Foucault Seminar 2006


Foucault Seminar



My senior seminar on Foucault in Spring 2006 turned out to be very productive, especially since I had smart and motivated students in class. Together with 15 students, I went on a field trip to one of the largest prison facilities in Michigan (Jackson), where we learned that approximately 18 thousand prisoners (the US currently has 2 million individuals imprisoned) are incarcerated in six facilities within the Jackson area. These prison facilities hold prisoners on all security levels, the security level being determined on the basis of the type of crime for which a prisoner has been convicted. During our field trip, we “toured” a facility for around three hours (I organized another – even more insightful – visit to a Michigan “Boot Camp” in Fall 2006). The goal of the visit was to understand Foucault and Althusser’s claim that knowledge (ideology) and power are “materialized” forms of social institutions and are productive through bodily techniques. One of Foucault’s theses is that the “body” is not simply a Cartesian entity, but is, rather, the place and the battlefield of discursive and cultural formations by means of which the individual is turned into a “subject.”

Max Weber claimed that social theory is possible, even when the sociologist is not part of the social practice that she investigates, given that sociality is constituted by agents through their intentions. These intentions can be understood because social actions are based on reasons, and hence, follow rational patterns. Put differently, we understand agents, according to Weber, because they are intrinsically rational. In this connection, Weber made a famous distinction between power and domination in his Society and Economy, where he argued that power is introduced as the possibility of one individual or a group of individuals forcing another individual or a group of individuals to do something against their will. In response to this conception, Foucault challenges this ultimately mentalist concept of power and resistance on (at least) two levels. For instance, he claims that social actions are not primarily constituted by the intentions of agents, but by a structure that transforms agents into functioning entities within a larger network of relations. Influenced by Marxism, Structuralism and Psychoanalysis, Foucault assumes that intentions are functionally defined within the social structure. Accordingly, Foucault partakes in the 20th Century breakdown of mentalist conceptions of agents and minds. Three questions are central in this context: [1] Who are the functioning agents (=a question of the subject)? [2] What knowledge is needed for the production and definition of these agents (=a question of truth)? And [3] What are the effects of [1] and [2] on the social relations and the materiality of the society (=a question of power)? Knowledge – introduced as an extension of the Marxist concept of “ideology” – is, in Foucault’s early theory, the key factor in the concept of power, since it is by means of discourses (=the distribution and production of what can be said) that modern societies transform individuals into subjects (=socialized individuals), the consequence of which is that we are ultimately “made” through discourse procedures. The subject, we might say, is thereby an effect of discourses. Foucault – as a successor of Althusser – takes institutions as the modern materialization of these discourses. In this way, discourses, understood as that which can be said at a specifically defined time within history, are not merely visible in speech events and in texts; rather, according to Foucault, these events are intimately tied to certain kinds of discursive practices, inasmuch as they are found in universities, schools, hospitals, prisons, military camps, and etc., which rule both the production of knowledge and the subjection of individuals to those knowledge procedures. For example, the division between visibility and invisibility, as well as the exclusion of certain types of individuals, such as the “a-normal,” the “mad,” the “criminal,” the “sick,” the “learner,” the “aged,” or the “knower,” are all institutionalized distinctions. Two main effects can be described thus: [1] modern societies function through the physical exclusion and the total control and disciplining of bodies in these institutions, and [2] what can be said outside of these institutions is produced inside of these institutions. For example, in a Nietzschean fashion, Foucault claims in Discipline and Punish that the moral and legal code of “right” and “wrong” (justice/injustice) is transformed and displaced by the division between “normal” and “a-normal” (dangerous/functioning). This displacement of “morality” into “normality” – most visible in the importance of medicine and psychology in the legal discourse – is made possible through a fine-grained rational network of what Foucault calls “power relations,” one effect of which is the production of individuals through these relations, which in turn leads to a standardization of the whole modern world. The knowledge/power process has a material side, too: the bodies of the sick, mad, a-normal, criminal, aged, trained, learned, etc., are becoming objects of the institutions and are subjected to the knowledge procedures represented by these very same institutions. As such, “power relations” are held together by a system of techniques that we invent, so as to successfully operate the complex relationship between knowledge, institution, and subject. In sum, what we find in Foucault’s thought is: [1] a concept of the body, which is socially, historically, and culturally defined, as well as [2] a concept of knowledge that is socially produced and is never disconnected from power-relations. With this in mind, the task of the prison visit was twofold:

[1] to introduce philosophical theory as a way of perception. Theory is not done for its own sake, according to Foucault; rather, it allows us to see the world differently. In addition, Foucault takes philosophical reflection to be a task of self-transformation and therefore as a self-fashioning of our existence. Theoretical reflection – especially historical reflection – is, according to him, a re-invention of who we are and who we want to be. In this way, it is a form of life. Due to the fact that most seminars are defined by their disconnection from life, it is very healthy for students to see that philosophy is a particular way of being someone;

[2] to let undergraduate students encounter their own social environment not only through classroom interaction. This field trip allowed participants to get a sense of what it means to claim that modern individuals are “made“ by a set of procedures that are visible (i) in the architecture of the prison, (ii) in the knowledge produced in the prison, (iii) in the manuals that determine every movement of the prisoners and the guards, and (iv) in how the institution controls the time and space of their members.

I think that this seminar was the best seminar to come for a long time – thanks to all participating students.