Public Intellectuals: Michel Foucault | Cassandra Voices

Public Intellectual Series: Michel Foucault


I wrote what follows prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, and have been prompted to re-read all of Michel Foucault’s work, including his lectures and digressions. It seems to me that the following is worth emphasizing:

  1. The concept of the Panopticon, Foucault borrowed from Jeremy Bentham is increasingly prominent in the wake of this virus that has accelerated the introduction of a system of mass surveillance.
  2. Inappropriate behavior is being re-defined to encompass ordinary sociability, while once cherished liberties are easily forgotten. A state of derealisation is upon us.
  3. Madness may now be redefined, leading to detention under draconian (anti-terror) laws for anyone perceived as deviant, subversive or even non-conformist in an ever-narrowing consensus. People who do not behave, act or dress in a specific way are now labelled ‘mad’. People who oppose draconian laws are ‘mad’. Maybe even human rights lawyers will be locked up.
  4. The media and other vectors of public opinion manage the message to ensure compliance and control.
  5. The concept of punishment has been internalized as a regime of prolonged social distancing and self-isolation undermines humanistic instincts. An ever more compliant and fearful population will welcome the Panopticon.

David Langwallner, July, 2020.


I have previously quoted a passage from Noam Chomsky, which acutely surveys the post-structuralist origins of our present Post-Truth condition. These words are worth recalling once again:

There are lots of things I don’t understand – say, the latest debates over whether neutrinos have mass or the way that Fermat’s last theorem was (apparently) proven recently. But from 50 years in this game, I have learned two things: (1) I can ask friends who work in these areas to explain it to me at a level that I can understand, and they can do so, without particular difficulty; (2) if I’m interested, I can proceed to learn more so that I will come to understand it. Now Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, etc. — even Foucault, whom I knew and liked, and who was somewhat different from the rest — write things that I also don’t understand, but (1) and (2) don’t hold: no one who says they do understand can explain it to me and I haven’t a clue as to how to proceed to overcome my failures. That leaves one of two possibilities: (a) some new advance in intellectual life has been made, perhaps some sudden genetic mutation, which has created a form of ‘theory’ that is beyond quantum theory, topology, etc., in depth and profundity; or (b) … I won’t spell it out.[i]

A point worth emphasis from the thinly disguised contempt he displays towards this deceitful movement is Chomsky’s regard for Michel Foucault as “different from the rest” – a superior calibre of intellect to the rest. A hedged concession admittedly, but one I happen to share.

Alone among Post-Modernists, Foucault’s methodology was empiricist and historicist. Rather than relying on incomprehensible prose and bizarre generalisation he adopted inductive reasoning. As an historian of ideas, we don’t simply find him inventing absurd abstractions, but analysing real, existing data.

Foucault’s ‘critical philosophy’ undermines universalist claims by exhibiting how they are the outcome of contingent historical forces, and are not scientifically grounded realities

Madness and Civilisation

In Madness and Civilisation, (1961, Librairie Plon) Foucault examines conventional understandings of mental illness, arguing madness and reason are categories first developed in Enlightenment thought. He sees madness as a product of the Age of Reason, the excluded ‘Other’ against which reason defines itself.

His thesis is that the practice of confining the mad is a transformation of the medieval practice of confining lepers in lazar houses, an institutional structure of confinement already in place when the modern concept of madness as a disease emerged, even if confining those defined as such to institutions was a break with the past.

Focusing on this transitional period, Foucault argues that in its infancy, or nascence, reason is a concept that defines itself in opposition to an ‘other’ of madness.

As he explains:

What is originate is the caesura that establishes the distance between reason and non-reason; reason’s subjugation of non-reason, wresting from it its truth as madness, crime, or disease, derives explicitly from this point.

Thus truth of reason is found where madness arrives in place of non-reason, and differences are defined in terms of oppositions. Thus, the meaning of reason is defined by the meaning of madness.

