Today our goal is to situate Michel Foucault within the larger context of his critical theory peers to better understand the necessity of reading his works.  Our main focus will be to define postmodern and post-structural.  Post-modern originally comes out of the framework of aesthetics (such as abstract expressionism or existentialism as well as modern architecture) and critique of nineteenth-century sensibilities about the rational subject.  Thus, it was an artistic movement that sought to transform the stable positions enacted by the artist in a privileged position of knowledge—that privileged position somehow understood the human mind / spirit.  Thus, embedded in modernist art (and philosophy) is an idea of an archetype of humanity.  Taken outside the framework of art, "modernism" as a philosophical model imposes certain "truths" of humanity onto history.  It is up to the historian / philosopher / critic to expose those truths and explain human development and societal interactions.  The critique against modernism (by those called "postmodernists") in part is based on a belief that it is impossible to find "the truth" to society.  Embedded in this critique, they point to specific intellectual trends within existentialism, Marxism, Freudianism and semiotics.  Most specifically, it has been argued that postmodern critiques attack Marxist economic models of class struggle and the underlying social structures that develop human societies (i.e. base / superstructure model).

Post-structuralism fits within this framework because it levies an attack against the hegemony of western philosophy, especially that rooted in Enlightenment ideals.  In leveling this attack, it operates as critical theory—that is, as a radical philosophy seeking social change.  According to on literary discussion of the distinction between modernism and postmodernism in literature:

But--while postmodernism seems very much like modernism in these ways, it differs from modernism in its attitude toward a lot of these trends. Modernism, for example, tends to present a fragmented view of human subjectivity and history (think of The Wasteland, for instance, or of Woolf's To the Lighthouse), but presents that fragmentation as something tragic, something to be lamented and mourned as a loss. Many modernist works try to uphold the idea that works of art can provide the unity, coherence, and meaning which has been lost in most of modern life; art will do what other human institutions fail to do. Postmodernism, in contrast, doesn't lament the idea of fragmentation, provisionality, or incoherence, but rather celebrates that. The world is meaningless? Let's not pretend that art can make meaning then, let's just play with nonsense.

            (Mary Klages, lecture on Postmodernism1)

Since the ideas of modernism coincide with ideas about the Enlightenment subject (or the earlier ideas of humanism found from the Renaissance on), the basic premise of its critique is situated in concepts of knowledge and truth.  Hence, theories of knowledge from the modern period (i.e. late eighteenth to nineteenth centuries) noted a trajectory of human knowledge and social development.

Thus, the postmodern aesthetic seeks to unravel that order, to establish the unmeaning in meaning, to shunt to the side the concepts of the subject and the individual embedded in teleological stories of "modernization."  How does it do so and where does Foucault fit into all of this?

Post-structuralism is intertwined with postmodern thought and is one of many intellectual traditions working to dismantle the metanarrative of Western historiography.  Both terms and attitudes can trace a general lineage back to France and specifically to the uprisings in French society resulting in the student and labor protests of May and the summer of 1968.  Anyone sitting in this class today should at least understand the basic intellectual starting point of post-structuralism…the semiotics of Fernand de Saussure and the anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss.  Both were STRUCTURALISTS who articulated a "closed system" (HOH 298) that is formulaic…readily understood by a viewer and readily unpacked and applied to other societies.  Even though both Saussure and Lévi-Strauss critiqued certain frameworks of universalism, their systems for understanding human communities reinforce ideas of some universal truth "out there."  Even with Saussure's recognition that signs have their meaning only through community agreement, there is an element of essentialism because those signs are fixed and in many respects get their meanings by that which they are not (negative value).  Post-structuralists argue against such reductionism, and argue that meaning is not inherent or necessarily rational.  In fact, meaning is embedded in instability.  For p/s language is the force that creates and maintains the world (now, going back to the class struggle talked about above, you can see how this might trouble those who argue that there is some material base which uphold the intangible elements of society).  As a result, meaning exists only in a plurality, and loses its hegemonic position established by the modernists.  Hence, we're back to the need to undermine the grand narratives of total history.  According to Mary Klages, "Totality, and stability, and order, Lyotard argues, are maintained in modern societies through the means of "grand narratives" or "master narratives," which are stories a culture tells itself about its practices and beliefs. A "grand narrative" in American culture might be the story that democracy is the most enlightened (rational) form of government, and that democracy can and will lead to universal human happiness. Every belief system or ideology has its grand narratives, according to Lyotard; for Marxism, for instance, the "grand narrative" is the idea that capitalism will collapse in on itself and a utopian socialist world will evolve. You might think of grand narratives as a kind of meta-theory, or meta-ideology, that is, an ideology that explains an ideology (as with Marxism); a story that is told to explain the belief systems that exist."

