Foucault’s The Power/Knowledge Subjugation Of Discourse


Western Man’s Knowledge Is A Product Of Endless Interaction Between Desire And Power

The Individual, For Foucault, Is A “Cultural Ensemble” Where All Thought And Practice Become Mere Contingencies Of The Social Milieu

Since Foucault’s ideas tend to devalue discursive thought, it is understandable that his ideas were not held in high regard by Piaget: “Foucault has it in for man; the human sciences he views as a merely momentary outcome of ‘mutations,’ ‘historical a priorities,’ ‘epistemes’; these follow one another in time, but their sequence has no rationale.” [Ibid. p.129] Foucault represents a real threat to Piaget, as he represents a threat to anyone who buys into the Enlightenment ideas of progress, perfectibility and purposeful rationality. Foucault’s iconoclastic thought focuses on the individual as a “cultural ensemble” where all thought and practice become mere contingencies of the social milieu. For Foucault there is no depth to a person. A person amounts to no more then the surface attributes of the society that defines him/her. Foucault calls his investigations into Western knowledge “archaeology of thought,” and what this archaeology has unearthed is:

“…not man himself, but the systems of rules and systematic distinctions which account for the transition from one episteme to another, i.e. which explain how our culture has changed from one code to another, how certain formal conditions of possible scientific and non-scientific discourses have been replaced gradually by others.” [Jean-Marie Benoist, The Structural Revolution, 1975, p. 18]

Foucault, in an odd sort of a way, could be described as an “organic Kantian.” Foucault, however, replaces Kant’s categories of mind as the determining agent of knowledge with what he calls the “historical a priori”–the conditions of the possibility for knowledge to arise: “This a priori is what, in a given period, delimits in the totality of experience a field of knowledge, defines the mode of being of the objects that appear in that field, provides man’s everyday perception with theoretical powers, and defines the conditions in which he can sustain a discourse about things that is recognized to be true.” [Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, 1973, p. 158] The more common name for the “historical a priori” is episteme, which put more simply is, “the total set of relations that unite, at a given period, the discursive practices that give rise to epistemological figures, sciences and possibly formalized system’s of knowledge.” [John Sturrock, 1979, p. 92] Epistemes, as Piaget has observed, are arbitrary upsurges, impermanent in nature, and place no restraints upon thought. But, they do not arise out of nothing.

By disregarding any pretense toward a self-determining subject, Foucault has demonstrated how it is possible to achieve spectacular results in the analysis of social practices. In his early books of Madness and Civilization (1961), Birth of the Clinic (1963), and The Order of Things (1966), Foucault analyzed psychiatry, medicine, and the human sciences respectively, and concluded that, according to John Sturrock:

“…the distinctions between madness and sanity, sickness and health, and truth and error were always a function of the modality of discourse prevailing in centres of social power at different periods. In Foucault’s view, this modality was in turn less a product of an autonomous exchange between hypothesis and observation, or theory and practice, than the basis of whatever theory and practice prevailed in a given period. And it followed for him that, finally, the modern history of Western man’s ‘will to knowledge’ had been less a progressive development towards ‘enlightenment’ than a product of an endless interaction between desire and power within the system of exclusions which made different kinds of society possible.” [Ibid. p. 91]

Power And Knowledge, In Foucault’s Structuralism, Directly Imply One Another

We come to the crux of Foucault’ analysis of the episteme when we ask the question, “Who does discourse serve? Epistemes, for Foucault, are characterized by power/knowledge relationships that demand that if the individual wants more out of life than pain and suffering then he or she must submit to the powers that be. It is Foucault’s thesis that “this subjugation occurs, without the subject’s knowledge, in the society wide procedures which pin identities to individuals.” [Mark Cousins, Athar Hussain, Michel Foucault, 1984, p. 254]

