Michel Foucault


French Philosopher, Social Theorist and Historian of Ideas

Author Quotes

A progressive politics is one which recognizes the historical conditions and the specified rules of a practice, whereas other politics recognize only ideal necessities, univocal determinations, or the free play of individual initiatives.

Discourse is not life: its time is not your time; in it, you will not be reconciled to death; you may have killed God beneath the weight of all that you have said; but don't imagine that, with all that you are saying, you will make a man that will live longer than he.

A work is definitely not the form of expression of a particular individuality. The work always implies, as it were, the death of the author. One only writes in order to disappear at the same time. The work, in a way, exists on its own as the bare and anonymous flow of language... The work is composed of certain relations within language itself. It is a particular structure in the world of language, discourse and literature.

Discourses are tactical elements or blocks operating in the field of force relations; there can exist different and even contradictory discourses within the same strategy; they can, on the contrary, circulate without changing their form from one strategy to another, opposing strategy.

After all, the fact that the character of the work I have presented to you has been at the same time fragmentary, repetitive and discontinuous could well be a reflection of something one might describe as a febrile indolence - a typical affliction of those enamored of libraries, documents, reference works, dusty tomes, texts that are never read, books that are no sooner printed than they are consigned to the shelves of libraries where they thereafter lie dormant to be taken up only some centuries later. It would accord all too well with the busy inertia of those who profess an idle knowledge, a species of luxuriant sagacity, the rich hoard of the parvenus whose only outward signs are displayed in footnotes at the bottom of the page. It would accord with all those who feel themselves to be associates of one of the more ancient or more typical secret societies of the West, those oddly indestructible societies unknown it would seem to Antiquity, which came into being with Christianity, most likely at the time of the first monasteries, at the periphery of the invasions, the fires and the forests: I mean to speak of the great warm and tender Freemasonry of useless erudition.

Doctor and patient are caught up in an ever-greater proximity, bound together, the doctor by an ever-more attentive, more insistent, more penetrating gaze, the patient by all the silent, irreplaceable qualities that, in him, betray?that is, reveal and conceal?the clearly ordered forms of the disease.

And more than once in the course of time, the same theme reappears: among the mystics of the fifteenth century, it has become the motif of the soul as a skiff, abandoned on the infinite sea of desires, in the sterile field of cares and ignorance, among the mirages of knowledge, amid the unreason of the world -- a craft at the mercy of the sea's great madness, unless it throws out a solid anchor, faith, or raises its spiritual sails so that the breath of God may bring it to port.

Does there exist a pleasure in writing? I don't know. One thing is certain, that there is, I think, a very strong obligation to write. I don't really know where this obligation to write comes from... You are made aware of it in a number of different ways. For example, by the fact that you feel extremely anxious and tense when you haven't done your daily page of writing. In writing this page you give yourself and your existence a kind of absolution. This absolution is indispensable for the happiness of the day... How is it that that this gesture which is so vain, so fictitious, so narcissistic, so turned in on itself and which consists of sitting down every morning at one's desk and scrawling over a certain number of blank pages can have this effect of benediction on the rest of the day?

And then there is Le Pain Noir on Mondays. Result: every Monday is booked up... It is this which is the strength of television. People end up living according to its schedules. The news has been delayed by a quarter of an hour: well, you know that restaurants will see their diners arrive a quarter of an hour later.

Finally, there is a fourth characteristic of power - a power that, in a sense, traverses and drives those other powers. I'm thinking of an epistemological power-that is, a power to extract a knowledge from individuals and to extract a knowledge about those individuals -who are subjected to observation and already controlled by those different powers. This occurs, then, in two different ways. In an institution like the factory, for example, the worker's labor and the worker's knowledge about his own labor, the technical improvements - the little inventions and discoveries, the micro adaptations he's able to implement in the course of his labor - are immediately recorded, thus extracted from his practice, accumulated by the power exercised over him through supervision. In this way, the worker's labor is gradually absorbed into a certain technical knowledge of production which will enable a strengthening of control. So we see how there forms a knowledge that's extracted from the individuals themselves and derived from their own behavior.

