Foucault, Michel

Assigned: Foucault, Michel. “What Is an Author?” (1394-1409); from Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1409-21);from The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, An Introduction(1421-40); from “Society Must Be Defended,” from Chapter 11. 17 March 1976 (1440-50). Also read the editors’ introduction (1388-94).

“What Is an Author?” (1969)

1. On 1394-95 (“In proposing this slightly odd…”), on what grounds does Foucault criticize his own earlier work for its handling of the author-concept? With regard to The Order of Things, for example, what “two pertinent objections” (1395) were raised about his treatment of authorship? To what extent does Foucault agree with these objections, and how does he propose to address them in future?

2. On 1395-97 (“For the purposes of this paper…”), for the present essay, what is Foucault’s plan of investigation with regard to the author-concept? What pair of themes does he mean to investigate in light of Samuel Beckett’s line in Texts for Nothing, “What matter who’s speaking?” (1396) What is the implication here for the notion that writing is a form of expression? What does Foucault suggest about “the kinship between writing and death” (1396)? In what sense, according to him, does the contemporary text now have “the right to kill, to become the murderer of its author” (1396)?

3. On 1397 (“To begin with, the thesis concerning…”), in what precise manner does Foucault pose the question, what is a “work”? What complexities does he suggest arise when it is posed that way? What question arises, for example, regarding the Marquis de Sade’s as-yet-unpublished writings? What if we find something like a daily activities reminder, or a laundry receipt among Friedrich Nietzsche’s “works”? Why does Foucault think the answer to such seemingly silly questions—to which one is tempted to respond with “Of course we would exclude nonsense like that because it’s irrelevant—is not as self-evident as we might think?

4. On 1398 (“Another thesis has detained us…”), Foucault brings up the concept of écriture, which, in the most general sense, simply means “writing,” but in a post-structuralist or Derridean sense, it refers more specifically (as the Norton editors say) to “that which is required for any particular speech act—whether spoken or written—to take place” (1396 footnote 5). What critique does Foucault make of this latter, post-structuralist concept? In what sense is it the case, according to him, that “This conception of écriture sustains the privileges of the author…” (1398) and in fact transfers the author-concept to an unassailable “transcendental” status?

5. On 1398-1400 (“It is obviously insufficient to…”), Foucault begins his investigation of the author-concept in earnest, saying that “The name of an author poses all the problems related to the category of the proper name” (1399 top). What problems and complexities does he mention in reference to proper names? With regard to both proper names and authors’ names, how do Foucault’s “Pierre Dupont” (similar to “John Doe” in English, as the editors point out, 1399 footnote 4) and other examples help him explain the complexities of both proper and authorial names? (1399) Finally, how is “[d]iscourse that possesses an author’s name” (1400) nonetheless in a special category—what stands out about it that makes it different in “its status and its manner of reception” (1400 middle) from an ordinary proper name?

6. On 1400-01 (“In dealing with the ‘author’ as…”), Foucault examines the characteristics of a discourse connected to the author-function. He identifies four such characteristics, the first of which is that “they are objects of appropriation” (1401); that is, they are a form of property in modern times. At what point in Western history, according to Foucault, were “the transgressive properties always intrinsic to the act of writing” (1401) visited upon literature? How did this new kind of property or commodity become “dangerous” to those who produced and sold it?

7. On 1401-02 (“Secondly, the ‘author-function’…”), Foucault examines the second of four characteristics  of discourses connected to the author-function. This second characteristic is that “the ‘author-function’ is not universal or constant in all discourse” (1401). What reversal long ago took place in the way people regard authorship of scientific texts? Why doesn’t the author-function matter when it comes to scientific theories and works in modern times? By contrast, how much difference does author-attribution generally make when it comes to literary texts? What exceptions to this pattern does Foucault identify with regard to literature, biology and medicine? (1402)

8. On 1402-03 (“The third point concerning this…”), Foucault examines the third of four characteristics of discourses connected to the author-function. This third characteristic is that the author-function “is not formed spontaneously through the simple attribution of a discourse to an individual” (1402). To what “complex operation” is such attribution subject? However, what “transhistorical constant” (1402) does Foucault identify with respect to literary criticism? How did the work done by Saint Jerome and others to authenticate the Biblical texts become the basis of modern criticism? In what several ways, according to Foucault, do modern criticism’s “strategies for defining the author” (1403) resemble early Christian exegesis?

