Although I have read Michel Foucault in other classes (more so in the anthropology courses of my past), I still approached this week’s readings with a healthy amount of trepidation. Interestingly, I found myself pleasantly surprised with my reaction to Foucault this time around. Though immensely dense and at times overwhelmingly convoluted, I discovered that I actually do enjoy Foucault. I think this is due to the fact that his work is so difficult and often times difficult to get through. Perhaps I am a glutton for punishment. Call me crazy.
I had read Foucault’s take on Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon prior to this class and it is one of Foucault’s ideas that I find especially interesting. Of particular interest to me has always been Foucault’s argument that, “The practice of placing individuals under ‘observation’ is a natural extension of a justice imbued with disciplinary methods and examination procedures. Is it surprising that the cellular prison, with its regular chronologies, forced labor, its authorities of surveillance and registration, its experts in normality, who continue and multiply the functions of the judge, should have become the modern instrument of penalty? Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?” (Discipline and Punish, Panopticism). Thus, Foucault makes the connection between prisons and a slew of other institutions. Don’t kids often like to say they feel like they are in prison when they are at school? I bet they don’t know that through his work, Foucault would wholeheartedly agree.
I also felt that the article by Patricia O’Brien within Lynn Hunt’s book, The Cultural History was especially interesting. In fact, I had no idea that Foucault was so shunned by historians at one time. Indeed, in relaying Foucault’s rocky past with historians O’Brien writes, “Michel Foucault’s reception by historians has been troubled and contentious” (27) and that interestingly, Foucault maintained that his works were “…not the work of an ‘historian’” (28), which most likely angered his critics even more. And lastly, “Foucault’s perceived marginality as a historian gave way in the 1970s to a grudging recognition of the historical aspects of his work” (28). I also found myself wondering: were historians highly critical of him simply because he was not a historian? Do we historians still treat non-historians in a similar vein? Or did historians dislike him because, “Foucault’s controversial work stands as an alternative approach in the new history of culture…Foucault questioned the very principle implicit in all social history: that society itself is the reality to be studied” (27)?
Ultimately, near the end of “Michel Foucault’s History of Culture,” O’Brien argues, “He sought to undermine the assumptions of a discipline that still ghettoizes histories of women, homosexuals, and minorities, a discipline that still understands power, for the most part, as an attribute of a nation or class. Although Foucault was blind to gender as an analytic category, his method of studying power through discourse holds great promise for work in this area” (45). I thought this to be a rather bold statement. Do we, as historians, still “ghettoize” women, homosexuals, and minorities? (This book was published in 1989, the year I was born!) I would hope that we are moving far from the days of the “great man history” or the white man’s history. Clearly, though, this particular chapter within Hunt’s book is suggesting otherwise. I will be interested to hear what my colleagues have to say about this statement as well…