While there are many critical theorists, such as Francois Lyotard mentioned above, who work in the business of destabilizing the grand narrative, Foucault is the one most often associated with historians (see for example, HOH 301).  In part this is because the body of Foucault's work resonates with the concerns historians have traditionally held of unraveling the power systems at work in post-IR society.  By using Foucault's roadmap of the "fissures" of society, historians have been able to articulate the disjunctures (i.e. paradigm shifts from one episteme to another) present in the transition from pre-modern to modern and CONSEQUENTLY to problematize the very notion and understanding of modernity itself.

 Discourse is perhaps most nicely defined in Joan Scott's "Deconstructing Equality-versus-Difference."2 In this article, Scott first goes through the major theoretical terms (deconstruction, language, difference, discourse) defining their use by various theorists, then explores those theories through the lens of the Sears Case regarding women's equal employment opportunities. She states:

a discourse is not a language or a text but a historically, socially, and institutionally specific structure of statements, terms, categories, and beliefs. Foucault suggests that the elaboration of meaning involves conflict and power, that meanings are locally contested within discursive 'fields of force,' that (at least since the Enlightenment) the power to control a particular field resides in claims to (scientific) knowledge embodied not only in writing but also in disciplinary and professional organizations, in institutions (hospitals, prisons, schools, factories), and in social relationships (doctor/patient, teacher/students, employer/worker, parent/child, husband/wife). Discourse is thus contained or expressed in organizations and institutions as well as in words; all of these constitute texts or documents to be read (Scott 35).

The question may remain in some minds: "what does this have to do with history?" The answer is easy for those who accept theory's position within historical thinking. It is important to recognize that Foucault's work, like most work in critical theory, is not constrained by one discipline, but is profoundly, inherently interdisciplinary. This can be disconcerting for historians used to the traditional "grand narrative." How can someone who writes about deviant psychological behavior have any relevance to history? There is, believe it or not, a rather large sub-field called "psycho-history" that explores psychological issues in history.

Michel Foucault postulated numerous ways to re-think and resituate the past that destabilize our preconceived concepts of boundaries and "change over time." His History of Sexuality, volume 1 clearly articulates HOW we can use his particular concepts of "the gaze", "power" and the "repressive hypothesis" to better understand the particular society that existed in nineteenth-century Europe. He states that some call it "bourgeois society" (p. ); whatever we choose to call it, he argues, there were mechanisms they put in place to assert their own positions--a hygienic world that controlled populations--and consequently established an empire at the fin de siecle. In other words, the intersection of a certain kind of discourse (scientific--that lent itself to a kind of "truth is out there" phenomenon) with economic development put in motion a society radically different from the one preceding it (Classiscal Age). Historians have taken Foucault's theories as methods for their own examination of the past--the field increasingly explored the past on its own terms and not in some teleological fashion. Historians can thank Foucault in large part for this remapping of the past. Additionally, ideas of self-discipline and the gaze--of being conscious that we are always under surveillance even in the confines of our own privacy--shapes how we interact with others and how we develop policies.

In the end, we study Foucault because to not study Foucault is to ignore some of the basic foundational components of cultural history. If we are to truly understand the cultural umbrella, if we are to be responsible historians, we need to accept poststructuralism as transformative in our perceptions of the problems of modernity, the problems of the whiggish interpretation of the past, the problems of the terminal ends of power arguing that they are power itself. You need at least to be conscious of philosophies that posit radical transformation both of society and the historical method if you are going to be able to substantiate your own methodological positions.

Major works / authors we will not cover:

Jacques Derrida (deconstruction)(1930-2004)—Of Grammatology (1967)—in this work, Derrida put forth the idea of difference (this is not difference, btw).  Différance was built from rereading Saussure's Course in General Linguistics and locating the connections that  Saussure unconsciously made between spoken and written language.  While spoken language was the focus of Saussure's work, written language also played a pivotal role in establishing meaning.  He plays off of Saussure's idea of Différence and shows Saussure's problems very literally on the written page.  Both are pronounced exactly the same way, but can only be truly distinguished through the written word.  We can only know the meaning of that word in context—thus the meaning is "deferred" until the entire syntagm (how we understand language) is constructed.  Derrida takes his syntagmatic discussion of the traces that each syntagm holds to entire texts and argues that they bare traces of other texts whether we consciously recognize them or not.


Jacques Lacan (psychoanalysis)(1901-1981) —Lacan put forth a new way of understanding the human self, especially one's particular sex-role.  In Lacanian psychoanalysis, we are constituted as subjects through representation of ourselves within an already extant system.  Our unconscious, onto which we build our identities and self-referential frameworks, closely resembles language, and language "is the precondition for the act of becoming aware of oneself as a distinct entity" (Sarup 8).3

1. Mary Klages, "Postmodernism," from Modern Critical Thought, University of Colorado, (accessed 8 September 2006)

2. Joan Scott, "Deconstructing Equality-versus-Difference: Or, the Uses of Poststructuralist Theory for Feminism," Feminist Studies 14/1 (1988): 32-50.

 3. Madan Sarup, Introductory Guide to Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism (Atlanta: University of Georgia Press, 1993).