9. On 1403-04 (“However, it would be false to…”), Foucault examines the last of four characteristics of discourses connected to the author-function. This fourth characteristic is that the author-function “does not refer, purely and simply, to an actual individual insofar as it simultaneously gives rise to a variety of egos and to a series of subjective positions…” (1404). In what sense is the author-function not a matter of “simple reconstruction” in relation to “a text [already] given as passive material” (1403)? In a text that is governed by or subject to the “author-function,” what complexity of subjectivity (i.e., of “egos”) comes into play when “shifters” such as first-person pronouns are employed? (1403-04)

10. On 1404-05 (“I am aware that until now I have…”), Foucault introduces the concept of certain key authors who, beginning with the nineteenth century, came to serve as “initiators of discursive practices” (1404). Which authors does he point to as being such “initiators,” and what is special about the texts that they produce? What do they make possible that other authors—even very influential novelists such as Ann Radcliffe, who is responsible for the popularity of the Gothic novel, for example—do not?

11. On 1405-07 (“Is this not the case, however…”), Foucault continues his discussion of “initiators of discursive practices.” Why, in his view, are these initiators distinct even from extremely important scientific authors such as Galileo, Cuvier, or Ferdinand de Saussure? For what reasons is it inevitable that those who work in times after someone has initiated what are sometimes called “transdiscursive discourses” (discourses that make other discourses and disciplines possible) must return to them? (1405-06) How is this return more complex than, say, a simple rediscovery of some point made by an earlier author: what characterizes a return to a transdiscursive author’s works? (1406-07)

12. On 1407-09 (“These remarks concerning the…”), what final reflections does Foucault offer with regard to subjectivity as a long-privileged philosophical and social concept? How does he drive home the point that his careful examination is not intended as a defense of the older concept of authorship or of a “self” that has largely been demolished, or at least put into question, in modern times? What questions about authors does Foucault suggest should no longer be asked? What project, and what questions, does he favor instead, and why?

13. General question: In “What Is an Author?” Michel Foucault examines the author-function for its connection to the regulation of textual circulation and interpretation, and proclaims towards the end of his essay that “the subject (and its substitutes) must be stripped of its creative role and analysed as a complex and variable function of discourse” (1408). This hardly amounts to a dismissal of the author-concept (as in, say, Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author”; see Leitch 1268-72), but Foucault’s 1969 essay certainly suggests that naïve claims about authorial expression and meaning are no longer relevant. Half a century on, what is your own assessment about the state of the author-concept? Is it still accepted as central by most academics? By the general public? Or is there in either case a different sensibility now when it comes to how we think about authorship? Explain.

From Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975)

The Carceral

1. On 1409-11 (“Were I to fix the date of completion…”), how does Michel Foucault trace the completion of the carceral or prison system? Why does he pick the time period and place that he does? How, too, does Foucault analyze the significance of training to the building-up of the carceral system: what was the nature and function of  such training, and how did it become a major part of the prison regime, and even what we might call a meta-concern of the system itself?

2. On 1411-12 (“It so happens that historians…”), how, according to Foucault, did “scientific psychology” (1411) and the court system work together to normalize and justify Mettray penal colony’s ideas and practices? How do you interpret the meaning of Foucauldian phrases and terms such as “ the normalization of the power of normalization” and “power-knowledge” (1412)? How do they capture the intense exertion of power by such systems as Mettray (which operated from 1840-1937), over the vulnerable human beings they are supposedly designed to help?

