Definition: Michel Foucault was a philosopher related to the structuralist and post-structuralist movement. His work focused on conceptualizing the notions of archaeological and genealogical analysis, and utilizing them to engage in projects of historical critique.
The idea of archaeology as conceived by Foucault, referred to an understanding that epistemes and discourse formations (also understood as systems of thought and knowledge) have rules governing them which come to limit what thought is permitted in each given historical period. Through conducting an archaeological method of analysis the subjectivity of individuals is displaced and historicized critique can take shape. However, such analysis is limited as it can only compare one historical period with the other without accounting for the reasons for the transition from one era to the next. To this end Foucault conceived the genealogical mode of analysis, as a means to account and radically historicize the transition between each period of history, rendering narratives of modernist continuity and progression obsolete and critically examining their underlying narratives as turns in history.
Discourse Formation: Despite understanding that people and things do exist outside of discourse, Foucault argued that they receive their meaning through discourse which constructs the topic and has the ability to rule things in, and rule things out (72). For Foucault, the same discourse characteristic of the way of knowing at a particular time (referred to as episteme by Foucault) will appear across various texts, institutional frameworks etc… When such ways of knowing refer “to the same object, share the same style and … support a strategy… they are said to belong to the same discursive formation” (73). We can only have knowledge of things if they have meaning, therefore Foucault argues that discourse produces knowledge. Through this claim Focault sought to radically historicize the way we understand discourse, in essence showing that discourse formation varies from one historical period to the other and in lieu of the power relations in place.
Power/Knowledge: For Foucault power and knowledge are inextricably enmeshed together in how discourses are shaped vis a vis the power structures that are present in a society at a given moment, as they always attempt to regulate social conduct in practice. Therefore power operates within institutional apparatuses, using various technologies to implement its practices (i.e. discourses, institutions, architectural arrangements, regulations, laws) (75). Knowledge is always seen as a form of power, since it is implicated in what circumstances and how knowledge is applied or not. As Foucault argues “Knowledge linked to power, not only assumes the authority of ‘the truth’ but has the power to make itself true. All knowledge, once applied in the real world, has real effects, and in that sense at least, ‘becomes true.’ Knowledge, once used to regulate the conduct of others, entails constraint, regulation and the disciplining of practices” (76). Therefore power/knowledge seeks to sustain control over our conception of what we know in different historical periods (i.e. how we conceptualize sexuality, crime and punishment etc…), through such mechanisms of control a regime of truth is established and maintained by the powers at place (76).
Power/Knowledge, Society, and the ‘Individual’: Foucault saw power as functioning in a net-like organization, constantly circulating. Power in this sense “is not only negative… It is also productive. It doesn’t only weigh on us as a force that says no, but… it produces discourse. It needs to be thought of as a productive network which runs through the whole social body” (77). Foucault saw the connections between the ‘towers of power’ to an understanding of the microphysics of power, which goes down to every one of us and the depths of society. This connection is what Foucault refers to as the capillaries of power. Hence power roots itself not in the abstract but in behaviours, and local relations of power (77) and in this way it is constantly reproduced in day to day interactions, maintaining and legitimating the discourse formations at a given time.
Foucualt places the body in the center of struggles between different formations of power/knowledge, claiming that the subject is produced within discourse and subjected to it. The “subject can become the bearer of the kind of knowledge which discourse produces. It can become the object through which power is relayed. But it cannot stand outside power/knowledge as its source and author” (79-80). All discourse formations construct subject positions, individuals can differ with regards to race, gender, and class but they will not be able to take meaning until they have identified with those positions as they are subjected within the discourse formation (80).
References and Further Reading:
Hall, Stuart. “Foucault: Power, Knowledge, and Discourse.” Discourse, Theory, and Practice: A Reader, edited by Margaret Whetherell, Stephanie Taylor, Simeon J Yates, SAGE Publications, 2001, pp. 72-81.
Gutting, Gary, and Johanna Oksala. “Michel Foucault.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 22 May 2018, plato.stanford.edu/entries/foucault/.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. New York, Vintage, April 1995.
Foucault, Michel. History of Sexuality. New York, Vintage, April 1990.
Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things. New York, Vintage, March 1994.