999), Bourdieu was a classical sociologist with a huge output of empirical research. Maybe this is why a comprehensive comparative analysis of their thinking is such a demanding task and one that is largely incomplete.

Foucault and Education: Disciplines and Knowledge Edited By Stephen J. Ball. First published in 1990, this book was the first to explore Foucault’s work in relation to education, arguing that schools, like prisons and asylums, are institutions of moral and social regulation, complex technologies of disciplinary control where power and knowledge are crucial. Original and challenging, the essays assess the relevance of Foucault’s work to educational practice, and show how the application of Foucauldian analysis to education enables us to see the politics of educational reform in a new light.

Using Foucault’s concept of power to analyse school discipline and draw implications for school social work service in Hong Kong Siu-ming To. This article draws on Michel Foucault’s conception of power to provide a new frame of reference to explain how power relations exist in school discipline and contribute to the constitution of students’ and teachers’ subjectivities. It is argued that such a perspective can help school social workers enhance their reflexivity and promote empowering practices. Education is a global issue affecting young people’s welfare and future trajectory in life: it is the subject of considerable public attention and also that of the social service sector. School discipline is one of the contentious topics in education. There have been many discussions of school discipline, including issues such as corporal punishment and harsh discipline policies. Most discourses focus on the complex situation faced by teachers and the continual intensification of student misbehaviour, as well as on the effectiveness of different strategies or methods in working with disruptive students (Adams, 2000; Farmer, 1999; Mayer, 2001; Roland and Galloway, 2002). A review of the literature reveals that there have been few studies on the nature of school discipline, especially the connection between school discipline and its social control function. Similar to the western experience, there has been little attempt to address this issue in Hong Kong-based studies.

Besley on Foucault’s Discourse of Education George Lazaroiu. The purpose of this study is to examine Foucault’s discourse-oriented theory, his explanation of the power–knowledge relation, his notions of technologies of domination and technologies of the self, and the Foucauldian critique of the assumed neutrality of education and school counselling. The theory that we shall seek to elaborate here puts considerable emphasis on Foucault’s theory of power, his notion of discourse, his understanding of subjectivity, and his analysis of how power relations and discourses shape processes of ethical self-constitution. The results of the current study converge with Besley’s prior research on Foucault’s analysis of education, his theory of language and social power, his non-essentialist conception of identity, and his emphasis on the centrality of truth in relation to the self.


Foucault was one of many highly influential philosophers of his time. He was also one of the most influential in relation to poststructuralist power relations theories.

Power Structures

Foucault theorized two (if not three) power structures, all of which operate simultaneously. The first is sovereign power, observable in ancient societies that had kings and relied on public executions or humiliations to instil order. The exercise of power went directly from the sovereign – the king – to his subjects. In that sense, power was transcendent or God-given.

The next regime of power is disciplinary. Rather than relying on the use of violence, Foucualt says that the state relies on more hidden methods of correction — this is theorized in the context of the prison primarily in Discipline and Punish, along with his earlier works The Birth of the Clinic and History of Madness (which you’ve probably heard of as “Madness and Civilization”)

Foucault’s model of the disciplinary society can be drawn like this: a straight line beginning at birth and ending at death, with the hospital, prison and barracks keeping you on that line. The hospital serves as a site to fix you mentally, making you socially acceptable. I’ve heard it posed as a rather interesting question: why is suicide illegal? Or if that’s too heavyweight, a more controversial. However, less sad question might be, “why do children begin taking pharmaceutical drugs like Adderal and Ritalin (which both treat ADHD) starting in the first grade?”

Obviously, Foucault isn’t advocating suicide or telling people to stop taking their medications. However he is problematizing the basis upon which certain acts are deemed criminal – in the example of suicide, taking one’s own life both negates one’s usefulness in society and subverts the sovereign power over life and death – or deemed necessary – in the example of ADHD medication, to make the student learn and behave “normally.”

The prison (and for Foucault, the barracks) serves to fix the ways people think and act. In sovereign societies, punishments for breaking the law often included bodily punishment – in a medieval case, being branded for stealing, or, in a biblical case, a woman having her hand cut off if she touches a man. This model persists in some cases in modern society – we still have excessive violence in prisons, and outside of prisons, we continue to see gratuitous violence directed toward black communities on the part of both the police and society writ large.

