Power/Knowledge is a loosely related collection of writings and interviews that cover a crucial transitional period in Michel Foucault’s development as a thinker and theorist of power—his enduring theme. Three distinct periods can be discerned in his work. The first, which begins in the late 1950’s and continues roughly until the late 1960’s, may be called the “archaeological” period—a term that Foucault himself used to characterize his early methodology. The principal book of this phase is his Les Mots et les choses: Une Archéologie des sciences humaines (1966; The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, 1970). In this work, Foucault is concerned primarily with the investigation of communities of discourse and the way in which particular languages or disciplinary codes define those communities. This early phase in his work is heavily influenced by structuralism, especially by the structuralist emphasis upon synchronic rather than diachronic modes of analysis. This privileging of space over time, paradigm over progress continues in the second phase of Foucault’s work; however, after 1968 he gradually abandoned his earlier claims for the primacy of discourse.

In the second, or “genealogical” phase, Foucault’s emphasis shifted to an examination of power. The principal book of this second period is Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison (1975; Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 1977). In that work, “genealogy,” as adapted from philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, refers to an investigative method that assumes that “truth,” wherever it appears, is always relative to an order of power. Now discourse is but one among an array of social practices that may all be understood as matrices of power.

Finally, in the last years of his life, Foucault did not so much abandon the genealogical method as adapt it for political and moral purposes. This period, which may be termed Foucault’s “ethical” phase, is concerned above all with the modern notion of sexuality and its origins in Christian ideas of the self. The principal work of this final period is Histoire de la sexualité (1976-1984, 3 volumes; The History of Sexuality, 1978-1987). Although most of the interviews and essays in Power/Knowledge focus on the second and third phases of Foucault’s career, the reader will also find useful clarifications of the early research.

A Theory of Power

Chapter 5 of Power/Knowledge, two lectures delivered in France in 1976, serves as an overview of Foucault’s genealogical research. In this chapter, Foucault, in a retrospective mood, attempts to explain the evolution of his theory of power. In the first of these lectures, he outlines the breakup after World War II of all the totalizing political and ideological systems dating from the Enlightenment. The status of the term “knowledge” has been profoundly altered. The privilege once bestowed upon universal, hierarchical, and essentialist knowledge claims is now disrupted by what Foucault calls an irruption of “subjugated knowledges.” Subjugated knowledge is knowledge under the signs of the repressed, the marginal, the fragmented, and above all, the local. Subjugated knowledges are those voices or traditions that were silenced by the discourses of modernity. Foucault implies that such repressed or degraded knowledge has already begun to sprout through the cracks in the once-shining façade of the Age of Reason; however, he also argues the need for critical, erudite researchers such as himself, molelike students of hidden knowledge who will burrow deep beneath the foundations of progressivist historiography to uncover the irrational, the discontinuous, and the uncanny. Such an antifoundationalist history, or genealogy, Foucault believes, will serve an emancipatory purpose; it will liberate local knowledge and local histories from the oblivion to which...

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The manner in which power in the modern age manifests itself through institutions of normalization is discussed extensively in chapters 2 and 3 of Power/Knowledge, both of which consist of interviews conducted in 1975, the year of the French publication of Discipline and Punish—Foucault’s study of the modern penal system and the manner in which it evolved from a system of punishment to one of disciplinary surveillance. In these interviews, Foucault responds to his critics and attempts to clarify and elaborate upon the arguments found in that work. Central to his thesis is the notion that the appearance of the idea of prison reform in the early nineteenth century corresponds to (and is covertly linked to) the decline of sovereign authority in the person of the monarch. Traditional criminal punishment was, he notes in chapter 2 (“Prison Talk”), an exercise of power from above; every form of criminality was, in essence, a threat to the sovereign. Thus punishment was conceived as exemplary vengeance. With the rise of democratic states and the decentralization of political authority, punishment ceases to be conceived of as vengeance and is, instead, promoted as reform. Although it is often thought that the movement for prison reform arose only after certain abuses had become apparent, Foucault argues that the discourse of reform was apparent from the very inception of the modern prison. Further, reform functioned principally through methods of surveillance, a term that signifies for...

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Sexuality and the Self

The final chapters of Power/Knowledge, particularly chapter 10, “The History of Sexuality,” indicate the new direction that Foucault’s research had begun to take in the final years of his life. Certainly there is a shift away from genealogy understood as the study of how subjects (selves) are fashioned and constrained by institutions; but the genealogical method is not so much abandoned as adapted to the study of how subjects are fashioned vis-à-vis self-imposed ethical codes or systems. More particularly, the shift involves a movement away from the study of power toward the study of the origins of modern sexuality which, at least since psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, has been the primary source for the individual’s self-understanding. In other words, Foucault is arguing that modern notions of the self cannot be properly understood outside a genealogy of sexual ethics. What is most radical in Foucault’s inquiry into the history of sexuality is his claim that sexuality as such is in fact not some state of nature but a social invention of recent vintage. His thesis reverses the romantic claim that subjects somehow possess an inherent, biologically given sexual role that is closely related to the truth of one’s innermost nature. Foucault seeks to destroy this fundamental idea of a unique inner nature that can be explored, with the help of experts, and liberated from repressive external forces, that is, societal conventions, religious...

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Foucault’s Impact

Although Power/Knowledge cannot be regarded as one of Foucault’s seminal works, it has nonetheless exerted a significant influence across a number of disciplines. One reason for this influence is the timing of the work, appearing as it does at a crucial moment of transition between the middle and late phases of his career. Another reason is that Power/Knowledge is far more accessible than most of Foucault’s texts, probably because of the exigencies of the interview format. In this regard, it is also worth noting that the interview is a highly regarded genre in French intellectual circles and is often used by scholars to introduce major clarifications and/or qualifications of earlier work, as well as to outline plans for works in progress. In the English-speaking world, Power/Knowledge is among Foucault’s most often cited texts.

Because Foucault’s work, including Power/Knowledge, is transdisciplinary, its impact has been impressively broad. Disciplines as diverse as historiography, philosophy, political theory, geography, art history, literary criticism, sociology, and linguistics all have practitioners whose research and teaching reflect the influence of Foucault’s powerful adaptation of Nietzsche’s genealogical mode of analysis. The influence of Power/Knowledge has been especially evident among British and American literary critics. It is no exaggeration to say that the so-called New Historicism, the most prominent school of American literary theory in the 1990’s, would not have been possible without Foucault’s notion that literary works are not themselves autonomous aesthetic objects but rather the products of discursive networks of power.


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

Arac, Jonathan, ed. After Foucault: Humanistic Knowledge, Postmodern Challenges. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1988. This book contains essays on Michel Foucault presented in 1985, the year after Foucault’s death, at a conference sponsored by the Institute for the Humanities of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Includes bibliography and index.

Barker, Phillip. Michel Foucault: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998. This book provides an introduction to Foucault and his thought. Includes bibliographies and an index.


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