Notes from A Foucault Primer: Discourse, Power and the Subject (1993) by McHoul and Grace; NYU Press

Foucault’s Discourse of Power

Francis Bacon: “Knowledge is Power.”

We typically think of Bacon’s famous maxim as supportive of the scientific method and its devotion to inductive forms of reasoning as the key to unlocking the power of nature. But in the past century, philosophers have considered the idea that knowledge (European science) is the method of imposing conceptions of nature on others.

Michel Foucault (1926-84) was a philosopher and historian whose mission was to explore who we are as produced by systems of thought produced and supported by academic disciplines. Study of the history if ideas from Hegel onward have emphasized the progressive and continuous nature of this evolution. As time passes, our understanding of life and human nature is improving, so is our understanding of how to create a harmonious society. Foucault described the evolution of these systems as discontinuous, multiple, and not necessarily progressive. He was dubious about notions of absolute truth or any definitive answer to political questions. Instead, he was interested in how disciplinary ‘knowledges’ function: how they change and transform. He also emphasized the power of ideas to shape our understanding of who we are.

Foucault said, “It would be wrong to say that the soul is an illusion, or an ideological effect. On the contrary, it exists, it has a reality, it is produced permanently around, on, within the body by the functioning of power.” (Discipline and Power)

Foucault sought a broader conception of society than an economic model. (Marxists argue that ideas are the superstructural effects of ‘real’ economic forces.) Foucault believed that the discourse which dominates in any given era is only one possible form among others. He would argue that our quest to discover a text’s meaning in its author’s mind or intention is contingent upon an understanding of the historical circumstances in which a text was produced and the discourse of power shaping public opinion at that time.

In Madness and Civilization, he analyzed how conceptions of madness changed not necessarily for the better in the years between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. During the Renaissance madness was not considered to be a disease or illness, and the mad were not excluded from the rest of society. Rather, they were considered to be under the influence of folly- a benign or even wise and revelatory mode of thought. The great confinement of the mad during the early nineteenth century was, therefore, neither a necessary nor an inevitable development, and it had been initiated in accordance with prevalent liberal notions about the deserving and undeserving poor. The cultural rule being enforced was that you were either willing and able to work, or you could be detained and incarcerated as a social undesirable based on the ‘scientific analysis’ of a board of experts. The folly of the mad was disqualified as inadequate and naïve, and the example of the insane asylum served to enforces ‘normal’ vs. ‘pathological’ behavior in society.

In Discipline and Power, Foucault studied the history of criminology and its forbears. He was interested in the transformation of modes of punishment from spectacular retribution via various forms of gruesome public execution to the modern form of punishment in which the ‘criminal’ is subjected to constant watch under the gaze of scientific surveillance in a penitentiary. Science transforms behavior into data which in turn produces an implicit hierarchy of thought. We thus develop ideas of the good citizen vs. the delinquent criminal.


The predominant system of thought is the prevailing discourse of power. How might this idea apply to our understanding of the master- slave dialectic?



Further Reading:

Jenny Pinkus, August 1996

Discourse, as defined by Foucault, refers to:

ways of constituting knowledge, together with the social practices, forms of subjectivity and power relations which inhere in such knowledges and relations between them. Discourses are more than ways of thinking and producing meaning. They constitute the 'nature' of the body, unconscious and conscious mind and emotional life of the subjects they seek to govern (Weedon, 1987, p. 108).

... a form of power that circulates in the social field and can attach to strategies of domination as well as those of resistance ( Diamond and Quinby, 1988, p. 185).

Foucault's work is imbued with an attention to history, not in the traditional sense of the word but in attending to what he has variously termed the 'archaeology' or 'genealogy' of knowledge production. That is, he looks at the continuities and discontinuities between 'epistemes' (taken by Foucault to mean the knowledge systems which primarily informed the thinking during certain periods of history: a different one being said to dominate each epistemological age), and the social context in which certain knowledges and practices emerged as permissable and desirable or changed. In his view knowledge is inextricably connected to power, such that they are often written as power/knowledge.

Foucault's conceptual analysis of a major shift in (western) cultural practices, from 'sovereign power' to 'disciplinary power', in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1979), is a good example of his method of genealogy. He charts the transition from a top-down form of social control in the form of physical coercion meted out by the sovereign to a more diffuse and insidious form of social surveillance and process of 'normalisation'. The latter, says Foucault, is encapsulated by Bentham's Panopticon; a nineteenth century prison system in which prison cells were arranged around a central watchtower from which the supervisor could watch inmates, yet the inmates could never be certain when they were being watched, therefore, over time, they began to police their own behaviour. The Panopticon has became the metaphor for the processes whereby disciplinary 'technologies', together with the emergence of a normative social science, 'police' both the mind and body of the modern individual (see Dreyfus and Rabinow, 1982, p. 143-67).

Power, in Weedon's (1987) interpretation of Foucault is:

a dynamic of control and lack of control between discourses and the subjects, constituted by discourses, who are their agents. Power is exercised within discourses in the ways in which they constitute and govern individual subjects (p. 113).

Foucault's focus is upon questions of how some discourses have shaped and created meaning systems that have gained the status and currency of 'truth', and dominate how we define and organize both ourselves and our social world, whilst other alternative discourses are marginalised and subjugated, yet potentially 'offer' sites where hegemonic practices can be contested, challenged and 'resisted'. He has looked specifically at the social construction of madness, punishment and sexuality. In Foucault's view, there is no fixed and definitive structuring of either social (or personal) identity or practices, as there is in a socially determined view in which the subject is completely socialized. Rather, both the formation of identities and practices are related to, or are a function of, historically specific discourses. An understanding of how these and other discursive constructions are formed may open the way for change and contestation.

Foucault developed the concept of the 'discursive field' as part of his attempt to understand the relationship between language, social institutions, subjectivity and power. Discursive fields, such as the law or the family, contain a number of competing and contradictory discourses with varying degrees of power to give meaning to and organize social institutions and processes. They also 'offer' a range of modes of subjectivity (Weedon, 1987, p. 35). It follows then that,

if relations of power are dispersed and fragmented throughout the social field, so must resistance to power be (Diamond & Quinby, 1988, p. 185).

Foucault argues though, in The Order of Discourse, that the 'will to truth' is the major system of exclusion that forges discourse and which 'tends to exert a sort of pressure and something like a power of constraint on other discourses', and goes on further to ask the question 'what is at stake in the will to truth, in the will to utter this 'true' discourse, if not desire and power?' (1970, cited in Shapiro 1984, p. 113-4).

Thus, there are both discourses that constrain the production of knowledge, dissent and difference and some that enable 'new' knowledges and difference(s). The questions that arise within this framework, are to do with how some discourses maintain their authority, how some 'voices' get heard whilst others are silenced, who benefits and how - that is, questions addressing issues of power/ empowerment/ disempowerment.