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Michel Foucault (1926 - 1984)

Lifespan: 1926 - 1984

Related: continental philosophy - French philosophy - poststructuralism - postmodernist

The History of Sexuality: An Introduction - Michel Foucault [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

More titles: Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975)

Foucault was raised in a bourgeois Catholic home, a difficult and antisocial young man who, during his years at the ENS attempted suicide and attacked another student, he was a queer who never entirely left the closet, a heavy drinker, a dope smoker who grew hash plants on the window ledge of his Paris flat and was familiar with opium, cocaine poppers and LSD, a charming host and bon viveur who numbered the glamourous and the notorious amongst his friends, a frequenter of San Franciscan bathhouses who declared that S&M was not an aggressive practice, but one which created new pleasures. --Jane Louis-Wood, http://www.cf.ac.uk/socsi/undergraduate/introsoc/mf1.html [Nov 2004]


Michel Foucault (October 15, 1926 – June 26, 1984) was a French philosopher and "historian of systems of thought". His writings have had an enormous impact on many fields including literary criticism and theory, philosophy (especially philosophy of science in the French-speaking world), critical theory, history, history of science (especially scientific medicine), critical pedagogy, and the sociology of knowledge, which he transformed altogether.

He is considered a postmodernist and a poststructuralist, though some consider his earlier works, especially The Order of Things, to be structuralist, which is the label Foucault was given at the time. He was cagey about this label initially, though, and ultimately totally denied its applicability to his work. He moreover considered himself to be a participant in the tradition of modernity, hence the postmodern label is also somewhat dubious - although this is true in very many cases where it is applied.

[Towards the late seventies,] Foucault began to spend more time in America, at SUNY Buffalo and more especially at UC Berkley. Foucault's involvement in gay culture in San Francisco, particularly in the S&M culture, put him at particularly high risk for AIDS in the days before the disease was known. Foucault died of AIDS-related complications in Paris in 1984. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michel_Foucault [Nov 2004]

Foucault and the 'limit experience'

Foucault credits Nietzsche, via Bataille, Blanchot, Klossowski with the motivating theme of the "limit-experience." This is the attempt to reach the other, the outside, by an experience that rewires the body and restructures the categories. The two are related: a centrally organized and hierarchized body--obediant and docile, "clean"--will produce arborific, State, categories centered on unity and presence. In general, bodily constitution conditions thought processes AND vice versa: "the soul is the prison of the body" writes Foucault in Discipline and Punish: a certain conception of the body (that it is the prison of the soul) arises from and in turn structures bodily practices (enforced self-observation to detect flaws and internalize norms) that limit body potentials along predictable ("normal") pathways ("we do not yet know what a body is capable of," says Spinoza in the Ethics.) --John Protevi via http://www.protevi.com/john/Foucault/Reading_Foucault.html [Sept 2006]

Nineteen seventy-five was clearly Foucault’s annus mirabilis

Nineteen seventy-five was clearly Foucault’s annus mirabilis. It marked not only his introduction to the pleasures of LSD, but also his first visit to California’s Bay Area and introduction to San Francisco’s burgeoning sadomasochistic subculture. Foucault had “experimented” with S&M before—indeed, his proclivities in this matter cost him his relationship with the composer Jean Barraqué. But he had never encountered anything so exorbitant as what San Francisco offered. According to Mr. Miller, the philosopher, now nearing his fiftieth birthday, found it “a place of dumbfounding excess that left him happily speechless.” The city’s countless homosexual bathhouses, he explained, allowed Foucault to grapple with his “lifelong fascination with ‘the overwhelming, the unspeakable, the creepy, the stupefying, the ecstatic,’ embracing ‘a pure violence, a wordless gesture.’” -- Roger Kimball via http://www.newcriterion.com/archive/11/mar93/foucault.htm

The political and bureaucratic aspects of control and punishment

Michel Foucault explored and analyzed the political and bureaucratic aspects of control and punishment. He was among the first to recognize and define our emerging technocratic surveillance culture in terms of the "panopticon," a multitiered prison complex in which all activity is visible to the overseers. Poor Michel. He didn't know about anonymous remailers. - R.U. Sirius via Pomo To Go, Wired 2.06, June 1994

The History of Sexuality (1976 - 1984) - Michel Foucault

Three volumes of The History of Sexuality were published before Foucault's death in 1984. The first and most referenced volume, The Will to Knowledge (previously known as An Introduction in English - Histoire de la sexualité, 1: la volonte de savoir in French) was published in France in 1976, and translated in 1977, focusing primarily on the last two centuries, and the functioning of sexuality as a regime of power and related to the emergence of biopower. In this volume he attacks the "repressive hypothesis," the very widespread belief that we have, particularly since the nineteenth century, "repressed" our natural sexual drives.

The second two volumes, The Use of Pleasure (Histoire de la sexualite, II: l'usage des plaisirs) and The Care of the Self (Histoire de la sexualité, III: le souci de soi) dealt with the role of sex in Greek and Roman antiquity. Both were published in 1984, the year of Foucault's death, with the second volume being translated in 1985, and the third in 1986. A fourth volume, dealing with the Christian era, was almost complete at the time of Foucault's death, but there is as yet no indication that it will be published. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michel_Foucault#The_History_of_Sexuality [Mar 2005]

The Order of Things: An Archaeology of Human Sciences (1966) - Michel Foucault

The Order of Things: An Archaeology of Human Sciences (1966) - Michel Foucault
[FR] [DE] [UK]

I read a very extensive interview with Belgian artist Guy Rombouts in the Dutch/Flemish arts magazine De Witte Raaf. In it Rombouts mentions Les Mots et les choses which I take to be on the relationship between things and words.

The Order of Things (Les Mots et les choses) is a book written by Michel Foucault and was published in 1966.

Foucault's Les Mots et les choses. Une archéologie des sciences humaines was published in 1966. It was translated into English in 1970 under the title The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (Foucault had preferred L'Ordre des Choses for the original French title, but changed the title to suit the wishes of his editor).

The book opened with an extended discussion of Diego Velázquez's painting Las Meninas and its complex arrangement of sight-lines, hiddenness and appearance. Then it developed its central claim: that all periods of history possessed certain underlying conditions of truth that constituted what was acceptable as, for example, scientific discourse. Foucault argued that these conditions of discourse changed over time, in major and relatively sudden shifts, from one period's episteme to another. (Aside: Jean Piaget, in "Structuralism" (1968/1970, p.132), compares Foucault's épistème to Thomas Kuhn's notion of a paradigm.)

The Order of Things brought Foucault to prominence as an intellectual figure in France. A review by Jean-Paul Sartre [in a typically stupid remark] attacked Foucault as 'the last rampart of the bourgeoisie'. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Order_of_Things [Oct 2006]

From the preface: This book first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought - our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography - breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other. This passage quotes a 'certain Chinese encyclopaedia' in which it is written that 'animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (1) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off" look like flies'. In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that. --http://www.georgetown.edu/faculty/irvinem/theory/Foucault-Order_of_things-text.html [Nov 2006]

See also: Michel Foucault - 1966

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