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Foucault kept him awake

Foucault kept him awake

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts/Simone Golob

Hans Schouwenburg inspired by Michel Foucault

Hans Schouwenburg was born a year after French philosopher Michel Foucault died from AIDS in 1984. The PhD graduate from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences was drawn into Foucault’s ideas when he was a student. “Things that you took for granted, he brutally discredited. I started to doubt everything. It almost led to an existential crisis.”

During his research master’s of Cultural History at the University of Utrecht, Hans Schouwenburg was attracted by Michel Foucault, one of the most important intellectuals of the twentieth century. “He was on the menu every week. Great! The Order of Things, a study on social sciences, turned my world upside down.”
Schouwenburg was one of the few enthusiasts. “Most students hated Foucault. His style of writing is not easy, very expressive, with lots of metaphors, something that really appeals to me. In The Order of Things (in French Les mots et les choses) from 1966, it is all about deconstruction. Foucault regards the entire image of mankind in the Humanities as something that can and will disappear again. And in this way, man is himself a construction. He compares our image of mankind with a face drawn in the sand near the sea’s tideline.”

Schouwenburg was consumed by it all, he read more of Foucault, it even kept him awake. “It became an obsession. I started to doubt everything, my study, life, questioning what the point of it all was.” With a friend, he left for Paris to do a ‘Foucault walk’. “We had read his biography and walked past the house in which he grew up, the College where he had taught and the small monastery library where he always sat and only looked up – the story goes – if a pretty young boy walked past. Foucault was a homosexual and struggled with it for a long time.”

He is no longer an obsession, but the philosopher never completely let go of him. He tries to encompass his style of writing in his own work. “On the first page of Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Foucault gives a meticulous description of a torturing session. Very cruel, but so vivid. And the clever thing is that Foucault doesn’t use it as a trick to attract the reader. No, he uses it as a metaphor, to show how people used to deal with criminals in public. That it had to be a spectacle and clearly visible. Then he describes how punishment has changed over the years: we no longer have corporal punishment, but we put people ‘in prison’, under surveillance.”
Schouwenburg praises Foucault’s method of contributing towards the ‘now’. “He didn’t just research the history of prison life, but also looked at how things developed in the present. He talked to prisoners.”

Schouwenburg takes more or less the same path in his PhD research on sustainable development. “I go back in order to understand the present better. The concept of sustainability was used for the very first time in a published World Conservation Strategy in 1980. I want to know: what function did this term have, who thought of it. Now everyone is talking about sustainability. People feel it is important. But why has it not come about?”

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