Foucault argues that if we are to insist upon reason we must not be mad, and so protect ourselves from what we are not. He notes that the confinement of the mad in asylums is a product of the mid-seventeenth century, and that it is no coincidence that the process of confinement developed in conjunction with the Age of Reason. Thus madness operated as an ‘other’ to reason, and as products of Enlightenment thought.

For Foucault: ‘[M]madness was an invention, a product of social relations and not an independent reality.’[ii]

Of course that point can be expanded to our present age, with concepts of rationality and ideas on mental health shifting, augmented by social media, message management and outright thought control. The paradigm shift is towards an all-consuming neo-liberalism, and conformity reconfiguring human identity itself. Soon, I fear, even moderate liberalism might be deemed mad, recalling Chile in the 1970s, or even 1930s Germany.

In my practice as a London-based barrister, increasingly, I find clients in disassociated and decrealised states. Social alienation is leading many to perceive themselves as passive onlookers in lives not truly their own. The ills of social dissatisfaction and structural curtailment of achievement leading to moderate or even severe depression.

The unrealisable expectations of consumerism and its unattainable objects is creating individual neurosis and psychosis. In essence, pervasive neo-liberalism fosters madness.

Forms of social sanitation and indeed sexual sanitation coupled with an excessive political correctness are thus criminalising deviant behaviour. We live at a time when judgment on those who are essentially normal is handed down by deviants; a spectator democracy where people have lost ownership of their lives. It’s as if we are in the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre of Alduous Huxley’s Brave New World.

Discipline and Punish

In his other crucial text Discipline and Punish, (Gallimard, 1975) Foucault examines punishment through the ages, arguing that torture has simply been reconceived.

He raises ever more pressing doubts about the hidden costs of a penal style that avoids visible coercion, instead seeking to transform ‘the heart, the thoughts, the will, the inclinations.’ Thus efforts to institute ‘less cruelty, less suffering, more gentleness, more respect, more humanity,’ have, according to Foucault, had the perverse effect of reinventing the entirety of modern society along the lines of a prison, imposing ever subtler, and insidiously punishing discipline. Not just on convicts, but also on soldiers, on workers, on students. Even the various professionals trained to supervise disciplinary institutions are not spared its effects. Corrective technologies of the individual have been refined, producing a double effect: a soul to be known and a subjection to be maintained.

At the core of Foucault’s picture of modern ‘disciplinary’ society are three primary techniques of control: hierarchical observation; normalising judgment; and the examination. Thus, to a great extent, control over people is exerted merely by observing them.

Further, modern disciplinary control is often concerned with a person’s failure to meet a required standard and in order to correct deviant behaviour. The impetus is not revenge, but reform, encouraging the individual to live by the dominant norms of society. Thus the phenomenon of normalisation is intrinsic to our society, e.g. national educational standards, standards-driven approval for drugs et al. It is encountered especially in control over whatever is perceived as excessively libertarian, including sexually ‘promiscuous’ lifestyles.

The norm itself may of course be perverse.

Foucault contends that as people are examined in schools and hospitals control is exercised over them in hierarchical fashion, with the application of normalising judgment. This is what he terms power/knowledge, which combines into a unified whole: ‘the deployment of force and the establishment of truth.’

Further, force or control elicits ‘truth’ from those undergoing examination in conjunction with exercising controls over their behaviour. Knowledge is thus an instrument of power, and the goals of power and the goals of knowledge cannot be separated from knowing we control, and in controlling what we know.

Yet the problem often lies with the knowers who know, but do not turn the lens on themselves.

Google and Facebook now exercise control, not in top down fashion, but through a levelling user-generated mediocrity, where personal data is mined in order to influence consumer and political choices in a networked society, as they remould what it means to be an individual.

