Philosophy & Psychology

Michel Foucault’s philosophy still speaks to a world saturated with social media

Forty years after his death in Paris on June 25, 1984, many of Michel Foucault’s once radical ideas now seem self-evident. Even critics like Noam Chomsky, who derided Foucault’s moral theories as “incoherent”, find themselves in a world wallpapered with Foucauldian terms like “discourse”, “power-knowledge”, “biopower”, and “governmentality”.

Today, who could thrive without knowing how to “control the narrative”, call out a “social construct” or navigate “power dynamics”?

After contributing so much to this way of seeing the world, however, a lot of Foucault’s effort in his later years went to the idea of the self.

The decades since he died have witnessed the rise of a gladiatorial institution – social media – in which the desires and vulnerabilities of the self are played out. So we should ask: are we putting our “selves” at peril online? Can a genuinely Foucauldian perspective contribute to a better understanding of our situation?

Foucault did not claim objective correctness for his ideas. He called them “fictions” with a “truth-value”.

“I don’t write a book so that it will be the final word,” he said. “I write a book so that other books are possible, not necessarily written by me.”

By his own account, Foucault’s influence endures because his work (and his entangled biography) serves some function in the bigger picture of here and now. It is discourse that provokes more discourse. In contemporary terms, he remains influential because he “went viral”.

The underlying idea of historical contingency – that things rise and fall in line with the systems and cultural assumptions of their times – is so commonplace in the social sciences and public discourse today that, ironically, we can’t conceive why Foucault had to come along and point out that it applies to things like madnessprisons and executionssexuality, and even philosophy itself.

Given Foucault’s focus on change, it is not hard to see how evolving technology has played into his appeal, though veneration of his books in universities during the “science wars” of the 1990s – fought over the extent to which scientific knowledge was shaped by social and cultural factors – also helped.

Foucault’s relativising philosophy serves as the background to the internet going mainstream, the rising social connectedness that resulted, and the subsequent debates over issues like freedom of speech, online rights and regulation – none of which he had a simple opinion on.

The philosopher Todd May argues Foucault is always asking one question: “Who are we?” Indeed, in one of his last lectures, Foucault summed up his work this way:

My objective for more than 25 years has been to sketch out a history of the different ways in our culture that humans develop knowledge about themselves.

Knowledge, for Foucault, is not just what we know. It is who we are. It defines our options, not just intellectually, but in all respects, including morally and spiritually. We can’t know something and then step back to be something completely different. Foucault’s “self” is inscribed with knowledge, not simply coloured in.

There is little doubt this idea resonates powerfully today. Is there anything more enviable than a powerful self, which is also to say a knowledgeable self?

Curation of the online self has become a mass preoccupation, projecting it an obsession. We now live in an attention economy built of competing selves. Likes, comments and reactions mean status, and in many cases its ready equivalent, money.

So how would Foucault counsel us to look after our selves in the competitive environment of social media? He definitely would not prescribe, but I feel he would urge attention to three aspects.

1. Take a detailed view of power

Foucault saw that knowledge and power are the same thing. Social media (and now AI) are seductions to knowledge. They give us the sense that we can become powerful through knowledge and stand in a privileged position over others.

Knowledge and power constantly move in and out of us, creating the self. With each avid acquisition of knowledge, we change ourselves a little bit. We change what we can do, what we think it is rational to do, what is important to do.

The spike in the tail of knowledge-as-power today is that knowledge is cheap. Everyone feels they have it in their back pocket. That is perhaps why so many are driven to publish images of their food. It is a kind of knowledge-power projection – just not a powerful kind.

Power has shifted away from owning knowledge towards renting it, with attendant focus on selection, discrimination and manipulation. That is why so many companies and individuals now study the algorithms that allocate images and texts: to better harvest the attention of the still naive.

Whether or not we understand the intricacies of how social media works, one question we can always ask ourselves is: who am I if I spend my time on this? The answer should give us some inkling of what power is at work.

2. Be aware of surveillance, especially self-surveillance

Foucault’s brilliant analysis of the panopticon – a prison design conceived by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, in which prisoners can be observed at all times and know they can be observed – is highly relevant to social media.

Foucault argued that, in modern society, we regulate our behaviour according to whether we believe we are being watched. We take this further when we internalise that feeling to become good citizens – or, less generously, “docile bodies” – even when we are not being watched. This translates into self-surveillance.

On social media, we curate our posts, comments and interactions, knowing they are visible to others. But it doesn’t stop there. How many of us roam the real world with an eye to a good background for a selfie?

Is that the mark and purpose of a unique, non-docile self?

3. Resist prefab identities

Foucault disapproved of biography, which he saw as an attempt to determine him as a subject and confine his work to a prison of common opinion and intelligibility.

We can see a similar attitude today in people who do not have Facebook or Instagram accounts and can’t be found on LinkedIn. Such inscrutable people are increasingly cast as strange. In fact, it is almost at the point where such anonymity seems unsafe or immoral. Every procedural police show now turns on tracking criminals via their online identities. How shady are those who don’t even have one?

Foucault’s work emphasises that our identities are constructed through social and cultural forces. On social media, we are often presented with prefab identities: idealised versions of success, attractiveness and happiness. Avatars are an obvious example. They are invitations to fantasy, propagated by influencers, advertisers and platform algorithms.

We should ask ourselves how our online personas might be shaping our self-perception and behaviour. Prefab identities create unrealistic expectations and place pressure on us to conform to standards that may not lead the self in good directions.

Foucault said it was good practice to let go of ideas and send them out into the world to live or die so that we no longer have to recognise ourselves in them. This could mean opting out of social media. Or it could mean using the online world as a place for identity experimentation. But it definitely means not investing too much in any identities created.

Foucault’s “self” is inscribed with knowledge, not simply coloured in.

Foucault’s “self” is inscribed with knowledge, not simply coloured in. There is little doubt this idea resonates powerfully today.

My own work in semiotics is a formal treatment of an underpinning theme in Foucault: the idea that thought is a systematic but limited thing. For me, this simple idea explains so much about conflicting accounts of reality in the contemporary world.

I also think it is the core of Foucault’s complex relationship with the Enlightenment and its claims on universal knowledge and reason. He admired the inquiring spirit of the Age of Reason, but detested its reductive, rule-bound view of thought. He claimed the Enlightenment invented, for sometimes sinister and unacknowledged purposes, the idea of “man” as a subject worthy of study.

That is probably why, when I first read Foucault’s early work The Archaeology of Knowledge, I was confused and made a little seasick by its style. It seemed to describe and never judge, reach but never get to the point – never trust itself to reason.

Partly, this was the notorious French academic style, but I now think it was also a key element of Foucault’s modus operandi. His writing never alienates, never turns anyone away with bald assertions or a single frame of reference. He invited everyone to look at what fascinated him, draw their own conclusions, and respond.

The difficulty and opacity of Foucault’s work has become a “feature not a bug”, making it adaptable – even essential – to all situations calling for high academic, well, discourse. Anyone wanting to argue into the weeds that everything is relative always has Foucault to fall back on, even if it was a position he probably thought absolutist and trivial.

Foucault’s philosophical politeness, though often tedious and infuriating, has paid off. Even if he was wrong – or not even coherent enough to be wrong, as Chomsky claimed – his influence has nonetheless made him useful and an asset to the 21st century. His genius, it seems, was to invent a viral philosophy that is socially self-proving. He has left us wondering if there is any other kind.

This article was originally published in The Conversation.

Image by Arturo Espinosa on Flickr (cc)

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