Read Chapter 7

Michael RobbGrieco on Michel Foucault

CITE AS: RobbGrieco, M. (2016). Michael RobbGrieco on Michel Foucault. In R. Hobbs (Ed.) Exploring the Roots of Digital and Media Literacy through Personal Narrative (pp. 94 - 106). Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 

Chapter 7
Michael RobbGrieco on Michel Foucault
On my path to media literacy education, I wound through experiences as a media artist and literature student and days as a high-school English teacher before  arriving at my current roles of media-education scholar and teacher educator. In the middle of this journey, in 1992, I encountered the work of French philosopher-historian Michel Foucault, which, ever since, has inspired and challenged me to rethink and think anew about what I have done and what I will do with media and literacy. From the early 1960s until his death in 1984, Foucault used historical research to explain how language, power, and knowledge work through flexible systems of discourse in society. He wrote books on the histories of madness, clinical medicine, human sciences, prisons, and sexuality in addition to sharing political ideas in essays and many interviews during his life as a high-profile public intellectual in Europe.

However, Foucault himself rarely mentioned media and never formally studied it. Furthermore, his ideas about education mostly connected with his notions of surveillance and governmentality in the discipline of its subjects by oppressive and conservative institutions. I do not connect to education in this way at all; rather, I strive within formal education to afford students opportunities for intellectual growth and freedom. So how could Foucault be my intellectual grandparent for my work in media literacy? Foucault seemed to changed his path with each step but chose to see his prior work as preparing him for his next challenge—as something to build on. In his last completed book, The Use of Pleasure: The History of Sexuality, Foucault made sense of his work, much as his critics and followers would later, in three phases: (1) showing that knowledge and truth are constructed of historical contingencies and not inevitable, (2) developing an analytics of power, and (3) understanding subjectivity, or how it is we come to know ourselves in particular ways (Foucault 1990, 6). Each phase proceeded from and incorporated the work of the prior phase(s).

I have found myself making sense of my own experiences with media as a learner, an artist, and a teacher by incorporating each into my work in media literacy education—work that revolves around finding ways to seek and share understandings about three main themes that parallel Foucault’s: (1) the constructedness of media in relation to knowledge, truth, and reality; (2) power in relation to media and literacies; and (3) identity in relation to media. By sharing some of my own path to media literacy education and how Foucault’s work has inspired and challenged me along the way, I hope to illuminate some of the ways Foucault’s thinking may connect to media literacy and be useful for the growth of our field and practices.
Confronting “Power/Knowledge”
In his early work, Foucault used a historical approach to critique modern ideas about a range of topics—madness, clinical medicine, human sciences—by tracing the conditions of their emergence and development in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in order to disrupt their contemporary status as truths taken for granted. When I first encountered media literacy as a high-school English teacher in 2000, I saw much of what was being done by my colleagues in media literacy–themed classes with texts and meanings as analogous to what Foucault had done with conceptual truths and historical contingencies in his early books. Through critical inquiry with our students, we were disrupting the common-sense truths and taken-for-granted values communicated through various media.

Foucault’s Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (1992)[1] describes systems of discourse, ways of thinking and speaking, that developed into rules for labeling and dealing with madness in various ways—as an illness, a threat, a disorder, and so on—asserted through emerging institutions of medicine and psychoanalysis in the 1700s and 1800s. The work emphasizes how ways of thinking and talking about madness were produced through the convergence of historical contingencies  rather than by a progressive march of humane advancements in understanding the truth or reality of the human body and the psyche. For example, the end of leprosy in Europe left a vacancy in leper houses, many of which became asylums for the mad, who, for the first time, were confined, treated, and studied en masse away from their communities. The new occupants of these asylums inherited the discourse of exclusion, disease, and fear that surrounded lepers:

What doubtless remained longer than leprosy, and would persist when the lazar houses had been empty for years, were the values and images attached to the figure of the leper as well as the meaning of his exclusion, the social importance of that insistent and fearful figure. (Foucault 1992, 6)