However, in regards to the prison, the overall model has shifted to one hidden behind closed doors, with punishments directed not at the physical body, However instead at the mind or thoughts of the prisoner. In modern-day prisons, solitary confinement is used to promote better behaviour, and prison libraries are often censored by the staff to not include dangerous texts (for example, the ones you’ve asked about).

An important aspect of disciplinary societies also stems from Foucault’s analysis of the prison. He cites Jeremy Bentham, an old and very dead British dude that invented utilitarianism and the panopticon. The panopticon is a prison arranged in a circular shape around a central watchtower, allowing a guard to monitor prisoners at all times. In some models, the tower has tinted windows, promoting caution for the prisoners whether or not a guard is present.

Foucault applies the model of the panopticon to society writ large, with the guard’s disciplinary gaze corresponding to how we regulate each other, and how the state watches us. This panoptic gaze is Foucault’s explanation for societal normalization — you behave differently at school because you want your classmates to like you (a disciplinary/panoptic power relation) and you’re afraid of getting in trouble with the teacher (also panoptic, with a potentially sovereign punishment attached).

The concept of disciplinary societies spurred the philosopher Gilles Deleuze to formulate a third societal structure, which he called a control society. Deleuze credits this concept to Foucault. It’s pretty complicated, so I’ll give it its own section below the one on bio-politics.


Finally, for his most well-known and often overused concept, we have Bio-politics. Think of Bio-politics as a new form of power in which societies are viewed as living organisms that have to be regulated in order to stay healthy. Benign Bio-politics is seen through institutions like the clinic and prison – and it can be a good thing! We all(?) like healthcare, and hospitals are great.

But in order to transition from managing life in terms of the individual that can either be allowed to live or extinguished, as was the case in sovereign societies, to life as a nebulous and abstract thing that must be constantly managed and safeguarded, the world has to be seen as global and interconnected. Populations have to be seen as singular and homologous. This is what Foucauldians call Bio-political rationality – the reduction of diverse peoples into classifications and populations that exist to be managed. It’s dangerous.

The term Bio-politics was coined by Swedish political scientist Rudolf Kjellen, who also created the concept Geo-politik — yes, the same Geo-politik that Adolf Hitler followed to the word in his construction of the Third Reich. It was further appropriated by the Nazi party in their designation of the German Jewish population as pathology, justifying the holocaust. This is the dangerous side: Bio-politics, when combined with racism, makes necessary an other that is denoted as inhuman. If this isn’t making a ton of sense, that’s fine. Here’s the easier version:

Sovereign society

a. Power is exercised from the sovereign onto bodies that break whatever the sovereign defines as the law, invariably in a public manner. This is used to instil fear and to reaffirm the validity of the sovereign.

b. The sovereign has the ability to let bodies live and to make them die.

c. In sovereign societies, power relations between the subject and sovereign along with the power relations that constitute the society are both viewed corporeally. Foucault calls this an anatomo-politics, or a politics of the macro aspects of life. Bodies were literally punished to promote the law and ensure docility.

Disciplinary society

a. power is dispersed throughout society or channelled into institutions of normalization like the school, psychoanalyst’s clinic, prison, and barracks. From these institutions, it acts on bodies or populations that deviate from the norm. The power that disperses itself among the society is interpersonal and allows societal normalization.

b. To some extent, the state as government has taken on the power to make subjects live or let them die. This becomes the goal in Bio-political regimes.

c. Through a lens of Bio-politics, the political model of a disciplinary society also takes that of a body, however is examined as one. Non-normative or threatening bodies are “pathologized,” or made to represent a disease on the body-politic. On a larger scale, this results in nationalism and racial, ethnic, sexual or religious oppression, as seen in the Holocaust or in status quo examples of nationalism. On a micro level, emphasis is placed on mental and physical health, extending to sexuality. I’d do a sub-point on the History of Sexuality, vol. 1,However it deserves more time and space than I can spend here.

Control Societies — Deleuze

Just a refresher: Bio-politics operates on the level of the population and the construction of normality via methods of surveying and statistical analysis. Examples include large-scale events like Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the 1970s and 80s AIDS genocide (during which the government viewed AIDS as a cleansing disease that would rid the body-politic of queer bodies), or even smallpox eradication campaigns, all of which operated on the level of population.

