Michel Foucault is irrefutably among the most influential thinkers of the past thirty years. Theorists in the academy, literary and otherwise, 1 have embraced Foucauldian notions of historical contingency and disjunction in their interpretation of (for example) cultural value systems, historical data and linguistic acts. The readiness with which disciplines sharing few or none of their methodological assumption embraced Foucault's theoretical work rest in part on the very complexity and dynamism of his thought. In other words, Foucault's ideas changed a lot over his long career and when an academic study takes up Foucault, it rarely takes up his work in full, but rather privileges one or two of the many different shapes his thought took. But it is the fact that there are so many of these shapes that makes his thinking at home in so many methodological contexts.
In light of this multiformity an explanation is in order; the Foucault that I present in this project does not pretend to some kind of encyclopedic scope, nor does it adhere to a particular moment in Foucault's development. Rather, I have looked for Foucauldian ideas that provide new critical lenses through which to understand Alexis de Tocqueville's study of the American prisons. While I have not undertaken to explain the portions of Foucault that do not (in my understanding) pertain to Tocqueville's study, neither have I undertaken to provide a single, cohesive narrative in which all these pieces may fit cleanly together. The import of this project is not in its capacity to limit our understanding of Democracy in America but rather in its capacity to expand it, and if in the interest of that expansion my analysis seems at times to undermine itself, well, I doubt if Foucault would be too displeased.
For all his developmental metamorphoses, there are a few things which with Foucault remained concerned for most of his career. Among the most central of these (at least for our purposes) is the role of normality and naturality in Western culture. While scholars have too often given into the temptation to read Foucault's works simply as attacks on cultural notions of "the natural." 2 While his work is far more complex than any teleological project of subversion, his interest in demonstrating the status of the natural as a construction pervades his most important work. As Paul Rainbow explains in the introduction to his Foucault Reader
[f]or Foucault there is no external position of certainty, no universal understanding that is beyond history and society... His main tactic is to historicize such supposedly universal categories as human nature each time he encounters them. (4)However, that tactic took a very particular form in many of Foucault's most important works, including those works of most direct importance to Tocqueville (such as 1975's Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison ). And the form which they took may best be understood by doing a little work to historicize Foucauldian thought itself.
Foucault began his work as an important intellectual force in the context of French structuralism, which had begun in the linguistic work of Ferdinand De Saussure (1857-1913), but was long in making its way into philosophy and literary theory. It was thus still "a relatively new intellectual trend" (Groden and Kreiswirth, 277) when Foucault embraced it in the mid 1960s. The exact nature of structuralism would be impossible to explain fully here, 3 but one of its central assumptions (the influence of which is quite visible in Foucault's post-structuralist thought) was that all meaning - linguistic, social and otherwise - was oppositionally defined. For structuralists, the word cow, for example, does not mean independent of the other words in its language (or, structure). Rather, the sound-image cow designates a conceptual space outside of which everything is not signified by cow. When you say cow you are not signifying an independent concept, but rather a concept which is not horse, not beef, not run and not magenta. In short, the sound-image cow is linked to a concept of which the only attribute is that it is distinct from every other concept in its system (in this case, the system of the English language).
So, Foucault sought to demonstrate that "supposedly universal" categories like natural, healthy or rational were actually both socially constructed and mutable; but as a structuralist he did so by demonstrating how these categories were oppositionally defined and how those oppositions had changed over time.
In showing, for example, how sexual normativity was constructed and reconstructed in Western culture (History of Sexuality Volume I, 1976), Foucault discusses at length the various ways in which sexual transgression and perversion had been constructed, and how normality had been defined as their opposite. Among the most effective ways in which he subverts the "naturality" of a given body of sexual acts is to show the instability of the category "unnatural." He shows that the group of acts understood as unnatural has always been in flux, and that if the unnatural had been constructed and reconstructed in different ways at various historical moments, the natural must also have been engaged in that flux; it is thus not natural at all (insofar as natural denotes that which is trans-historical, essential and not socially constructed).
Foucault's preoccupation with the historicity of the natural is central to much of his work, but The History of Sexuality is not representative of that preoccupation in at least one important sense. The social institution which concerned Foucault for most of his career was not just the abnormal, but the designation of a physical space in which to house the abnormal; and it is here that Foucault's theoretical work is most pertinent to Tocqueville's study of prisons.