How do we know what we know and at what expense? Knowledge, Power and Discourse

Michel Foucault

"I would like my books to be a kind of tool-box which others can rummage through to find a tool which they can use however they wish in their own area… I would like the little volume that I want to write on disciplinary systems to be useful to an educator, a warden, a magistrate, a conscientious objector. I don't write for an audience, I write for users, not readers."

Michel Foucault (1974), 'Prisons et asiles dans le mécanisme du pouvoir' in Dits et Ecrits, t. II. Paris: Gallimard, 1994, pp. 523–4).

click here and here and here and here and here









Foucault's Methods for Researching the "History of the Present":

1) Archaeology: concerned with knowledge formations or EPISTEMES.

Episteme: the system of knowledge that dominates a particular historical period (Grk. Epistomai: "to know", "to believe")












2) Genealogy: concerned with power and knowledge, their interdependence in producing and sustaining forms of control and means of organizing subjects.

A "subject of" discourse is always also "subject to" social forces as well.











Question: What may be known of me as a "subject" and how does this knowledge organize me, my understandings of myself, and my actions?

A Phrenological "Map"











Histories of Discipline and Punishment

Design for Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon ("Pan-" all, "Optic" seeing)











Bentham's Panopticon serves as the metaphorical basis for Foucault's theory of "Panopticism" which refers to the ways space, time and subjectivity are organized so as to produce particular effects such as "docility." The model of discipline and self-discipline the Panopticon represents for prisons is seen by Foucault to permeate the social field and may be seen, not only in methods of surveillance for purposes of "security," but also in schools, factories, military barracks, hospitals and other institutions. It is a model in which government by external forces -- the police, the teacher, and so forth -- is replaced by modes of self-government. here










DISCOURSE: a set of recurring statements that define a particular cultural object (ex. madness, criminality, sexuality) and also provide the concepts and terms through which such an object may be studied and discussed. Discourses produce distinctions between what can and cannot be said (and therefore known) and also about who is sufficiently authorized to say it.












The "normal" or Bell curve

Discourses are means of governing mentalities, of generating govern-mentalities. Discourses operate to carve out and support separations, to do the work of what David Lyons calls social sorting, sets of discourses and practices that tell us what and who will be included and excluded, what will and will not count for identities, behaviours, and knowledges, through constructions of the "normal."










Some Structuring Distinctions (note: these distinctions are not fixed and defined once and for all, but shift and change):

Normal/Abnormal or Pathological or Deviant
















Prison at Ft. Leavenworth (Kansas), 1930s
Caption: "'Open' Cells
In Tiers For the Better Type of Prisoners."

















This image is taken from the original French version of Discipline and Punish by Foucault. It is an illustration of a classroom from a manual in the early 19th Century, showing the organization of the classroom, its hierarchies and spatial distributions. Not unlike the Panopticon, the space of the classroom is designed to create maximum visibility and, thereby, discipline.












Histories of Sexuality or... Once upon a time... So the story goes...

In the Victorian Age, so the story goes, we were or had become sexually repressed. Sex was, this story asserts, something to be hidden, not something to be brought out in the open. And yet, Foucault discovers in his genealogy of sexuality, while we tell ourselves this story, this is not the case. In fact, there were whole systems for inducing people to speak about sex (ex. confession), bodies of knowledge constructed around sexuality (ex. sexology), was discussion of how best to contain it, and also how to normalize it (ie. medicalization of sexuality). In short, instead of being something that wasn't spoken about, it became something to be talked about -- almost obsessively.











"Long out of print, this groundbreaking and unabridged classic from the founder of modern sexual pathology contains 238 case histories detailing every form of sexual perversion - with a new appendix of an additional 44 case histories unpublished for over one hundred years. This authoritative, unexpurgated edition of "Psychopathia Sexualis" features a new translation and introduction, and is essential reading for students of sexual perversity, criminal psychology, and European fin de sicle art & literature. First published in Germany in 1886, "Psychopathia Sexualis" was extremely successful as both a classic reference volume for psychiatrists and as a new form of pornographic literature for the sexually transgressive and perverse. Printed in seven languages and twelve editions during the author's lifetime, it was an influence on such notable figures as Sigmund Freud (a younger colleague of Krafft-Ebing's at the University of Vienna), painters Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, writers Arthur Schnitzler and Marcel Proust, and philosopher Georges Bataille and the surrealists. "Psychopathia Sexualis" is extraordinarily timeless in its factual depiction of the astonishing vagaries of sexual life. As a psychiatric text, it was one of the first books to extensively illuminate and define such subjects as sadism, masochism, fetishism and homosexuality; as a work of sexual literature, it has often been compared to the Marquis de Sade's classic, "120 Days of Sodom."" (From Chapters website)












The Victorian era of the nineteenth century, like no other period preceding it, became dominated by the belief that an individual's sex and sexuality form the most basic core of their identity, potentiality, social/political standing, and freedom. But sexuality needed to be disciplined, or regulated and directed in "socially useful" ways. Hence, these Victorian era anti-masturbation devices.










Scientia Sexualis -- Sciences of Sexuality

Four main strategies used to regulate sexuality in the Victorian Age that demonstrate the link between knowledge and power:

Illustration of facial contortions of hysteric patient from the Iconographie photographique de la Salpêtrière.

1. Hystericization of Women's Bodies













2. "Pedagogization of Children's Sex"












3. "Socialization of Procreative Behaviour"












The "Dandy" 1818

4. "Psychiatrization of Perverse Pleasure"












What is Power? (History of Sexuality: Volume One)

1. It is not something that is acquired, seized or shared, that one has or does not have.










2. It is a part of all human relations and is exercised through many points.













3. Power is not simply repressive; it is also productive.












4. Power does not come from above, from master to servant, ruler to ruled, but also comes from below. Power informs both, making them mutually implicated and interdependent.














5. Power operates with a number of aims and objectives, but this does not mean it results from the choices or decisions of individuals or groups.













6. Where there is power there is resistance; power depends on points of resistance for its existence.






















Foucault gives us a way to imagine that we are not fixed by an essential identity, but that this identity is socio-historically contingent and constructed by a variety of social forces, or what he calls a "political economy of the subject."















Two approaches to the concept of essentialism:

Essentialism: "is most commonly understood as a belief in the real, true essence of things, the invariable and fixed properties which define the 'whatness' of a given entity" (Diana Fuss, Essentially Speaking [1989]: xi).


"We often talk about people as if they have particular attributes as 'things' inside themselves -- they have an identity, for example, and we believe that at the heart of a person there is a fixed and true identity or character (even if we're not sure that we know quite what that is, for a particular person). We assume that people have an inner essence -- qualities beneath the surface which determine who that person really 'is.'"

Given these definitions of essentialism, what do you imagine anti-essentialism might mean?


















Ioan Davies "A Stately Pleasure Dome" or Panopticism Today

The Skydome in Toronto. A new version of an old idea. Maximum visibility, for both spectators and surveillance purposes, is facilitated by a vast network of television cameras and by the Jumbotron.

Panopticon click here

Online Audio and Video Recordings: UC Berkeley Lectures and Events
Foucault Lecture at Berkeley


Back to Top