Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

Foucault rejected the concept of “context” generally, and biographical context in particular, was something that Foucault tried to reject as outdated. He hoped to replace these notions with a description of discourse that did not depend on a psychologized author and hoped to replace “context” (the set of factors that “motivate” or cause a statement) with a much more detailed account of how specific statements become possible. But this drive away from authorial context, this drive toward discourse as an anonymous process, is itself one of the most interesting things about Foucault as a writer. He concludes the Introduction to The Archaeology of Knowledge with this rather intense caveat: “I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face. Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same.”

To ask who Foucault was, then, we generally must ignore his own method, which demands that authors disappear forever into the vagaries of their discourse. Nonetheless, some biographical context might be helpful.

Foucault was born in 1926 in Poitiers, France, the son of a wealthy surgeon. His early years passed by in a conservative religious environment, as Foucault attended Catholic camp, served as a choirboy, and studied for his baccalaurèat at a Jesuit college (Collège Saint-Stanislas). By this time (1943), France was in the full turmoil of World War II, and discussions of history as either a progress of reason or a chaos of suffering were prevalent. Foucault was taught briefly by the Hegelian philosopher and historian Jean Hyppolite, to whom these historical issues were central.

Foucault entered the Ècole Normale Supèrieure in 1946. He had some episodes of mental illness (not to mention a mostly miserable experience), but also began building a social life as a young gay man. At the Ècole, the historian of ideas Georges Canguilhem had a deep influence on Foucault, and Foucault's early “archeological” work began to take shape in this context. He also engaged with the turbulent political scene in Paris, participating (though somewhat ambivalently) in the French Communist Party in the early 1950's.

Foucault took early degrees in philosophy and psychology and received a diploma in psychopathology in 1952. From this point until the publication of his first major work (Madness and Civilization, in 1964), Foucault occupied several academic and cultural posts, first at the University of Uppsala in Sweden and then at the Centre Français in Warsaw. His personal life during this period was marked by intense love affairs (including one with the critic Roland Barthes) and occasional scandals stemming from the clash of Foucault's sex life with various administrative restrictions. The significance of being constantly watched was not lost on Foucault, and he would later address this issue directly in his works on sexuality and power.

Foucault's career was launched with the publication of Madness and Civilization in 1964, and greatly bolstered by The Order of Things a few years later. Foucault was active in French intellectual life, maintaining conversations and debates with Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, Rene Magritte, and many other crucial figures of the day.

In 1966, Foucault took a post at the University of Tunis in Morocco, lecturing on philosophy, literature, and art. He also situated himself deep within the contemporary life of Tunis, eventually becoming involved with an Arab student uprising. He continued to lecture in France on occasion. The Archeology of Knowledge came out in 1969, after Foucault had returned to Paris during the student-driven uprisings of 1968. He had taken a job teaching philosophy at the ultra-radical University of Vincennes, and then filled the late Jean Hyppolite's chair in philosophy at the Collège de France.

Foucault's work changed direction in the early 1970’s, as he turned his attention to issues surrounding authority and power in the context of imprisonment. He founded an activist group called the Groupe d'information sur les prisons and visited penal institutions in France and the U.S. Foucault continued to participate in demonstrations and riots in support of the rights of prisoners, the poor, immigrants, and gays. Much of this activity influenced the work that would become Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, published in 1975.

Foucault’s late life was marked by unending work on his multi-volume History of Sexuality, and by his illness with AIDS, which he neither publicized nor denied. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, he spent time lecturing in California (at Berkeley and then Stanford), where he also explored a wide range of drugs and reveled in the gay bathhouse scene. He had become a cult figure even in the U.S., and his name was everywhere, attached to a great variety of political causes (from American feminism to the Iranian revolution). As he worked on History of Sexuality, he continued to debate with intellectuals like Jean Baudrillard and Jürgen Habermas.

Foucault died of AIDS in Paris in 1984.

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