HST287, Reading Notes, 14-Oct-2004

Danaher, G., and Schirato, T., Webb, J. Understanding Foucault. (London: Sage Publications, 2000).


Postmodernist theories challenged the assumptions that knowledge produced by academics presumed: it explains an authentic truth and is part of an ongoing process of civilizing, with no political considerations. Postmodernism posits that truth is determined by the winners and that our knowledge is not evolutionary, just different.

The book attempts to provide an introduction to Foucault's work, correct misunderstandings about it and explore thre themes: knowledge, power, and subjectivity. (And by choosing these three in the year 2000, the authors are doing their own "truth selecting.")
Foucault reacts to these. He is more interested in historicizing, more interested in process and context. What people know is informed and limited by their contexts and 'the truth' is ever-changing. His problems with structuralism include lack of belief that it could describe everything, and that it did not account for change and discontinuity. His objection to psychoanalysis is that it insists in dealing in 'truth.'

2) Questions of Knowledge

Foucault, reacting to the Borges story of the taxonomy of animals, realised that "people in another time and place may have understood things altogether differently from us...; they made sense of the world in ways we couldn;t possibly imagine." (p. 15)

Epistemes: the unconscious grounds upon which we base our ideas, our presuppositions, which in turn become organizing principles for our worlds.

Foucault does not see this as Kuhn's "paradigm shifts" in that he does not see a rational progression from one episteme to the next. There is continuity and sameness but it is not always apparent. ex: language, words remain the same but meanings change.

Discursive formations: organizing pronciples, producing 'objects of knowledge' ex: madness and the discipline of medicine. (Python: 'she's a witch')

Genealogy: just what is the historical origin of those ideas and institutions that claim to be or are assumed to be eternal?

We see ourselves as heir to a "long tradition of ideas, values, principles and practices" which we like to trace in order to legitimize our present understanding. Knowledge and truth are produced by epitemes and hold epistemes together.

3) Discourses and institutions

Can people be in control of their history and destiny?

Discourse: the language of our presuppositions, the means through which the field 'speaks' of itself to itself (Presidents, a President) When particular words enter the discursive cloud they signify that meaning has been attached to the idea of that word (El Nino) In a sense, things don't exist until they are named.

Discourses can be analysed from micro to macro to make sense of the world

Discourses "are associated with 'games of truth', working within fields such as science and government to authorise what can be judged as true or untrue." (p. 45)

4) Discipline and Instruction

The development of prisons gave rise to disciplinary forces of 'quiet coercsions' and the monitoring gaze. "All these disciplinary procedures, and the panoptic gaze, emerged at an historic moment when it had become necessary to produce a pliable, healthy and sober workforce to service the factories of the Industrial Revolution." (p. 57)

Discipline (verb and noun) how we behave and see the world.

They say "the form of surveillance based on the panopticon prison model disposed people to monitor themselves." (p. 62) Chicken/egg?

5) Relations of Power

Power is more effective when it is hidden from view. Foucault sees power as a "ubiquitous and ever-changing flow." After the Renaissance the notion of power embodied in an individual is replaced by biopwer. The focus on 'man' means a focus on human sciences, on bodies and behaviors. This gives rise to "institutions and administrative techniques for measuring, regulating and controlling people and behavior in order to ensure that states got the most out of their human resources." (p. 80)

But there is not complete regulation. With so many competing ideas, and no single authority, biopower produces compliance AND resistance. By defining normal you define abnormal. By defining both you invite self-identification with one or the other.

6) Governmentality and Liberalism

Many of Foucault's concepts derive from his theories of gevernmentality and liberalism. He traces western movement from sovereignity to the 'technologies of gevernmentality.'  This is not Marxism, rather he sees liberalism as  arising out of the relationship between governemtal, legal and economic contexts. Important because 1)  it marks the chaneg from "state as regulator" to state as civic partnership, and 2) in describing and analysing this change he shows how power is fluid.

"In other words, rather than suggesting that power completely dominates people and societies, Foucault shows, through the example of the rise of the 'attitude' of liberalism, how power always creates its own 'other', its own opposition." (p. 95) hunh?

7) History and Geopolitics

So Collingwood cannot achieve re-enactment...in so doing he is only re-enacting himself.

Views of history: teleological - a progression (positive) through time.
Hegel: dialectics: thesis, antithesis, synthesis
Marx: dialectic materialismbourgeosie - proletariat = revolution/synthesis

Foucault sees 2 problems with dialectics:
History is not continuum and conjuncture but discontinuity and disjuncture. (p. 100)
Historians are the hunters, people the lions: too often they don't get to write the history.

