Teaching the F-Word (Foucault that is…)

Taught my favourite class this week: a fun-packed two hours introducing students to Foucault’s Discipline and Punish with the aid of the torture scene from Braveheart (sovereign power), the chilling footage of prison dance routines in the Philippines (docile bodies), and Bunny Colvin’s speech in The Wire about ‘brown paper bags’ (delinquency). Took me ages to put together this class, and I’m rather proud of it. I always turn up with a missionary-like zeal to convert my students into card-carrying Foucauldians. However, the students usually arrive at the class with an open reticence about Foucault and occasionally a well-developed hostility towards him, personally it seems. This might plausibly be a natural reaction to my excessive enthusiasm, but I suspect there is something else going on too. And it’s not that the students aren’t good – both years I’ve taught this they’ve been a great bunch, engaged and curious.

Last year I went to a really interesting workshop about the continuing legacy of Foucault’s work on South Asian studies, and during the round table discussion the question was asked whether his work retained any of its critical edge or whether it had been drained of any subversive potential through its ubiquity. I wonder whether it is his ubiquity in footnotes and in brief dismissive passages in subsequent scholarship that has contributed the most to students’ reluctance to really get into Foucault in detail. It is impossible to come to his work now without it already being framed by interlocutors who are usually unsympathetic to both his methods and arguments. They expect to find him both difficult to read and overly complex, and simplistic and outdated. As someone who can’t approach the discipline of history without Foucault’s work informing my thinking in some way, this makes me disproportionately sad. For me, his work remains central to maintaining a healthy skepticism about the truth-claims of psychiatry, for instance, and optimistic narratives of the march of human progress in general.

However, during the class it normally transpires that most students’ exposure to Foucault has usually only been to his more abstract concepts of power/knowledge and discourse, and not his more concrete historical arguments. Many of the techniques discussed in Discipline and Punish are, once identified, immediately recognisable to students. They recall the fictitious specter of the ‘Permanent Record’ used to discipline them at school. They are, after all, part of a generation that have been examined in their lives more than any others, perhaps ever. From the little straw poll I conduct at the beginning and the end of the class, I am usually only able to convert a small proportion of them to actively liking Foucault. But a larger number of them leave feeling that they are living in a disciplinary society. So, if you count making students a little more paranoid a success, then I’m happy. Either way, I always benefit from going back to the introductory chapter of Discipline and Punish. Something I’ve previously overlooked always catches my eye. This is probably why I enjoy teaching this class so much, despite my mixed success as missionary for Foucault, because every time I teach it, I rediscover something of the subversive power of the text again.

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