Foucault in a Nutshell

Posted by Ali Reda | Posted in | Posted on 9/30/2013

Genealogy and Power Relations

Genealogy is not the search for origins, and is not the construction of a linear development. Instead it seeks to show the plural and sometimes contradictory past that reveals traces of the influence that power has had on truth through out history.

Genealogy deconstructs truth, arguing that truth is, more often than not, discovered by chance, backed by the operation of power or the consideration of interest. All periods of history have possessed certain underlying conditions of truth - conditions of discourse - that constituted what was acceptable. Foucault develops the notion of episteme - the historical a priori that grounds knowledge and its discourses and thus represents the condition of their possibility within a particular epoch- and argues that these conditions have changed over time, from one period's episteme to another. 

For example in the "History of Madness" Foucault identifies four epochs. In Middle Ages, insanity was blessedness and insane treated with respect and honor—models Christians could aspire to. At end of 16th century, insane became thought of as illness, disease. Insane turned from subjects to objects. During enlightenment—the age of reason—no sympathy showed to unreason or madness. In the vaunted “age of reason,” insane locked away with the poor and criminals. At end of 18th and beginning of 19th, shift in attitude toward insane again. Insane became regarded as mentally ill and were separated from the poor and criminals but not because of advancement in theoretically knowledge about mental illness. Rather shift in attitude derived from transformations in society—industrialization demanded larger labor force, which depended on the poor, (thus the poor taken out of hospitals) and the bourgeoisie fear of revolutionary, subversive behavior of criminals, which was a political concern, sent them to jails. Medicine at this time was a political discipline, full of prejudices, brutality, incomprehension, and lack of scientific knowledge. Then came Freud and his psychotherapy, which reflects an interpretive approach to studying man rather than a systematic or scientific one.

A "statement" is an existence function for discursive meaning. The rules which make an expression discursively meaningful. In contrast to structuralists, Foucault demonstrates that the semantic and syntactic structures do not suffice to determine the discursive meaning of an expression. A grammatically correct phrase may lack discursive meaning or, inversely, a grammatically incorrect sentence may be discursively meaningful - even meaningless letters (e.g. "QWERTY") may have discursive meaning. Thus, the meaning of expressions depends on the conditions in which they emerge and exist within a field of discourse; the discursive meaning of an expression is reliant on the succession of statements that precede and follow it. However, "statements" are also 'events', because, like other rules, they appear (or disappear) at some time. The statement is governed by a “system of its functioning,” which Foucault calls the “archive.” Archaeology is now interpreted as the excavation of the archive.

Besides focusing on the meaning of a discourse under analysis, the distinguishing characteristic of this approach is its stress on power relationships as expressed through language, and the relationship between language and power. This method tries to analyze how the social world, expressed through language, is affected by various sources of power, as the researcher tries to understand how our society is being shaped (constructed) by language, which in turn reflects various power relationships. He discusses how power demands obedience through domination, submission and subjugation, and also how power masks its true intentions by disguising itself as beneficial. As an example, he highlights the manner in which the feudal absolute monarchies of historical Europe, themselves a form of power, disguised their intentions by claiming that they were necessary to maintain law, order and peace. As a leftover concept from the days of feudalism, Foucault argues that westerners still view power as emanating from law, but he rejects this, proclaiming that they must "construct an analytics of power that no longer takes law as a model and a code".

What Foucault means by "Power", isn't power as the domination or subjugation exerted on society by the government or the state, but instead remarks that power should be understood "as the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate". In this way, he argues, "Power is everywhere... because it comes from everywhere", emanating from all social relationships and being imposed throughout society bottom-up rather than top-down.

Foucault’s point is that we imagine power as being a thing that can be possessed by individuals, as organized pyramidal with one person at the apex, operating via negative sanctions. Foucault argues that power is in fact essentially relational. Power consists primarily not of something a person has, but rather is a matter of what people do, subsisting in our interactions with one another in the first instance. As such, power is completely Present to social networks. Power is "the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate". In this way, he argues, "Power is everywhere... because it comes from everywhere", emanating from all social relationships and being imposed throughout society bottom-up rather than top-down. Power has its own strategic logic, emerging from the actions of people within a network of power relations.


Biopower is literally having power over bodies, over a population as a whole. It relates to the practice of modern nation states and their regulation of their subjects through "numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations". Biopower is utilized by an emphasis on the protection of life rather than the threat of death, its ultimate aim to produce surplus population. Which simply means more human resources, larger government, bigger revenues for the state and a better 'scientific' approach to ordering of the state.

Foucault gave numerous examples of biopolitical control when he first mentioned the concept in 1976. These examples include "ratio of births to deaths, the rate of reproduction, the fertility of a population, and so on."He contrasted this method of social control with political power in the Middle Ages. Whereas in the Middle Ages pandemics made death a permanent and perpetual part of life, this has shifted around the end of the 18th century. The development of vaccines and medicines dealing with public hygiene allowed death to be held (and/or withheld) from certain populations.

Foucault claims that the previous Greco-Roman, Medieval rule of the emperors,the Divine right of kings and Absolute monarchy model of power and social control over the body was an individualizing mode, all of this was drastically and dramatically altered with the advent of Political power in 18th century Europe. The voting franchise, Liberal democracy and Political parties.

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