Study Guide

Michel Foucault Influences

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Note to reader: I don't study particular books or authors, really—that's for sissies. (Sorry, Barthes.) No, I tackle grand, enormous ideas and their brutal histories; the bigger and more complex, the better. I love to look at domineering institutions (like, say, your insurance company) and human actions and get into the nitty-gritty of how messed up systems of power and control really are.

Madness and Mental Illness

Let's get something straight. In Western culture, madness does not equal mental illness. See, madness is strictly identified by the society in which it exists (vs. mental illness, which is an inside situation). The way society has managed madness has changed radically through the ages. Renaissance madness was not the same as 17th-century madness, in the same way that Renaissance clothing was not the same as 17th-century clothing.

As for modern madness, well, that's a whole different gig. In the late 18th century, the mad were—you guessed it—locked up in institutions. Why would anyone want to see a mad person? It's just an ugly reminder of the greater flaws of society and brings up, well, prickly, awkward feelings. Just like you may avoid someone ranting on the street, asylums locked them up and threw away the key. So yeah, today, we treat the insane more brutally than ever because we act like madness is a moral sin. How dare you be a nutjob in my path/street/city/mall?!

Want more? Check out my book, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason.


Guess what I think of doctors? Yep, I hate 'em. In fact, I'm not fond of the entire medical profession—especially hospitals. Ick. See, I have a big problem with something I like to call the "medical gaze," which is that creepy, inspecting, inhuman way that hospital "caregivers" look at humans. They have this way of condensing you into a body without an identity; just a slab of meat with no personality, a totally dehumanized blob. I would have had a field day discussing MRIs, body scans, genetic testing, and the 21st-century crisis in healthcare. Let me know if you want to chat. But first, read up on my opinions in The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception.


Don't even get me started on the Hoosegow, the skinner joint, the glasshouse, the greybar hotel, the big house, the slammer, the crowbar hotel, the joint, the pen, the pokey, the clink. Okay, now I'm started. By the time I wrote Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, I was really on a roll.

D&P, as I like to call it, is an archival account of the modern penal system. (Heh, penal system.) My main beef is that punishment is inevitably grounded in power relations. So first you had your public executions and community torture sessions, which involved an audience watching the punishment of the "criminal" (which I put in quotation marks because the whole idea of what makes a criminal is totally constructed by society). It wasn't until some genius in the 18th century came up with the idea of the prison (insert light bulb icon) that the whole punishment gig shifted gears. The idea was like—hey, tarring and feathering doesn't seem to be working, so let's put people in a tiny concrete room. Yeah, that'll show 'em.


I'm kind of the authority on this one. After all, my book is called The History of Sexuality. In my typical way, I take on the topic, dive into the archives, and then cover hundreds of years in Western culture—in no fewer than three volumes. Now, I make no bones about the fact that I love sex, and I'm not afraid to talk about it. I find it really bizarre how other cultures appreciate sensuality while Western culture treats sex as if it's dissecting a frog—all scientific like. Once again, it's that whole medical, institution, dehumanized thing—so unsexy. In this ugly tangle of attitudes, anything considered sexually abnormal is considered unhealthy. Why are we so out of touch with our sexuality? Discuss.

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