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Last Reviewed 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...

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