3. On 1412-13 (“But why choose this moment…”), what more does Foucault say about Mettray penal colony that marks it as an especially appropriate epicenter for the new “carceral” system—in what sense was this colony more than a prison? Moreover, Foucault characterizes what he calls “[a] subtle, graduated carceral net” (1412) spreading through French institutions; he uses the phrases “carceral continuum” and “carceral archipelago” (1412) as well. What do such phrases imply with regard to the new system of discipline and control over French citizens? Moreover, in what way did a generalized “threat of delinquency” (1412) hang over those citizens’ heads once the “carceral continuum” was established? What examples of this continuum does Foucault detail (1413)?

4. On 1413-14 (“1. This vast mechanism established…”), Foucault discusses the first of six results owing to the spread of what he calls “penitentiary technique” (1413) to the whole of society. What is this first result, and how does the “continuous, imperceptible gradation” (1413) of misdeeds thereby established affect French society’s conception of offenders and their transgressions?

5. On 1414-16 (“2. The carceral, with its far-reaching networks…”), Foucault discusses the second of six results owing to the spread of what he calls “penitentiary technique.” How does he describe this result and its significance? In what sense is it true to say that in spite of all appearances, “the delinquent is not outside the law; he is, from the very outset, in the law, at the very heart of the law…” (1415)? How, according to Foucault, does such a state of affairs differ from the one that prevailed during the eighteenth century?

6. On 1416-17 (“3. But perhaps the most important effect…), Foucault discusses the third of six results owing to the spread of “penitentiary technique.” This result apparently consists in “making the power to punish natural and legitimate…” (1416). What features of the “carceral continuum” are most responsible for bringing about this result, and why does Foucault suggest that it is the most important of the six effects or results he describes?

7. On 1417-18 (“4. With this new economy of power…”), Foucault discusses the fourth of six results owing to the spread of “penitentiary technique,” and this result concerns “the emergence of a new form of ‘law’” (1417). What new form of law is he talking about, and what effects did it, in turn, have upon the goings-on in courtrooms (i.e., judging, sentencing and the like)? According to Foucault, what underlies the new fashion of “therapeutic” (1418) sentencing once the carceral system is fully established?

8. On 1418 (“5. The carceral texture of society…”), Foucault discusses the fifth of six results owing to the spread of “penitentiary technique.” What does this fifth result have to do with the way the human body is regarded within the French justice system and associated systems? Moreover, while Foucault certainly makes it clear that he is not “saying that the human sciences emerged from the prison” (1418 middle), what degree of connection or causality is he asserting between the proliferation of “[t]he carceral texture of society” and the emergence of the human sciences (1418)?

9. On 1418-19 (“6. This no doubt explains the extreme solidity…”), Foucault discusses the sixth and final result owing to the spread of “penitentiary technique.” How is it that “the specificity of the prison and its role as link are losing something of their purpose” (1419) with the rise of the carceral net or system? In what way have so-called “mechanisms of normalization” (1419) for the carceral system and its operations outstripped the physical existence of prisons?

10. On 1419-21 (“If there is an overall political issue…”), Foucault concludes his study with the observation that “the notions of institutions of repression, rejection, exclusion, marginalization, are not adequate to describe…” the many things that happen to human beings within an all-encompassing carceral system. Ultimately, what point is Foucault making about the effects of the spread and “normalization” (1419) of the exercise of power he has been describing in such detail in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison? By implication, how might what is being described be said to be in a fundamental way either as bad as or worse than the old way of “doing justice,” inhumane as that old way was, and even though the broadly distributed “carceral” effects Foucault discusses were in some cases the brainchild of humanitarian reformers?

11. General question: Foucault’s observations in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison are undeniably brilliant and certainly interesting, but at the same time, his claims about the vast and ever-expanding societal reach of “carceral” practices, techniques of control, and ideas have been earnestly criticized since the book’s publication in 1975. What main criticism/s would you make of the claims set forth in the excerpt we have read, and why so?

