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Website by
David Gauntlett.
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What's interesting about
Michel Foucault?

On this page, 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. This follows on from the introduction and links page. 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.

The stuff they don't tell you: Some personal thoughts on Foucault

It's not my intention to 'get' you [students] to come to share my view of Foucault -- I'm not even that sure that I have a clear, singular view on the subject anyway. But it is quite hard to get into, and so I thought I'd share some thoughts on the subject because when I was an undergraduate I couldn't really understand what all the fuss was about with Foucault. So I'll talk about that first.

1. My problems with Foucault, when I was an undergraduate

Foucault's works all seemed to me, when I was a student, to be these largely descriptive, historical accounts of things, from which it was not at all clear what Foucault himself thought about the things he was describing, and he never seemed to make anything resembling an argument. The closest one got to that was on the back cover of the paperback editions, where you would be told that "In this seminal work, Foucault shows..." -- and you'd tend to think, "Oh, does he?". Other academic texts would always be telling you that Foucault had argued this and that, but it wasn't very clear where or how.

The other really annoying thing was that when explaining or discussing Foucault, people would enthuse about his idea that power is everywhere, power runs in and through all relationships and interactions, and so on, which sounded fine, but also didn't seem to really mean anything in particular. Which brings us to the next point.

2. Why do (some) academics think Foucault's 'model of power' is good?

One of the key things to remember when trying to understand Foucault's ideas about power, and why they amount to anything, is what that model is in opposition to. Old models of power, which includes the older versions of newish things like feminism, would always tend to argue that power was held exclusively by dominant groups in society -- for Marxists, power could only be exercised by the rich ruling class who owned the means of production; and for feminists, power was something held by men. These kinds of models would also have to rely on stable and clear-cut ideas of identities: no confusions as to whether people are ruling class or workers, male or female, straight or gay. Foucauldian work runs against all this, suggesting that it's silly to reckon that power will somehow be possessed by certain people and not at all held, in any way, by others. Instead, power is something which can be used and deployed by particular people in specific situations, which itself will produce other reactions and resistances; and isn't tied to specific groups or identities. Which makes sense. And fits in well with developments in theories such as feminism, where it has been noted that 'women' are (obviously) not one unified group, as radical feminists had suggested, and that a white middle-class woman, say, will have much less in common with a poor woman in the Third World than that woman's male friends.

This kind of thing seems to pull the carpet from under radical theories which we would normally like, for being on the side of the underdog and opposed to social domination -- and indeed it can seem quite reactionary to be going 'Oh, boo! You can't say that there are dominant groups like that!' -- but then again, in your heart of hearts you really can't, so it makes sense; and it doesn't actually kill feminism or Marxism, it just forces them to become more interesting, complex and realistic.

3. Why I now, therefore, consider Foucault and Judith Butler and queer theory to be powerful, liberating approaches (for what it's worth)

I like the idea that identities aren't fixed, that power differences change in different situations, that your destiny and power and life are not determined by a few supposedly descriptive 'facts' about yourself such as gender, class, ethnicity, age and so on. I much prefer the idea that these are relevant but don't determine anything; that's it's more to do with how individuals choose to behave and to utilise techniques available to them. This is a more attractive model of how the world is in personal terms -- because nothing is fixed, people are not limited into 'roles' -- and also, in a way that's not wholly separate, in theoretical terms, because it simply makes more sense. So it's cool.

This idea of identity as free-floating, as not connected to an 'essence', but instead more of a performance given to the world, is one of the key ideas in queer theory, particularly as developed by Judith Butler; those links will tell you more about that.

And if you are asking what has this got to do with media and communications studies? then, again, follow the links on queer theory and Judith Butler. Foucault started it. And it ends up at "semiotic warfare". Oh yes.

 


This text on Foucault is copyright © David Gauntlett, 1998. I say that just in case I want to use any of it in a book one day.


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