By showing how contingencies contributed to the historical formation of discourses around madness that persist today, Foucault does not uncover the buried truth of the past, but rather recovers the possibility for thinking differently about inherited “regimes of truth” by tracing the construction of knowledge. In a similar way, my high-school media literacy colleagues and I, in our English classes, focused our inquiry on the constructedness of media messages rather than using analysis to uncover true meanings or correct interpretations. Although this sort of critical thinking about media is often positioned as a way to interrupt the processes of media influence through awareness and active reasoning, the critical function of interrupting taken-for-granted meanings can also be seen as productive—a way of opening up space to think and communicate differently. In response to detractors who claimed that his work took apart truth without asserting any alternatives, Foucault emphasized this productive role of intellectual criticism:

The question of what reforms I will introduce is not, I believe, the objective that an intellectual should entertain. His role, since he works in the register of thought, is to see just how far thought can be freed so as to make certain transformations seem urgent enough so that others will attempt to bring them into effect, and difficult enough so that if they are brought about they will be deeply inscribed in the real. (Quoted in Rabinow 2009, 32)

Foucault’s conception of the intellectual as freeing thought so that others may take transformative action, without imposing or prescribing particular reforms oneself, continues to resonate with my preferences for best practices in media literacy pedagogy, which include creating opportunities for reflective media practice using critical thinking tools to facilitate student-led inquiry toward social action.

When I first encountered Foucault, as an undergrad in a course in intellectual history at Bucknell University, his project of problematizing taken-for-granted truths and disrupting naturalized knowledge resonated with my tastes and experiences in literature, film, art, and, especially, music. As a preteen and teen through the 1980s, I had musical tastes that wandered through many outsider forms: the transgressive, violent posturing of heavy metal; the gender-bending pleasures of glam rock; and the aggressive resistance to meaning itself in punk. Reading Foucault, I saw my years of playing in bands of these styles as various ways of trying to make space for new articulations of thought and feeling by disrupting and subverting older forms. Through the 1990s, I developed an affinity for something we called “lo-fi indie rock,” which basically involved playing with pop, rock, and folk-song forms in ways that stretched, inverted, disrupted, or repurposed their expected effects. Whether through self-reflexive lyrics, unpolished vocals, droning minimalist progressions, haphazard improvisation, bursts of noise, partial homages, sampled juxtapositions, willful sloppiness in performance, or hissing low fidelity in recording, I was constantly attracted to music that showed its seams, that used inconsistencies in structure and meaning to show me how I made sense of my experience using them and, in turn, attempted to transcend them in some way.

My professors cultivated this affinity and extended it across a variety of media. The discontinuities in the images of surrealist film, such as Buñuel and Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou (1929), called my attention to how my mind automatically tried to create logical and narrative connections, even where there was obvious intention to subvert and avoid them. Looking at surreal art, such as Marcel Duchamp’s readymade sculptures like Bicycle Wheel (2013), constructed of a bicycle wheel fused to a stool, I connected with theater artist Robert Wilson’s idea that a baroque candelabra on a baroque table is less striking and effective than a baroque candelabra on a rock (Shevtosa 2007, 56). From the juxtaposition of incongruous elements, I felt myself learning about the webs of meaning that had been constructed in my mind around each object. Gertrude Stein’s experimental writing, Samuel Beckett’s absurdist plays, and John Cage’s music composed by chance operations all had similar effects on me. As I took classes in film, literature, and theater that traced the emergence and development of genres and styles in each medium, I maintained a keen interest in the avant-garde attempts to expose, subvert, exceed, and transcend the constraints. Foucault reminded me that those constraints were always historical and seldom, if ever, inevitable. In media literacy education, I found a way of sharing tools for inquiry about media that created a similar effect as the music, art, and film that I loved and that worked in the same productive critical spirit as Foucault’s historical research. My teaching and learning in media literacy continues to revolve around this experience of seeing how meaning is constructed through a confluence of historical forces, media techniques, and compulsions to make sense of images, sound, language, and information.

Why interrupt the flow of automatic meaning-making? The interruption allows us to ask questions about whom these meanings benefit and harm, where they come from, how they{AU: OK?} might be understood differently, what purposes and political projects they serve, and how they relate to reality; in short, interruption allows us to ask questions about power. When I began teaching in 1999, I found that negotiating power relations is just as important in the classroom as it is in the analysis and production of media texts, and Foucault’s tools for analyzing power became most useful for me in developing media literacy pedagogy.

