Foucault News

News and resources on French thinker Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

Alan McKinlay (2009) Foucault, plague, Defoe, Culture and Organization, 15:2, 167-184, DOI: 10.1080/14759550902925336

For Foucault, the experience of plague is a vital moment in the development of new techniques of power and ways of thinking about the social world. Plague compels city or state authorities to take extreme measures to control disease. Quarantine, of the home, the city, and the nation forces assessments of issues of state power, individual liberty and medical knowledge. The most important study of plague during this period was provided by Daniel Defoe’s (1722) A journal of the plague year. Defoe’s narrative style blurred the line between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’, an authorial strategy similar to Foucault’s. If quarantine marks the turn towards disciplinary power and knowledge in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, then its failure to check the cholera epidemic of 1832 signalled the shift toward ‘biopower’, the assumption by the state of pastoral as well as disciplinary roles to public health. The state’s new role in preserving or improving the health of the population relied upon the steady accumulation of detailed empirical data. The administrator gradually displaced the author as the chronicler of disease, health and normality.

Keywords: Foucault, biopower, plague, surveillance, Defoe

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