Sunday, September 19, 2021

Foucault (1926 - 84) - Structuralism

Michel Foucault had an enormous impact on critical theory and because of this, education as taught in Universities. From the 1980s onwards his ideas infused everything, apart from actual practice. As one of the structuralist Gang of Four, with Levi-Strauss, Barthes and Lacan, he is difficult to pigeon-hole, as his writing is often obtuse, abstruse and conceptually difficult. Despite this and recent revelations of paedophilia, he remains a towering figure in critical theory as expressed in the structuralist movement.


Foucault’s archaeology of culture uncovers power structures, ‘epistemes’ that dominate, define and control all knowledge. The individual, their movements, behaviours, interests, desires and even bodies are merely the subject of imposed, oppressive, power relationships. Cultural relativism emerges as individuals are subsumed and emerge as oppressors and the oppressed. Foucault sees philosophy as in need of the decolonisation of even time, space and subjectivity, through the wholescale rejection of Eurocentric norms and language. This postmodern destruction of boundaries led to cultural relativism, certain forms of language as epistemically constructive and power plays between groups, not individuals or universal principles. It places gender, race and other distinctions into cultural contexts where the application of power socially constructs and uses language to oppress certain groups. 

Discipline and Punish

His early interest in mental illness and psychiatry led to the book Madness and Civilisation (19XX). This fits into the Critical Theory tradition of seeing society as pathological. But it is in Discipline and Punish (19XX) that the idea of ‘training’, in the wider sociological sense of the word, is exposed as stages of domination in society, moving into schools and systems of education. Learning becomes institutionalised through a shadow form of monastic enclosure, where the architecture of the school follows that of the Panopticon prison. Supervision and the serial delivery of classes in separate rooms, marching from one room to another room, with teachers policing the formal restrictions of movement and behaviour, result in strictly timetabled control. Designed for prescriptive supervision, the building is a ’pedagogical machine’ that reduces the individual to a documented object. Examinations bring this form of supervision to a head, with the labeling of subjects before release.


This shift to seeing education in terms of power relations has been influential. Yet in a democracy, where citizens vote on the major issues of the economy, health and education, the idea that everyone is deluded into playing the role of imprisoned lackeys, seems far-fetched. Critical thinking when expressed at this level seems to tip over into abstruse political theory disassociated from the reality, wishes and needs of most people. Additionally, it sets up a form of intellectual snobbery, where academics see themselves as the true arbiters of what is important and what is emancipatory.

Few solutions are offered in his critiques. This is a general problem in Critical Theory. Foucault’s idea of power is problematic in being relentlessly negative, the exercise of oppression, not liberation. It is all very well drawing parallels between prisons and schools, and there is some wisdom in being sceptical about the formalities of supervision and Victorian architecture, however, most want to see sensible behaviour management and the applications of restrictions necessary for attention and education. To caricature school supervision as ideologically driven punishment, is just that,  a caricature. 

Foucault’s idea of power, a core concept in critical theory and structuralism, is that it is always assumed to be a deficit or negative, a flow of oppression. Yet power, in both politics and education, can be used positively, to free and liberate. The problem with de-anchoring everything is that you also de-anchor yourself and your own theories, setting everything adrift.


His influence on modern thought, philosophy and critical theory in academia is undoubtedly enormous. His influence on educational and learning theory is, however,  oft quoted but minimal and seldom applied. After his death in 1984 his reputation was strengthened as critical theory became a dominant force in the humanities, especially in degrees which critics jokingly call ‘Grievance Studies’. While recent theorists on feminism, gender studies, queer theory (Butler), race, post-colonialism (Said, Spivak) and, even Fat studies (Bacon), all draw on Foucault’s epistemic relativism, theorists in Critical Race Theory and Feminim, such as Angela Harris and Kimberle Crenshaw, have at least been consistent in rejecting Foucault and Derrida, which would have shocked them, as prime examples of oppressive white men and Eurocentric theory.


Foucault M. Madness and Civilisation: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, 1961.Abridged; translated by R. Howard. London: Tavistock (1965)

Foucault M. Archaeology of Knowledge 1961. Translated by A.M. Sheridan Smith. London: Routledge (2002)

Foucault M. Discipline and Punish  The Birth of the Prison 1971

Foucault M. The History of Sexuality 1976 - 84 Vol I: The Will to Knowledge, Vol II: The Use of Pleasure, Vol III: The Care of the Self, Vol IV: The Confessions of the Flesh

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