Michel Foucault: Eraserhead

Alexander Hawkins mulls over the relationship between the life and work of French philosopher, Michel Foucault

French Philosopher Michel Foucault in Paris
French Philosopher Michel Foucault in Paris

The brilliant and controversial thinking of French philosopher Michel Foucault turned the intellectual world of 20th-century Paris on its feet. He was a puzzle to orthodox historians and philosophers alike and, where academia was concerned, he sidestepped disciplines altogether. The self-willed son of a physician, he resisted both the provincialism of his upbringing and French conservatism at large, to cast himself as a subversive. “A good club sandwich with a coke,” he said, much to the chagrin of his fellow countrymen, “that’s my pleasure.”

Like Nietzsche before him, it’s difficult to say whether Foucault the historian-philosopher overshadowed Foucault the man, or the other way round. But, for all his well-known questioning of authorship and personal identity, it’s harder still not to see the bulk of his work as, in some way, autobiographical. 

Foucault’s topics of research often stemmed from issues that troubled him personally, and his books on sexuality, mental illness and crime all explored society’s response to ‘deviance’. Power was another subject of focus, and with his dense, somewhat cryptic style of writing, he asserted that, rather than a force wielded by the privileged few, power is at work everywhere in society, even where we least expect it. According to Foucault, every institution exercises control – be it a school or a hospital – and all human relationships are marked by their own power struggles.

His shaven head, wire-rimmed glasses and preference for dressing in black and white have seen him described as a ‘metaphysical Eraserhead’ by American academic James Miller, who claims in his biography that Foucault was “perhaps the single most famous intellectual in the world.”

This article is taken from PORT issue 19, out now.