Power: Knowledge Equations in Michel Foucault

Updated on November 19, 2017
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Poet, blogger, college professor, literature, and film enthusiast. Excited about critical and creative writing. Pursuing a Ph.D. in English.

Power-Knowledge: Focus of Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault considered body as the central component in the operation of power relations, located in a political field. He had been consistently interested in the shifting ways that the body and the social institutions related to it have entered into political relations. Foucault’s understanding of the relation between power and knowledge is primarily based on such an idea. In a discussion on politics and discourse, Foucault argued that an analysis of discursive practices was important to understand the articulation between scientific discourse and political practice. In fact, analysis of the relations between power and knowledge was to constitute a prominent part of Foucault’s study in penal incarceration in “Discipline and Punish”.

Michel Foucault (1926-1984)
Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

Body: The Site of Exercising Power

Genealogical analysis reveals the body as an object of knowledge and as a target for the exercise of power. A subjection of the body as a docile and productive object is achieved through a political strategy which constitutes “a knowledge of the body that is not exactly the science of its functioning” (Pg. 26). The focus is upon the diffusion of different technologies of power and their relationship with the emergence of different forms of knowledge, notably those sciences which have individual human beings as their object of study.

Power, then, is not conceived as a property or possession of the sovereign or a dominant class, but as a strategy. Foucault conceptualized power as neither an institution nor a structure but a “complex strategic situation”, as a “multiplicity of force-relations”, as simultaneously intentional and non-subjective. At the same time, he argued that power depends for its existence on the multiplicity of resistence which should not be reduced to a single locus of rebellion.

From Body to Soul: Politics of Subjugation

In western societies, the legal system initially served to articulate the absolute power invested in the sovereignty. Subsequently, it developed to set limits upon the legitimacy of the exercise of sovereign power. To reveal the relations of power, hidden by the “discourse of right”, Foucault outlined five methodological precautions concerning the form, level, effect, direction and knowledge-effect of power.

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault reached an understanding of punishment and the prison as components of a political technology from revolts and resistances occurring in prisons throughout the world in the late 1960s and early 1970s, against a particular technology of power exercised over mind and body. The shift of focus evident in penal history from the body to the soul represented the emergence of a new tool of discipline. The body was not liberated from the grip of power but rather displaced to a secondary and mediatory position.

The Guillotine: A form of public punishment which made the body an object of direct penal torture
The Guillotine: A form of public punishment which made the body an object of direct penal torture | Source

Subject of Power- Object of Knowledge

Foucault has outlined three historically existent modes of punishment: the penal torture, humanitarian reform and penal incarceration. Within the practice of penal torture, relations of power and truth are to be found articulated on the body. On the other hand, penal incarceration deprived people of their liberty for periods of time as well as constituted an apparatus for the transformation of individuals to make them docile and restrained.

This eventually transforms subjugated bodies as objects of knowledge. For Foucault, there is no disinterested knowledge; knowledge and power are mutually and inextricably interdependent. The prison becomes a place where knowledge is derived and employed in order to attempt a transformation of the offender. The attention shifts from the “act” of the offender to the “life” of the delinquent—a new subject of knowledge and object of power. Through the identification of “instincts, drives, tendencies, character” the delinquent is conceived to be fatally linked to his offence, forming the discourse of criminology.

The disciplinary techniques were to be found in the carceral network which served as a link between forms of punishment and forms of correction as it legalized the technical power to discipline.

Bentham's Panopticon: Surveillance and Subjugation

Bentham’s Panopticon constituted a programme for the efficient exercise of power through the spatial arrangement of subjects according to a diagram of visibility where the subject might be exposed to “invisible” observation. Those illuminated by power were conscious of being watched. This effectively ensured an automatic functioning of power. The power exercised through hierarchical surveillance has the character of a machine or apparatus through which power is produced and individuals are distributed in a permanent and continuous field.

The second and third instruments of power are “normalizing judgement” and “examination”. The relation of power and knowledge is linked through three effects of the examination mechanism:

The transformation of the field of visibility into the domain of power

The process of documentation

The constitution of individual cases

This has constituted an important technique through which discipline has come to be exercised over the individual in different institutions (hospitals, prisons, schools, factory etc).

