W2-Reading Response to The Impossible Prison

Foucault published what’s recognizes as his first masterpiece: Madness and Civilization. The standard view is that we now treat people with mental illness in so much more humane way than we ever did in the past. After all, we put them in hospitals, give them drugs and get them looked after by people with PhD’s But this was exactly the attitude that Foucault wished to demolished in “Madness and Civilization”. In the book, he argued that things way back in the Renaissance were actually far better for the mad, than they subsequently became. In the Renaissance, the mad were felt to be different rather than crazy. They were thought to possess a kind of wisdom because they demonstrated the limits of reason. They were revered in many circles and were allowed to wander freely. But then, as Foucault historical researches showed him in the mid 17th century, a new attitude was born that relentlessly medicalize and institutionalized mentally ill people. No longer were they allowed to live alongside the so-called sane, they were taken away from their families and locked up in asylums and sinister people wanted to try to cure rather than tolerate for just being different. You can recognize a very similar, underlying philosophy in Foucault’s next great book:”The birth of the clinic”. His target here was medicine more broadly. He systematically attack the few that medicine had become more humane with time. He conceded that of course we have better drugs and treatments now, but he believed in the 18th century the professional doctor was born and that he was sinister figure who would look at the patient always with, what Foucault called the “medical gaze” denoting a dehumanizing attitude; the look to the patient is just as a set of organs not a person. One was, under the medial gaze, merely a malfunctioning kidney or liver not a person to be considered as a whole entity. Next in Foucault’s overcame:”Discipline and Punish”. Here, Foucault did his standard thing on state punishment. Again, the normal view is at the prison and punishing systems at the modern world are so much more humane than they were in the days when people just used to be hung in public squares not so argued Foucault. The problem, he said, is the power now looks kind, but isn’t, whereas in the past it clearly wasn’t kind and therefore could encourage open rebellion in protest. Foucault noted that in the past, in an execution, a convict’s body could become a focus of sympathy and admiration, and the executioner rather than the convict, could become in looks of shame. Also, public executions often led to riots in support of the prisoner, but, with the invention of the modern prison system, everything happened in private, behind locked gates; one could no longer see and, therefore, resist state power. That’s what made the modern system of punishment so barbaric and properly primitive in Foucault’s eyes. Foucault’s last  work was the multi-volume “History of Sexuality”. In the maneuvers, he performed in relation to sex are again very familiar. Foucault rebelled against the view that we’re all now deeply liberated and ease with sex. He argued that since the 18th century, we have relentlessly medicalize sex handing it over to professional sex researchers and scientists. We live in an age what Foucault called “Scientia Sexualis”(science of sexuality). But Foucault looked back with considerable nostalgia to the cultures of Rome, China and Japan, where he detected the rule of, what he called, an “Ars Erotica”(Erotic Art), where the whole focus was on how to increase the pleasure of sex rather than merely understand and label it. Once again, modernity was blamed for pretending that been progress when there was in fact just the loss of spontaneity and imagination. Foucault wrote the last volume of this work while dying from AIDS, that he had contracted in a San Francisco gay bar. He died in 1984, age 58. Foucault’s lasting contributions is the way we look at history. There are lots of things in the modern world that we constantly being told “a fantastic”, and were apparently very bad in the past; for example education or the media or a communication systems. Foucault encouraged us to breakaway from optimistic smugness about now and to go back and see in history many ways of doing things, which were perhaps superior. Foucault wasn’t trying to get us to be nostalgic, he wanted us to pick up some lessons way back in order to improve how we live now. Academic historians have tended to hate Foucault’s work. They think it inaccurate and keep pointing out things getting quite understood in some document or other, but Foucault didn’t care for total historical accuracy. History for him was just a storehouse of good ideas, and he wanted to raid it rather than keep it pristine and untouched. We should use Foucault as in inspiration to look at the dominant ideas and institutions of our times, and to question them by looking at their histories and evolutions. Foucault did something remarkable: he made history life enhancing and philosophically rich again. He can be an inspiring figure for our own projects.

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