In the second phase of his work, Foucault developed an analytics of power that avoided notions of power as primarily repressive or held by certain people, groups, and institutions. For Foucault, power circulates through discourses, which influence the rules of communicating and thinking in particular ways (Foucault 1980b, 93). Although institutions may try to rigidly propagate certain rules of discourse to freeze or shift power relations in particular forms of knowledge, with the publication of Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1977) and his series of lectures on “governmentality” in 1978 (see Foucault 1991a), Foucault emphasized that discourses emerge and develop by way of people using them in practice. Power operates not only from the top down but also from the bottom up as people embody discourses and reproduce power-knowledge formations in their communications and actions. This suggests, for media literacy, the importance of balancing media inquiry about power among questions aimed at political economy, authors, institutions, texts, systems of representation, and audiences. Most of my English-teacher colleagues gravitated toward addressing power as held in one area and moving in one direction. In English, it’s easy to privilege the power of the text, the sign system, the author’s intention, or the reader’s response. Foucault pushed me to find ways to use the key questions of media literacy—about authors and audiences, messages and meanings, and representation and reality—as a way to see how power is exercised in a multidirectional, living system. When students pursue questions of power in media communication, I find the notion of power as circulating through networks of discourses and constructed knowledge to be a useful way to avoid the “blame game” of simply pointing to bias, political interests, and profit motives of authors, institutions, and markets.

Rather than a repressive, sovereign power that Foucault finds explicit in torture and other bodily punishments of the preenlightenment period, modern power takes the form of disciplines, which Foucault finds most explicit in the penal system of criminalization and rehabilitation (Foucault 1977). These disciplines operate through discourses that govern our understandings of ourselves in particular ways of thinking, acting, and speaking. We take up subject positions in discourse—teacher and student, doctor and patient, parent and child—through which we reproduce particular power relations, forms of knowledge, and ways of being. Thus, power is productive as discourses produce people (at least in terms of how they understand themselves, each other, and their world) and people produce discourse.

By thinking of power and knowledge as both disciplinary and productive, as exerting control and enabling participation, I am sensitized to the effects of my media literacy pedagogy as a practice that both asserts particular ways of thinking and acting, and enables students to participate in discourses from which they may benefit. For me, the trick in pedagogy is to balance at least three vectors of power in the classroom: (1) valuing and supporting students’ growth in their own primary discourses (what they know and like, and who they feel they are); (2) offering access to discourses that the teacher, school, and community believe will facilitate students’ participation in greater power; and (3) creating opportunities for students to transform discourses and challenge power relations. For media literacy, this balance means creating situations for students to learn informally (following and sharing their interests, knowledge, and skills in various media with peers), formally (learning established knowledge about media as well as skills for effective communication), and critically (problematizing and challenging media texts, institutions, and media-use practices that perpetuate injustice as the status quo). However, Foucault’s research on prisons and governmentality leaves little room for individual agency.

Foucault emphasizes how institutions, like media industries and education, perpetuate particular forms of knowledge and relations of power that, since the eighteenth century, have produced the options for selfhood.[2] For a teacher, this view seems particularly bleak. It paints informal learning as likely to reproduce the status quo, formal learning as the perpetuation of dominant discourses, and critical inquiry as another disciplinary discourse that we train students to take up in hopes of shifting power relations by promoting subjugated discourses.[3] Where is agency? How do individuals and groups make change? How can students learn to exercise the critical autonomy that has been central to media literacy education, from Len Masterman’s foundational Teaching about Television (1980) through Henry Jenkins’s “transparency problem” and “ethics challenge” {AU: Correct that these phrases are quotations? If so, please add page number(s) to citation.} in new media literacies (Jenkins et al. 2006)? In the last years before his untimely death, Foucault began to address questions about agency through his volumes on the history of sexuality and a series of lectures on “subjectivation,” wherein “he searched amongst the ancients for the answer to this question: how do subjects become active, how are the government of the self and others open to subjectivications that are independent of the biopolitical art of government?” (Lazzarato 2002, 106). What is media literacy if not the quest to become more active (strategic and effective) in the relations between our media and ourselves?
Care of the Self: Identity and Agency in Media Literacy Education
When I have introduced Foucault’s ideas about discursive power to high-school and college students, they have not reacted pessimistically at all. In 2001, I introduced my high-school juniors to some basic language of sociolinguistic discourse theory, which students applied in sociocultural analysis of interaction, speech acts, and personal identity. With the film Six Degrees of Separation (Schepisi 1993) as our central text, we discussed how the character Paul, a destitute African American street hustler, gains access and acceptance into the wealthy society of New York through a contrived co-membership in the discourse communities of a particular wealthy white couple. We find, in flashback segments of the film, that a privileged young white man had tutored Paul in the diction, manners, and conversational knowledge of high society. Together, my students and I mapped a web of notes detailing the various discourse communities through which Paul found co-membership or alienation. Parallel to our analysis of the film, students used these new conceptual tools to analyze their own social identities. They created personal “identity maps” by creating conceptual webs, in which they laid out various discourse communities they saw as part of their own “identity kits” while listing signifiers comprising these discourses.[4] Using these new conceptual tools, some students saw the available identity positions that they occupied as sufficient, or even overwhelming; they used media literacy to strengthen their understandings and uses of the discourses that situated their identities. Others saw themselves as able to combine aspects of the available subject positions into identities that were new and fresh, using their own sense of style and innovations in communication (lingo, images, music, etc.) as expressions of their freedom to be who they want to be and to influence others to recognize and share their values, politics, and ways of being. Still others saw identity as a playground and used media literacy, along with their intellectual curiosity, to explore new discourses and “try on” new identities.

