Foucault was for a time a Marxist. His work was also influenced by structural philosophy (structuralism) that focused on universal forces beyond a person’s control, whether it be language that is guided by rules, de Saussure, binary opposites that determine day to day social experiences, Lévi-Strauss, or, class structure, Marx.
Much structuralism was a rejection of phenomenological arguments such as those of Husserl that placed human subjective understanding at the centre of everything, privileging deep reflection that removes anything that could corrupt truthful experience, even language, which is socially conditioned and corrupts any search for perfect meaning.
Foucault adopted Bachelard’s structural argument that historical change did not occur in a continuous developmental flow controlled by powerful heroic/demonic individuals. According to Foucault history is punctuated by schisms that occur when a time-period governed by certain dominant discursive practices, an episteme, comes abruptly to an end. Such a view of history emphasizes how pointless a pursuit of perfect meaning (hermeneutics) is: it is impossible as Husserl explained, to understand perfectly a person speaking directly to you, never mind if they are writing 500 years ago from a different episteme. We can never know an author’s/speaker’s mind. Concomitantly, we can only pick up fragments of history from what they have left behind; documents must be treated as ‘things’ scattered across a past landscape, which are to be organized and interpreted not understood according to present-time discursive conventions. We must do ‘archaeology’ says Foucault not history. Archaeologists dig around in historical sites re-constructing past people’s lives using tools manufactured nowadays. Accordingly, there can only ever be histories, as many as there are people doing them.
Speaking/writing is governed by rules which change abruptly when an episteme ends. Foucault argues that there have been three epistemes in recent European experience. ‘Renaissance’ people deployed discourses that facilitated speaking of fantastic beasts and spirits. Mad people at this time were said to be in touch with death, able to inform us of what was in store. Cervantes’ book, Don Quixote, signals a break with these discursive rules as people start to use rational methods to manage their lives: Foucault terms this episteme ‘Classical’. Relatedly, 17th century mad people are shut away with criminals in buildings vacated by lepers because they are seen as irrational. A later 18th /19th century historical schism heralds ‘Modernity’. Modern people use scientific method to research time and origin to assess causes. Modern people focus on getting maximum benefit: from ‘life’ by applying disciplinary technology: death is used to understand life – pathology. In such discursive practices normality is paramount. People are trained in minutiae, exercised and examined. Those who resist such training in docility are watched closely and stigmatized abnormal. They are locked away for re-training in prisons and mental hospitals until they learn to control themselves. However, they may only need to be labelled abnormal (ill, disabled) to be excluded and controlled. This is ‘panopticism’; control by total surveillance – you think your being watched even if you’re not.
Before writing Discipline & Punish Foucault went through a crisis which he dealt with by using Nietzsche. Foucault realised that his archaeology was too structural such that people and their activities were largely irrelevant to explaining historical change, which was plainly ridiculous. Nietzsche had argued that our bodies were marked by our historical struggle: war was a permanent occurrence, even during so-called peace-time was permanent. According to Nietzsche words are weapons in our search for dominance. Nietzsche spoke of genealogy; historical descent through bodily struggle: as an integral part of genealogical descent knowledge is designed to dominate others. Foucault revised his archaeology to include this approach as he wrote about prisons and sexuality.
As Foucault’s genealogy emerged during 1960s struggles, it signalled another historical schism as an episteme governed by ‘power-knowledge’ arrived. It has been called post-structural, postmodern because disciplinary authority is challenged as nothing more than power-knowledge, nothing more than a technique for domination. In post-structural, postmodern discursive formations there is no absolute truth! Thus, any interpretation is valid, no matter how personal or different. Foucault’s histories are as valid as are anyone else’s. The difference is that they are attempts at resistance, challenges to dominant people who impose their opinions on others through discourse: power-knowledge. There is no point challenging their domination on a large scale where they are all powerful. All resistance needs to be local where there is less control.
Whilst Foucault offers some interesting insights into domination and control, he could not go far enough. In using Nietzsche, he deploys philosophical arguments that get very close to sociology and social scientific analysis. However, Nietzsche was a philosopher and a purveyor of ideals. Whilst genealogy does facilitate a better engagement with real people than did archaeology, it never allows Foucault sufficient engagement with reality to include them properly in his analysis; a situation which is absurd. Interdependently, we have very little detail of those who deploy power-knowledge. If you compare Foucault’s histories with Elias’s civilizing process you see what I am getting at. In Elias you read about vibrant figurational life-like experience. I wouldn’t mind betting that changes in fashion will see Foucault’s philosophical history fade from view, whereas Elias’ more scientific analysis will prevail.