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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