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Access to Power and the Production of Historical Knowledge

Larry Slawson received his master's degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.

Photo of Michel Foucault.

Photo of Michel Foucault.

Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison and Orientalism

In Michel Foucault and Edward Said’s books, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison and Orientalism, both authors recognize the inherent relationship between power and the production of historical knowledge. Whereas Foucault introduces this concept through an evaluation of the modern penal system, Said illustrates his conception of power and knowledge through a discussion of “orientalism” and the dichotomy between the Occident and the Orient.

Examining these two books in conjunction with one another brings up multiple questions. Specifically, how do Foucault and Said illustrate the relationship between power and knowledge in their two separate but equally thought-provoking accounts? What examples and proof are offered by these two authors to explain this relationship? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, how do these authors differ in their overall analysis?

 According to Foucault, power is an all-present force that is visible within all social relationships and interactions between social groups.

According to Foucault, power is an all-present force that is visible within all social relationships and interactions between social groups.

Power and Knowledge

In order to understand the difference between Foucault and Said, it is important to first provide a critical analysis of each author’s interpretation regarding power and knowledge. According to Foucault, power is an all-present force that is visible within all social relationships and interactions between social groups. For Foucault’s book, however, power is most clearly visible in the interaction between rulers and their subjects through both the law and the inherent punitive measures that are attached to those who commit crimes. How effectively a government is able to punish and maintain order, he argues, is a direct indicator of its authority and power within a society. In other words, the effectiveness and strength of their power is determined by a leader’s ability to properly punish lawbreakers, and in their ability to deter and prevent criminals from committing future crimes within their society.

For many centuries, the traditional means of discipline and punishment for criminals involved the use of torture and public executions to demonstrate the power and might of the sovereign. By breaking the law, Foucault makes the point that individuals were directly attacking society itself. Crime, as he argues, disrupted the delicate power balance between the sovereign and his people that was represented through the law. As he states, “the least crime attacks the whole of society” (Foucault, 90). Foucault argues that the only way to bring back the proper balance of power – once a crime was committed – was to bring those responsible to justice. Thus, justice served as an act of “vengeance” on behalf of the sovereign; it put dissidents into their subordinate and rightful place within society, and consequently allowed for the former disruption of the sovereign’s power to be fully corrected (Foucault, 53). Moreover, by inflicting torture and pain upon the body of a criminal, Foucault argues that early penal codes demonstrated the extreme justice and retribution that awaited those who went against societal norms. Such actions served to demonstrate the intense pain, horror, humiliation and shame that would occur if an individual was found guilty of breaking the law (Foucault, 56). In doing so, it was believed that these public displays of barbaric actions against the body of a criminal would help in deterring future crimes from occurring.

According to Foucault, however, penal codes and forms of disciplinary action for criminals shifted as the Enlightenment period promoted a progressive manner of thinking in regard to punishment. Instead of punishing through torture and inflicting pain upon the body of the accused, it was discovered that more effective punishment techniques could be established that not only disciplined lawbreakers, but would also help in the prevention and deterrence of future crimes. In this evolving penal system, Foucault points out that judges were no longer solely responsible for the outcome of trials or the destiny of lawbreakers, as in years past. Instead, power to punish began to be distributed to a large array of individuals, including those outside the scope of traditional bases of power (such as doctors, psychiatrists, etc.). (Foucault, 21-22). As he states, “the power to judge should” no longer depend “on the innumerable, discontinuous, sometimes contradictory privileges of sovereignty, but on the continuously distributed effects of public power” (Foucault, 81). This, in turn, offered an alternate means of prosecuting those accused of crimes. Not only did it allow for an examination of a criminal’s motives and desires, but it also helped authority figures decide on punitive measures most appropriate for the criminal behavior that took place. In doing so, this new distribution of power helped shift the focus for punishment away from the body (through torture and pain), to a punishment system that examined and directly attacked the “soul” of an individual. This enlightened thinking removed the “spectacle” of public executions (and the fleeting moments of bodily pain and torture that this incurred), and replaced it with a system of modern-style prisons and punishments that aimed to better understand and rehabilitate criminals, all while depriving them of liberty, freedom, and access to the outside world in a humane manner (Foucault, 10). As Foucault states, “crime can no longer appear as anything but a misfortune and the criminal as an enemy who must be re-educated into social life” (Foucault, 112).

Consequently, Foucault argues that this enhancement of disciplinary capabilities resulted in an increase of the state and sovereign’s power that they held over society. While such measures did not end criminal behavior entirely, the enlightened practices of discipline served as an extension of government power to control and suppress those who went against societal norms, and who were, as Foucault terms, an “enemy” of the people (Foucault, 90).

New concepts regarding prisons and penitentiaries also allowed for greater control and observation of a criminal’s “soul,” which allowed for greater insight into a criminal’s motivations and desires, and helped those in authority to better recognize why certain crimes were committed. As such, the tightening of control and the close observation of lawbreakers from the vantage point of a diffused system of power allowed for a marked increase in overall knowledge. This, as Foucault alludes to, gave those in authority even more power over society since possessing more control over criminals in the punitive process allowed for a greater understanding of deviant behavior. As he states, “a whole corpus of individualizing knowledge was being organized [by the prisons] that took as its field of reference not so much the crime committed…but the potentiality of danger that lies hidden in an individual and which is manifested in his observed everyday conduct…the prison functions in this as an apparatus of knowledge” (Foucault, 126). Foucault later uses the example of Jeremy Bentham’s “Panopticon” to build upon this point. Its layout, which inspired later designs of penal institutions, allowed for greater insight and power over prisoners due to its design that aimed “to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” *Foucault, 201). Foucault also makes the point that the mere presence of these types of institutions served to instill a newfound sense of respect towards authority by the people, and increased overall levels of discipline across society itself – not just criminals themselves.

