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Michel Foucault

Michel FoucaultAKA Paul-Michel Foucault

Born: 15-Oct-1926
Birthplace: Poitiers, France
Died: 26-Jun-1984
Location of death: Paris, France
Cause of death: AIDS
Remains: Buried, Cimetière du Vendeuvre, Vienne, France

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Gay
Occupation: Philosopher, Scholar, Essayist

Nationality: France
Executive summary: History of Sexuality

Michel Foucault was a French philosopher, social critic, and historian whose vast influence extended across a broad array of disciplines, especially in the humanities and social sciences. He is perhaps best known for his ruminations on power, self identity, epistemology, and the evolution of systems of thought and meaning. Of special significance for Foucault was the way that knowledge and perception functioned in social hierarchies of power. He is often described as post-structuralist or post modernist, but Foucault himself rejected such titles, preferring to analyze their significance rather than identify with them. At the prestigious Collège de France, Foucault held a chair to which he gave the title "The History of Systems of Thought".

Paul-Michel Foucault was born in Poitiers, France, on 15 June 1926. Both his grandfathers had been doctors, aa was his father. An eminent local surgeon, Paul Foucault hoped for his son to follow in this tradition. Although apparently psychologically troubled as a young man, Michel Foucault was deemed intellectually brilliant. In 1946 he entered the École Normale Supérieure, the school for the up and coming French philosopher. Hegel, Merleau-Ponty, and Heidegger were huge influences. The intellectual atmosphere was rich with existentialism, structuralism, and marxism. And all of these Foucault imbibed, though he would later turn away onto his own path. Eventually he graduated to the ranks of academician, holding posts at various French universities before being granted professorship at the elite Collège de France, where he would remain until his death.

Although many of Foucault sensibilities grew out of a similar academic and social milieu to those of Jean-Paul Sartre, Foucault ridiculed Sartre's centralization of the subject (putting the individual experience at the center, or starting point, of investigation), calling it "transcendental narcissism". And he further criticized Sartre's attempt to judge society, past or present, in terms of transcendent principles -- as if the one judging (in this case Sartre) could know absolutely, truthfully, with perception uncolored by quirks of personal experience.

Modern researchers within the social sciences, as well as many other disciplines, realize now that such an attitude overlooks the tremendous role played by the observer's subjectivity, or filters -- filters generated by the observer's culture and society, as well as by his individual bias and perception. But while this concept is widely accepted by academics today, Foucault argued that this was not so in earlier times. In The Order of Things he gave us a detailed exploration of the issue of representation, that is of the connection between an observed object and our mental and linguistic representations of that object, from the time of René Descartes up through Immanuel Kant. And in so doing he argues that in earlier periods of thought it was more readily assumed that our ideas about things were reliable representations of the things themselves.

Foucault also claims that "Man" did not exist during the Classical age or in the long eons before because there was no idea of human nature as a psychological, political, or moral. This particular claim seems a bit hard to swallow given the world views and cosmologies documented by anthropological ethnographers in the last 50 to 75 years. Yet this seemingly eccentric claim displays Foucault's early roots in French Structuralism, whose approach to intellectual investigation and reasoning depended on very precise, hair-splitting definitions of concepts. And overall the attempt of structuralism was to reduce language and thought to precise and distinct component units, whose properties and interrelations could be described with the same objectivity and precision applied in chemistry or physics.

Foucault outgrew structuralism bit by bit, and he began to tackle self perception and social relations in a manner that tackled juicier real-life issues. His work in a Parisian mental hosptial and later in prisons, led to an increasing interest in the ways that the guise of Scientist (or Expert in some other form) allowed individuals to pass judgement on the behavior and inner experience of others, especially those in their charge. These judgements he found, not only became reified (seen as real and eternal truths) by colleagues and finally society at large (as others bought into the theories of the Experts and mouthed their ideologies), but they also became internalized by the very people under observation.

