Background Information

Foucault rejected the concept of 'Context' generally, and biographical context in particular, was something that Foucault tried to reject. He hoped to replace these outdated notions with a description of discourse that did not depend on a psychologized author, and hoped to replace 'context' (the set of factors that 'motivate' or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 Archeology 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 have to ignore his own method, which demands that authors disappear forever in the vagaries of their discourse. Nonetheless, some biographical context might be helpful (for a full biography, see James Miller's book in the bibliography). Foucault was born in 1926 in Poitiers, France, the son of a wealthy surgeon. His early years passed by in a fairly 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 (see below).

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 a number of 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 in the midst of 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 also 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 bath-house 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 the History of Sexuality, he continued to debate with intellectuals like Jean Baudrillard and ##Jürgen Habermas##.

Foucault died of AIDS in Paris in 1984.

Historical Context

Political engagement was a central issue in Foucault's life and career. Because so much of his work destabilized accepted principles of authority and power (notably those surrounding prisons and restricted sexuality), Foucault's involvement in any cause whatsoever was eventually placed under a public microscope. Especially in his later life, Foucault was continually looked to for advice or support and often excoriated for inaction (or for mistaken action). To this day, a central issue in the debate surrounding Foucault's work is whether or not it allows for true, active political change.

Foucault grew up partly during World War II, and worked in the climate of its after-effects throughout much of his life. He maintained an ambivalent relationship to the various ##communist##, socialist, and Maoist movements that swept Europe in the 1950's and 60's, supporting their aims but resisting their sometimes oppressive and totalitarian tone and effects. He remained a committed leftist for his entire life, supporting causes that he thought might stand to question or subvert restrictive power regimes.

In this context, Foucault's life as a gay man played a role that was not always public but was often significant. His support, in the early 1950's, of the French Communist Party was tempered in large part by that party's condemnation of homosexuality. His participation in the various Paris uprisings of the late 1960's was also partly in the context of gay rights movements, though he distrusted even these when they threatened to 'ghettoize' gay people by forcing them into a single identity.

Foucault's participation in political causes and events peaked in the late 1960's and early 1970's, primarily in Paris but also in Tunis and Poland. These were years when he was periodically arrested, and was sometimes engaged in active, physical rioting. He was also beginning to focus his engagement to some degree, founding an activist watchdog society for prisons and generally attending to conditions of incarceration in Europe and the U.S. The intertwining themes of institutional power, issues of selfhood, and sexuality were apparent both in Foucault's work and in his political engagement from this point onwards.

The historical events that drew Foucault into active politics later in his life tended to be somewhat scattered, albeit generally leftist. He was involved in brief protests against ##Franco##'s regime in Spain in 1975; with American debates about sex, censorship, and rape a few years later; and with the early supporters of the Iranian revolution in 1978. Some of these activities turned out well, while others (like the new Iranian dictatorship) were embarrassments. In any case, until his death, Foucault continued to engage with contemporary issues in direct relation to the historical issues he pursued in his academic work.

Philosophical Context

Foucault's early work took shape in a philosophical atmosphere charged with radical newness. Phenomenology, a new philosophical method which set out to study only experience itself, had a strong effect on Foucault during his college days; he initially conceived of his historical project as a kind of history of experience. Heideggerian phenomenology, which sought to describe Being itself rather than mere subjective experience, had a particular impact on Foucault at this stage, pushing him toward a phenomenological psychology that set the tone for his early work on the history of psychology.

But the most profound intellectual influences on the young Foucault came from the newly charged debates on the study of history. ##Hegelian## thought, which approaches history through the lens of rational metaphysics, was enjoying a resurgence (in connection with Marxism), and the traumas of the two World Wars had lent a good deal of urgency to the question of whether history was chaotic or meaningfully ordered. Foucault studied briefly under Jean Hyppolite, a Hegelian who showed Foucault the closeness of philosophy and history. Foucault also studied under the historian of science Georges Canguilhem, whose work revealed the conditions and structures which sciences like psychology depend on but take for granted. Foucault would base his own work on this approach, attempting to reveal the 'conditions of possibility' of scientific discourses which had previously been taken as transparently true. But he would also spend a great deal of time attempting to demonstrate the distinctness of his work from that of philosophers of ideas like Canguilhem (as he does in Part IV of the Archeology).

