Foucault Revised

By I-Yi Hsieh

This afternoon, in the city where you can only drink inside and smoke outside, where you can’t pee in the park, where people sit ignored, all by themselves. I was on my train, the long E-train from Queens to Manhattan. Many times I felt it was almost long enough to take me back to Taiwan. I could just walk through the closed door, walk through all these people, and go home. But instead I’m going to the city, holding my paper on East Asian Modernity.

Suddenly, three young men jumped into the train car. One was carrying a large stereo. They started to dance. Jumping, clapping, spinning in the narrow car filled with stunned people. “Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce myself, I’m Jean.” “I’m Jack.” “I’m Foucault.”

If Foucault was in that train, would he introduce himself and start to dance? Would he dance with the other boys, to open up a struggle with his body, with people gazing from behind, with the person who he is?

In an interview on his own project, Michel Foucault explained to his readers that the goal of his work is not to construct a theory of power, but to answer the ultimate question of “who we are.”. This assertion clearly reveals the driving force; the experiential as well as theoretical impulse towards a project that tries to passionately transcend structuralism and philosophy. The methodology he deployed to this inquiry has twisted the history that we take for granted. The materiality, the technique of states’ surveillance, the effect of subjectification on a subject has all been turned upside down by Foucault. He reads them from the surface rather than the center; the core, the direction that has been followed by all other great philosophers before him. This surface is the division of power that shapes the “individual” and causes him to be his own objectified subject.

In the remarkable practice of his ontological-experiential project, The Birth of the Clinic: An Archeology of Medical Perception, Foucault displays his excavation of the materiality of power and the body. He displays the economy that synthesizes practice as well as theory, by describing the history of the institutions of power that act on the body. And this geometry is formed from the collaboration of the state and the development of medicine in Europe since the 18th century.

The methodology being used here – what Foucault calls an “archeology” – is a way to excavate the formation of the power structure from buried fact, that is, from the covered material left by historians and philosophers. It is the reconstruction of a history which is meant to be deconstructed. Birth of the Clinic is grounded in the 16th century’s age of the emergence of modern states in Europe. In order to reveal this process, Foucault illustrated two crucial techniques that were applied as rationalities in creating the “subject”: clinical medicine and the discourse of disease. The former not only visualized the “diseased body,” but also cooperated with the state’s reformation of social space to create the knowledge of a “healthy man,” which gave rise to the definition of the model man. As long as the state was aware of the need for population control, whether for the national economy or war, the sick were intolerable for government. Medical knowledge and medical consciousness became national tasks in education as well as guidelines for the division of medical space, as concretized in the hospital. The hospital that was incorporated into the public health system not only eliminated private, non-regularized home treatment, but also created the environment of medical empiricism: the segregated class of the patients as others.

The second technique, the discourse of disease, was derived from the production of a visual grammar. The dynamic of visualization has played a crucial role in the regulation of the body. The visibilities here mean that there is a history not simply of what was seen, but of what could be seen, of what was seeable. Therefore, the pain, illness, tissue, and internal organs, all become spectacles under the medical system’s objectification of the sick. Death becomes the ultimate opposition to the living body. It derives from the system of the referential diagnosis. It enforces the deadly endemic which threatens the state’s control of the national population. Death becomes the original reference for the symptoms through which the state controls its population, linking the signified and its more dominant signifier. Following this, disease can no longer sustain its own existence without the recognition of medical knowledge. For Foucault, this is how the spectacle of disease constructs the truth of seeing through the linguistic mechanism. Visualization squashes the original concrete body, and turns it into the self-referential system of medical knowledge.

This institutionalization and nationalization has turned the body into the “individual.” The “medical gaze” in English translation invokes surveillance and the panopticon as agents of the national control of population. The “gaze” serves as the major technique of power to penetrate the body and to construct the category of “modern man.” Following this trajectory, the ever-changing human body is totalized as the specific container of the “individual” and internalizes the objectified subjectivity in which one becomes the ruler of oneself.

If we trace Foucault’s concern with the “subject,” we see that Louis Althusser’s assertion about the duality of subjectivity is crucially related. For Althusser, there is no subject except by and for their subjection, which is to say the two-fold sense of the subject lies in the ambiguity of freedom as well as in the subordination to a higher sovereignty. This dialectical formation of the modern individual is extended further in the socio-historical materiality of Foucault’s works on body and power. As he concludes in the final part of Birth of the Clinic, it is through subordination to the concrete existence constructed by the medical system that modern man is offered the obstinate, reassuring fact of his finitude.

May we now answer Foucault’s question about who we are? We are the outcome of the exchange of subjective and objective, we are the carrier of the power-sanctioned body. We are individuals with finitude who lack the consciousness of finitude. At the same time, the “we” is always extended and always exists in traces. The archeology of power unfolds in the historical traces of forces left on our body, but our confrontation with the world is always immediate and vivid. Everyday struggle may be the only available gate to the infinite within our existence of finitude.

After a brilliant “four-handed” jump, the three dancing boys swept the sweat off their faces, and finished their moves. Ladies and gentleman, I am I-Yi Hsieh. I didn’t stand up and say it out loud, but I smiled and told the boys that they were good. This is my dance too.


Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and other Essays. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971. 179-182

Bruce Cummings, “Archeology, Descent, Emergence: Japan in British/American Hegemony, 1900-1950” in Japan in the World, Masao Miyoshi and H.D. Harootunian eds., Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1993, pp.79-111

Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic: An Archeology of Medical Perception, New York: Vintage Books, 1973, 1994

Discipline and Punish: Birth of Prison, translated from by Alan Sheridan. New York : Vintage Books, 1979

The Subject and Power, Afterword in Michel Foucault: beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow eds., The University of Chicago Press, 1983


I-Yi Hsieh is currently finishing her first year in the MA program of Anthropology. While she should be concentrating on papers, she often ends up sketching people’s faces in the streets. Other times she goes to dances and performances, enjoys the circus and parodies happening in everyday life. Any gossip to tell, contact her at