Michel Foucault was born in Poitiers, France, on October 15, 1926. From the 1970’s on, Foucault was very active politically. He was a founder of the ‘Groupe d’information sur les prisons’ and often protested on behalf of homosexuals and other marginalized groups. An early victim of AIDS, Foucault died in Paris on June 25, 1984. In addition to works published during his lifetime, his lectures at the Collège de France, published posthumously, contain important elucidations and extensions of his ideas.


Foucault’s first major work was: ‘The History of Madness in the Classical Age’ (1961). This book originated in Foucault’s academic study of foucaultpsychology and his work in a Parisian mental hospital. A study of the emergence of the modern concept of ‘mental illness’ in Europe, ‘The History of Madness’ is formed from both Foucault’s extensive archival work and his intense anger at what he saw as the moral hypocrisy of modern psychiatry.


According to Foucault, the new idea that the mad were merely sick (“mentally” ill) and in need of medical treatment was not at all a clear improvement on earlier conceptions (e.g., the Renaissance idea that the mad were in contact with the mysterious forces of cosmic tragedy or the C17th-C18th view of madness as a renouncing of reason).


Moreover, he argued that the alleged scientific neutrality of modern medical treatments of insanity is in fact a cover for controlling challenges to a conventional bourgeois morality. In short, Foucault argued that what was presented as an objective, incontrovertible scientific discovery (that madness is mental illness) was in fact the product of eminently questionable social and ethical commitments.


‘In Discipline and Punish’ (1975) Foucault studied development of the “gentler” modern way of imprisoning criminals rather than torturing or killing them.


While recognizing the element of genuinely enlightened reform, Foucault particularly emphasizes how such reform also becomes a vehicle of more effective control: “to punish less, perhaps; but certainly to punish better”.


He further argues that the new mode of punishment becomes the model for control of an entire society, with factories, hospitals, and schools modelled on the modern prison.


To a great extent, control over people (power) can be achieved merely by observing them. So, for example, the tiered row of seats in a stadium not only makes it easy for spectators to see but also for guards or security cameras to scan the audience.


The examination (for example, of students in schools, of patients in hospitals) is a method of control that combines hierarchical observation with normalizing judgment.


It is a prime example of what Foucault calls power/knowledge, since it combines into a unified whole “the deployment of force and the establishment of truth”.


It both elicits the truth about those who undergo the examination (tells what they know or what is the state of their health) and controls their behaviour (by forcing them to study or directing them to a course of treatment).


Bentham’s Panopticon is, for Foucault, an ideal architectural model of modern disciplinary power. It is a design for a prison, built so that each inmate is separated from and invisible to all the others (in separate “cells”) and each inmate is always visible to a monitor situated in a central tower.


Monitors will not in fact always see each inmate; the point is that they could at any time. Since inmates never know whether they are being observed, they must act as if they are always objects of observation.


As a result, control is achieved more by the internal monitoring of those controlled than by heavy physical constraints.



Courtesy of Lee Bryant, Director of Sixth Form, Anglo-European School, Ingatestone, Essex