Thus, as Foucault concludes, increased power (in the form of control over law and order in society) produced a means for new insight and knowledge that helped substantiate, enforce, and enhance power of the government following the Enlightenment era. Yet, as he argues, true power cannot exist without this advance in knowledge. As the example of the “Panopticon” demonstrates, the collection and acquisition of knowledge (the information derived from observation of the new forms of punishment) is what allowed this new structuring of power to fully succeed. Thus, as Foucault’s book demonstrates, both are intricately connected and form a mutually dependent relationship to one another.

Edward Said

Edward Said

Edward Said's View

In a similar manner, Edward Said also examines the relationship of power and knowledge through his analysis of the Occident and the Orient throughout world history. As he demonstrates within his introduction, the West has always possessed a sense of “superiority” over the East that is a direct result of fallacious attitudes produced and developed during colonial and imperial times (Said, 2). Yet, as he shows, this sense of superiority continues to proceed in modern times. As he states, “television, the films, and all the media’s resources have forced information into more and more standardized molds…standardization and stereotyping [the Orient] have intensified the hold of the nineteenth-century academic and imaginative demonology of ‘the mysterious Orient’" (Said, 26). Throughout their interactions over the decades and centuries of human history, Said proclaims that Western nations projected a false sense of racial supremacy over the East that recognized the Orient as an inferior, submissive group that always falls behind the West economically, politically, and socially. Moreover, the term “orientalism” itself, he proclaims, denotes a sense of “dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” (Said, 3). An obvious question that arises from these sentiments, however, is how did such a hierarchical system take root on the world stage?

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Said argues that the West achieved this perception of superiority through its manipulation of facts and information over the centuries of world history. As he points out, the West has consistently manipulated information (knowledge) as a means of preserving its own desires and perceived level of dominance. In other words, the West manipulates information in order to both elevate and sustain its dominant position within the power structure of the world. To illustrate this concept, Said employs the example of the Arab and Israeli struggle over the last few decades. The “highly-politicized” manner in which the conflict is portrayed, he states, portrays a “simple-minded dichotomy of freedom-loving, democratic Israel and evil, totalitarian, and terroristic Arabs” (Said, 26-27). Thus, as Said demonstrates, a “nexus of knowledge and power” exists that transforms the Oriental into a lowly, despised, and inferior being since general assumptions and stereotypes (unsubstantiated sources of knowledge) are allowed to flourish unchallenged (Said, 27).

Many problems exist with this hegemonic relationship between the West and the East. One problem with the West having access to this sort of power is that it completely ignores the contributions of the Orient to the global stage. Moreover, “orientalism” and its relegation of the Orient to an inferior status promotes racist overtones that only serve to elevate a white, Eurocentric attitude within world relations. By learning more and escaping from the fallacies of “political” knowledge that is inspired by prejudices and inherent biases towards the Orient, Said argues that a scholarly approach to understanding the East removes many of these feelings of superiority by the Occident (Said, 11). In relation to power, therefore, Said points out that knowledge (pure knowledge) deflects and debunks this racial and biased manner of thinking. Knowledge undermines traditional concepts of power that have been constructed by the West over the years, and helps erode the traditional concept (and mindset) of Western superiority over the Orient.

Concluding Thoughts

As seen, both Foucault and Said discuss at length two variations in the relationship between knowledge and power. But are the relationships that they discuss truly similar? Or do they reveal significant differences between both authors in their approach? While both demonstrate that power and knowledge are intricately connected to one another, it appears as though there is significant variations in both accounts. For Foucault, power is enhanced when knowledge is amplified. As he demonstrates with his discussion of the penal system, Foucault shows that state power grew only more powerful once enlightened approaches to the discipline and punishment of criminals was established. However, this is not necessarily the same scenario as Said’s approach alludes to. Instead of knowledge serving as an enhancement to power, as Foucault argues, Said points out that an inverse relationship to power and knowledge also exists to a certain extent. In his account of East and West relations, Said points out that true knowledge suppresses the traditional power structure between the Occident and the Orient. In other words, knowledge diminishes racial bias and prejudices that have been a tremendous part of Western history for centuries. This, in turn, erases societal constructs of the West that promote feelings of dominance and superiority over the so-called inferior and less-developed Eastern countries. In simpler terms, power and the “access to power” diminishes for the West as knowledge increases and truth is exposed. But this also has an enhancing effect on power for the Orient. A relative decrease in power within the West produces greater power in regard to the East. Increases in knowledge, therefore, result in a cultural equilibrium of sorts that places Asian and Middle-Eastern countries on the same political, economic, and social level as the West, thus, enhancing their once-perceived status to one that is on par with the West.

In conclusion, both Foucault and Said offer two substantive interpretations of the concepts of power and knowledge that are pertinent to two very different aspects of world history. Yet, as seen, the interconnections between both power and knowledge are present within both of these studies. Both rely heavily upon each other, in one form or another. Thus, an analysis of this relationship is an important step in understanding historical events in a much different and enlightened perspective.

Works Cited


"Edward Said." The Telegraph. September 26, 2003. Accessed September 16, 2018.

Faubion, James. "Michel Foucault." Encyclopædia Britannica. June 21, 2018. Accessed September 16, 2018.

Wolters, Eugene. "Foucault's Last Decade: An Interview with Stuart Elden." Critical-Theory. July 30, 2016. Accessed September 16, 2018.


Foucault, Michel. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1995).

Said, Edward. Orientalism. (New York, NY: Random House, 1979).

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Larry Slawson

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