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If you ever want to sound fancy, intelligent, snobby, intellectual, pretentious, or some combination of the five, just namedrop Foucault. Seriously. You don't even need to know who he is. Just make sure you pronounce it right: foo-CO.
But while we're here, we might as well figure out what this guy was all about.
If we had to pick one word to describe this French philosopher, it would be power. Yep, the P-word. And we mean all aspects of it: who has it and how they use and abuse it; and who doesn't have it and how they are manipulated and oppressed by it. Approach his writing with that in mind, and you'll be good to go. From his early work on institutions (Madness and Civilization, The Birth of the Clinic, Discipline and Punish) to his later work on sexuality and governments, Foucault busted chops on pretty much all forms of control and discipline.
Planning on chatting with this guy over Starbucks? Well, for starters, he'll stand you up—as if he'd be caught dead at that corporate megachain. But here's what you can expect him to talk about: he loathed bourgeoisie and had boundless sympathy for the little people (a.k.a. "the marginalized")—we're talking artists, thieves, homosexuals, criminals, the mentally unstable, you name it.
As you might imagine from all this, Foucault has been a major player in the never-ending struggle against inequality. Critical theorists (translation: people who critique society and culture) use his work to breakdown hierarchies in writing, conversation, and any and all forms of communication (a.k.a. discourse). His big-idea tackling changed the way people thought about big things like mental institutions, archaeology, sexuality, human sciences, power, and even the nature of knowledge itself. That enough for you?
That's all well and good—or horrifying and intimidating, depending on your angle—but who was this guy personally? Well, as a child, French Foucault wanted to grow up to be a goldfish. Luckily (for us), he dropped that idea and became a philosopher and an activist. That means he didn't just talk the talk—he walked the walk. And while he was walking, he didn't give a hoot what other people thought of his gait. He had no plans to be the model French philosopher. He was just doin' his thang.
His thang: dark humor, narcotic-fueled partying, and lots of sexy times. Oh, and the guy totally had his own look: glasses, turtleneck, black leather everything. Yeah, he was working it. And the best part? He always smiled big toothy smiles. Apparently literary criticism is pretty amusing.
When he died of AIDS in June 1984, Foucault had earned his status as an incredibly famous intellectual. (Take that, Sartre.) As philosopher, social theorist, and historian of ideas, he is known for irreverent, scholarly, clever interpretive methods and conclusions, his careful study of old dusty documents, and his odd enthusiasm for questioning the construction of the author and of authorship—which basically means that he was willing to question his own authority. You don't see that every day in academia, huh?
Bottom line: the guy wore a lot of hats. And they were usually those knitted beanie ones.