The Panopticon

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault is heavily influenced by Jeremy Bentham’s idea of the panopticon. Bentham imagined a glass prison in which prisoners were under continuous surveillance, and argued that by applying perpetual inspection to prisons, schools, factories and hospitals one might harmoniously co-ordinate self-interest and social duty. To Bentham this would lead to ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number,’ even if are turned into automatons: ‘Call them soldiers, call them monks, call them machines: so they were but happy ones, I should not care.’

Bentham’s Panopticon is, for Foucault, an ideal architectural model for modern disciplinary power in that each inmate is visible to a central power, and can be seen at any time. With inmates assuming their every act is witnessed, control is exercised internally.

Foucault suggests that Bentham’s ideas, rather than being fanciful, have become paradigmatic in modern society. Unlike the power of sovereignty, which was often exercised violently, the power of discipline is mild, insidiously humane as it is exercised through discreet surveillance rather than overt coercion. Such supervision, according to Foucault, dissociates power from the body, leaving us compliant and normalised – ready to take orders from above. The effect was an ‘automatic functioning of power’ – ‘A perfection of power’ that tended, paradoxically, to render its actual exercise useless.

Foucault elaborates on this in a 1978 interview:

In my book on the birth of the prison I tried to show how the idea of a technology of individuals, a certain type of power, was exercised over individuals in order to tame them, shape them and guide their conduct as a kind of strict correlative to the birth of a liberal type of regime. Beyond the prison itself, a cerebral style of reasoning, focused on punishable deviations from the norm, thus came to inform a wide variety of modern institutions. In schools, factories, and army barracks, authorities carefully regulated the use of time (punishing tardiness, slowness, the interruption of tasks) activity (punishing inattention, negligence a lack of zeal); speech (punishing idle chatter, insolence, profanity); the body (punishing poor posture, dirtiness, lack in stipulated reflexes) and finally sexuality (punishing impurity, indecency, abnormal behaviour).

He concludes Discipline and Punish with the view that:

In a system of surveillance there is no need for arms, physical violence, material constraints. Just a gaze. An inspecting gaze, a gaze which each individual under its weight will end by internalising to the point that he is his own supervisor, each individual thus exercising this surveillance over, and against, himself. A superb formula: power exercised continuously and for what turns out to be a minimal cost.

Bentham’s idea for a prison was only occasionally adopted and ultimately found to be inhumane. Kilmainham in Dublin stands as an isolated example. To penetrate its inner sanctum is to see how, from every vantage, the prisoner is being watched. This time of domination by (anti-)social media is not so very different.

Truman Show

Now even a propensity for mildly deviant behaviour is under the overarching supervision of Big Brother – the virtual reality Truman Shows of our daily existences. We have become pieces on a chessboard controlled by the all-powerful corporate influencers, the ultra-rich and the bureaucratic state. These are the worst of times that Foucault saw coming.

For Foucault the exercise of power in modern societies is complex – domination and rights are not only derived from the power of a sovereign institution of subjects, but are also the product of the lines of force arising from social relations. Subjects are not just determined from above, but are constituted within the system. Thus he explicitly rejects the positivist/sovereign as the source of all-encompassing authority in our society:

My aim has been to give due weight … to the fact of domination to expose but its latent nature and its brutality. I then wanted to show not only how right is, in a general way, the instrument of domination – which scarcely needs saying – but also show the extent to which, and the forms in which, right, (not simply the laws but the whole complex of apparatuses, institutions and regulations responsible for their application) transmits and puts in motion relations that are not relations of sovereignty, but of domination. Moreover, in speaking of domination I do not have in mind that solid and global kind of domination that one person exercises over another, or one group over another, but the manifold forms of domination that can be exercised within society. Not the domination of the king in his central position, therefore, but that of his subjects in their mutual relations: not the uniform edifice of sovereignty, but the multiple forms of subjugation that have a place and function within the social organism … In other words, rather than ask ourselves how the sovereign appears to use in lofty isolation. We should try to discover how it is that subjects are gradually, progressively, really and materially constituted through a multiplicity of organisms, forces, energies, materials, desires, thoughts … We should try to grasp subjection in its material instance as a constitution of subjects. This would be the exact opposite of Hobbes project in Leviathan, and of that, I believe, of all jurists for whom the problem is the distillation of the single will – or rather, the constitution of a unitary, singular body, animated by a spirit of sovereignty … I would say that we should direct us researches on the nature of power not towards the juridical edifice of sovereignty, the state apparatuses and the ideologies which accompany them, but towards domination and the material operators of power, towards forms of subjection and the inflections and utilisations of their localised systems, and towards strategic apparatuses. We must eschew the model of Leviathan in the study of power. We must escape from the limited field of juridical sovereignty and state institutions, and instead base our analysis of power on the study of the techniques and tactics of domination. 

