Student's Guide to Michel Foucault/Life

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Michel Foucault was one of the most remarkable and important figures of the 20th century. His life spanned seven decades, during which time he both experienced and exposed the workings of a complex world full of centuries-old contradictions and modern conflicts. It would be worthwhile if, one day, you were to invest in a detailed biography of Foucault; until then, you can read the following, which departs from the typical biographical sketch by specifically examining key aspects of Foucault's life that possibly influenced his thought.

Early life[edit | edit source]

Foucault was born on October 15, 1926 in the town of Poitiers, France. Poitiers is known for its medieval architecture, as seen most visibly in its churches. Of particular note is the Baptistère Saint-Jean, which dates back to the 4th century and is thus the oldest Christian church in France. Foucault's town also featured romantic cafés and beautiful gardens, which added excitement and colour to a country that had been recently devastated by the First World War. It is against this backdrop of old and new, tradition and change, that Foucault spent his earliest years.

Foucault's family was of the professional class, since both his grandfather and his father, Paul, were respected physicians. Foucalt's mother, Anne Malapert, was also the daughter of a physician. She and Paul originally named their son Paul-Michel, thus following the conventional custom of recognizing their child's lineage. Indeed, the young Foucault was encouraged to follow in his father's and grandfathers' distinguished footsteps, but he showed signs of resistance. For instance, his earliest years of schooling were not remarkable, and years of tension with his father might have led him to change his given name simply to Michel.

Studies[edit | edit source]

Conflict and success marked Foucault's adolescent years. World War II brought with it the German occupation of his hometown, and Foucault settled into his studies in Paris at both the Lycée Henri-IV and the prestigious École Normale Supérieure. He chose to study psychology and philosophy, earning a licence in the latter field under the tutelage of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. It was now 1948, and it was both a transformative and troubling time for Michel. Intellectually, he was embracing Communism, but he would reject that leftist world-view within several years. While gaining distinction as a student, his early 20s were subject to erratic behaviour, depression, and even suicide attempts. As he sought treatment for his troubled thoughts, Foucault became even more fascinated with psychology and psychopathology, and he pursued formal training in both fields by the time he turned 26 in 1952.

One could say that Foucault found himself at a crossroads in his life and career. Having acknowledged his own homosexuality at a personal level while establishing his professional reputation as a young, brilliant, and radical intellectual, he was now prepared to launch full-force into the career of ideas and political activism for which he is so celebrated today.

Career[edit | edit source]

Foucault taught, published, and otherwise connected with the world in many ways. For one, he was a resident or visiting professor at universities in over a dozen countries, including Sweden, Germany, Tunisia, Brazil, Japan, Canada, the United States, and, of course, France. The Collège de France and the University of California at Berkeley were particularly significant posts for him, both in terms of prestige at the former and the opportunity for personal fulfillment at the latter, which offered him access to the vibrant gay subculture of San Francisco. Foucault wrote nearly a dozen major book-length works, most of which are heavily represented in university syllabi in the humanities and social sciences. This is to say nothing of his other extensive writings and sayings: articles, letters, interviews, and even lecture notes that have gained both critical and popular attention. Last, but not least, was Foucault's bold and frequent involvement in political protest and activism. The student revolts of the late 1960s perhaps stood out most prominently for him, as they did for many of his contemporaries. Indeed, he spent much of the 1970s as a political activist, rallying against the injustices of the Vietnam War and the war in Algeria, among others.

Influence in Brief[edit | edit source]

An AIDS-related illness ended Foucault's life on June 25, 1984, but his influence continues to breathe life into dozens of political causes and academic disciplines. With regard to AIDS specifically, his long-time partner, Daniel Defert, started AIDES, the very first AIDS-awareness organization in France. More broadly, Foucault's writing has had tremendous repercussions in fields and institutions that are either plagued by ineffectiveness or otherwise negatively affected by the dominance of decades or centuries of conventional systems of thought. His History of Sexuality in particular has provided much of the theoretical foundation for Gay and Lesbian studies in both academia and popular activism. Those in favour of reform in institutions such as hospitals, psychiatric facilities, and jails have also drawn heavily on Foucault's work. Academics in areas such as literature, history, education, and the arts have borrowed Foucault's concepts as critical tools for research and interpretation. While some (mostly non-European) academics have criticized the relative obscurity of his research sources and his hostility to long-established (and thus, for some, well-respected) organizations, it is fair to say that Foucault has sparked a level of discussion and debate that his contemporaries have seldom been able to match.