Foucault, Power, Knowledge

A first step in understanding Foucault’s complex notion of power is to consider the status of “true” statements. How and why a particular statement or hypothesis attains the status of “truth” within our Western, scientific mindset is a question that lies at the root of Foucault’s analysis. For Foucault, the common Western intellectual assumption that absolute truths about ourselves and our environment sit and wait patiently to be discovered by us is an illusion of the grandest kind. In Foucault’s view of things, the epistemological engine actually functions in the reverse direction: rational thought and scientific investigation do not drill through research obstacles to finally reveal hidden truths that had been there all along; rather, they constitute power mechanisms which selectively elevate certain propositions or hypotheses to the status of “truth” or “knowledge” while purposely concealing alternative and contradictory ones. For Foucault, the process of knowledge acquisition is as much about exclusion as it is about enlightenment, since specific theories or ideas can only be promoted to the status of truth at the expense of other, competing ideas and possibilities. These are the effects of power in the determination of knowledge. By way of close scrutiny of the detailed historical record, Foucault contends, these acts of exclusion proper to any knowledge schema can be brought out into the open.

Foucault’s notion of power requires some elaboration. Firstly, it is important to clarify that in discussing power Foucault is not referring to political power exercised through sovereignty or the law; he is not referring to the purposeful and orchestrated exercise of power by one person or group against another, nor is her referring to physical domination: “By power, I do not mean ‘Power’ as a group of institutions and mechanisms that ensure the subservience of the citizens of a given state. By power, I do not mean, either, a mode of subjugation which, in contrast to violence, has the form of the rule. Finally, I do not have in mind a general system of domination exerted by one group over another” (Foucault 1990, 92). For Foucault, it is a mistake to think of power in these terms, whereby its origin can ultimately be traced to a single source: “Power’s condition of possibility … must not be sought in the primary existence of a central point, in a unique source of sovereignty from which secondary and descendent forms would emanate” (Foucault 1990, 93). Foucault is not denying the existence of these overt expressions of power, but he purposely excludes them from his analysis because they conceal what he considers to be the more subtle yet significant underlying mechanisms of power.

While sovereignty and the law may appear to be expressions of power in and of themselves, for Foucault they are merely the end products of a much more complex underlying system of force relations: “It seems to me that power must be understood in the first instance as the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organization” (Foucault 1990, 92). Foucault’s analysis denies the uniformity and consistency of institutional power, attempting instead to reveal the various force relations at work behind the scenes which support this illusion of uniformity. For Foucault, concealed behind the embodiment of power in government, the law and institutions of various kinds are force relations characterized by “ceaseless struggles and confrontations,” whereby some forces find support from one another while others contradict them. For Foucault, the existence of power relations “depends on a multiplicity of points of resistance” which “play the role of adversary, target, support, or handle in power relations” (Foucault 1990, 95). While power ultimately renders the social order intelligible, the force relations that constitute power are hardly orderly: they are multiple and unequal, local and unstable. Foucault speaks of “a moving substrate of force relations which, by virtue of their inequality, constantly engender states of power, but the latter are always local and unstable” (Foucault 1990, 93). The inequality of force relations therefore provides the condition of possibility of power, but at the same time the exercise of power affects those inequalities, either by reinforcing or contradicting them. Also, power for Foucault is omnipresent; it comes from everywhere. Insofar as we are perpetually enmeshed in force relations, the effects of power are inescapable. For Foucault, power “is produced from one moment to the next, at every point, or rather in every relation from one point to another” (Foucault 1990, 93). Power, as Foucault describes it, is not something tangible, to be possessed by an individual or an institution. Rather, it is a complex system of force relations in effect within a particular society at a particular point in time.

Discourse is the fundamental driver of power. Foucault refers to the various forms of discourse – self-examination, interviews, admissions or confessions, interpretations, etc. – as the primary vehicles for the production and reinforcement of knowledge. Furthermore, discourse has the potential to either reinforce or resist power: “discourse transmits and produces power; it reinforces it, but also undermines and exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart it” (Foucault 1990, 101). It is through the various techniques of discourse that “local centers of power-knowledge” are established. For example, in The History of Sexuality Foucault cites the ecclesiastical confession as one such local center of power-knowledge (Foucault 1990, 98). Similarly, the perpetual observation of prisoners and the documentation of their individual behaviours by prison authorities, as described in Discipline and Punish, constitute another example of this. Once established through discourse, these local centers of power-knowledge become the anchor points for broader techniques of knowledge and strategies of power. Foucault explains that “it is in discourse that power and knowledge are joined together” (Foucault 1990, 100). It is through discourse that the objects of power relations are established, from local centers of power-knowledge to entire fields of study and investigation.

