Michel Foucault

Start Free Trial

On the question of Michel Foucault's concept of knowledge and power, how is knowledge tied to power, and is it possible to use Foucault's idea of knowledge and power to discuss the notion of female beauty?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The topic of the application of Foucault's concepts to female beauty has been the subject of a goodly number of missives and tomes by written by feminists. One of the problems feminists see with Foucault's work is that he deliberately did not discuss gendered issues, such as female beauty, because of his concept that there is no "natural body": for Foucault, the idea of "body," thus gender, is socially constructed as may be illustrated by various ancient tribes, such as the Maori, who practice male and female scarification while other tribes, such as the Kayan Lahwi, encumber womens' necks with long strands of neck rings, which amplifies Foucault's idea that there is no "natural body."

Knowledge and Power

Foucault rejects the normative concept of negative power that is a force for disunity that coerces, forces, compels and restrains, such as the power shown by feudal systems leading to the peasants' revolts--or popular revolts since the upheavals were not restricted to peasants--in Europe and England during the 14th and 15th centuries, such as the sixty militant revolts in Germany between 1336 and 1525.

In contrast, Foucault defines positive power that is the constructive, shaping side of power that forms societies, cultures and individual lives. For Foucault power is a creative source that undergirds all forward movement in personal and social existence. In other words, power is an all-pervasive element of social construction that, on the one hand, may coerce, dominate and repress, but, on the other hand, is the source of all personal and social advancement. The source of power itself is knowledge as unfolded in scientific and philosophical understanding and "truth," which itself is not absolute. According to Foucault, who was a political philosopher and political activist, "power is everywhere" and power "comes from everywhere"; power is a "regime of truth" and, in constant flux, pervades society so is consequently not restricted to the hands of the "sovereign power," which is the power that requires obedience to the law (Foucault qtd by IDS).

Knowledge, in what Foucault termed "power/knowledge," serves two functions and relates to power in two directions: whereas knowledge feeds the development of power, power results in the generation of knowledge. This possibly confusing concept is easy to understand if looked at from a real-life perspective. Using the Large Hadron Collider's (LHC's) quest for the once theorized Higgs boson, we can illustrate Foucault's concept by saying that it was knowledge of a plausible ElectroVolt range for the Higgs boson's existence that led to CERN's successful construction of the LHC experiments that sought to isolate and identify the Higgs boson, posited to be so powerful in shaping the universe in which matter dominates, while it is the powerful results of LHC that--after finding the Higgs--accumulated data suggesting the tentative new knowledge that the elusive, oscillating neutrino may play a heretofore unrealized role in stabilizing the expected (though not occurring) annihilation of matter-antimatter pairings. Knowledge informs power while power creates knowledge. Foucault posited this "complex relations between power and knowledge without saying they are the same thing" (Clare O'Farrell).

Power/Knowledge and Female Beauty

It is difficult to apply Foucault's power/knowledge concept to female beauty because, as feminist critique makes clear, Foucault himself did not apply his reasoning to gendered questions because of his "no natural body" concept. 

Nothing in man--not even his body--is sufficiently stable to serve as a basis for self recognition or for understanding [others] ... There is no "natural" body or pre-discursive, essential human subject ... it is rather that the individual is carefully fabricated in [our social order], according to a whole technique of forces and bodies. (Foucault qtd by King]

Since Foucault does not include gender distinction, "pre-given natural sex difference" (King), in discourse [i.e., "the material verbal traces left by history" (O'Farrell)], how power/knowledge may be applied to female beauty must be extrapolated from his text. In line with this, another critique made by feminists is that Foucault's non-gendered discourse about body being "all one" is reduced to meaning all "male" (King). While Foucault advocates an "all one" body with no male/female binary (i.e., opposing distinctiveness), Western society is predicated upon that binary and demonstrates throughout history a reaction to that binary of "discipline and punishment" because while men are defined by society as rational and physiologically reliable, women are defined by society as irrational, hysterical [in Foucault's "description of ‘the hysterization of women’s bodies’ (King)] and physiologically unreliable. 

the cultural insistence on a male/female binary that derogates the female body in relation to the male inevitably leads to more intense policing of women’s bodies and specific apparatuses of control. Therefore, treating the body ‘as one’ is not viable; his concept of power cries out for gender specific analysis and in that analysis gender needs to be acknowledged (King)

Another feminist critique of Foucault is that his idea of discipline and punishment is directly applicable to women in society as the result of male power over non-male females: power invested in the male function of the male/female binary. Feminists contend that by withdrawing from discussion of gendered issues, Foucault collaborates with gendered power administration of discipline and punishment, which are manifest through cultural delimiters on the female body.

Feminists stress that the male/female binary have resulted in "all one" male/non-male Western cultural constructions. If for Foucault body is held to be a social construct with beauty as a resultant social construct, this is the starting point for extrapolating how Foucault's concept of power/knowledge may be applied to female beauty. Established knowledge informs power through scientific and educational knowledge sources that continue expanding and result in generated new knowledge that reveals the unfoundedness of discipline and punishment applied to women in an attempt to deconstruct woman as inferior to man.

Thus the application of Foucault's concept of power/knowledge to the idea of female beauty results in a knowledge-power-knowledge based rejection of all contemporary social and cultural delimiters defining and restraining women and women's beauty through disciplining and punishing via cultural trends that emphasize female biological differences and erotic stimulators (e.g., breast emphasizing bras, buttock emphasizing stilettos, etc) and that emphasize, or dramatize, the otherness of female beauty, such as makeups and grooming regimes, e.g., nail art, that contribute to make woman further non-male. This revolutionized rejection of male power over female non-maleness would demonstrate how knowledge of scientific and philosophical truth creates power that then generates new knowledge that leads to a new paradigm in sociocultural construction of female beauty that is then freed of the disciplining and punishing restraints imposed related to differentiating biological differences, erotic stimulators, and dramatized otherness.


Clare O'Farrell. "Key Concepts." michel-foucault.com, 2007.

"Foucault: power is everywhere." PowerCube.com, IDS, Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, UK.

Angela King. "The Prisoner of Gender: Foucault and the Disciplining of the Female Body." Journal of International Women's Studies, 2004.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team