What Would Michel Foucault Think of Social Media, Fake News & Our Post Truth World?

Dur­ing the late 70s, Michel Fou­cault gave a series of lec­tures at the Col­lege de France in which he defined the con­cept of biopol­i­tics, an idea Rachel Adams calls “polit­i­cal ratio­nal­i­ty which takes the admin­is­tra­tion of life and pop­u­la­tions as its sub­ject.” These ideas have come to have even more res­o­nance in the spread of bio­met­ric iden­ti­fi­ca­tion sys­tems and mil­i­ta­rized pop­u­la­tion con­trol poli­cies.

Fou­cault begins his lec­ture series on biopol­i­tics with an account of the birth of Neolib­er­al­ism, the engi­neered pri­va­ti­za­tion of pub­lic goods and ser­vices and the con­cen­tra­tion of cap­i­tal and pow­er into the hands of a few. “Every­thing I do,” he once said, “I do in order that it might be of use.” What would he have to say about the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion? asks the BBC video above, a polit­i­cal land­scape per­me­at­ed by fake news, accu­sa­tions of fake news, and the gen­er­al admis­sion that we are now “post truth”?

In some sense, Fou­cault, argued, we have always lived in such a world—not one in which real news and actu­al truth did not exist, but in which we are con­di­tioned through lan­guage to adopt ide­o­log­i­cal per­spec­tives that may have lit­tle to do with fact. What counts as knowl­edge, Fou­cault showed, gets authen­ti­cat­ed to serve the inter­ests of pow­er. Lat­er in his career, he saw more space for resis­tance and self-trans­for­ma­tion emerge in pow­er relations—and he would have seen such spaces in social media too, the video claims.

After his infa­mous acid trip in Death Val­ley, Fou­cault report­ed­ly (and self-report­ed­ly) returned a changed man, with a much less gloomy, claus­tro­pho­bic out­look. The ear­li­er Fou­cault may have empha­sized the total­iz­ing mech­a­nisms of sur­veil­lance and con­trol in social media, per­haps to the exclu­sion of any poten­tial for lib­er­a­tion. The video doesn’t make these dis­tinc­tions between ear­ly and late or give us much in the way of a his­to­ry of his thought, though it acknowl­edges how crit­i­cal­ly impor­tant his­to­ry was to Fou­cault him­self.

We can’t know that he would say any of the things attrib­uted to him here. He was a con­trar­i­an thinker, who “didn’t believe in all-embrac­ing the­o­ries to explain the world,” the nar­ra­tor admits. Per­haps he would have seen social media as tech­ni­cal elab­o­ra­tion of biopow­er: har­vest­ing per­son­al data, track­ing everyone’s loca­tion, get­ting us all to watch each oth­er. Or as a ver­sion of Jere­my Ben­tham’s panop­ti­con, in which we nev­er know when some­one’s watch­ing us, so we inter­nal­ize the con­trol sys­tem. These are some of the pris­ons, Fou­cault might say, that appear under regimes of “secu­ri­ty, ter­ri­to­ry, pop­u­la­tion.”

The video fea­tures Ang­ie Hobbs, Pro­fes­sor of Pub­lic Under­stand­ing of Phi­los­o­phy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Sheffield.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Michel Fou­cault and Noam Chom­sky Debate Human Nature & Pow­er on Dutch TV (1971)

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

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

When Michel Fou­cault Tripped on Acid in Death Val­ley and Called It “The Great­est Expe­ri­ence of My Life” (1975)

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

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.