It’s impossible to escape graduate school in the humanities, and even some social sciences, without a nice, heavy helping of Foucault. No matter what your dissertation or dance performance or video project or novel or thesis or seminar paper is about, somebody is going to tell you to sprinkle some Foucault up on it. And not for no reason — the man was that prolific. You’ll plod through mind-blowing, philosophical questions like, “What is an author?” “What is a text?” “What is society?” — all questions that have like 10,000 answers each. So good luck answering them.
Michel Foucault, a French philosopher who died of complications of HIV/AIDS in 1984, wrote eleven books, tons of shorter articles and gave a million interviews and lectures on his deep philosophical concepts. The problem with trying to understand any canonical theorist is that their intellectual output is ridiculous, daunting even, and we (non students/non scholars) don’t think these highfalutin ideas have anything to do with the fact that it’s Saturday night and we want to go out drinking even though we’re not legal. But things start to get really interesting, though, once you realize how much these big theoretical ideas DO impact our daily lives.
Foucault wrote about a lot of things: authors, archives, subjects, history, knowledge, power, and of course sexuality. In his three volume History of Sexuality, Foucault traces the development of sexuality in the West. One of the key ideas from this volume, one you all probably mastered on your midterms in Intro to Gender Studies, is that “sexuality” as we know it was invented in the late 19th century. Foucault’s “repressive hypothesis” reverses the widespread idea from the Victorian period that sexuality was this repressed thing, something that was not to be talked about, too uncouth to bring out into the open, an idea that’s still pretty current today.
Look around you. Isn’t sex considered a topic that’s not to be brought out into society, out into the public realm? Just think about the abbreviation “NSFW”: an abbreviational warning that sexual images are forthcoming, so you should consume them with care so you don’t get caught.
But Foucault tells us that, actually, instead of being repressive, people have never talked about sex as much as they are talking about it right now. By the 19th century there were whole discourses around sex — confessing sex, policing sex, defining sexuality — and this is how the categories homo/heterosexual were invented at the time. Heterosexuality was named first, but not because it was like better. It was a way to pathologize homosexuality as this thing that could easily be identified. We are all heterosexual. Those people over there, those are the homosessuals.
The theory is way more nuanced than this, as I’m sure e-v-e-r-y graduate student and academic on the Earth who reads this is going to tell us in the comments. Still, I invite everyone to check volume one of The History of Sexuality for yourselves. It’s an easy read.
Probably my all-time favorite Foucaultian idea, one that is so relevant right now, is the lasting effect of the panopticon and surveillance on culture. The panopticon was an 18th century prison designed by the English social theorist Jeremy Bentham. As an exercise in power, a panopticon is a circular institution with a central guard tower that was visible from every inmates’ room. Because you could see the guard tower no matter where you were, you always had the sense of being watched, surveilled. The fascinating piece of all this is that there didn’t even need to be anybody in the guard tower for the inmates to behave themselves. The tower itself was enough for people to keep themselves together, out of the incessant fear that they were being watched. Even if they weren’t.
Surveillance, as a kind of spooky, invisible power that is both inescapable and everywhere, makes us behave and protect ourselves from the law, even when there’s no visible threat of getting caught. Surveillance/the threat of surveillance keeps us acting right. You go the speed limit because you know there are traffic cameras that will take a picture of your ass and mail it to you if a policeman wasn’t there. You try to fit in because you know if you don’t people are going to make fun of you so you suppress what you really want to do and rely on the safety (read: power) of uniformity. You don’t download illegally as much as you used to because you know The Suits Are Watching and will send you a lawsuit. Cameras are posted that aren’t even real cameras — they’re just there for effect. We are being watched, even when there’s nobody in the control room to see us.
Foucault’s metaphor of the panopticon as the way we control ourselves is brilliant and scary all at once, because it means that power doesn’t come from any one place or man in uniform. Power is literally everywhere. We are our own police.