Foucault for Beginners (For Beginners)

foucault-header.jpgGiven the intellectual effort required to tackle Michael Foucault’s works, it’s not unreasonable to want to know a bit more about them before plunging. That’s where this book comes in.



156 pgs., B&W; $14.95

(W: Lydia Alix Fillingham; A: Moshe Süsser)

Michel Foucault may have taken over from Jean Paul Sartre as the French philosopher whose name is synonymous with cool. You have to love a guy who wrote about the oppressive purposes of societal institutions such as prisons and mental hospitals, produced a three volume study on the history of sexuality, and was a political activist as well. It certainly doesn’t hurt his hipness rating that he took LSD and had a fondness for S&M which he embraced in California’s gay scene. He was also the first French celebrity to die of AIDS, which was unfortunate from his point of view but performed a public service in increasing public knowledge about the disease, rather as Rock Hudson’s death forced President Reagan to acknowledge the existence of AIDS in America. 

To know the work of Foucault is to be both intellectual and radical, or at least that’s the image presented in American popular culture (e.g., You’ve Got Mail). Unfortunately, it’s easier to drop Foucault’s name than to read his books, which can be forbidding: sentences the length of paragraphs, paragraphs the length of pages, and specialized vocabulary introduced without explanation present formidable obstacles to the newly enthusiastic.  Given the intellectual effort required to tackle his works, it’s not unreasonable to want to know a bit more about them before plunging. That’s where Foucault for Beginners, a volume in the Documentary Comic Book series published by For Beginners Books, comes in.

Author Lydia Alix Fillingham first introduces Foucault’s life and ideas and places him in the context of the French intellectual society of his day. She then devotes a chapter each to his major works: Madness and Civilization, The Birth of the Clinic, The Order of Things, Discipline and Punish, and The History of Sexuality. Her refreshing writing style is the opposite of the well-formed paragraph which may have been enforced upon you in school: she breaks information into nuggets, mixes quotations with narrative and imagined conversations which illustrate philosophical points, and differentiates the elements with varying font styles and sizes plus boxes and other graphic elements.

Illustrations by Moshe Süsser draw on a variety of styles, from simple line drawings to woodcuts and halftones, and the cover illustration is a stylized ink portrait of Foucault highlighted with touches of color.  The text and graphic elements work together to break up habitual habits of reading and present Foucault’s major ideas in a format which makes them easy to retain. It’s also so much fun to read that it whets the appetite for more, an impulse which is facilitated by textual suggestions about which books are easier/harder to read and a three-page bibliography of works by and about Foucault in English and French.

Further information about Foucault for Beginners is available from the For Beginners web site (where it can also be purchased at a discount),  | Sarah Boslaugh

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