12. General question: In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Foucault deals with the prison system in a manner that extends back several centuries. How would you characterize the present-day American penal system, with its partnerships with “for-profit” prison companies and huge populations, many of them incarcerated for non-violent offenses? How much progress have we made in comparison to older and supposedly less humane, pre-modern penal codes and practices? What, if anything, would you say our society generally believes to be the purpose of sending people to prison, beyond simply locking them up for a time?

From The History of Sexuality (1976)

Introduction, Part II: The Repressive Hypothesis, Chapter 1: The Incitement to Discourse

1. On 1421-23 (“The seventeenth century, then…”), What irony, according to Foucault, structured the period beginning around the seventeenth century regarding European discourse about sex? In spite of what may seem to us like censorship, what was actually happening in the area of discourse about sexuality? What examples does Foucault use to illustrate what he calls “a veritable discursive explosion” (1421) with respect to the discussion of sexual matters? In responding, consider what he writes about “the evolution of the Catholic pastoral and the sacrament of penance after the Council of Trent” (1422)—while these practices seemed to become more “veiled” (1422) in their language about sex, what, according to Foucault, was really happening?

2. On 1423-25 (“It was here, perhaps, that the…”), Foucault examines the seventeenth century’s imperative of “transforming sex into discourse” (1423). In what sense was this transformation not so much a prohibition as a process of making sex useful to power? How does he use the works of the Marquis de Sade and the erotic memoir My Secret Life by an anonymous male Victorian author to highlight the era’s demand that there should be not less discourse about sex, but more?

3. On 1425-27 (“This technique might have remained…”), how did the concept of a “public interest” (1425), according to Foucault, accelerate the injunction to produce more discourse about sex? How, in other words, were new disciplines of the sciences and social sciences in the eighteenth century aiding in this call for further study and discussion? What was the nature of this so-called public interest? How, according to Foucault, did it result in a kind of “policing of sex,” an insistence upon “regulating sex through useful and public discourses” (1426)? In what way did scientific research on modern nations’ “population” (1426) further the need to understand sexuality in a scientific manner?

4. On 1427-29 (“The situation was similar in the case…”), how does Foucault analyze the proliferation of concern over children’s sexuality and even, to an extent, sex education for young people beginning in the eighteenth century? In what way was a consideration of adolescent and childhood sexuality woven into institutional and public discourse in a manner that it had not been before? What key example of this consideration does Foucault offer?

5. On 1429-30 (“One could mention many other centers…”), What other “centers” during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, according to Foucault, started to participate in the proliferation of discourses about sex? How did one of these, criminal justice, considerably expand the range of its interests in this area? How does Foucault’s example of a male seasonal laborer in Lapcourt, France illustrate what he considers the troubling coordination among several discursive “centers” (1429) in relation to sexual infractions of any sort whatsoever?

6. On 1430-32 (“Since the eighteenth century…”), Foucault sums up the overview he has provided concerning the discourses of sex, and in the course of his remarks, he writes, “it is not simply in terms of a continual extension that we must speak of this discursive growth: it should be seen rather as a dispersion of centers from which discourses emanated…” (1431 middle). How does the excerpt we have read thus far follow that advice? In addition, compare this way of doing history with other ways that you are familiar with—why is it so important to Foucault that we not treat the events and processes of interest as simple, but rather as complex in their “genealogy” (rather than having a simple origin or a linear path of development) and effects?

Introduction, Part II: The Repressive Hypothesis, Ch. 2: The Perverse Implantation

7. On 1432-33 (“A possible objection: it would be…”), how does Foucault counter the traditionalist objection that the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries’ proliferating discourses about sex simply served the need of an economy centered on reproduction—i.e., that Europe needed more people to expand its economy at home and abroad, so the more useful and productive kinds of sex, so-called, were favored and other kinds condemned and excluded?

