Foucault, Michel 1926–1984

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Foucault, Michel

One of the late twentieth century's most important thinkers, Michel Foucault—classified variously as structuralist or poststructuralist, with neither label fitting comfortably—provides one starting point for several new lines of critical thought, including postcolonial theory, new historicism, and queer theory. Born in Poitiers, France, on June 15, 1926, Foucault studied at the École Normale Supérieure, working with such prominent philosophers as Louis Althusser (1918–1990) and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–1961). Following the 1968 student protests in France, Foucault became politically active, especially on behalf of prisoners' rights. In 1969 Foucault gained election to the prestigious Collège de France, where he was professor of the History of Systems of Thought until his death in Paris on June 25, 1984, of AIDS-related causes. He lectured widely outside France and taught, in his last decade, at the University of California, Berkeley.

Beginning in the 1960s Foucault had a long-term, nonexclusive relationship with the sociologist Daniel Defert. Foucault's sexual life was the object of much speculation, especially after the publication of James Miller's 1993 biography, The Passion of Michel Foucault, and Hervé Guibert's 1991 novel, To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, which presented Foucault in sensationalized ways. Foucault was involved in gay sadomasochistic sexuality and in experiments with LSD, but Miller's claim that these provide a key to his thought has been controversial. David Halperin makes a strong rebuttal in Saint Foucault (1995).

Foucault's major works include Madness and Civilization (1965, English translation [1961, French publication]), which studies the emergence of modern ideas of mental illness; The Birth of the Clinic (1973 [1963]), a history of the development of clinical medicine; The Order of Things (1970 [1966]), which elaborates a broader critique of the human sciences; The Archaeology of Knowledge (1972 [1969]), a reflection on Foucault's archeological methodology, showing how different periods operate with different epistemes or discursive formations, systems by which what counts as valid knowledge is established; Disciplineand Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1977 [1975]), which examines the shift from a society in which power is centralized in a monarch and displayed in spectacular public torture and executions, to a modern disciplinary system of which the prison is an exemplary institution; and the three volumes of the History of Sexuality: An Introduction (1978 [1976]), The Use of Pleasure (1985 [1984]), and The Care of the Self (1986 [1984]). Discipline and Punish and the History of Sexuality are considered part of a turn in Foucault's work from archeology to genealogy, with the latter suggesting a reliance on Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche's (1844–1900) philosophy and an emphasis on the contingent (nonprogressive, nontranscendental) nature of historical change. Also important in Foucault's thinking about sexuality and gender are Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth-Century French Hermaphrodite (1980 [1978]); various essays and interviews, collected in the Essential Works of Foucault; and the 1975–1976 lectures, "Society Must Be Defended."

The first volume of the History of Sexuality develops a counterintuitive argument: Whereas, in what Foucault calls the repressive hypothesis the twentieth century came to understand sexuality as repressed and taboo, Foucault argues instead that modern sexuality depends upon eliciting speech about sex, with a series of discourses emerging to identify the truth of one's self with a sexuality felt to be inborn and natural (but in fact produced by these very discourses). Foucault traces a set of historical processes—most intense in the nineteenth century but with roots as far back as medieval Christian confession—by which an incitement to discourse about the inner self and its sexual desires produces a European and North American science of sex involving medical, psychiatric, pedagogic, and political institutions. Four major figures, the hysterical woman, the masturbating child, the Malthusian couple, and the perverse adult, become the privileged objects of sexual knowledge, and new scientific disciplines—including the sexology of Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840–1902), Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825–1895), and Havelock Ellis (1859–1939), and ultimately psychoanalysis—develop to investigate such objects. Where individuals' sexual behavior had previously been a matter of (dis)allowed acts, modern sexuality wraps one's very identity up with the specification of a stable, essential sexual self. In Foucault's influential formulation, "The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species."

Foucault argues, further, that knowledge about sex/sexuality is intimately wrapped up with power in configurations of power/knowledge. For Foucault, power is not just exerted from above, but instead involves multiple, local force relations that always entail both exertions of power and resistances to it. The modern deployment of sexuality involves a change (like that described in Discipline and Punish) in the way power operates in European and North American societies: Where power was once centralized in a monarch who could put others to death, modern societies decentralize power, disciplining subjects and their bodies in part by investing them with a sexuality that subjects themselves are expected to observe, husband, control, and speak. Power, rather than operating simply through repression, produces the very kinds of sexualized subject that it can use most effectively. The king's right of death is replaced by power over life, or bio-power.

Though in Volume I of the History Foucault focuses on sexuality as a modern innovation, he turns in the next volumes to consider premodern constructions of the body, sex, and pleasure. The plan of the reconceived History, left incomplete at Foucault's death, would have examined how sexual acts and pleasures, thought by the ancient Greeks to be useful in leading an ethical life, began to be distrusted in ancient Rome, a development that continued and intensified within European Christianity. The Use of Pleasure and The Care of the Self develop Foucault's ideas about technologies of the self, ways in which the subject comes to recognize, care for, discipline, and know itself, and moves Foucault's thought further into the realm of ethics than previously.