Thus someone who was suffering madness was simply "mentally ill" -- a concept which has since evolved into our current assumption that chemical imbalances in the brain "cause" our subjective moods and thus our thoughts, when it is also scientifically valid to point to the way our thoughts create our subjective moods and our brain chemistry, to justify passing out heavy drugs as if they were breath mints. But Foucault himself was angered at the fact that other ways of interpreting the experience of madness were simply swept aside. (For example, madness could be viewed as a spiritual crisis, an attempt by the psyche to heal itself, not merely a disfunction.) This meant of course that the individual's ability to conceptualize, and therefore respond to, his situation was being limited by someone else, someone with political and social authority.

The fruits of Foucault's investigations into these subjects begin with his first major work, The History of Madness in the Classical Age (1961) and The Birth of the Clinic (1963). His research in modern prisons led to Discipline and Punish, with which he branched out into a deeper investigation of the issues of power and control. But it also marked the point at which he began focusing more heavily on real life events and organizations and the ways that these influence individual and social thought.

Overall, these works led Foucault to conclude that modern disciplinary control sytems were obsessed with what people had done and not done, with people's failure to reach or stay within required standards. And so, after completing his work on mental hospitals and prisons, Foucault set out to study the field of human sexuality, as this was certainly an area where standards of normalcy held an enormous sway over people's behavior, as well as over their self perception. A homosexual himself, Foucault had tremendous sympathy for marginalized groups, including those whose sexual orientation was deemed "abnormal".

Originally he had planned to research and write a multi-volume treatise on various themes in the field of modern sexuality studies. Book one in The History of Sexuality series took the form of a general introduction. But as he began background research for book two, he became fascinated with the sexual ethics of ancient Greek and Roman societies, especially in contrast to later Christian sexual ethos. Christianity declared sex wicked, albeit necessary for reproduction, and it threatened punishments for all deviance into other sexual expressions. The Christian logic was that any sexuality indulged in for pleasure was wicked in the extreme and therefore the province of evil.

But Foucault was intrigued to discover that the Greeks and Romans viewed sex as a necessary good. Something open to misuse certainly, but a necessary element in a joyful, fulfilling life. Foucault termed this self-tending approach the "aesthetics of the self". And its perception marked the turning point in his understanding of philosophy not as a search for theoretical truth, as expressed in his earlier structuralism, but as a way of life. His futher work in this area resulted in his last two books, The Use of Pleasure and The Care of the Self (1984).

Foucault also lectured on these topics a great deal and would no doubt have enlarged upon them further had not his premature death in 1984, from complications related to HIV, put an end to his work. Foucault's influence however continues to make an impact today, and to form an important part of contemporary dialogue and debate about the nature of awareness and identity. According to Foucault both power and identity were brought into being through action. Power is a thing not possessed but rather exercised. Identity is something we communicate and experience vis a vis other people and our interactions with them. Neither is a fixed entity or set of qualities.

Interestingly while such theories may seem to invalidate the individual (by taking the focus off the internal and subjective "self"), they actually validate the individual as a potent force within the universe. Not through elevating him to god incarnate or narcissitic judge of the universe, but by endowing him, or her, with the ability to transform personal experience through action. This was the exercise of power and also creativity.

And yet, Foucault acknowledged that in all social structures such use of power also generates a certain degree of resistance. And so he was himself a tremendous social activist who championed those oppressed by social norms, especially sexual norms. On the virtue of allowing people to actualize their own unique yearnings he declared: "We have to understand that with our desires, through our desires, go new forms of relationships, new forms of love, new forms of creation."

Father: Paul Foucault
Mother: Anne Malapert
Boyfriend: Daniel Defert

    High School: Lycée Henri-IV
    University: École Normale Supèriéure
    Professor: Collège de France

Author of books:
Madness and Civilization (1961, non-fiction)
Death and the Labyrinth: The World of Raymond Roussel (1963, non-fiction)
Birth of the Clinic (1963, non-fiction)
The Order of Things (1966, non-fiction)
The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969, non-fiction)
Discipline and Punish (1975, non-fiction)
The History of Sexuality, Vol. I: An Introduction (1976, non-fiction)
The History of Sexuality, Vol. II: The Use of Pleasure (1984, non-fiction)
The History of Sexuality, Vol. III: The Care of the Self (1984, non-fiction)

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