Within these institutions, judgement, assessments and diagnosis began to be made of normality and abnormality and of the appropriate procedures to achieve a rehabilitation and restoration of and to the norm. Foucault conceived of two dimensions along which, from the 18th Century, power began to be exercised over life. One refers to the technique of discipline while the other concerns the exercise of bio-power over the aggregate body, the species body and its vitality (reproduction, morality, health etc). In his consideration of this second dimension Foucault analyses sexuality in his work “History of Sexuality”, that constitutes an understanding of the formation and development of the “experience of sexuality” in modern western societies.

The Panopticon is a type of institutional building designed by the English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. The concept of the design is to allow all (pan-) inmates of an institution to be observed (-opticon) b
The Panopticon is a type of institutional building designed by the English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. The concept of the design is to allow all (pan-) inmates of an institution to be observed (-opticon) b | Source

History of Sexuality

Locating sex and sexuality in relations of power and knowledge, his study extends, develops and complements the analyses of modes of objectification and “the way a human being turns him or herself into a subject”. Foucault argued that, with the rise of Protestantism, the Counter-Reformation, 18th Century pedagogy and 19th Century medicine, the technology of confusion spread beyond its ritual Christian location and entered a diverse range of social relationships. This resulted in the constitution of “archives” of the truth of sex inscribed within medical, psychiatric, and pedagogical discourses. Such intersection of confession with scientific investigation and discourse has constructed the domain of sexuality as problematic. Therefore, sexuality called for interpretation, therapy and normalization.

Associated with the production and proliferation of discourses on sexuality in the 19th Century, there emerged four great strategic unities comprising specific mechanisms of knowledge and power:

Hysterization of women’s bodies


Socialization of procreative behaviour


As a corollary, the figures of four sexual subjects (hysterical woman, masterbating child, Malthusian couple and perverse adult) emerged. The relation of power and knowledge articulated to medical, pedagogical, psychiatric and economic discourses, effectively constituted a deployment of sexuality on, over and within the individual bodies from amongst which new sexual subjects emerged.

The very materiality of the human body is invested through and through by power-knowledge. Sexuality is a particular historical construct, from which the notion of sex emerged as an element central to the operation of bio-power.

Hysteria is widely discussed in the medical literature of the Victorian era. In 1859, a physician claimed that a quarter of all women suffered from hysteria. He cataloged possible symptoms, which included faintness, nervousness, insomnia, fluid reten
Hysteria is widely discussed in the medical literature of the Victorian era. In 1859, a physician claimed that a quarter of all women suffered from hysteria. He cataloged possible symptoms, which included faintness, nervousness, insomnia, fluid reten | Source

Power-Knowledge: A Political Strategy

The position adopted by Foucault, that knowledge is not independent of power, is articulated in several studies which outline the precise relations of power within which particular human sciences have emerged, and the contribution made by the human sciences to the development of technologies of power. Foucault studied the forms of discursive practices through which knowledge has been articulated and the relationship strategies and rational techniques through which power has been exercised. He proceeded to a direct address of the forms and methods by which the individual is formed and recognised him as both object of power and subject of knowledge.

Questions & Answers

  • How was Foucault's discussion of the relationship between knowledge and power a major influence?

    Foucault's elaboration on the relationship between power and knowledge had a huge influence on the contemporary and subsequently emerging theories of gender studies, feminism, post-colonialism, and neo-marxism. His influence is visible in literary productions and theatre as well.

© 2017 Monami


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    • profile image

      Hailu Nigatu 

      2 years ago

      This is really a very interesting comment.I finally came out with a unique way of thinking about power and knowledge.thank you so much!

    • DGtal Montage profile imageAUTHOR


      2 years ago from India

      Thank you. I was myself immensely helped by the book written by Barry Smart on Foucault: https://books.google.co.in/books/about/Michel_Fouc...

    • profile image

      Mohosin Mandal 

      2 years ago

      I really appreciate this article...so well argued. Almost all the major complicated arguments of Foucault have been touched upon


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