The Archaeology of Foucault

Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977

by Michel Foucault, edited by Colin Gordon, translated by Colin Gordon, by Leo Marshall, by John Mepham, by Kate Soper
Pantheon Books, 270 pp., $5.95 (paper)

Power/Knowledge is a collection of nine interviews, an essay, and a pair of lectures in which Michel Foucault tries to work out new ways to talk about power. This is one more stage in a remarkable adventure of ideas that began in the late Fifties. “Key words” in Foucault’s work would be, for example: Labor, Language, Life, Madness, Masturbation, Medicine, Military, Nietzsche, Prison, Psychiatry, Quixote, Sade, and Sex. Be neither attracted nor repelled by this adolescent list of topics. Foucault has an original analytical mind with a fascination for facts. He is adept at reorganizing past events in order to rethink the present. He engagingly turns familiar truisms into doubt or chaos. Even though his present thoughts about power and knowledge have not yet matured, they are plainly part of a fermentation worth learning about.

What are the relationships between power and knowledge? There are two bad short answers: (1) Knowledge provides an instrument that those in power can wield for their own ends. (2) A new body of knowledge brings into being a new class of people or institutions that can exercise a new kind of power. These two assertions parallel two opposed theses about ideology: (1) A ruling class generates an ideology that suits its own interests, and (2) a new ideology, with new values, creates a niche for a new ruling class. Virtually nobody likes either side of these simple dichotomies. Foucault is one of many who want a new conception of how power and knowledge interact. But he is not looking for a relation between two givens, “power” and “knowledge.” As always he is trying to rethink the entire subject matter, and his “knowledge” and “power” are to be something else.

Nobody knows this knowledge; no one wields this power. Yes, there are people who know this and that. Yes, there are individuals and organizations that rule other people. Yes, there are suppressions and repressions that come from authority. Yes, the forms of knowledge and of power since the nineteenth century have served the bourgeoisie above all others, and now also serve a comparable class in Eastern Europe. But those ruling classes don’t know how they do it, nor could they do it without the other terms in the power relation—the functionaries the governed, the repressed, the exiled—each willingly or unwillingly doing their bit. One ought to begin an analysis of power from the ground up, at the level of tiny local events where battles are unwittingly enacted by players who don’t know what they are doing.

Now this sort of project is not novel. Foucault’s genius is to go down to the little dramas, dress them in facts hardly anyone else has noticed, and turn these stage settings into clues to a hitherto un-thought series of confrontations out of which, he contends, the orderly structure of society is composed. For all the abstract schemes for which Foucault has become famous, he is also the most concrete of writers …

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