Multiple discursive elements are involved in any given knowledge construct; some are emphasized while others are minimized or concealed. For Foucault, to understand how the mechanisms of power work within a particular strategy, the distribution of the various discursive elements involved must be reconstructed, “with the things said and those concealed, the enunciations required and those forbidden, that it comprises; with the variants and different effects – according to who is speaking, his position of power, the institutional context in which he happens to be situated – that it implies; and with the shifts and reutilizations of identical formulas for contrary objectives that is also includes” (Foucault 1990, 100). Through a careful analysis of the enunciations which comprise the discourse, including the sources and the particular contexts of those enunciations, and by paying special attention to the silenced and unspoken ones, one may begin to decipher the outlines of a broader strategy of power being deployed.

It is worth emphasizing the inherent nominalism of Foucault’s thought. As Joseph Rouse explains in Power/Knowledge, “Foucault was committed to a strong nominalism in the human sciences: The types of objects in their domains were not already demarcated, but came into existence only contemporaneous with the discursive formations that made it possible to talk about them” (Gutting 1994, 96). While it is normally assumed that the objects of discourse, the things we talk about and analyze, exist independently of that discourse as a priori phenomena, Foucault insists that discourse in fact creates new object domains for knowledge to be about, such as delinquency and homosexuality. These “biographical unities” (Foucault 1995, 254) constitute new kinds of human subjects, new forms of knowledge and new objects to know. As Alan Sheridan explains in The Will to Truth, the clinical concept of madness should be viewed not as a an object of study existing prior to the advent of psychiatry, but rather as the shear product of that institution: “Madness did not wait, in immobile identity, for the advent of psychiatry to carry it from the darkness of superstition to the light of truth. The categories of modern psychiatry were not lying in a state of nature ready to be picked up by the perceptive observer: they were produced by that ‘science’ in its very act of formation” (Sheridan 1980, 26).

Rouse highlights the temporal variability inherent to these discursive formations: “What made Foucault’s inquiry into the structure of such discursive formations interesting was the possibility that there might be significant changes in the organization of such a discursive field. Thus, it might be that what counts as a serious and important claim at one time will not (perhaps cannot) even be entertained as a candidate for truth at another” (Gutting 1994, 96). For example, as Sheridan explains in regards to madness, the paintings of the Renaissance illustrate a “secret knowledge madness was believed to conceal”, yet with the birth of the “Age of Reason” around the middle of the seventeenth century, “the tragic, cosmic experience of madness was banished from the light of day” (Sheridan 1980, 23).

Power, if left unchecked, will pursue its set course and continue to produce knowledge that supports its agenda. For Foucault, it follows that the purpose or reason for being of the intellectual should be to actively resist the effects of power by uncovering previously overlooked or concealed information to support the formulation of alternative strategies and to eventually provoke broad changes in ways of thinking. As C. G. Prado explains in Starting with Foucault, “Foucault is everywhere concerned with exhuming the hidden, the obscure, the marginal, the accidental, the forgotten, the overlooked, the covered-up, the displaced. His subjects for investigation are whatever is taken as most natural, obvious, evident, undeniable, manifest, prominent, and indisputable” (Prado 1995, 25). The purpose of all this is to “yield a new picture of whatever has previously gone unquestioned and has been taken as definitive knowledge and truth with respect to a particular subject matter” (Prado 1995, 25).

Fundamental to Foucault’s approach is his historical view of truth, that is to say, truth is always the product of specific historical circumstances. This view denies the existence of ahistorical or absolute truths and abides by the contention that what passes for the truth today (or at any given historical juncture) will eventually be rendered obsolete and replaced by a newer version of the truth. By associating truth and knowledge with power, Foucault intends to cast a shadow of suspicion over the actors and institutions involved in any given discourse and trigger this inevitable renewal of the truth. By exposing the various force relations and dynamics of power embedded within a discourse, the foundation of the knowledge and truth emanating from that discourse is rendered transparent. Foucault sees a need to counter regimes of truth using the same power that created them in the first place, that is to say, through the realignment of force relations and the deployment of alternative strategies. The new knowledge systems resulting from this exercise would continue of course to be historical, and should themselves one day become the targets or victims of Foucauldian archaeological and genealogical analysis. Knowledge, fueled by power, is in this way continuously updated and refreshed, seemingly without ultimate purpose.


FOUCAULT, M. (1995). Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison. New York, Vintage Books.

FOUCAULT, M. (1990). The history of sexuality. Volume 1, An introduction. New York, Vintage.

GUTTING, G. (1994). The Cambridge companion to Foucault. Cambridge [England], Cambridge University Press.

PRADO, C. G. (1995). Starting with Foucault: an introduction to genealogy. Boulder, Westview Press.

SHERIDAN, A. (1980). Michel Foucault: the will to truth. London, Tavistock.


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