Shattering the Authority of the Past and Present: Why you should give a damn about Michel Foucault

These days we are constantly bombarded with the phrase: “Fake News! Fake News!” In the midst of it all, I cannot help but think of Michel Foucault. It seems others have thought of him too—but for strikingly different reasons. Some have pointed out that like the postmodernist school of thought, which Foucault was a part of, the concept of truth is malleable for President Trump. These commentators argue that Trump’s disregard for factual information and his inclination to question the sincerity of settled knowledge, follows the postmodernist assertion that truth is not discovered, but created.[1] Yet, as I see it, anyone who claims that Trump and Foucault seamlessly align on some kind of ideological plane have missed the point of Foucault’s philosophy entirely.

Before diving into the life and ideas of Foucault, I should be clear on something. History, as a subject, is not merely a singular, static, master narrative. What is more, the study of history is not simply remembering one damn thing after another. On the contrary, like so many other subjects, history involves a range of fields, such as economic, political, intellectual, or cultural history. And, it includes different methodologies and schools of thought. So, for example, we have the early-twentieth-century Progressive School of historians who maintained that history was best understood as a chronicle of the haves versus the have-nots. In contrast, the New Social historians of the later twentieth century turned to social scientific methods in order to study history from the bottom-up. In the process, they replaced earlier narrative-based histories with analytical, historical studies of regular, everyday people and communities. [2]

While some scholars were turning to new social scientific methods to study history, others began borrowing theories and methods from the fields of linguistics, literary analysis, and cultural anthropology. These scholars moved away from the empiricist belief that truth and reality exist independently of individuals towards a constructivist approach that understands truth and reality to be socially constructed and subjective. Thus, they questioned the degree to which we can ever observe reality objectively. These scholars owed a lot of their thinking to Friedrich Nietzsche and his view that humans create knowledge in order to obtain and maintain power. For Nietzsche, the past was really just a series of dis-junctures and disruptions, with no rational pattern such as cause and effect. To his mind, historians merely imposed order on information to create truth.[3]

This growing body of scholarly skepticism also owed its development to the post-war disillusionment with the established positivist worldview of Western society. Positivists, in the same vein as empiricists, believed that humans could access objective knowledge through scientific studies and mathematical models. But, following World War I and World War II, more Europeans and Americans began to question the objective benevolence of modern science. During these wars, science, of course, had been used to increase the killing efficiency of weapons, launch a technological genocide, and develop a nuclear arsenal strong enough to annihilate the entire world. Was science really the key, then, to bettering human life?[4]

Michel Foucault emerged during this period of disillusionment as well as in the wake of one other important scholarly development: “the linguistic turn.” In the early twentieth century, French and Russian literary theorists stopped viewing texts as having static meanings and values that were based on unchanging standards of form and function. Instead, they created a structuralist approach in which they understood the meaning of texts to be fluid and to change over time. Ferdinand de Saussure, one of the founders of structuralism, argued that the meanings of words are changeable since they are internally created by a society and that society’s own structure. Once again, this approach flies in the face of an underlying assumption of positivism and empiricism that holds that words (and knowledge) are inherent, unchangeable, and fixed. Despite Saussure’s belief in language’s ability to change and shape reality, he (and other structuralists) did not fully reject the notion that there is objective truth out there and that humankind can access it.[5]

Enter the postmodernists. Postmodernism encouraged the total suspicion of hierarchy and the persistent investigation of so-called essential, universal truths. It emerged alongside and contributed to the social movements exploding in Europe and the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. Student protests, women’s liberation, gay pride, Black Power, counterculture, anti-colonialism—all the movements of this era shared with postmodernism a questioning of authority, the undermining of traditional structures, and the probing of prejudicial language. Post-structuralism, a sector of postmodernism, refers to the theorists who especially studied linguistic and social structures in order to uncover the way knowledge and truth are created. While the radical social movements of the era tapered off by the late 1970s, post-structuralism continued to spread through academia in the 1980s and 1990s, and this is where we find Michel Foucault. [6]

Some postmodernists, like Jacques Derrida, insisted that there was nothing outside of the text, and that objective truth and reality were impossible to discern. But, Foucault’s theories left a little more hope for our ability to find meaning in the world through our deconstructions of the past. Now, to be sure, Foucault believed there was no external position of certainty, no universal understanding that was beyond history and society. His strategy, then, was to proceed as far as possible in his analyses without appealing to universal, essentialist claims. His main tactic was to provide historical context for everything—especially in regards to supposed universal categories (like the idea of human nature). So, for example, Foucault would avoid asking the typical question: “Does human nature exist?” Instead, he would ask: “How has the idea of human nature functioned in our society?”[7]

