On the separate Why Foucault? page, in a hopefully user-friendly move, I try to explain the ways in which Foucault is useful and relevant by the sympathetic means of admitting how, when I was an undergraduate, I couldn't really understand why people seemed to think he was useful and relevant. You can also see how Foucault fits into queer theory, see reviews of some Foucault-related books, read essays on Foucault, and gaze at Foucault's Paris.
You can also see the results of our competition to find a one-sentence definition of "technologies of the self". But first...
The brief and oversimplified intro to Foucault
We often talk about people as if they have particular attributes as 'things' inside themselves -- they have an identity, for example, and we believe that at the heart of a person there is a fixed and true identity or character (even if we're not sure that we know quite what that is, for a particular person). We assume that people have an inner essence -- qualities beneath the surface which determine who that person really 'is'. We also say that some people have (different levels of) power which means that they are more (or less) able to achieve what they want in their relationships with others, and society as a whole.
Foucault rejected this view. For Foucault, people do not have a 'real' identity within themselves; that's just a way of talking about the self -- a discourse. An 'identity' is communicated to others in your interactions with them, but this is not a fixed thing within a person. It is a shifting, temporary construction.
People do not 'have' power implicitly; rather, power is a technique or action which individuals can engage in. Power is not possessed; it is exercised. And where there is power, there is always also resistance.
That's a really boiled-down version of one or two big ideas that people take from Foucault's later works. Foucault developed different approaches for his different studies, but his work can be simplistically divided into 'early' Foucault, where he worked on the ways in which state power and discourses worked to constrain people, and 'later' Foucault (from the mid-1970s to his death from an AIDS-related illness in 1984), in which that idea of power as a 'thing' is broken down, and it is instead seen as a more fluid relation, a 'technique' which can be deployed. It is this latter part of his work which primarily concerns us here.
Since (as I explain further in 'Why Foucault?') Foucault didn't really go for making clear statements of his 'argument', even some of the basic claims above are open to other people coming along and saying "I hardly think that Foucault would have wanted you to feel that he was saying that...". But in the real world you've just got to have the courage to say "I got this from Foucault". Or just can mutter about "Foucauldian ideas" in a defensive way; you choose. Some people hide behind long words and potentially meaningless phrases when discussing French philosophers, but others feel that if you're genuinely clever you don't do that. Again: your choice.
See the results of our competition to find a one-sentence definition of "technologies of the self".
(Most titles have been republished by other publishers at later dates).
Foucault: selected later works
Foucault, Michel (1978 [French publication: 1976]), The History of Sexuality, Vol. I: An Introduction, translated by Robert Hurley, Pantheon, New York.
Foucault, Michel (1985 ), The Use of Pleasure: The History of Sexuality, Vol. II, translated by Robert Hurley, Pantheon, New York.
Foucault, Michel (1986 ), The Care of the Self: The History of Sexuality, Vol. III, translated by Robert Hurley, Pantheon, New York.
Foucault, Michel (1980), Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, edited by Colin Gordon, Harvester, London. (See in particular 'The Confession of the Flesh' [interview, 1977]).
Foucault, Michel (1988), Politics, Philosophy, and Culture: Interviews and Other Writings, 1977-1984, edited by M. Morris and P. Patton, Routledge, New York.
Rabinow, Paul, ed. (1985), The Foucault Reader, Pantheon, New York.
Foucault: the earlier works
These include Madness and Civilization (1961), The Birth of the Clinic (1963), The Order of Things (1966), The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969), Discipline and Punish (1975). The dates given here are for the first, French publication of each title.
Some recommended material on Foucault
Bristow, Joseph (1997), 'Discursive Desires' in Sexuality, Routledge, London.
Sarup, Madan (1996), 'Foucault: Sex and the Technologies of the Self', in Identity, Culture and the Postmodern World, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh
Gutting, Gary (1994), 'Michel Foucault: A user's manual', in Gutting, Gary, ed., A Cambridge Companion to Foucault, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Halperin, David M. (1994), Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography, Oxford University Press, New York.
Segal, Lynne (1997), 'Sexualities', in Woodward, Kathryn, ed., Identity and Difference, Sage, London.
Fillingham, Lydia Alix & Susser, Moshe (1993), Foucault for Beginners, Writers and Readers Publishing, New York.
Horrocks, Chris, & Jevtic, Zoran (1997), Foucault for Beginners, Icon Books, Cambridge.
Bibliographic fun fact
In the kind of sense that the movie Star Wars is really
called Star Wars IV: A New Hope, Foucault's book The History of Sexuality,
Vol. I: An Introduction is really called The History of Sexuality, Vol.
I: The Will to Knowledge.
These links are to other sites. Obviously, we recommend you finish wandering round the resources page of this one first.