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Last Updated on September 10, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 330

Foucault in many ways defines post-structuralist philosophy, and Power/Knowledge gives an overview of his work and its evolution over time, showcasing both his methodological approach and some of his core theories on topics central to his work, such as epistemology, theorizing power, and studies on sexuality and prisons. Foucault's framing of power as productive and the specific way in which he positions individuals, identity, and ideas as shaped by power lays the basis for many present-day understandings of identity, especially in queer theory and women's studies.

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Writing in France shortly after of the near-revolution of 1968, a core function of Foucault's work is to understand why a social uprising that previous frameworks positioned as incredibly strong failed to produce the kind of lasting, revolutionary change it promised. While many philosophers and social theorists struggled with this question and with the question of whether or not revolution was possible (especially within relatively stable Western states), Foucault's handling of these questions through reformulating his view of power produced analytic frameworks that are still regularly cited to this day.

Due in part to the difficulty most readers find in understanding Foucault (especially after his works have been translated), people mobilize Foucault's work to a variety of ends. Some claim that it suggests revolution is completely impossible, while others simply argue it calls for new forms of revolution. Some view his work as deeply pessimistic about the possibility of any form of meaningful resistance to dominant power structures, while others argue he shows a myriad of points at which resistance can break out. The fact that Foucault is so often cited to such opposing ends makes it all the more useful to read and interpret his work directly, and Power/Knowledge is perhaps the best single text to read to get a summary of his work.

Foucault's work is especially influential on the work of Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, and on Jean Baudrillard, the last of whom produced a scathing critique, Forget Foucault.


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Last Updated on August 27, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 375

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 1950s and continues roughly until the late 1960s, 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

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 498

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 the dominant theoretical paradigms have consigned them.

In these lectures, Foucault rejects the Marxist tendency to reduce all relations of power to economic terms as well as the more traditional analyses that focus on questions of sovereignty and contract, examining, for example, in whom authority is vested and what the rights of the sovereign, state, and individual are. Foucault instead puts a Nietzschean spin on Prussian army officer Karl von Clausewitz’s well-known dictum that war is politics continued by other means. In fact, he reverses the dictum: Power, claims Foucault, is war continued by other means. The radical move here is essentially to refuse any reduction of the essence of power, that is, to refuse to explain it as the secondary effect of some other more fundamental principle or mechanism. Power resides not so much in the vested rights of sovereigns or individuals but instead “circulates” in society in a much less tangible but all the more pervasive manner. Genealogists should concern themselves not with the way in which one individual dominates another, with how “rights” can be adjudicated, but with how power is embodied in institutions not obviously political, in material practices and techniques such as the methods of, for example, psychiatry. Most provocatively, Foucault argues that the traditional approach is most deeply flawed when it assumes that power is the prerogative of the individual will, that power is a manifestation of a unified subject or stable identity. The reality, he suggests, is that subjects (individuals, selves) are constituted by power; that is, stable identities, unified selves, are in fact the necessary fictions of power as it shapes people through a matrix of social and bodily relations.


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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 616

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 Foucault the paradigm for the new methods of power and control that were emerging alongside the prisons—in medical and psychiatric practices, in hospitals, in schools, in the military, and elsewhere.

In chapter 8, “The Eye of Power,” an interview first published as the preface to a 1977 French edition of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon (1791), Foucault elaborates upon the importance of prison surveillance as a testing ground or model (one of several) for the methods of observation and control that would later become the norm in advanced technological societies. The title of Bentham’s work refers to an ingenious architectural plan for the observation of prisoners that Bentham hoped to see implemented in England. The plan consisted of a central observation tower and a circular, walled enclosure honeycombed with individual cells. Each cell contained two windows: one facing the inner tower, another facing outward. From the central tower, the overseers were able to monitor every movement of the prisoners, each isolated in his virtually transparent cell. Although the panopticon as he envisioned it was never constructed, Bentham’s plan was widely studied in the nineteenth century and inspired many similar plans for the construction, not only of prisons but also of schools, hospitals, and military housing. For Foucault, the importance of Bentham’s plan was its effectiveness as a metaphor for the Enlightenment’s preoccupation with visibility or transparency. In France, philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the ideological founders of the Revolution dreamed of a society in which all vestiges of medieval darkness had been removed, not only the darkness of unreason and superstition but also the hidden and secret places of the aristocratic regime—places in which repressive power might reside undetected by the masses. Bentham’s dream, according to Foucault, is also one of total visibility in society (for which the panopticon is a microcosm), but visibility organized explicitly to serve the ends of a centralized power or overseer. Surveillance, then, became one of the chief means of effecting political control. Just as the prisoner under the constant gaze of the overseers would, it was thought, learn to habituate himself to the disciplinary norms of prison life, so also common soldiers, students, or psychiatric patients under a similar scrutiny would habituate themselves to the new behavioral norms of modern society.

Sexuality and the Self

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 469

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 taboos. On the contrary, he argues, human sexuality (or any other expression of this supposed inner nature) is the effect of those same conventions. Moreover, when twentieth century subjects turn to the enormous variety of therapies and techniques that promise liberation from the repressive taboos of the past, they are deluded. For such techniques provide not liberation, not some release of an authentic self, but subtler control of the self.

The idea of an inviolable interiority requiring expert assistance (as in psychoanalysis) to be uncovered in its pristine state, Foucault traces ultimately back to late antiquity (the Stoics) but especially to Christianity. For it is out of Christianity that the idea of a uniquely created soul destined for eternal life emerges with greatest clarity. Furthermore, it is the Christian church of the Middle Ages that, in the confessional, first developed that mode of interrogation of the self that may be understood as a precursor of Freudian psychoanalysis. What both have in common, Foucault suggests, is the assumption of a certain interiority, a “depth” within the confines of the self that must be questioned and stripped of the trappings of culture and convention. In both cases, however, the assumption of such an inner sanctum deludes people and encourages them in the belief that the self is somehow autonomous (an a priori essence) when in fact it is merely the product, always and everywhere, of power.

Foucault’s Impact

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Last Updated on August 27, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 257

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 1990s, 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.


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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 298

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.

Bernauer, James William. Michel Foucault’s Force of Flight: Toward an Ethics for Thought. Contemporary Studies in Philosophy and the Human Sciences series. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press International, 1990. This work, part of a series on modern philosophers, examines Foucault’s views on ethics in the twentieth century. Includes bibliography.

Boyne, Roy. Foucault and Derrida: The Other Side of Reason. London: Unwin Hyman, 1990. This volume looks at the ongoing debate between Foucault and deconstructionist Jacques Derrida. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Davidson, Arnold I. Foucault and His Interlocutors. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. This book includes essays by several French thinkers who were influenced by Foucault. These authors take up the breadth of Foucault’s life’s work and provide a firm foundation by which to understand his writing.

Foucault, Michel, ed. I, Pierre Riviere, Having Slaughtered My Mother, My Sister, and My Brother : A Case of Parricide in the Nineteenth Century. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990. A literal account of the murder of a family by a “madman” that simultaneously analyzes the “murder” of free will and responsibility.

Nehamas, Alexander. Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Nehamas focuses on the importance of Socrates to Foucault and produces an accessible evaluation of the idea of personhood as described by each.

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