Michel Foucault (1926-84) - Key Figures in Literary Theory

The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory - Gregory Castle 2007

Michel Foucault (1926-84)
Key Figures in Literary Theory

Michel Foucault was born and educated in Poitiers, France, then sent to the prestigious Lycee Henry IV in Paris. He entered the Ecole Normale Superieure in 1946 and earned his “agregation de philosophie” in 1951. At the Ecole and at the Sorbonne, Foucault came into contact with leading intellectuals of the day, including Jean Hippolyte and Louis Althusser, and became a communist (though he left the Party in 1953). In 1952, he received his diploma in psychopathology from the University of Paris. After teaching briefly at the Ecole and the University of Lille, Foucault spent three years at the University of Uppsala (1955-58), then one year directing the French Institute in Hamburg. His doctoral dissertation was published as Madness and Civilization in 1961. In the next five years, he published The Birth of the Clinic (1963) and The Order of Things (1966). These early texts exemplify the ARCHAEOLOGICAL method of history and sociology presented systematically in Archaeology of Knowledge (1969). Foucault was not interested in traditional historiographic methods that relied on cause and effect and chronological temporality. Drawing on the “anti-historicism” of Nietzschean GENEALOGY, he developed a way of talking about history that avoided the causal implications of the “event” and emphasized instead the fundamental role of interpretation in the emergence of law and morality. These “emergences” are not events in the conventional sense, and representing them requires new techniques of selection and explication, new conceptions of language, text, discourse, and archive.

Whether he studied clinics, insane asylums, economics, grammar, biology, or education, Foucault was interested in analyzing the discursive pathways by which POWER circulates within formations and traditions. His conception of power is an elaboration of the Nietzschean “will to power” and refers first and foremost to the representation of social AGENCY. Power is always a matter of using language, information, and images. Power is knowledge, and nowhere is this more clearly the case than in DISCURSIVE FORMATIONS that constitute “discipline.” Foucault famously analyzed the nature of disciplinary power in Discipline and Punish (1975), his account of the development of imprisonment and punishment as expressions of social power. In 1976, the first volume of the

History of Sexuality appeared and introduced a new focus on sexuality and power, specifically the way that the nineteenth-century “discourse on sex” regulated and defused sexual activity. In addition to his involvement with liberation groups in Iran and Poland, Foucault spent the late 1970s and early ’80s finishing two additional volumes of the History of Sexuality and writing essays on the relationship between power and the subject of knowledge. He gradually came to reject his own early position that the subject was in thrall to social discourses and began to theorize new forms of positive social agency. This work was cut short by Foucault’s death in 1984, of an AIDS-related neurological disorder.


Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language. Trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon, 1972.

---- . Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books, 1979, 1977.

---- . The Foucault Reader. Ed. Paul Rabinow. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.

---- . The History of Sexuality. 3 vols. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978-88.

---- . The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.