The son and grandson of a physician, Michel Foucault was born in 1926 to a solidly bourgeois (middle-class) family. He resisted what he regarded as the provincialism of his upbringing and his native country, and his career was marked by frequent travels abroad. A distinguished but sometimes erratic student, Foucault gained entry at the age of 20 to the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Paris in 1946. There he studied psychology and philosophy, embraced and then abandoned communism, and established a reputation as a dedicated, brilliant, but eccentric student. Over the years, Foucault continued to travel widely, and as his reputation grew he spent extended periods in Brazil, Japan, Italy, Canada, and the United States. He became particularly attached to Berkeley, California, and the San Francisco Bay area and was a visiting lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley for several years before his death from AIDS in 1984.[8]

Between 1971 and 1984, Foucault wrote several works in which he expanded upon the theories of Nietzsche and Saussure, and he explicitly applied those ideas to historical inquires. One of his many contributions to the scholarly world was the notion of the political economy of truth. Foucault believed that political and economic forces (like governments and the bourgeoisie) shape the production of knowledge for their own political and economic interests. He maintained that historians could better understand the past by studying the production of knowledge through a discourse analysis.

For Foucault, discourse referred not only to words, but also phrases, ideas, and the cultural symbols associated with a certain topic. According to him, various cultural groups (political, economic, and social) create and add to discourse in order to shape knowledge about a particular subject. Discourses then create epistemes, or mental structures that organize knowledge and prioritize new information as important/unimportant, true/false, scientific/unscientific. In turn, these epistemes shape the identity of individuals and create the mental world in which individuals live. Thus, for Foucault, individuals are actually products of the discourses in their lives, rather than being unbounded historical agents.[9]

Foucault called this method of historical study, “archeology of knowledge.” He explained that like an archeologist, the historian must painstakingly uncover the inner workings, structures, and mental worlds of past societies. He argued that because all texts are relative and reflexive, historians cannot simply interpret them on face value and claim to have reconstructed an absolute, singular truth about what happened and why. Rather, to his mind, historians must deconstruct their sources and texts—break the words and ideas down bit by bit and closely analyze them as if they were archeological fragments of the worldview from which they were created.[10]

Foucault also believed that historians could seek to understand how and why discourses changed over time by looking for the beginnings of new discourses, differences in existing discourses, and ruptures and disjunctions in epistemes. According to him, these changes and ruptures reveal the power and forces that have shaped a discourse at any particular moment in time. By piecing these patterns together, Foucault concluded that historians could reconstruct the history of knowledge to provide meaning to the past and present.

Finally, he urged others to “de-center” the subject. On this point, he explained that it was vital for historians to examine the past from unexpected perspectives, from the “other,” the outsider, the oppressed, the marginalized, and the anomalous. To this end, he contended that alternative perspectives might reveal a rupture covered up by more conventional and traditional sources. For these reasons, he studied “taboo” subjects like sexuality, madness, disorder, disease, and imprisonment. [11]

One of Foucault’s most influential works is The History of Sexuality Vol., I (1976).[12] In it, he presented two major theories. First, he contended that modern-day power relations are built around societal perceptions of sex. Second, he argued that the very concept of sexuality is a product of the late nineteenth-century (the Victorian Era). Unlike Freud’s argument that sexual repression dominates the modern world, Foucault asserted that we are actually sexually obsessed. Foucault claimed that while discussions about sex are certainly policed, we are still incited to speak about sex constantly.

Furthermore, Foucault maintained that the concept of sexuality developed out of an explosion of normative sexual discourse incited by the rise of psychology. Before the modern age, religious and moral concerns controlled sexual acts. But, with the rise of science and rationalism, sex became increasingly controlled and categorized. As Foucault put it, “The Sodomite had been a temporary aberration, the homosexual was now a species.” By the late nineteenth century, Foucault explained, social scientists had created sexuality, as a conceptual category, in their process of placing sexual acts and relations as the essential part of one’s identity. Because of this change, Foucault concluded that modern-day power relations are based on the normative discourse that governs sexuality.[13]

Foucault went on to publish two more volumes on the history of sexuality: The Use of Pleasure: The History of Sexuality Vol., 2 and The Care of the Self: The History of Sexuality Vol., 3.[14] They were both published in 1984, the year of his death from AIDS. Before his death, however, Foucault hurriedly destroyed hundreds of pages of his unfinished and unpublished works.[15] Still, there is a noticeable difference in the focus of his last two published works, which suggest that Foucault’s scholarly interests had shifted in the later part of his life. While the majority of Foucault’s earlier writings had retraced overreaching dramatic changes in the nature of societal power structures, his last works were more concerned with capturing the aesthetic of human existence through recounting individual bodily experiences.[16]