In the historical record of the exclusion practices put on the insane, criminals, and sexual deviants, we discover the groundwork that would evolve into, not only the compartmentalization of clinics and prisons, but also the strategic and tactical maneuvers that define today’s modern army. Blanchot expands upon this connection, which was first pointed out by Foucault, in his analysis of the plague (Black Death) of 1348. It was, says Blanchot, “…through a strict parceling out of the contaminated space, through the invention of a technology for imposing order that would affect the administration of cities, and through the meticulous inquests which, once the plague had disappeared, would serve to prevent vagrancy (the right to come and go enjoyed by ‘men of little means’) and even to forbid the right to disappear, which is still denied us today, in one form or another,” that ended up in the laws, techniques, and procedures that redirect our attention away from power/knowledge relationships per se, the same power/knowledge relationships that subjugate one discourse over against another. [Michel Foucault, Maurice Blanchot, Foucault/Blanchot, 1987, p.84] In fact, Foucault implores us to recognize power/knowledge relationships for what they really are: “…power produces knowledge (and not simply by encouraging it because it serves power or by applying it because it is useful); that power and knowledge directly imply one another; that there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations.” [Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish, The Birth Of The Prison, 1979, p. 27]


15 Responses to “Foucault’s The Power/Knowledge Subjugation Of Discourse”

  1. fche626 Says:

    One of the most interesting and challenging of Foucault’s propositions, still obviously opposed by many. It’s actually hard to accept that rationality may not have actually guided us to where we are. Nice post 🙂

  2. bwinwnbwi Says:

    “It’s actually hard to accept that rationality may not have actually guided us to where we are. ” Yes, I agree. We are closest to matters of the heart. Even there, though, things go a rye, but we own them unconditionally anyway. From a rational point of view, we ask questions, and, through our affirmations, we attach ourselves to satisfying answers. In other words we become emotionally invested in the knowledge base that we own. Foucault, on the other hand, has offered us a probable explanation for the knowledge base that we take for granted, the knowledge base created not from “matters of fact”, but rather from the Power/Knowledge Subjugation Of Discourse That Reinforces The Power/Knowledge Relationships That Exist At Large. Thanks for the comment. Take care.

  3. frizztext Says:

    thanks for your FOUCAULT article!
    “For Foucault there is no depth to a person. A person amounts to no more then the surface attributes of the society that defines him/her.”
    we should try to individualize ourselves …

  4. frizztext Says:

    I’ve linked your great article to my twitter stream …

  5. bwinwnbwi Says:

    Your more than welcome. This blog never attracted much traffic, but then again that wasn’t why I posted. I posted then as I post now just to see my work on the internet. Seeing my academic and journal writing on the internet offers up a good deal of satisfaction to an old man. The structuralism part of this blog led to my final philosophy of life–the one that I will take with me to my grave, but as a topic for my MA thesis it was rejected. I took the advice of my Professor and investigated Prejudice, but not to be deterred, I turned that investigation into a scientific research (statistics) project that I hoped would create empirical evidence that would confirm my philosophy of life. The results were mixed; a little yes and little no. Thanks for the comments.

  6. Katherine Gordy Levine Says:

    Keep pedaling and caring. Sharing this with my email post-modern friend’s who sometimes astound me with their bias. Life goes on. Thank you for becoming a blogging firiedn.

  7. bwinwnbwi Says:

    Thanks for the comments; special thanks to whoever or whatever inspired traffic to this blog. It use to be two or three hits a week, now it’s more like ten (or more) a day–go figure!

  8. frizztext Says:

    me about Foucault – in German:

  9. seanrone Says:

    I am presuming you are a docent of sociology. If not, you should be given a sociologists tenure. There is still a need to, further, breakdown familiar disparities which cause such great divide between “have’s and the have not’s.”

  10. bdale56 Says:

    Thank you for visiting my blog and liking it. I feel rather honored as I am just a country woman whose only thoughts are of nature and love. My grandfather was a minister, but I do not go to church. Haven’t for decades. I was always a kind of a little enquiring mind and asked him when I was about 7 years old,”Grandpa how could the Indians go to hell without Jesus as their savior when they didn’t even know about him?”
    My grandfather replied that it was not so much about whether you believed in the bible, it was about how you lived.
    I try to show that through what I have been given.
    Thanks again!

    • bwinwnbwi Says:

      Your Grandpa may be even more right than his words infer. In my opinion, God is manifest in all that sustains life, love, freedom, humanity…..heaven here on Earth. Free free to add what I left out!
      Thanks for the nice comment.

  11. frizztext Says:

    greetings by

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: