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Foucault, Michel (1926-1984)  
 
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One of the leading philosophers of the twentieth century, Michel Foucault has had an enormous influence on our understanding of the lesbian and gay literary heritage and the cultural forces surrounding it.

In his explorations of power and his examinations of the history of sexuality, Foucault traces the ways in which discourse shapes perception, focusing often on those individuals and practices considered marginal or abnormal, but finding in them keys to understanding the fragile and imperfect ways that power is deployed by the upper classes, the medical establishment, the scientific community, and the literary and political elite.

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In doing so, Foucault successfully challenges our notion of the "normal" and calls our attention to the historical contexts determining the narrow designations that restrict human freedom.

Born in Poitiers, France, on October 15, 1926, Paul-Michel Foucault grew up in the very atmosphere that he would later condemn, that of the stuffy, tradition-bound elite. His father's success as a surgeon, however, did allow Foucault a superb education. He distinguished himself in literature, history, and philosophy, and after moving to Paris in 1945, quickly became the protégé of Jean Hyppolite, a leading Hegelian philosopher and existentialist.

Influenced as well by Jean-Paul Sartre, Martin Heidegger, and Louis Althusser, Foucault began to question the very bases of knowledge and perception. How do we know what we know? Why do we believe what we believe?

In the fertile intellectual climate of post-World War II Paris, the brilliant young philosopher developed a fascination with the margins of normality and social acceptability. Foucault was an isolated, aloof student, and his behavior was often eccentric.

He suffered a breakdown that culminated in a suicide attempt in 1948. The reason, it has been speculated, was his profound guilt as he became increasingly aware of his homosexuality. Clearly, however, Foucault's tortured sense of self and experience of marginalization also spurred some of his most ground-breaking and fascinating work.

From his doctoral thesis at the Sorbonne, later published as Madness and Civilization (1961), through later works, published while he held faculty posts at the University of Clermont-Ferrand and the Collège de France, Foucault probed the social relations that determine our usage of such simplistic, binary-based categories as the "sane and insane," the "ill and healthy," the "criminal and just," and the "proper and improper."

Seeing such designations as serving the political and social interests of certain groups in European and Anglo-American society, Foucault also explored how such ways of structuring perception and belief are both maintained and disrupted.

Throughout his works, Foucault concentrates on discourse, the field of language and representation, that forms the very foundation of consciousness and knowledge. In examining how discourses can vary from one segment of society to another and can evolve over time, Foucault works to undermine the smug, self-righteous pretensions of the cultural elite.

Foucault's most influential writings are also those most relevant to the gay and lesbian literary heritage. In Discipline and Punish (1975), Foucault examines the birth of the modern prison in the nineteenth century and uses the image of the panopticon, a model facility devised by Jeremy Bentham, as a metaphor to expose the widespread regulation of conduct through surveillance.

The enforcement of socially acceptable forms of behavior, Foucault argues, became a widely dispersed function throughout society during the nineteenth century; individuals began to watch and regulate each other. No longer was physical torture an explicit check on deviance; rather, the more intangible and insidious process of being watched and thereby coerced into "normality" became common.

Foucault's observations on the penal system have clear relevance to the rise of a middle-class mindset demanding sexual conformity during the same period.

In his next major work, the introduction to Herculine Barbin (1978), the memoirs of a nineteenth-century hermaphrodite, Foucault probes similarly the policing function of medical discourses that attempt to fix "true" sexual identities, ones that deny the full range of human diversity. In such examinations of the nineteenth century, Foucault finds a new emphasis on and numerous new mechanisms for achieving social homogeneity and enforcing a narrow notion of propriety.

Even so, Foucault is acute in recognizing the impossibility of maintaining such control. In his three completed volumes of The History of Sexuality (1976-1984), Foucault explores the fluid nature of desire, which finds in its definition through metamorphosing discourses, new channels for expression, as well as new, challengeable boundaries.

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