Pondering Foucault’s legacy

Post Foucault, it’s hard to see oneself and society in quite the same way. Marking the 20th anniversary since the death of the idiosyncratic French philosopher and historian, a seminar will take place in Athens tomorrow to reflect upon his contribution. Michel Foucault is renowned for his radical exposition of the location and nature of power in society. His method of historical investigation, what he termed «archaeology of knowledge,» aimed at uncovering the often morally disturbing way in which power manifests itself in prisons, mental asylums, schools, factories and other types of social institutions and practices. Foucault’s writings had an enormous impact across the humanities and the social sciences, with controversy about his ideas raging to this day. Born in Poitiers, France, in 1926, Foucault studied philosophy and psychology at the prestigious Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris. After occupying senior posts at various universities, he was elected to France’s most prominent academic body, the College de France, as professor of the History of Systems of Thought. In the ensuing years, he traveled and also lectured across the Atlantic where he enjoyed a cult following. Foucault joined the French Communist Party in 1950 but dropped out just three years later, most probably because of disillusionment with Stalinist practices. In «Madness and Civilization,» published in 1961, Foucault examines how the concept of madness has evolved through history before coming to be seen as mental illness. Insanity, Foucault argues, is not so much a medical problem – people who used to be seen as normal are now being locked up – but rather a way of distinguishing acceptable (that is, «reasonable») from unacceptable types of behavior. In his «Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison» (1975), Foucault analyzes the development of modern prisons and the passage from torture to purportedly more humane forms of punishment based on confinement. Torture, he argues, used to be inflicted on the body of the condemned, while incarceration now touches the soul. The aim is not to punish inmates but to make them act in accordance with disciplinary standards – what people consider normal behavior. In Foucault, the modern prison becomes a symbol of modern society. Seeing disciplinary power as being located away from the state but spread throughout society – in places like the school, the army or the family – marked a departure from the Marxist understanding of power. Critics said that Foucault’s image of dispersed and faceless power structures undermined the possibilities for political action. Foucault has been associated with structuralism, a theory that was very much in vogue in France during the 1960s. Although rejecting the label, Foucault shared much of the structuralists’ discontent with an emphasis on the consciousness and the individual subject awarded by the humanism of existentialists like Sartre. Foucault was an anti-humanist to the extent that he believed that «the most self-conscious activity of human experience was beyond human control.» Like many of his contemporary French intellectuals, Foucault was shaken by the events of May 1968, after which he grew more politically active. He participated in movements campaigning for prison reform and homosexual rights. Other works include «The Order of Things» (1966), «The Archaeology of Knowledge» (1969) and three three volumes of «The History of Sexuality.» Foucault died on June 25, 1984 of an AIDS-related illness. He was one of the first famous figures to succumb to the then-incipient epidemic. The event, which is organized by the Historein journal, will be held at the Historical Archive of the University of Athens, 45 Skoufa, at 7 p.m.