The Philosophical Historian: The Curse of Modernity

Michel Foucault ( (AFP / Getty Images))

Since the middle of the 18th Century, beginning in Northern Europe, and then spreading to every corner of the world, people have become aware of living in an age radically different to any other: ‘The Modern Age’. We are all inhabitants of modernity, everywhere has been touched by the outlook of a new era. And isn’t it great? We have cars, science, medicine, nice houses, freedom, individualism. But is it all its cracked up to be? Are we really happy in the modern age? Is new always better? Is this new age really an improvement on the past?

Well you might think so. The story of our emergence into the modern world can be traced in a number of fields: politics, religion, art, technology, fashion, science. All of which ultimately contribute in an alteration in consciousness. Pre-modern societies envisaged history in cyclical terms, with no forward dynamic to speak of. One imagined things would be as good or as bad as they had ever been, but to be modern is to believe we can surpass what has come before. Everything seems capable of constant increase and progression; time is not a wheel of futility, but an arrow pointing towards a perfectible future. To be modern is to throw off the chains of history, precedent, and community and even the word ‘modern’ suggests a state of glamour, desire, and aspiration.

Emile Durkheim

But modernity is a tragic curse. We have bought our new freedom at a very high price. It was the French, late 19th Century sociologist Emile Durkheim who first made the sobering discovery of an essential difference between traditional and modern societies. In the former, when people lived in small communities, when the course of one’s career was understood to be held in the hands of the Gods, and when there were few expectations of individual fulfilment, at moments of failure, the agony knew bounds. Failure did not seem a verdict on one’s whole being: one never expected perfection and so does not respond with self-hatred when problems occur, but rather fell to one’s knees and implored the Gods.

Durkheim knew modern societies were far crueller because secularism meant people couldn’t blame the Gods for their troubles. There was only one person responsible, and only one fitting response. As Durkheim showed in possibly the largest single indictment of modernity: suicide rates in advanced societies are up to ten times higher than those in traditional ones. Modern people are not only more in love with success, but far more likely to kill themselves if they fail. As opportunity is less restricted in modern societies, nearly anyone can become successful (or at least we believe so), but this encourages comparison, and thus envy. The psychological burden of a so-called ‘ordinary life’ has become harder — if one is able to achieve their wildest dreams, then why am I so mediocre? Additionally, modernity has stripped us of our right to feel melancholy, unproductive, surly, despair, and confused, as we receive a barrage of ‘have a nice day’ and ‘have fun’. The forced positivity and societal expectation of happiness due to modernity has alienated us, bred envy, increased shame, separated us from one another, bewildered us, and left us restless and enraged.

Michel Foucault

( Photograph: Sipa Press/Rex/Shutterstock)

In comes Michel Foucault, a French 20th Century philosopher and historian who spent his career forensically criticising the power of the modern, French, Capitalist State, including its police, law courts, prisons, doctors, and psychiatrists. His goal was to find out how power worked and change it into a Marxist Anarchist Utopia. Though Foucault spent most of his life in libraries and seminar rooms, he was a committed revolutionary figure, and was met with acclaim in Parisian circles, admired by Jean-Paul Sartre, and is still held in high regard by university students who study him. His background, which he was reluctant to ever talk about (and tried to prevent journalists from investigating at all costs), was privileged. His parents were extraordinarily rich (coming from a long line of successful surgeons in Poitiers in West- Central France). His father Dr. Paul Foucault came to represent all that Michel would hate about bourgeoisie France.

Though having a great education and even becoming a choir boy, Foucault self-harmed. At university, he decorated his bedroom with images of torture by Goya, and when he was 22 tried to commit suicide, but was forced by his father to see France’s most famous psychiatrist, Jean Delay at the Saint-Anne Hospital Center. The doctor wisely diagnosed that most of Foucault’s distress came from having to keep his homosexuality, particularly his interest in extreme sado-masochism, away from a censorious society. Gradually, Foucault entered the underground gay scene in France, fell in love with a drug dealer, and then a transvestite. For long periods in his 20s he went to live abroad in Sweden, Poland, and Germany — where he felt his sexuality would be less constrained. All the while, he was progressing up the French academic ladder.