Foucault's work has been highly influential for scholarship on gender and sexuality. Though criticized by some feminists for his lack of attention to gender difference, Foucault has been important for others because of his antiessentialist take on sexuality, which echoes feminism's insistence that gender is a social construction. Teresa de Lauretis, for instance, takes Foucault's technologies of the self as one starting point for her Technologies of Gender (1987). Judith Butler's Gender Trouble (1990) also follows Foucault in many respects, especially in showing gender (like Foucault's sexuality) to be not a cause but an effect, the production of discourses that deny their own productivity in an attempt to naturalize and essentialize gender.

It is not surprising that the feminists most attracted to Foucault's thinking have also often been those—like de Lauretis and Butler—closely associated with queer theory, which questions the stability of identity categories. Indeed, almost all the work associated with queer theory depends in significant ways on Foucault, especially (1) his insistence that sex and sexuality have a history; that they are not stable, innate givens, and hence might change in the future, (2) the corresponding recognition that an individual's sexuality is a construction, determined by discourse and power/knowledge (which is not to say that sexuality is not real and deeply felt), and (3) the elaboration of a theory that makes resistance integral to power, recognizing that as soon as a hegemonic discourse develops, resistant counter-discourses also emerge. Unlike lesbian/gay studies that take their starting point in the assumption of relatively stable gay and lesbian identities, Foucault's History and queer theory both emphasize the historical contingency of any identity, the ways in which subjectivity and sexuality are shaped differently at different points in time.

Foucault's work—particularly the argument that the figure of the homosexual emerges only in the nineteenth century—has been considered inaccurate by some historical specialists; thus, for instance, Rictor Norton (1945–) identifies a gay subculture in the eighteenth century. We should recognize, however, that—especially in Volume I of the History—Foucault is writing in broad strokes, outlining a field of inquiry that he hoped to study in more detail later; he also complicates his own history, emphasizing that several nonsynchronous changes contributed to the development of modern sexuality, and arguing against a supersessionist view that modern sexuality all at once replaced its predecessors. Foucault's work has, indeed, been enabling for many scholars working on premodern materials—classicists such as Halperin, John J. Winkler (1943–1990), Froma I. Zeitlin (1933–), and Simon Goldhill; medievalists such as Carolyn Dinshaw and Karma Lochrie; and early modernists such as Jonathan Goldberg and Valerie Traub (1958–).

One final critique of Foucault that is important to acknowledge concerns the Eurocentrism of his work. Thus, Abdul JanMohamed, in an essay in Domna Stanton's Discourses of Sexuality, notes that Foucault does not go very far in analyzing racialized sexuality. Ann Laura Stoler, in Race and the Education of Desire, also recognizes that Foucault's History might benefit from a fuller engagement with the global (colonial/postcolonial) dynamics of race; she points out, however, Foucault's own concern with analyzing the development of European state racism in lectures (now published as "Society Must Be Defended") contemporaneous with the History. Her own analysis of postcolonial situations where race and sexuality are constructed by and through each other then works to develop a complex, intriguing Foucaultian analysis of materials Foucault himself never considered.

see also Body, Theories of; Gender, Theories of; Queering, Queer Theory, and Early Modern Culture.


Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

de Lauretis, Teresa. 1987. Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Eribon, Didier. 1991. Michel Foucault, trans. Betsy Wing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1980. Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth-Century French Hermaphrodite, trans. Richard McDougall. New York: Pantheon.

Foucault, Michel. 1978–1986. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction; Vol. 2: The Use of Pleasure; Vol. 3: The Care of the Self, trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Pantheon.

Foucault, Michel. 1997–2000. Essential Works of Foucault, 1954–1984, Vol. 1: Ethics; Vol. 2: Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology; Vol. 3: Power, trans. Robert Hurley and others. New York: New Press.

Foucault, Michel. 2003. "Society Must Be Defended": Lectures at the Collège de France 1975–1976, eds. Mauro Bertani and Allessandro Fontana, trans. David Macey. New York: Picador.

Guibert, Hervé. 1991. A l'ami qui ne m'a pas sauve" la vie [To the friend who did not save my life], trans. Linda Coverdale. New York: Atheneum.

Gutting, Gary, ed. 1994. The Cambridge Companion to Foucault. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Halperin, David. 1995. Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Halperin, David M. 2002. How to Do the History of Homosexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Macey, David. 1993. The Lives of Michel Foucault. New York: Pantheon.

Miller, James. 1993. The Passion of Michel Foucault. New York: Simon & Schuster

Spargo, Tamsin. 1999. Foucault and Queer Theory. New York: Totem Books.

Stanton, Domna, ed. 1992. Discourses of Sexuality: From Aristotle to AIDS. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Stoler, Ann Laura. 1995. Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault's History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things. Durham: Duke University Press.

                                            Steven F. Kruger