Research Paper on Michel Foucault
Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was a French philosopher, one of the most important figures in the development of the Critical theory and considered among the most influential intellectuals in the 20th century. In his work, Foucault tried to combine between history and philosophy and to establish a new school of studying the history of thinking mechanisms.
Besides his intellectual and academic involvement which we will explore in part below, Foucault was known as a political activist during the troubling days of France during the 1960s. His private life were quite wild; he was known as a homosexual and lived hedonist life, especially during his last years which he mostly spent in the US. He was infected by the HIV virus, which eventually led to his death and helped to a better understanding and social sensitivity towards the carriers of this disease.
As mentioned, one of Foucault’s main fields of study was thinking processes, in particular the development of critical thinking as a basis for the thinker’s state of mind and his perception of the world. In his book “The Order of Things” (L'ordre du Discours), based on his opening lecture in College de France, Foucault devoted attention to concepts and methods of discussion and control, criticizing the dominating conceptions in which people tend to evaluate opinions, rationality and the limitations of judgement. The main argument in the book is that different historical periods varied in regard to hidden perceptions of true and false, and those were presented as scientific truth. Moreover, those perceptions were temporary, as the writer reveals substantial and relative changes between periods another.
Interestingly, Foucault decided to open his manifest with a thorough analysis of the 1656 painting “Las Maninas” (The Maids of Honour) by the Spanish artist Diego Velazquez. Let us spend a moment to describe the work:
The painting depicts the Infanta Margarita, daughter of Philip IV king of Spain. She is surrounded by her maids, her dwarfs and her dog. To the left of the picture we can see Velazquez himself, partially hiding behind a big canvas and working a painting. On his left there is a mirror, in which a reflection of the royal couple can be seen. Velazquez arranged the characters in a very interesting manner. Although she is the smallest figure in the painting (besides the reflection of her parents), the Infenta is without a doubt the centre of the composition and the main source of movement in the work, as the two maids kneel to her from both sides. The dwarf, who is as tall as the Infenta, is grey and ugly, whereas the Infenta looks glamorous, fragile and astonishing.
Foucault finds the composition of figures as incredibly genius. Although they are hardly to be seen, it is possible that King Philip and his queen are in fact the theme of the painting, as all the others’ attention is on them (parallel reality); the looks at them as they are being painted (as we can assume, although we cannot see the front side of the canvas). In addition, the whole situation seems as a visit of the Infenta in a studio where her parents are being painted.
However, as spectators we stand where the royal couple is presumably located in the room, as if we are not a part of the scene. Since we cannot see the painting, it is possible to assume that Velazquez is currently working on our portrait at the moment; while we are watching the actions of the princess and her maids, the painter looks at us, examining us and creating a situation of dialog between him and the spectator at the time. When the spectator moves away from the painting, a new dialog will start with the next one and so on. The artist can also move from the shaded area where he stands to behind the huge canvas, where a third reality (in addition to the studio and our current physical space) takes place.
Foucault move forward to claim that Velazquez broke conventions of space and generally accepted principles of relations, such as those between the spectator and the artist and between the latter and his model and work. The painting creates an open reality where it is impossible to know exactly which the inner and outer sides of the work are, what is real and what is merely a reflection and when the past, present and future take place.
The painting is bordered from both sides by a trace of window (light) on one side and the canvas on the other. This a a symbolic confrontation between the visible and enlightened and the hidden which turns its back on us.
All the representations in the painting (the pictures hanged on the wall and the canvas) are faded and it is almost impossible to see what they represent. Hence the unique appearance of the mirror, which looks as if it has some internal light. The frontal space separates between our reality (in the back of the room) and the back, darkened wall, which is composed from representations (the pictures without much details) and a hint for reality (the mirror). The topological structure of the painting becomes stronger when considering the fact that a thorough study of Velazquez’s works has found that the only painting which match in size to the canvas in the painting is “Las Maninas” itself; hence another paradox is added to the spectator.
Looking at the picture, the observer cannot find the borders of space, as the two possible spaces (inside and outside the painting) interact with the third one. As there are endless combinations and individual solutions to create an understanding of this situation (painting a portrait while other things take place in space and time), we can consider this work as painting about painting (Ihde, 2003) and not as a plastic representation of a certain reality. Moreover, not only painting is discussed here, but the change in perceptions through the centuries, as reflected through the art of the time.
On the philosophical level, Foucault’s main interest is to use this visual example as a starting point to his analysis of the representation and its development from the Classical Age to this time. The painting represents the three aspects of representation, namely the producer of the representation, the element being represented and the viewing of it. The presenter in this case is the painter, but he can be just as well a scientist or an historian. The element is the model being painted. As mentioned, Velazquez lets us to decide who and where the model is, including the exciting option that it is us, in addition to being those who receive and examine the representation, or the final product.
The lack of space, time and define relations serves the writer’s point that it is impossible to bring all these elements into a unified mechanism. It also serves as a turning point in the understanding of representation over time, from a bounded sphere where God (or gods) is the only source of judgement to a critical, interdisciplinary perception. As there is more than one source of understanding it is clear that perceptions can vary, leading to changing boundaries of the boundaries of discussion and observation.
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