Foucault…with hair

The seismic event of his intellectual life came in the Summer of 1953 when Foucault, 27 (and still having hair), while on holiday with a lover in Italy, found Nietzsche’s book ‘Untimely Meditation’ which contains an essay called ‘On the Uses and Abuses of History for Life’. In the essay, Nietzsche argued that academics have poisoned our sense of how history should be taught. They made it seem that one should read history in a sort of disinterested way in order to learn how it all was in the past, but Nietzsche rejected this with sarcastic fury. There was no point learning about history for its own sake, the only reason to read and study history was to dig out from the past ideas, concepts, and examples of which can help us to lead a better life in our own times. This essay liberated Foucault intellectually and immediately he changed the direction of his work, becoming a particular kind of philosophical historian — someone who could look back into the past to sort out the urgent issues of his own time.

‘Madness In Civilization’ 1961

The standard view is that we treat people with mental illness in a much more humane way than we did in the past. We put them in hospitals, give them medication, and have them looked after by people with PhDs. This was exactly the attitude Foucault wished to demolish. He argued that things way back in the Renaissance were actually far better for the mad than they became. In the Renaissance, the mad were felt to be different rather than crazy or in need of treatment. They possessed a type of wisdom because they demonstrated the limits of reason, and were revered in many circles, allowed to wander freely, until, as Foucault’s historical research showed him, the mid 17th Century a new attitude was born that relentlessly medicalised and institutionalised mentally ill people. No longer were they allowed live beside the so-called ‘sane’, they were taken away from their families and locked up in asylums, seen as people who should be ‘cured’ rather than tolerated for being different.

‘The Birth of the Clinic’ 1963

Foucault’s target here was medicine more broadly and he systemically attacked the view that medicine had become more humane with time. He conceded that of course we have better medicines and treatments now, but that he believed in the 18th Century, the ‘professional doctor’ was born, a sinister figure who would look at the patient with what Foucault called the ‘Medical Gaze’ — denoting a dehumanising attitude that looked at a patient as just a set of organs, not a person. Under the medical gaze, if you or I were to become sick, we are seen as just a collection of malfunctioning organs in need of treatment, and not as actual people.

‘Discipline and Punish’ 1975

The standard view was that the prisons and judiciaries of today are far more humane than when people were hanged in public squares. Foucault argued that the problem is power now looks kind but isn’t, while in the past, it clearly wasn’t kind and so encouraged open rebellion and protest. Foucault noted that in the past a convicts body could become a focus of protest and admiration, and the executioner, rather than the convict, could become a locus of shame. And as has been seen recently in regards to the Black Lives Matter movement, many people are shaming those killed for not ‘cooperating with police’ instead of indicting the officers who killed civilians. Public executions could lead to riots, but with the advent of the modern prison system, everything happened in private behind locked doors. One could no longer see, and, therefore, resist state power. That is what made the modern system so barbaric and primitive in Foucault’s eyes.

‘History of Sexuality’ 1976–1984

Foucault rebelled against the view that we are all now deeply liberated and at ease with sex. He argued that since the 18th Century we have relentlessly medicalised sex, handing it over to professional sex researchers and scientists. We live in an age of what Foucault dubbed ‘Scientia Sexualis’ (Science of Sexuality), but Foucault looked back with considerable nostalgia to the cultures of Rome, China, and Japan. Here he detected a rule of what he called ‘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 there had been progress, when there was in fact a loss spontaneity and imagination. Foucault wrote the last volume of this work whilst dying from AIDS that he had contracted in a San Francisco gay bar.

What Foucault has taught us about modernity?

Foucault’s lasting contribution was the way in which we look at history. There are lots of things in the modern world that we are constantly being told are fantastic and were apparently very bad in the past, but Foucault encourages us to break away from optimistic smugness about now and go back and see in history many ways of doing things that are superior to our modern techniques. Foucault didn’t want us to just be nostalgic about the past, sitting here saying the old stuff is way better, but to go back and take the good ideas of the past and apply them to today. Academic historians have tended to hate Foucault’s work, thinking it inaccurate and pointing at things he hadn’t quite understood in some document or other. Foucault did not care for total historical accuracy. History for him was just a storehouse of good ideas that he wanted to raid rather than leave pristine and untouched.

When people hear George Santayana’s famous quote, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” they usually think that he means we must learn from the mistakes, evils, and failures of the past to improve our present and futures. But what Foucault offers is that we should equally learn from the success and achievements throughout humanities existence and bring them into our modern age. We should use Foucault’s ideas to question the dominant institutions of our times by observing their histories and evolutions, Foucault made history life enhancing and philosophically rich again.

I am a young writer interested in providing the intellectual tools to those in the political trenches so that they may fight their battles well-informed.

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