Madness and Civilization dived simultaneously into the debates over phenomenology and the debates over the history of ideas. Foucault's 'history of experience' brought history and metaphysics together in an explosive mix that sought to trace the history of madness not as a clearly extant thing, but as an 'experience' that is constituted as a thing by certain forms of discourse. Birth of the Clinic took a similar approach, this time with less of a phenomenological tone. Foucault was beginning to practice what he called 'archeology,' uncovering the conditions of clinical knowledge as those conditions take shape in discourse. These books were popular and controversial, and they made Foucault quasi-famous. It was at this point that some critics began to formulate the most long-lived (and perhaps easiest) critique of Foucault: he shows knowledge (in this case psychiatric knowledge) to be contingent, but he doesn't take the contingency of his own theories into account.

The Order of Things was even more successful, largely because many took it to be a tour de force for the new method of structuralism (whose chief exponent was the anthropologist Claude Lèvi-Strauss). But Foucault himself never accepted this label. Although The Order of Things seemed structuralist in its attempt to show the dependence of forms of knowledge on various prior factors (discourses and institutions), Foucault never claimed that these factors represented some kind of universal, 'truer' structure. Rather, his method sought to describe the full range of contingency and variation in the history of the knowledge of words and things. Foucault devotes part of the Conclusion to the Archeology to refuting claims that he is a structuralist.

Foucault's later career saw him adjusting his historical project from considerations of discourse and knowledge to the more specific realm of the self as it is policed under the interdependent systems of knowledge and power. He marked this shift with the respective terms 'archeology' and 'genealogy.' Genealogy seeks, like archeology, to produce a history of discourse, but it also returns Foucault to his original field of interest: the human subject. Genealogy specifically seeks to describe discourses of knowledge in their emergence as systems of authority and constraint, and seeks to describe the set of intersecting but fractured identities that such systems formulate. This is the method that gave rise to Foucault's later works on penality and sexuality. Foucault is probably best known for this later work. Although Foucault's oeuvre (a term he rejected) is not really generalizable to a single project, the successive stages of his work do depend to some extent on each other. Thus, his late work on sexuality and the self (in the two published volumes of The History of Sexuality) emerges from his mid-career considerations of the relationship between power and knowledge, which in turn work off of his early 'archeologies' and their revision of knowledge as something enabled by discourse.

However, questions of metaphysics and history generally gave way, in the later years of Foucault's life, to questions of identity politics, sexuality, and power (a shift for which Foucault himself is perhaps most responsible). Thus, critics of the later Foucault tended to frame their critiques in terms of the political practicability of his assertions about discourse, knowledge, and power. Such critics included the otherwise totally disparate thinkers Noam Chomsky and Jean Baudrillard, both of whom took Foucault to task for theoretically undermining any rationale for radical political action. The concern here is a modification of the earlier assertion that Foucault's work leaves us no firm ground of knowledge to stand on (including Foucault's own ground): if 'we' are defined by our position within a network of discursive power- relations, how can we ever extricate 'ourselves' from that network? How can we fight for liberty when 'liberty' is already a contingent object of oppressive discourse? These questions continue to surround Foucault's work, even as that work continues to support a massive range of criticism and scholarship. It is almost impossible to gauge the influence of Foucauldian analysis on the humanities today, but the endless stream of analyses with titles in the form of 'The Construction of X' are only the most visible trace of his influence (albeit often in a rather watered-down form) The Archeology is not the most widely read or discussed of Foucault's works, but it is a rigorous statement of many of the ideas and methods that made his other, properly historical works so influential.

Popular pages: The Archaeology of Knowledge