For Deleuze, control societies are the next step past disciplinary and Bio-political societies. If disciplinary societies required fixity or repression to normalize individuals and maintain a homogenous population, control societies break down the institutional nature of repression, instead extending it to the social level. The example I gave for disciplinary societies about putting kids on adderal actually fits better here – schools recommend treating things like ADD or ADHD with medication to allow the student to perform better in school. This forwarding of competition and autonomy always carries with it a telos (a goal that is simultaneously the reason for its existence). It’s geared towards normativity.

Instead of institutions that tell you what to think and how to think it, in a control society, you’re encouraged to come to your own conclusions… though they’re going to align with the conclusions you were taught to have while you were in school, or the thoughts that you were allowed to express to your classmates without fear of being shunned. This is very similar to panopticism, though in this case, it’s not conscious. You actually believe you’re an autonomous, individual and walled-off subject, that your thoughts and decisions aren’t just a product of your past experiences and societal influences.

If you’re familiar with Deleuze jargon, this is an example of unconsciously ceding agency to a conceptual micro political apparatus, or rather, societal co-option of rhizomatic connections on the micro political level, bordering on what Athina Karatzogianni and Andrew Robinson call “everyday fascism.”

The positive Impacts are: Bio-politics has been discussed more recently by Giorgio Agamben in his book Homo Sacer (which is part of an entire series on Bio-politics and the state), It’s important if you want to understand the judicial side of state power.

Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, which led to the popularization of non-traditional gender studies that culminated in queer theory’s widespread adoption. His theories of power, as mentioned above, spurred an entire new school of thought in the form of Control Societies, visible today through works by authors like Brad Evans, Michael Dillon, Rosi Braidiotti, Michael Hardt and Toni Negri, etc. They’ve also contributed immensely to historical analysis, though that was not their primary purpose.

These are the somewhat ambivalent ones Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is actually a fan of Foucault and his works, However takes issue with how little it says about the history of colonization it was founded on. This argument is, begrudgingly, very true. Foucault’s histories of power are completely inadequate in how they approach the history of colonization. This is actually a very problematic point in relation to Foucault, considering all of the disciplinary techniques he talks about in Discipline and Punish were actually applied first to the indigenous people that were colonized, then exported west to be used writ large.

Achille Mbembe is also a fan of Foucault, However articulates a much more offense-oriented version of Spivak’s argument. He says that in the west, Foucault’s Bio-politics is accurate, as the focus is on keeping people alive. However, it does not apply to the post-colony. He cites resource mining in Africa as an example, where no one lives over the age of 35. The resources extracted go into your cell phone or the computer I’m typing this on. However this poses an interesting – though fairly sickening – constitutive relationship. In order to maintain western Bio-politics, we need necro-politics. Mbembe argues that this also relates to values ascribed to life. He says that the positive value put on life in the west (the primary goal of Bio-politics being the preservation of life) inherently necessitates a negative value put on life in other areas. He cites suicide attacks perpetrated by Palestinian fundamentalist groups during the Second Intifada, where children born into war-torn environments experienced an inversion in the values ascribed to life, ascribing a positive value to death, often through religious channels.

Mbembe thinks that Bio-politics doesn’t exist in the post-colony, and that necro-politics doesn’t exist in the west, though recent scholarship on anti-queer violence may refute this. In addition to Jasbir Puar’s controversial work on homo-nationalism and post-9/11 hetero-normative politics(Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times), Jin Haritaworn, Silvia Posocco and Adi Kuntsman have published the book Queer Necro-politics, which deals with necro-political power structures of anti-queer violence inside of US prisons.

Negative reception of Foucault’s work

Jurgen Habermas another Prominent figure in this field argued as follows:

Foucault says pure power pervades all social relations and is inescapable. Therefore freedom, justice, etc. are impossible. Habermas takes issue with this for two reasons: first, he says that Foucault can’t say things are good or bad without some basis in freedom, justice, the good life, etc; However he does, which proves that he bases his theories off of some theory of normativity (how things ought to be). Second, Foucault uses reason, which for Habermas is a form of power and is objectively liberal, which means he’s secretly a normativist. Habermas goes on to accuse Foucault of crypto-normativity, among other things.


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