An Animated Introduction to Michel Foucault, “Philosopher of Power”

Do you still need a working knowledge of the ideas of Michel Foucault to hold your own on the cocktail party circuit? Probably not, but the ideas themselves, should you bring them up there, remain as fascinating as ever. But how, apart from entering (or re-entering) grad school, to get started learning about them? Just look above: Alain de Botton’s School of Life has produced a handy eight-minute primer on the life and thought of the controversial “20th-century French philosopher and historian who spent his career forensically criticizing the power of the modern bourgeois capitalist state.”

Perhaps that sounds like a parody of the activity of a French philosopher, but if you watch, you’ll find highlighted elements of Foucault’s grand intellectual project still relevant to us today. “His goal was nothing less than to figure out how power worked,” as de Botton puts it, “and then to change it in the direction of a Marxist-anarchist utopia.” Even if you have no interest in Marxist-anarchist utopias, you’ll find much to think about in Foucault’s criticisms, summed up in the video, of institutions of power having to do with medicine, mental health, criminal justice, and sexuality — under which we all, in some form or another, still live today.

Once the School of Life has got you briefed on this wealthy altar boy (!) turned widely-polarizing, sexually avant-garde intellectual, you can get into more depth on Foucault right here on Open Culture. We’ve got his UC Berkeley lectures (in English) on “Truth and Subjectivity” and “The Culture of the Self,;” an interview with him long thought lost; a 40-minute documentary on him, and the TIME article and fanzine that got his name spreading around America. You’ll find that, though Foucault himself passed away more than thirty years ago, his observations of modern society still have an impact — and they’ll surely raise an eyebrow or two at the next office party.

Related Content:

Michel Foucault – Beyond Good and Evil: 1993 Documentary Explores the Theorist’s Controversial Life and Philosophy

The 1981 TIME Magazine Profile That Introduced Michel Foucault to America

Hear Michel Foucault Deliver His Lecture on “Truth and Subjectivity” at UC Berkeley, In English (1980)

Hear Michel Foucault’s Lecture “The Culture of the Self,” Presented in English at UC Berkeley (1983)

Watch a “Lost Interview” With Michel Foucault: Missing for 30 Years But Now Recovered

Read Chez Foucault, the 1978 Fanzine That Introduced Students to the Radical French Philosopher

Alain de Botton’s School of Life Presents Animated Introductions to Heidegger, The Stoics & Epicurus

Nietzsche, Wittgenstein & Sartre Explained with Monty Python-Style Animations by The School of Life

Colin Marshall writes on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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Comments (11)
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  • Thedeer says:

    “I have never tried to analyze anything whatsoever from the point of view of politics, but always to ask politics what it had to say about the problems with which it was confronted. I question it about the positions it takes and the reasons it gives for this; I don’t ask it to determine the theory of what I do. I am neither an adversary nor a partisan of Marxism; I question it about what it has to say about experiences that ask questions of it.”

  • Nicolás Achkar says:

    To change it in the direction of a marxist anarchist utopia? You got it all wrong!

  • alex stingl says:

    Well, after 36 seconds, I stopped the video. The claim that Foucault worked towards a Marxist, Anarchist Utopia is actively misreading Foucault. It’s not just a matter of different interpretations. This is just flat out wrong.

  • Jo Farrall says:

    I agree, it is wrong. He and Sartre had very open disagreements about Marxism and existentialism. He says that he wrote the Order of Things to escape from the Marxism that was so prevalent in the academy at the time. Sartre took this book as a direct attack on him. (Throughout his work he also says that the past was not superior, nor is the present more progressive than the past. He talks about the past to illuminate the ways discourse works within power relationships. To argue he was for a marxist utopia is to grossly misread his ideas about heterotopia.

  • Adam says:

    I stopped at “Marxist-anarchist”…

  • Morgan says:

    Not a good advertisement for the ‘School of Life’ – Foucault utterly misinterpreted and factually wrong!

  • Zaeem says:

    Unfortunate that some basic misunderstanding of F has led the narrator to claim F was, or was promoting Marxism. F’s most important contribution, in my view, Archealogy of Knowledge, is not mentioned in the presentation. Epistemology & philosophy of power are central to all of F’s work.

  • Mark says:

    You took the words right out of my mouth. I stopped the video when they said he was a utopian Marxist. He was never a utopian, and he was done flirting with Marxism by the early 70s at least.

  • Ben says:

    ‘utopian marxist anarchist’ – he was none of those things of course, singly or in combination. But the phrase carries a sense of the degree of the challenge his work represented, and overall as a very brief introduction it isn’t too bad. For me the main issue is the lack of any reference to Mots el Choses and Archaeologie de Savoir, and the tittle tattle about AIDS.

  • John Stewart says:

    His idea that hiding executions from public view was a step back that prevents people from protesting government oppression is interesting. I heard a veteran of the 1960s labor movement in Detroit talk about how factories used to be built on city streets where labor pickets could walk on the sidewalk right where the workers were going in. Nowadays, however, the factories are located in the country and the gate may be miles from the actual factory. This prevents labor from agitating to create pressure on owners.

  • Ricky says:

    Romanticising the mentally ill of the past as ‘different’ possessing ‘a kind of wisdom’ demonstrating ‘the limits of reason’ and ‘were revered’ is just nonsense. I have heard these arguments before, with claims that the mentally ill were, for example, shaman with mystical powers.
    The problem with this is that we have confirmation bias and cherry-picking examples of mentally ill persons who may have made a great contribution. And while the occasional mentally-ill person might make a valuable contribution, this ignores the many, many other mentally ill who were unable to function, who suffered, died prematurely, and who were ostracised, or worse, tortured and/or killed.
    The mental health system isn’t perfect, but pretending it was all rose-scented moonbeams during the renaissance is just bullshit. Note that the renaissance is also the period when witch burning was a popular pastime. Let’s not pretend that this wasn’t connected with madness and mental illness.
    Of course, if you are a postmodernist, it’s all subjective anyway.

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