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Understanding the Birth of Foucault’s Theories

By: Okky Madasari, 11 Feb 2020 in

What do I feel when closely reread Michel Foucault’s works, seven years after I first read his books in an attempt to finish my own thesis for a Master’s degree – especially as I recently published the thesis as a Foucauldian thesis-based book which traces the genealogy of Indonesian literature?

I feel like it was the first time. I kind of anticipating what would come, yet it fills with lot of surprises and amazement, being pulled into a deeper understanding and finding new things that I could not clearly see before.

For my reading this time, my intention is to comprehend how Foucault operates his genealogy in explaining phenomenon within a society,how he develops his arguments and then finally generates his famous general theories on power/knowledge. To really understand this process, I should start with his works which deal with investigations into existing beliefs having been accepted as given reality. The books are Madness and Civilization (1961), The Birth of the Clinic (1963), The Birth of the Prison (1975) and The History of Sexuality (1976-1984).

All of the four books clearly investigate into the origins of the phenomenon mentioned in the titles: madness, medicine and clinic, prison and sexuality. Madness and Civilization deals with the history of insanity from the 17th century to modern era, while the Birth of the Clinic traces on the institutionalisation of medicine and medical system. The Birth of the Prison explains how the penal system has been developed into the current system and The History of Sexuality argues the formation of today’s discourse on sexuality.

Foucault then explained his theory and method in The Order of Things (1966) and then The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969).

In reading the works, I should avoid to only concentrate into one particular subject. Rather, I must find out how power works on every stage, in every era, which has not only defined the condition of a realm but also force it to change and evolve. It is also necessary to always place the issues or matters I want to focus on in the power contestation and see these matters – as in Foucault’s words – as a political tactic. In this context, eventhough Foucault always presents historical facts, he firmly rejects any suggestion to regard his works as historical works.

Foucault prefers to define his works as history of the present in which he does not elaborate what the meaning is, but I suggest that what Foucault has done is to seek answers of questions on today’s phenomenon by understanding the history of power contestation along the history.

What differentiates Foucault’s works from any other analysis on power is his attempt to put power inseparable relations to knowledge. Foucault sees power as a strength that is not only possessed, but need to be exercised. As he states that it is not the privileges which have generated power or preserved the dominant class but the overall effect of its strategic positions. Furthermore, Foucault argues that power is not exercised simply as an obligation or prohibition on those who “do not have it”; it invest them, is transmitted by them and through them. Thus in the relations of power/knowledge, power has been manifested into the ability to name, to define, to classify, to categorize, to decide what is right and what is wrong.

In the history of madness, power represented by the system of knowledge that define what is sanity and normality and in what condition one can be considered as insane and mad. The same situation occurs in the medical system which then created doctors, hospitals, and medical clinics. For the penal system, Foucault shows how since the very beginning power that could be  a king, judges, or even religious leaders defining what is categorized as the wrongdoings and what kind of punishment could be given. For the sexuality discourse, Foucault argues how since 18th century, power defines sex as a private practice, that should only be done in a consensual way called marriage, which means only involves one man and one woman.

Of all these dicourses, Foucault examines how power always targets bodies; individuals, gestures, behaviours. The power aims to discipline bodies, to control activities, to control spaces, to control order. The bodies then adopt self-surveillance and self-discipline, and thereby subjugate themselves. Foucault calls this as biopower which in a larger context is called governmentality.

In biopower or governmentality, power creates social control by producing knowledge resulting in a discourse of norms and values embedded in daily practices, institutions, on all of the micro-levels of everyday life. Because it is through knowledge, people give their consent and agreement to follow. Foucault defines such exercised power as domination, and turns back to his explanation of power in which he states that its domination that makes it power.

Now we can see how govermentality works in every aspect of our life – in variety of power regimes, not only limited in the madness or medicine issues, or more than just it dictates the punishment system. We do experience govermentality in practicein school, in reading news from media, in practising religion, in supporting one political party over other parties. We engage ourseleves in self-disciplinary by following order, by accepting laws and regulations, by conforming to the dominant values and norms in our society because we are conditioned to believe it is the only right thing to do.

At the end of the day, Foucault is here to remind us to always question power and its various forms which must have created suppression to human capacity in the form of system and knowledge believed as the truth or the given reality. And for this, understanding how Foucault works to arrive to his conclusion and develop his theory is much crucial than just learning about his theories and apply it. ***

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