Hear Hours of Lectures by Michel Foucault: Recorded in English & French Between 1961 and 1983

Tucked in the after­ward of the sec­ond, 1982 edi­tion of Hubert Drey­fus and Paul Rabinow’s Michel Fou­cault: Beyond Struc­tural­ism and Hermeneu­tics, we find an impor­tant, but lit­tle-known essay by Fou­cault him­self titled “The Sub­ject and Pow­er.” Here, the French the­o­rist offers what he con­strues as a sum­ma­ry of his life’s work: span­ning 1961’s Mad­ness and Civ­i­liza­tion up to his three-vol­ume, unfin­ished His­to­ry of Sex­u­al­i­ty, still in progress at the time of his death in 1984. He begins by telling us that he has not been, pri­mar­i­ly, con­cerned with pow­er, despite the word’s appear­ance in his essay’s title, its argu­ments, and in near­ly every­thing else he has writ­ten. Instead, he has sought to dis­cov­er the “modes of objec­ti­fi­ca­tion which trans­form human beings into sub­jects.”

This dis­tinc­tion may seem abstruse, a need­less­ly wordy mat­ter of seman­tics. It is not so for Fou­cault. In key crit­i­cal dif­fer­ence lies the orig­i­nal­i­ty of his project, in all its var­i­ous stages of devel­op­ment. “Pow­er,” as an abstrac­tion, an objec­tive rela­tion of dom­i­nance, is sta­t­ic and con­cep­tu­al, the image of a tyrant on a coin, of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan seat­ed on his throne.

Sub­jec­tion, sub­jec­ti­fi­ca­tion, objec­tiviz­ing, indi­vid­u­al­iz­ing, on the oth­er hand—critical terms in Foucault’s vocabulary—are active process­es, dis­ci­plines and prac­tices, rela­tion­ships between indi­vid­u­als and insti­tu­tions that deter­mine the char­ac­ter of both. These rela­tion­ships can be locat­ed in his­to­ry, as Fou­cault does in exam­ple after exam­ple, and they can also be crit­i­cal­ly stud­ied in the present, and thus, per­haps, resist­ed and changed in what he terms “anar­chis­tic strug­gles.”

Fou­cault calls for a “new econ­o­my of pow­er rela­tions,” and a crit­i­cal the­o­ry that takes “forms of resis­tance against dif­fer­ent forms of pow­er as a start­ing point.” For exam­ple, in approach­ing the carcer­al state, we must exam­ine the process­es that divide “the crim­i­nals and the ‘good boys,’” process­es that func­tion inde­pen­dent­ly of rea­son. How is it that a sys­tem can cre­ate class­es of peo­ple who belong in cages and peo­ple who don’t, when the stan­dard ratio­nal justification—the pro­tec­tion of soci­ety from violence—fails spec­tac­u­lar­ly to apply in mil­lions of cas­es? From such excess­es, Fou­cault writes, come two “’dis­eases of power’—fascism and Stal­in­ism.” Despite the “inner mad­ness” of these “patho­log­i­cal forms” of state pow­er, “they used to a large extent the ideas and the devices of our polit­i­cal ratio­nal­i­ty.”

Peo­ple come to accept that mass incar­cer­a­tion, or inva­sive med­ical tech­nolo­gies, or eco­nom­ic depri­va­tion, or mass sur­veil­lance and over-polic­ing, are nec­es­sary and ratio­nal. They do so through the agency of what Fou­cault calls “pas­toral pow­er,” the sec­u­lar­iza­tion of reli­gious author­i­ty as inte­gral to the West­ern state.

This form of pow­er can­not be exer­cised with­out know­ing the inside of people’s minds, with­out explor­ing their souls, with­out mak­ing them reveal their inner­most secrets. It implies a knowl­edge of the con­science and an abil­i­ty to direct it.

In the last years of Foucault’s life, he shift­ed his focus from insti­tu­tion­al dis­cours­es and mechanisms—psychiatric, carcer­al, medical—to dis­ci­pli­nary prac­tices of self-con­trol and the gov­ern­ing of oth­ers by “pas­toral” means. Rather than ignor­ing indi­vid­u­al­i­ty, the mod­ern state, he writes, devel­oped “as a very sophis­ti­cat­ed struc­ture, in which indi­vid­u­als can be inte­grat­ed, under one con­di­tion: that this indi­vid­u­al­i­ty would be shaped in a new form and sub­mit­ted to a set of very spe­cif­ic pat­terns.” While writ­ing his mon­u­men­tal His­to­ry of Sex­u­al­i­ty, he gave a series of lec­tures at Berke­ley that explore the mod­ern polic­ing of the self.

In his lec­tures on “Truth and Sub­jec­tiv­i­ty” (1980), Fou­cault looks at forms of inter­ro­ga­tion and var­i­ous “truth ther­a­pies” that func­tion as sub­tle forms of coer­cion. Fou­cault returned to Berke­ley in 1983 and deliv­ered the lec­ture “Dis­course and Truth,” which explores the con­cept of par­rhe­sia, the Greek term mean­ing “free speech,” or as he calls it, “truth-telling as an activ­i­ty.” Through analy­sis of the tragedies of Euripi­des and con­tem­po­rary demo­c­ra­t­ic crises, he reveals the prac­tice of speak­ing truth to pow­er as a kind of tight­ly con­trolled per­for­mance. Final­ly, in his lec­ture series “The Cul­ture of the Self,” Fou­cault dis­cuss­es ancient and mod­ern prac­tices of “self care” or “the care of the self” as tech­nolo­gies designed to pro­duce cer­tain kinds of tight­ly bound­ed sub­jec­tiv­i­ties.

You can hear parts of these lec­tures above or vis­it our posts with full audio above. Also, over at Ubuweb, down­load the lec­tures as mp3s, and hear sev­er­al ear­li­er talks from Fou­cault in French, dat­ing all the way back to 1961.

When he began his final series of talks in 1980, the philoso­pher was asked in an inter­view with the Dai­ly Cal­i­forn­ian about the moti­va­tions for his crit­i­cal exam­i­na­tions of pow­er and sub­jec­tiv­i­ty. His reply speaks to both his prac­ti­cal con­cern for resis­tance and his almost utopi­an belief in the lim­it­less poten­tial for human free­dom. “No aspect of real­i­ty should be allowed to become a defin­i­tive and inhu­man law for us,” Fou­cault says.

We have to rise up against all forms of power—but not just pow­er in the nar­row sense of the word, refer­ring to the pow­er of a gov­ern­ment or of one social group over anoth­er: these are only a few par­tic­u­lar instances of pow­er.

Pow­er is any­thing that tends to ren­der immo­bile and untouch­able those things that are offered to us as real, as true, as good.

Read Foucault’s state­ment of intent, his essay “The Sub­ject and Pow­er,” and learn more about his life and work in the 1993 doc­u­men­tary below.

Fou­cault’s lec­ture series will be added to our col­lec­tion, 1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Michel Fou­cault and Alain Badiou Dis­cuss “Phi­los­o­phy and Psy­chol­o­gy” on French TV (1965)

Clash of the Titans: Noam Chom­sky & Michel Fou­cault Debate Human Nature & Pow­er on Dutch TV, 1971

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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