8. On 1433-35 top (“The discursive explosion of the eighteenth…”), according to Foucault, what two modifications occurred in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries concerning the discursive treatment of legitimate marriage? What happened, in the first instance, to the discourses surrounding heterosexual married couples? What happened, by contrast, when it came to discourses about people who did not fit into that category?

9. On 1435-36 (“What does the appearance of all these…”), in what sense, according to Foucault, was the seeming relaxation in the nineteenth century regarding punishment of certain kinds of sexual misconduct actually a “ruse” (1435) of severity? Foucault also says that what we may need to consider “is not the level of indulgence or the quantity of repression but the form of power that was exercised” (1435). What is the first of the four “operations” involved in the application of power to “peripheral sexualities,” i.e., to any kind of sexuality not contained within the category of married heterosexual love (1435)? Why is it significant, in Foucault’s analysis, that this first operation seems “always destined to fail and always constrained to begin again” (1435)?

10. On 1436-37 (“2. This new persecution of the peripheral…”), what is the second of the four operations Foucault identifies as being involved in the application of power to “peripheral sexualities”? Why, regarding this second operation, does it matter that homosexuality went from being considered an incidental act subjecting its practitioner to legal punishment to something that attached to a person’s very being and identity?

11. On 1437-38 (“3. More than the old taboos…”), what is the third of the four operations Foucault identifies as being involved in the application of power to “peripheral sexualities”? Here, what relationship between power and the supposedly illegitimate pleasure it investigates does Foucault delineate? How does the relationship between researchers, psychiatrists, doctors, etc. and the patients they study so closely lead to “not boundaries not to be crossed, but perpetual spirals of power and pleasure” (1438 top)?

12. On 1438-40 (“4. Whence those devices of sexual saturation…”), what is the last of the four operations Foucault identifies as being involved in the application of power to “peripheral sexualities”? Here, what is meant by the phrase, “devices of sexual saturation” (1438)? How does Foucault apply this concept of saturating places and disciplines with alternative sexual pleasures and desires not only to the family unit and the home but also to other places in modern society as well—schools, prisons, medical establishments, etc.? Ultimately, how does he undermine the usual reason given for Victorian-era prudishness and reticence when he says, “The growth of perversions is not a moralizing theme that obsessed the scrupulous minds of the Victorians. It is the real product of the encroachment of a type of power on bodies and their pleasures” (1439 middle)?

13. On 1440 (“We must therefore abandon the hypothesis…”), what final point does Foucault make in our selection regarding the need to stop trying to explain how power works in the area of sexuality by referring only to legal sanctions and overt “repression”? What has Foucault perhaps been suggesting all along about the manner in which power augments, spreads, and perpetuates itself in connection with human sexuality? More broadly, how does his view of power’s operations differ from more traditional conceptions of the source and workings of political, social and economic power to achieve dominance and control?

14. General question: In light of both chapter excerpts from The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, how has Michel Foucault handled literary or similar texts in pursuit of his goals as a genealogical researcher? He is not a literary critic, of course, but what model, what insights, does he offer to those interested in literature? How does his treatment of literary works differ from the approaches you have encountered thus far? Do you value Foucault’s methods more than those of more traditional scholars? Why or why not?

15. General question: Michel Foucault’s work on sexuality, while by no means accepted uncritically, has been influential in the decades since the first three volumes of his multivolume study The History of Sexuality were published (the fourth volume was published in 2018, long after his death). Briefly compare our selection from Volume 1 to selections in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism by any one author writing about gender or sexuality. To recall these authors, check Norton’s “Alternative Table of Contents,” page xxix, “Gender and Sexuality.” To what extent, and in what ways, does the work of the author you choose show influence by or affinity with Foucault’s work?

