Michel Foucault’s Favorite Buzzwords
All the stuffiest terms, defined for your Shmooping pleasure.
The Classical Period
This 200-plus year period—from 1660 to the end of the 19th century—is my domain. Why? Because during this era all of these nasty little oppressive institutions (prisons, mad houses, hospitals, schools) sprouted up and started to dictate normal human behavior. Which, by the way, is never a good thing.
I'm really into the concept of discipline and disciplinary power. Not necessarily in a bondage sort of way, but that too. Discipline is wielded by any and all institutions backed by state power—and their game is controlling your body and your every move. It started with monasteries and armies and now we have GPS, Facebook, and CCTV. Yikes!
I'm going to explain by way of an example: you know how you aren't allowed to cross the street when you aren't at a crosswalk because you may get a jaywalking ticket? (And because you may get run over by a car, but that's totally irrelevant to my argument.) Well, why is it that when no police are around, you still use the crosswalk? Because you have internalized disciplinary power! You have been told what to do for so long that you now have a little inner policeman. The grand ambition of disciplinary power? To make you obedient. Obey, sheep, obey!
I love this word, but admittedly, it is kind of vague. Lemme give it a shot: discourse is a scheme that embodies all written and spoken examples of communication. And when we talk, we are inevitably wrapped up in discourse. So for example, we can't even talk about getting rid of the prison industrial complex because we have no alternative to it. The prison is the ultimate institution of today's discourse of punishment—punishment and prisons are like besties. Got it?
So cool to have your name become a catchy term. And I totally did it before Google, by the way. Anyway, "Foucaldian" is a kind of historical inquiry that totally changes how we study "subjectivity, power, knowledge, discourse, history, sexuality, madness, and the penal system" (source). So basically, if you're studying anything big and mean and significant, go ahead and call it Foucauldian. In my humble opinion, at least.
So I borrowed this term from Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals. Sue me! Do you think Plato was the first one to talk about forms and ideals? (Well, maybe he was, I don't know.) Anyway, I took genealogy and owned it. Genealogy comprises the study of every and all form of knowledge—contradictory, confusing, and complicated as it may be. What's all this work for? To prove once and for all that our thought patterns are modern constructions.
Now before you give me a big, honking "duh," hear me out. After all, I'm really good at defining things in radically unpredictable ways. Okay, here we go. I love rooting out how power manipulates interactions between and among people. Power acts in seemingly inexplicable ways, changing our behavior not through strength or violence (necessarily), but through a sort of mind-melding way.
See, power controls our will and penetrates us through the state (pay your taxes!) and in personal relationships (marry me, or else!). All sorts of ugly behavior results from power—like manipulation and domination. Then we allow power to dictate our every move (that's called "internalizing"), so we don't shoplift or run red lights. And just like that, boom: society gets to feel like it's done its job.
Where to start? Well, long before I could say the word "discursive," philosophers were debating the meaning of reason. Starting with Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (long since dead when I came around), the objective was to free ourselves from unreason by comprehending the whole. Partial knowledge? No dice. That'll just keep you trapped in unreason—and to Hegel, reason was "Sovereign of the World" (so, like, really important). To recap: Hegel was really interested in reason vs. irrationality.
Along came me: I didn't reject reason, but (unlike Hegel), I didn't see it as an escape from predestined historical reality. I wanted to figure out how reason, from the beginning of time, had impacted, oppressed, and constrained people. Important, right?
Subject and Object
Though I wrote about tons of ideas, I was always primarily taken with how human beings have historically developed into subjects and objects. So I spend a heckuva lot of time pondering how politics, science, economics, philosophy, law, and society force ideas on you that then form who you are. I always ask a variation of the question: what manners of reason, and which historical situations make people who they are? Go ahead—try it out on yourself. Journal your ideas and then we can share.
This is the word I'll slap you with if you exceed a limit or boundary, especially of social tolerability. I heart being transgressive and wrote a lot about it, especially in references to sexuality, the body, and pleasure. Ahhh.