Michel Foucault seeks throughout his work to make sense of how our contemporary society is structured differently from the society that preceded us. He has been particularly influential precisely because he tends to overturn accepted wisdom, illustrating the dangers inherent in those Enlightenment reforms that were designed to correct the barbarity of previous periods (the elimination of dungeons, the modernization of medicine, the creation of the public university, etc.).As Foucault illustrates, each process of modernization entails disturbing effects with regard to the power of the individual and the control of government. Indeed, his most influential work, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, paints a picture of contemporary society that sometimes resembles George Orwell’s 1984. He explores the ways that government has claimed ever greater control over and enforcement of ever more private aspects of our lives.
In particular, Foucault explores the transition from what he terms a “culture of spectacle” to a “carceral culture.” Whereas in the former punishment was effected on the body in public displays of torture, dismemberment, and obliteration, in the latter punishment and discipline become internalized and directed to the constitution and, when necessary, rehabilitation of social subjects.
We learn from the associative minds of others and we propagate, and change, that knowing by divining self-realization and personal insights. Some minds change more of us. Foucault shattered all ordinary thinking.