In the scholarly world, the impact of Foucault cannot be overstated. For starters, he established the history of sexuality as a legitimate field of inquiry. In the footsteps of Foucault, historians of sexuality have examined the changing meanings of sexual practices, attitudes, and imagery. On a broader scale, Foucault’s idea about how discourse creates identities has especially appealed to scholars who have sought to understand the social context of racial and gendered categories. As these scholars see it, concepts such as masculine and feminine, and black and white are not based on essentialist, unchanging biological definitions. Rather, in their view, these concepts have been historically constructed. As such, they see these categories as fluid, changeable, and loaded with political implications.[17]

Foucault sought to unearth the historical contingency of ideas that present themselves as necessary, unsurpassable truths. In the process, he raised fundamental philosophical questions about the nature of human knowledge and its relation to power structures. He also offered a heroic refusal to sentimentalize the past and a radical, but meaningful way to interrogate the flawed confidence that underpins modern society’s practices and institutions. But, as we see with Trump, not all attacks on the authority of information are revolutionary or commendable. As witnessed over the first year of his presidency, Trump readily appeals to “alternative facts” that discount accountable evidence. Moreover, he eagerly proclaims “Fake News!” any time a media outlet issues a story that puts him in an unflattering light.

Unlike Foucault, whose theories suggest that we embrace spectrums of truths that are relative to specific moments in history, Trump’s questioning of information falls back to a simplistic, binary view in which there is only one truth and everything else is false. What is more, Trump insists that it is his truth that is the only legitimate source of knowledge. This authoritative stance on information is exactly what Foucault was raging against. In Foucault’s view, claiming to know the absolute, unconditional truth (no matter who you are) is an assertion of power that should always be resisted.[18]

Now, I should note that Foucault warned against imagining a world in which humans were completely liberated from power. For him, this was just not a realistic possibility. But, he did suggest that a persistent critical attitude towards all dominant systems of thought, whether they derive from the appearance of objectivity or blatant bias, will at least help us to move to a new (and, perhaps, more fitting) status quo. In the end, he urged that in our interrogations of accepted knowledge we should constantly be asking: “What, in a given situation, might be done to increase human capacities without simultaneously increasing oppression?”[19] In my view, this insistence on questioning everything in order to better the human condition for everyone is a far cry from the ideological disposition of our current president.

I’m going to end with one final masterful quote from Foucault that encapsulates his scholarly thinking and his intellectual position: “No! I am not looking for an alternative, you can’t find the solution of a problem in the solution of another problem…raised at another moment by other people. You see, what I want to do is not the history of solutions…I would like to do the genealogy of problems…My point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous, which is not exactly the same as bad. If everything is dangerous, then we always have something to do. So, my position leads not to apathy but to a hyper-and pessimistic activism.”[20]

[1] See also Casey Williams, “Has Trump Stolen Philosophy’s Critical Tools?” New York Times, 17 April 2017, (accessed 21 January 2018).

[2] Caroline Hoefferle, The Essential Historiography Reader (Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2011), 114-134, 172-203.

[3] Ibid., 209-211.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 214.

[6] Ibid., 212-214.

[7] Paul Rabinow, ed., Foucault Reader (New York: Vintage Books, 2010), 4-5.

[8] See David Macey’s The Lives of Michel Foucault (New York: Pantheon Books, 1993).

[9] Hoefferle, Essential Historiography Reader, 213-214.

[10] Later Foucault’s thinking on the subject evolved as he demoted the concept of “archeology” of knowledge in favor of the “genealogy” of knowledge. In this updated system of thought, Foucault moved away from emphasizing the local qualities of past conceptions to stressing the ensemble of historical contingencies, accidents, and illicit relations that made up the ancestry of one or another currently accepted concept in the human sciences. See Gary Gutting, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Foucault (Cambridge University Press, 2005), 2-16.

[11] Hoefferle, Essential Historiography Reader, 212-215.

[12] The work was translated into English in 1977. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, An Introduction Vol.1 (Vintage Books: New York, 1977).

[13] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, 43.

[14] Michel Foucault, The Use of Pleasure: The History of Sexuality Vol.,2 (New York: Vintage Books, 1984); Foucault, The Care of the Self: The History of Sexuality Vol., 3 (New York: Vintage Books, 1984).

[15] James Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault (Simon and Schuster, 1993), 357.

[16] Gutting, Cambridge Companion to Foucault, 24.

[17] See, for example, Joan Wallach Scott, Gender and the Politics of History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).

[18] See Williams, “Has Trump Stolen Philosophy’s Critical Tools?”

[19] James Faubion, “Michel Foucault,” Encyclopedia Britannica, (accessed 21 January 2018).

[20] Paul Rabinow ed., “On the Genealogy of Ethics: An Overview of Work in Progress,” in The Foucault Reader (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), 343.

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