In Foucault’s final years of work, he was particularly interested in how people become tied to their identities, accepting certain categories of individuality and performing within certain moral codes. He studied historical articulations of sexuality to analyze how we come to know ourselves and act as subjects of particular power relations, noting:

Power applies itself to immediate everyday life which categorizes the individual, marks him by his own individuality, attaches him to his own identity, imposes a law of truth on him which he must recognize and which others have to recognize in him. It is a form of power which makes individuals subjects. There are two meanings of the word subject: subject to someone else by control and dependence, and tied to his own identity by a conscience or self-knowledge. (Foucault 1983, 212)

Although cautious about the notion of individual agency, Foucault’s work was moving in the direction of discovering how individual subjects may willfully affect change in power relations organized by discourses (Rabinow 2009, 33). Consistent with his earlier analyses of the disciplinary function of institutional discourses, Foucault finds that the self does not emerge from the will of the individual alone. The individual enters into power relations through the process of subjectivation, which Foucault sees as involving intersections of personal, social, and cultural uses of discourses on morality and law.

In short, for an action to be “moral,” it must not be reducible to an act or a series of acts conforming to a rule, a law, or a value. Of course all moral action involves a relationship with reality in which it is carried out, and a relationship with the self. The latter is not simply “self-awareness” but self-formation as an “ethical subject,” a process in which the individual delimits that part of himself that will form the object of his moral practice, defines his position relative to the precept he will follow, and decides on a certain mode of being that will serve as his moral goal. And this requires him to act upon himself, to monitor, test, improve, and transform himself. There is no specific moral action that does not refer to a unified moral conduct; no moral conduct that does not call for the forming of oneself as an ethical subject; and no forming of the ethical subject without “modes of subjectivation” and an “ascetics” or “practices of the self” that support them (Foucault 1990, 28)

While the core concepts and questions of media literacy may be seen as tools for inquiry and reflexive (thoughtful and strategic) media practice, they are also “practices of the self,” ways in which we act upon ourselves, “to monitor, test, improve, and transform.” Media literacy education acts as an intervention in power relations by asserting knowledge, skills, and habits of mind to protect from media effects and influence, emancipate from oppressive ideologies, or facilitate participation in digital cultures. Personally, I value all of these interventions for what they offer students, so long as we strive to make media literacy’s interventions in power relations transparent to our students and to ourselves as part of our inquiry. I do not want to be limited to playing the role of socializing agent on behalf of the community, the government, or other hegemonic institutions my school is enmeshed with. I want to serve individuals with opportunities to understand how they may direct their own identities through mindful action. However, I can’t shake the recognition of “power/knowledge” and of subjectivity that Foucault has shown me. So I look to add agency where Foucault left off. I seek to support a strategic awareness of how my students’ participation in group and cultural discourses constitute their personal senses of themselves. Media are an integral part of this process, and discussing the processes of media communication are a useful way to learn how power works in order to gain conceptual tools for making strategic choices in our social and cultural participation, through media and otherwise.