From “Society Must Be Defended”: from Chapter 11. (17 March 1976)

1. On 1440-42 (“It seems to me that one of…”), Foucault says he believes that “one of the basic phenomena of the nineteenth century was what might be called power’s hold over life” (1440). He then explains that he means essentially “State control of the biological.” How does Foucault articulate this new phenomenon respecting power over against the “classical theory of sovereignty” (1440)? What did the classical theory entail, and how is the new power scheme different in terms of what it controls and what it accomplishes? How, for example, does it transform ancient sovereignty’s right “to take life or let live” (1441) into something very different from that?

2. On 1442-44 (“Now I think we see something…”), What “new technology of power” (1442) emerges from the 1750s onward and how, according to Foucault, does it relate to and differ from the older “disciplinary techniques” (1442)? To what mass or collective phenomena does this new “biopolitics” or “biopower” (1442) apply itself in order to measure them and achieve control? In responding to this last question, consider what Foucault writes about the birth rate, death rates and illnesses, old age, accidents, and the environment (natural and human-made).

3. On 1444-45 (“In all this, a number of things are…”), What three key points does Foucault make about the significance of the advent of biopolitics in the nineteenth century? With regard to the first point, how is biopolitics different from the older “disciplines,” which “dealt with individuals and their bodies in practical terms” (1444)? What, then, does biopolitics deal with? With respect to the second key point, how does Foucault characterize the “collective phenomena” (1444) with which biopolitics involves itself? As for the third point, what does Foucault say about the kind of “mechanisms” and their attendant “functions” (1444) that come into play with biopolitics? What is the purpose of such mechanisms and functions?

4. On 1445-46 (“Beneath that great absolute power…”), Foucault again characterizes the new kind of power he has been discussing, reminding us that it is “the power of regularization, and it […] consists in making live and letting die” (1445). How does he use the example of death to illustrate the nature of this power? What does it mean to say, “Power has no control over death, but it can control mortality” (1446)? What is the point of Foucault’s inclusion of an anecdote about the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, who at age 82 and in a coma was kept on life-support machines for around three weeks?

5. On 1446-48 (“I would now like to go back to…”), Foucault returns to the task of “comparing the regulatory technology of life and the disciplinary technology of the body” (1446). How, in his view, do these technologies work together at their respective levels of the individual and the collectivity of society? Why was it historically necessary that both should come into play around the time of the Industrial Revolution? In what sense, according to Foucault, does “the rationally planned layout of the model town” (1447) for working-class people show us how the two levels of technology can work together to use, and to some extent control, individuals and whole societies?

6. On 1448-49 (“Take the very different…”), Foucault again considers the special status of human sexuality in relation to the operations of power. How does he explain why sexuality became “a field of vital strategic importance in the nineteenth century” (1448)? In what way is it an in-between phenomenon with regard to the disciplines that concern themselves with the body of a given individual and the technologies of power that concern themselves with collective affairs?

7. On 1449-50 (“We are, then, in a power…”), Foucault addresses the two paradoxes he identifies in a time when human beings live within “a power that has taken control of both the body and life or that has, if you like, taken control of life in general” (1449). What are the two paradoxes he is referring to? Ultimately, what question is Foucault posing about how the new power and its mechanisms will deal with “the power of death”—a power that seems to be beyond its otherwise vast range (1450)?

8. General question: In an excerpt from Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Leitch 1972-83; see in particular 1972-73), Giorgio Agamben contrasts Michel Foucault’s later work on biopolitics with the absence of that specific concept in Hannah Arendt’s work on totalitarianism, but also points out what he considers the strange omission by Foucault of any sustained study of the concentration camps that marked the totalitarian rule of Nazi Germany. Compare Agamben’s notion of “biopolitics” with Foucault’s analysis in our selection from “Society Must Be Defended”: to what extent has Foucault’s work apparently influenced Agamben? In addition, do you find the work of either or both authors in this vein excessively bleak in its implications for the future of politics, or do you find it appropriately realistic? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake