Posts Tagged ‘foucault’


September 11, 2014

Foucault used the term “panopticism” to describe a (the?) form of power that exists in modern society. As he suggested in a 1973 lecture, “we live in a society where panopticism reigns” (1994, p. 58). In outlining how this form of power differed from those that operated previously, Foucault described a shift in the penal justice system occurring in the nineteenth century – a shift that involved exercising control over not just what individuals did (i.e., punishing an offense that was committed), but over what they might do or were capable of doing (i.e., controlling people’s behavior). Such control of individuals at the level of their potentialities could not be performed by the judiciary itself, but by a network of institutions, including the school, psychological or psychiatric institutions such as the hospital, the asylum, the police, and so on (Foucault, 1994). Foucault described this as an age of “social orthopedics,” a “disciplinary society” that differed from the penal societies known previously (p. 57).

Specifically, Foucault identified Bentham’s concept of the “panopticon” as the idealized representation of this form of power. The panopticon is a “ring-shaped building in the middle of which there is a yard with a tower at the center. The ring is divided into little cells that face the interior and exterior alike” (p. 58). Foucault suggested that the panopticon served equally well institutions such as “schools, hospitals, prisons, reformatories, poorhouses, and factories” (p. 58). Thus, in each of the cells in the ring of the panopticon there is, depending on its purpose, “a child learning to write, a worker at work, a prisoner correcting himself, a madman living his madness” (p. 58). In the central tower, meanwhile, there is an observer who watches through shuttered windows so as to be able to see everything without anyone being able to see him/her. Further, since each cell is open to both the inside and outside, the observer’s gaze can traverse the entire cell, making everything the individual does exposed to the observer.

Unlike previous forms of judicial power that rested upon the inquiry, a procedure in which one tried to ascertain what has happened via evidence and testimony, panopticism involved “supervision and examination” – specifically, a “constant supervision of individuals by someone who exercised a power over them–schoolteacher, foreman, physician, psychiatrist, prison warden–and who, so long as he exercised power, had the possibility of both supervising and constituting a knowledge concerning those he supervised” (p. 59). Panopticism involves a knowledge that “was no longer about determining whether or not something had occurred”, but “whether an individual was behaving as he should, in accordance with the rule or not, and whether he was progressing or not” (p. 59).

Perhaps a current example of panopticism an be found in the trend toward “evidence-based sentencing”, in which courts use predictions of defendants’ future crime risk to shape sentences (Starr, Aug. 10, 2014, New York Times). In other words, the severity of individuals’ sentences are determined not just by the offense committed, but by such factors as ” unemployment, marital status, age, education, finances, neighborhood, and family background, including family members’ criminal history”. Notably, “at least 20 states have implemented this practice, including some that require risk scores to be considered in every sentencing decision”.

Source: Foucault, M. (1994). Power. New York: New Press.


Foucault and post-structuralism

December 10, 2013

Foucault is often identified as a “post-structuralist.” But what exactly is post-structuralism? I have found this to be a much-discussed question in courses about social theory. In a lecture delivered in 1973, Foucault discussed how his intellectual approach differs from that of structuralists. Specifically, he noted that he is not concerned with what is traditionally called “structure”:

Neither Deleuze, nor Jean-François Lyotard, nor Guattari, nor I ever do structural analyses; we are absolutely not “structuralists.” If I were asked what I do and what others do better, I would say that we don’t study structures; indulging in wordplay, I would say that we study dynasties…I would say that we try to bring to light what has remained until now the most hidden, the most occulted, the most deeply invested experience in the history of our culture–power relations. (p. 17)

Foucault went on to suggest that, “curiously,” economic structures have received much more critical attention than power relations. However, this is a problem, because there are certain phenomena “that can be explained only if they are related not to economic structures, to the economic relations of production, but to the power relations that permeate the whole fabric of our existence” (p. 17).

Foucault, M. (1994). Power. New York: New Press.

Knowledge and the world to be known; the politics of truth

October 26, 2013

What is the connection between knowledge and the world to be known? In considering this question, Foucault (1973: 8-9) provides a comparison between the views of Kant and Nietzsche. He notes that Kant was the first (among Western philosophers) to say explicitly that the conditions of experience and those of the object of experience were identical. Nietzche, on the other hand, believed that there is no resemblance or prior affinity between knowledge and the things that need to be known  that there is human nature, a world, and something called knowledge between the two, without any affinity, resemblance, or natural tie between them. In other words, there is not necessarily any connection between human knowledge and the world to be known. Rather, knowledge must struggle against a world without order, connectedness, form, or law.

So how to best understand knowledge? Given the discord between knowledge and the world to be known, Nietzche declared that philosophers are the most likely to be wrong about the nature of knowledge, because they tend to think of knowledge in the form of congruence. Rather, if we truly wish to understand knowledge, Foucault (1973: 12) suggested we must look not to philosophers, but to politicians; we must understand what the relations of struggle and power are. In other words, one can understand what knowledge consists of only by examining relations of power  the manner in which people fight one another, try to dominate one another, and seek to exercise power relations over one another. This is a key aspect of what Foucault (1973: 13) refers to as the “politics of truth.” Rather than knowledge and power being separate entities, behind all knowledge is a struggle for power; “political power is not absent from knowledge, it is woven together with it” (Foucault 1973: 32).

In examining the politics of truth, Foucault (1973: 14) highlights the importance of understanding the “perspectival character” of knowledge. By this Foucault (through his interpretation of Nietzsche) means that there is knowledge only in the form of actions by which human beings violently take hold of things, react to situations, and subject them to relations of force. In other words, knowledge is always a certain strategic relation in which humans are placed  there is a battle, and knowledge is the result of this battle.

Foucault’s view of knowledge differs from the traditional Marxist concept of ideology, in which the subject’s relation to truth is understood to be obscured and violated by conditions of existence, social relations, or the political forms imposed on the subject of knowledge from the outside. In contrast, Foucault (1973: 15) suggests that the political and economic conditions of existence are not a veil or an obstacle for the subject of knowledge but the means by which subjects of knowledge and, in turn, truth relations are formed. Political conditions are the very ground on which subjects of knowledge and relations of truth are formed. What Foucault seeks to do in his work is examine the history through which models of truth have come into existence (e.g., truths regarding juridicial forms, punishment, insanity).

Foucault, M. (1994). Power. New York: New Press.

A proper level of modesty

February 3, 2013

How to go about beginning a lecture with a proper level of modesty? Here is one idea:

What I would like to tell you in these lectures are some things that may be inexact, untrue, or erroneous, which I will present as working hypotheses, with a view to a future work. I beg your indulgence, and more than that, your malice. Indeed, I would be very pleased if at the end of each lecture you would voice some criticisms and objections so that, insofar as possible and assuming my mind is not yet too rigid, I might gradually adapt to your questions and thus at the end of these five lectures we might have done some work together or possibly made some progress. (Foucault, 1973, p. 1)

This was how Foucault opened a series of lectures about truth and juridical forms at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro in 1973. By using the term modesty, I refer to a postmodern-inspired idea about recognizing the limits of any epistemological stance. This is a modesty which recognizes that although we may develop a stance that is valid, it may not be possible to develop an epistemological position that is fully complete. This is, of course, not to say that “anything goes”; recognizing the validity of multiple positions does not necessitate declaring that all positions are equally valid. Rather, all positions must be appropriately justified and supported. However, maintaining a certain level of modesty in our claims is key in leaving ourselves open to the possibility of growth and learning.