Michel Foucault

By: Mark Kingwell
October 15, 2014


The basic ideas of French post-structuralist philosopher MICHEL FOUCAULT (1926–84) have become so well known as to become almost invisible, an irony that this subtle theorist of the surveillance society would have appreciated. Riffing on Jeremy Bentham’s notion of the ultimately efficient prison, the Panopticon, in which a single guard might observe multiple prisoners via good design, Foucault posited the logical extension: why have even one guard? If the prisoners cannot tell whether they are being watched at any given moment, they will internalize the structure of constraint and watch themselves. Thus the short step to urban CCTV cameras that need not even function as eyes in order to function as deterrents. Thus, likewise, the 24/7 ubiquity of the state in the form of internet oversight: of course They are watching you, for that is what They do! The surprising thing — though is it really surprising? — is that nobody seems to mind very much: we go about our business more or less unchanged, even after the NSA global surveillance scandal, and the continuing fact of state-sanctioned ‘rendition’ and ‘enhanced interrogation’ does not disrupt the daily getting and spending of the so-called Free World. It is worth revisiting Foucault’s works, especially Discipline and Punish, The Birth of the Clinic, and Madness and Civilization, if only to feel again the useful estrangement of seeing how institutions and apparatuses order daily life and desire. Consider, too, that the cheapest and most effective form of deception is when we pull the wool over our own eyes.

MORE FOUCAULT on HILOBROW: Joshua Glenn’s “The Black Iron Prison” | Greg Rowland’s “My First Critical Theory ABC” | Joshua Glenn’s “Watching the Detectives” | Code-X Intro | “Odd Cameos”


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: P.G. Wodehouse, Isabella Lucy Bird, John Kenneth Galbraith, Italo Calvino, Mikhail Lermontov, Friedrich Nietzsche.

READ MORE about members of the Postmodernist Generation (1924-33).