Original Research

Foucault and the origins of the disciplined subject: Post-subjectivity as a condition for transformation in education

Martina L. Mabille
Transformation in Higher Education | Vol 4 | a72 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/the.v4i0.72 | © 2019 Martina L. Mabille | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 17 May 2019 | Published: 18 November 2019

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Martina L. Mabille, Department of Ethics and Apologetics, Faculty of Theology, North-West University, Potchefstroom, South Africa

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Background: The need for transforming South African education can ultimately be traced to a form of Western subjectivity which dominated Europe since the classical age (1600–1750). The notions of ‘discipline’ and ‘subjectivity’ suggest distinct associations with repressive regimes like apartheid, and the present article will argue that the assumptions behind apartheid education cannot be understood without understanding the still more foundational assumptions – taken as axiom – underlying Western subjectivity. This conception of subjectivity underlies the ‘disciplined society’ and its concomitant ethos of expansion, ranging from its colonial projects to the rise of the human sciences. As a result, it is of considerable value for the South African educational environment to consider Michel Foucault’s unmasking of the interplay between subjectivity, truth and power, and to explore the possibilities offered by Foucault’s own ethic of transgression.

Aim: Drawing on Michel Foucault’s genealogy of the modern subject and archaeologies of modern knowledge, it will be demonstrated that the process of transformation of higher education in South Africa not only provides the opportunity to tend to a grave historical injustice, but also to develop a critique of modernist educational practices of the West and thus to cultivate its own educational ethos as a more just and authentic South African alternative.

Setting: South African Higher Education in the 21st century.

Methods: Foucauldian–Nietzschean genealogy, in the spirit of Foucault’s own use of Nietzsche: ‘The only valid tribute to thought such as Nietzsche’s is precisely to use it, to deform it, to make it groan and protest’.

Result: A re-considered and reconfigured notion of educational identity beyond the confines of modernist Western subjectivity.

Conclusion: While full justice can never be done to the full horrors of the past, the process of transformation in education may provide an opportunity to not only address injustices in the past, but also to create a new African educational ethic which may contribute something truly new to the world’s educational heritage.


education; enlightenment; Foucault; transformation; progress; power


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