As soon as you start writing, even if it is under your real name, you start to function as somebody slightly different, as a "writer". You establish from yourself to yourself continuities and a level of coherence which is not quite the same as your real life... All this ends up constituting a kind of neo-identity which is not identical to your identity as a citizen or your social identity, Besides you know this very well, since you want to protect your private life.

For centuries, let's say since Plato, the status of knowledge has been to have an essence which is fundamentally different from that of power. If you become king , you will be mad, enraged and blind. Renounce power, renounce ambition and then you will be able to contemplate truth ... Knowledge appears to be profoundly linked to a whole series of power effects. Archaeology is essentially this detection.

As the archeology of our thought easily shows, man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end.

For some people, writing a book is always taking a risk, for example the risk of not finishing it. When you know in advance where you want to get to, a dimension of the experience is missing, which consists precisely in writing a book while running the risk of not getting to the end.

Basically, I have only one object of historical study, that is the threshold of modernity. Who are we, we who speak a language such that it has powers that are imposed on us in our society as well as on other societies? What is this language which can be turned against us which we can turn against ourselves? What is this incredible obsession with the passage to the universal in Western discourse? That is my historical problem.

For us, the human body defines, by natural right, the space of origin and of distribution of disease: a space whose lines, volumes, surfaces, and routes are laid down, in accordance with a now familiar geometry, by the anatomical atlas.

But if the intellectual starts playing once again the role that he has played for a hundred and fifty years - that of prophet in relation to what "must be", to what "must take place" - these effects of domination will return and we shall have other ideologies, functioning in the same way.

From the moment that people were no longer quite sure of having a soul or that the body would return to life, more attention to mortal remains became necessary; these became the only trace of our existence in the midst of the world and in the midst of words.

In the Western imagination, reason has long belonged to terra firma. Island or continent, it repels water with a solid stubbornness: it only concedes its sand. As for unreason, it has been aquatic from the depths of time and until fairly recently. And more precisely oceanic: infinite space, uncertain ... Madness is the flowing liquid exterior of rocky reason.

Together with war [the death penalty] was for a long time the other form of the right of the sword; it constituted the reply of the sovereign to those who attacked his will, his law, or his person... As soon as power gave itself the function of administering life, its reason for being and the logic of its exercise - and not the awakening of humanitarian feelings - made it more difficult to apply the death penalty. How could power exercise its highest prerogatives by putting people to death, when its main role was to ensure, sustain and multiply life, to put this life in order? For such a power, execution was at the same time a limit, a scandal, and a contradiction. Hence capital punishment could not be maintained except by invoking less the enormity of the crime itself than the monstrosity of the criminal, his incorrigibility, and the safeguard of society. One had the right to kill those who represented a kind of biological danger to others.

I see nothing wrong in the practice of a person who, knowing more than others in a specific game of truth, tells those others what to do, teaches them and transmits knowledge and techniques to others. The problem in such practices where power ­ which is not in itself a bad thing ­ must inevitably come into play is knowing how to avoid the kind of domination effects where a kid is subjected to the arbitrary and unnecessary authority of a teacher, or a student is put under the thumb of a professor who abuses his authority. I believe this problem must be framed in terms of law, rational techniques of government and ethos, practices of the self and freedom.

Power is not something that is acquired, seized, or shared, something that one holds on to or allows to slip away; power is exercised from innumerable points, in the interplay of nonegalitarian and mobile relations.

Let us call the totality of the learning and skills that enable one to make the sign speak and to discover their meaning, hermeneutics; let us call the totality of the learning and skills that enable one to distinguish the location of the sign, to define what constitutes them as signs and to know how and by what laws they are linked, semiology: the sixteenth century superimposed hermeneutics and semiology in the form of similitude... 'Nature' is trapped in the thin layer that holds semiology and hermeneutics one above the other, it is neither mysterious nor veiled, it offers itself to our cognition, which it sometimes leads astray, only in so far as this superimposition necessarily includes a slight degree of non-coincidence between the resemblances.

If repression has indeed been the fundamental link between power, knowledge, and sexuality since the classical age, it stands to reason that we will not be able to free ourselves from it except at a considerable cost.

Alienation is no longer a psychological aberration; it is defined by a historical moment.

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French Philosopher, Social Theorist and Historian of Ideas