Critical Appraisal

William Davies applies this to an understanding of law and politics:

Foucault suggests that we abandon the juridical analysis of power, which has emphasised the notion of sovereignty. If we think about law as something which is in itself powerful, something which supplies the answers to disputes and orders social behaviour according to the intentions of a powerful body of lawmakers and judges, we are, perhaps missing an important point. This is simply that many other systems of power, many other systems of meaning and value in society, interact with the legal system. It is not just institutionalised law which says no, or which orders behaviour, or which punishes us for our transgressions. There are, for instance, a multitude of social prescriptions, which order behaviour and the way, we think about the world. Social norms cannot be ultimately distinguished from institutionalised law. The way that a law is applied depends on the interpretation of facts in a case, and therefore, ultimately on the social values and assumptions which go into making that interpretation. Power in the legal system cannot therefore be described simply in terms of hierarchy of people with authority to make decisions, or of laws with the potential to determine disputes: though both the hierarchy of people and that of laws certainly exist, they are shot through with social meanings and systems of relationships which cannot be reduced to one-dimensional descriptions.

Thus what find now is no longer a top-down state leviathan, but micro-management, corporate and internet brainwashing, the regulation and management of behaviour and expectation, which is re-defining ‘appropriate’ conduct We the wretched of the earth, the ordinary citizen, the disengaged are reduced to surviving under controlled conditions in a spectator democracy. ‘We the many’ are the collective other. ‘They the few’ powerful watch over us, deciding our fate in ever subtler and more insidious ways.

This leads to political parties becoming increasingly contorted and nugatory, and NGO’s dispersed and un-coordinated. It is not so much a democratic deficit as a democratic void, as we are reduced to deciding who watches over us.

Foucault saw all of this clearly. His individual response was to embark on personal hedonism, which accelerated his self-destruction – a personal cri de coeur in favour of libertarianism. But this should have been tempered by greater self-discipline, as his excesses diminished his achievements and led to an early grave.

Solipsistic Sexuality

Nonetheless, his contextual analysis of sexuality is also of great relevance to the present age. In effect neo-liberalism leads us to focus on private development, awakening sexual libertarianism to negate the political and accentuate further disengagement. He also saw the possible return of fascism.

But at least, as Foucault points out, social institutions and structures, being contingent, are susceptible to change. Current trends will surely will pass eventually, albeit saving oneself in the meantime is a necessity. Our existences are finite after all.

The other option is to migrate to Iceland, before being compelled to do so:

If ever I hear again of any lapse from a proper standard of infantile decorum, I shall ask for your transference to a sub centre- preferably to Iceland.[iii]

[i] Noam Chomsky, ‘On Postmodernism, Theory, Fads, Etc’ no date (probably 1996), at>

[ii] James Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault, Simon and Schuster, New York, p 103.

[iii] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, Chatto and Windus, London, 1932 p.85


About Author

David Langwallner is a human rights lawyer and founder of the Innocence Project in Ireland. He was previously Dean of Law at Griffith College. He was made Pro Bono & Public Interest Team/Lawyer of the Year at the AIB Private Banking Irish Law Awards 2015.

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