My journey with Foucault continues. As an artist, I do noise improvisation with nonmusicians to explore how our tastes and meaning-making might open up through a refusal of established forms. I play with digital remix to inhabit and subvert the identities constructed by familiar media texts. As a teacher, recently I have explored how analysis and production of digital remix create opportunities to learn through the juxtaposition of discourses associated with elements of different media texts. As a scholar, I have followed Foucault more directly in my dissertation research on the history of media literacy in Media and Values magazine (RobbGrieco 2014). By looking at how notions of media literacy emerged and developed from past discourses of media studies, education reform, and popular culture, I hope to lend perspective to the current tensions and illuminate opportunities for synergy in our disparate contemporary field of media literacy education.

As I create new knowledge, Foucault keeps me mindful of how my work has implications for power relations and identity positions among teachers, students, and media. I locate my own agency in the possibility of affecting the formation of discourses through my production of knowledge as a scholar and my media production as an artist, which I strive to align with the intellectual curiosity central to media literacy pedagogy. Foucault wrote:

As for what motivated me, it is quite simple; I would hope that in the eyes of some people it might be sufficient enough. It was curiosity—the only kind of curiosity, in any case, that is worth acting upon with this degree of obstinacy: not the curiosity that seeks to assimilate what is proper for one to know, but that which enables one to get free of oneself. After all, what would be the value of the passion for knowledge if it resulted only in a certain amount of knowledgeable-ness and not, in one way or another and to the extent possible, in the knower’s straying afield of himself? There are times in life when the question of knowing if one can think differently than one thinks, and perceive differently than one sees, is absolutely necessary if one is to go on looking and reflecting at all. (Foucault 1990, 8–9)

In media literacy education, I find an opportunity to share this motivation, inherited in part from Foucault, to find new ways of knowing and being.
Buckingham, D. 2003. Media Education: Literacy, Learning and Contemporary Culture. Cambridge, UK: Polity.
Buñuel, L., and S. Dalí. 1929. Un Chien Andalou. Directed by Luis Buñuel. Paris: Studio de Ursulines.
Foucault, M. 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Random House.
———. 1980a. “Prison Talk.” In Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972–1977, edited by C. Gordon, 37–54. New York: Pantheon Books.
———. 1980b. “Two Lectures.” In Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972–1977, edited by C. Gordon, 78–108. New York: Pantheon Books.
———. 1983. “The Subject and Power.” In Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, 2nd ed., edited by H. L. Dreyfus and P. Rabin,  208–226. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
———. 1990. The History of Sexuality. Vol. 2, The Use of Pleasure. Translated by Robert Hurley. {AU: Correct?}New York: Random House.
———. 1991a. “Governmentality.” In The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, edited by G. Burchell, C. Gordon, and P. Miller, 87–104. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
———. 1991b. Remarks on Marx: Conversations with Duccio Trombadori. Translated by {AU: Please add name of translator.}. New York: Semiotext.
———. 1992. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason.Translated by {AU: Please add name of translator.}. London: Routledge.Gee, J. P. 1998. “What Is Literacy?” In Negotiating Academic Literacies: Teaching and Learning across Languages and Cultures, edited by V. Zamel and R. Spack, 51–59. Routledge: London.
Jenkins, H. R. Purushotma, M. Weigel, K. Clinton, and A. Robison. 2006. Confronting the Challenges of a Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Lazzarato, M. 2002. “From Biopower to Biopolitics.” Pli, the Warwick Journal of Philosophy 13:99–113.
Masterman, L. 1980. Teaching about Television. London: Macmillan.
Rabinow, P. 2009. “Foucault’s Untimely Struggle: Towards a Form of Spirituality.” Theory, Culture and Society 26 (6): 25–44.
RobbGrieco, M. 2014. {AU: Please add citation to list.}
Schepisi, F. 1993. Six Degrees of Separation. Directed by Fred Schepisi. Los Angeles: MGM.
Shevtosa, M. 2007. Robert Wilson. Oxon, UK: Routledge.

[1] The book was first printed in 1961 as Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique.
[2] Foucault calls these options “technologies of the self,” which work as the microprocesses or “capillaries” of power (Foucualt 1980a,{AU:Correct source?} 39); these self-disciplines are articulated by subjects taking up identities within networks of available institutional and social discourse, a mutually constituting process (the rules of discourse make thought and communication possible, the performance of discourse reconstitutes and reifies the rules, albeit imperfectly, which thus allows for change).
[3] Or as David Buckingham calls it, teaching kids to “talk posh” about media (Buckingham 2003, 110).
[4] The “identity kit” concept is adapted from Gee 1998.

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