Carceral continuum: punitive techniques of the prison gradually gain circulation throughout society

Heterotopia: which world am I in? "the way in which different spaces can come into contact with other spaces that seem to bear no relation to them." (p.113) (ex: Puka sahibs in India, Lion King)

8) The Ethical Subject

Who or what is the subject?
Nietzsche said: subject is dead: lives are scripted by social institutions
Determining who the subject is is important for determining how the subject should act and be treated. (p. 118)
 the western paradox: nature/nurture

Foucault: the death of the subject.
Are cyborgs?

"For Foucault, our notion of the human being is not inevitable, it is historical." (p. 123) It is created by networks of discourses, institutions and relations and liable to change.

Biopolitics: how the subject, the body, is managed. How our ideas of self are formed, how the standards are determined.

Naming: determines who we are and who we are not (Abbie Normal!)

Technoloies of the self: "a series of techniques that allow individuals to work on themselves by regulating their bodies, their thoughts and their conduct. "Know thyself" first. To determine?
"All three emphasise the need to verbalise our thoughts as a way of examining and knowing the self." (p. 129) However, "we can't know the truth about ourselves, because there is no truth to know, simply a series of practices that make up the self. Nor can we escape the regulatory institutions and discourses in which we are produced. But we can identify them...and from this basis of knowledge, formulate tactics by which we can live in the world." (p. 131)

9) The Sexual Subject

"So, for Foucault, sex is less about bodies, erotics and desire than it is about technologies of government and technologies of self. And this intimate association with technologies, and hence with the networks of power and knowledge, that organise societies, is the reason" he considers it interesting.

How do we define normal and deviant? How do those definitions change (ex: by age)?

"the aim of abstinence... was not to eliminate desire but to balance one's physical desires with the good of the 'soul,' and the reward was not just personal perfection, but the good of the whole community. The ideas was that if everyone was rational and responsible, society would be based on reason rather than passion, and its members would respect one another and their mutual obligations. (p. 138)
(Which is a theme/trope that comes up in various guises across history, isn't it? If only people would do/be X than we could all get along and life would be grand--too much focus is on eth hows and whys of doing or not doing X instead of on exploring this human need (?is it?) that we need to all get along...)

18th cent: sex is changed from something physical to something discursive: an area of knowledge to be studied, hence an area to be analysed and policed.

"Using people's sexuality to classify their subjectivity is an important move, because it focuses attention on the person, rather than the act, and it establishes the grounds for people to be understood and explained as a particular types of being...(p. 140)
Again normal/deviant.

10) Arts of the Self

Wherein Foucault shifts from early focus on power relations to later focus on the "ways in which human beings become subjects." (p. 150)

Self-actualization of the individual who can challenge and resist power structures.
The subject is a form, hence crafted. So "The subject is social and historical, rather than innate. And, second, the differences in what constitutes a subject--and the possibility of change, despite social and historical limits--demonstrates the exercise of freedom." (p. 151) Thus, we are who we choose to be.
 The author is dead, yet the 'author function' is needed to len legitimacy to certain works. Some authors refuse to die.

The usual artistic timlines...

"Art is associated with ethics...and with the telling of 'truths' about society and its members. Because of this, arts policy is both a technology for managing and normalising populations (by producing authorised ways of representing 'us'), and a way of producing ethical subjects (by ensuring that we develop 'good' taste)." (p. 161)

People complain that Foucault's view is self-indulgent.

So, we end with the most difficult aspect of Foucaultian theory - that point at which it migrates into practice beyond theory.


1) Endo-colonial and exo-colonial: "The nation-states that emerged in western Europe during the ninteenth century, having colonised their own people and territory, were equipped with the technologies, techniques and will power to colonise other peoples and territories, resulting in the great period of colonial expansion. At the same time the task of pacifying, organising and regulating peoples and territories in the colonies provided colonial administrators and organisations with invaluable information and experience which they 'put to work' back home in Europe." (p. 107) Does the thesis behind Ecological Imperialism effect this view? Or doesn't it matter? Is that which allowed or at least helped enable colonialism unimportant once colonialism has happened?

2) Surveillance/self-surveillance: Foucault (the authors) suggest that this developed out of/along with that which produced the panopticon/prison model. But surely the self-monitoring gaze and the interest in making bodies conform to certain notions of "correct" predates this?

3)  "The book attempts to provide an introduction to Foucault's work, correct misunderstandings about it and explore thre themes: knowledge, power, and subjectivity." By choosing these three in the year 2000, the authors are doing their own "truth selecting." Is this a reasonably representative selection? (That's more of a personal opinion question--but I suppose I should assume that since you chose the book the answer is yes!)

hope.greenberg@uvm.edu, Created/updated: 9-Oct-2004/14-Oct-2004
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