Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977
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. He is a fact-lover. One of the interviews ends on a typical note. He’s asked when bottle-feeding of infants was invented or at least introduced into France. He does not know and is delighted when his interlocutors can tell him, and at the same time curses himself for being so dumb not to have asked the question himself.
Foucault is, then, no spinner of verbal fantasies. I enjoy his long books rather than these short interviews just because the books are denser with facts. The editor of Power/Knowledge is right, however, when he says that the interviews can help us to understand the books. The interview is a French art form used to present work in progress which is destined, at first, for limited circulation, and which is couched in terms suitable for discussion among one specific audience. Hence there is a directness here that is often missing from the long and elaborately constructed books. But Foucault’s notions of power and knowledge are so divorced from common speech that I need to recall how he arrived at them. His sequence of books is, despite its ups and downs, an intellectual progress, and I shall try to describe it by way of explaining the interviews.
Madness and Civilization1 was a somewhat romantic work. It seems to have started with the hesitant belief, never stated, that there is a pure thing, madness, perhaps a good in itself, which is not something that we can capture in concepts. It is certainly not what the sciences of the insane call madness. We classify and treat and put away the mad by systems of our own creation. Our institutions create the phenomena in terms of which we see insanity. This first major book by Foucault hints at an almost Kantian story in which our experience of the mad is a mere phenomenon conditioned by our thought and our history, but there is also a thing-in-itself which can be called madness and which is uncorruptible. Moreover reason is also only a phenomenon whose very existence requires its opposite to define itself against. In English the book is ironically subtitled, “A History of Madness in the Age of Reason.”
By the time that the book had been written it was clear that this romantic conception of a pure and prior madness was a mistake. There could be no such thing as this preconceptual way of being. The book had become a book about something else. What? That was not so clear, at first. “When I think back now,” Foucault said in a 1977 interview, “I ask myself what else it was that I was talking about, in Madness and Civilization or The Birth of the Clinic, but power?”
The plot of the madness book, which is repeated in several of its successors, is plain enough. There are two notable events. First comes “the great exclusion” in mid-seventeenth century: a frantic looking up of deviants and a building of lunatic asylums. Much later, at the time of the French Revolution, there is a spurious liberation, when a new body of psychiatric knowledge invented new ways to deal with the insane. At least in the old asylums, Foucault suggests, the mad were left to themselves in all the horror that implied. Yet the horror was not worse than the solemn destruction of the mad by committees of experts with their constantly changing manuals of nostrums.
Foucault’s stories are dramatic. He presents a reordering of events that we had not perceived before. The effect is heightened by brilliant before-and-after snapshots taken on either side of the great divide during which one tradition is transformed into another. We are given one snippet of description of a brain around 1780 and another twenty-five years later. The very “same” organ on the marble slab plays a role in the later physiology that corresponds to nothing in 1780.
Scholars remind us that the facts are vastly more complex than what Foucault describes. His predilection for French examples projected onto European history leads to mistakes.2 There are two extremes of French historiography. The Annales school goes in for longterm continuities or slow transitions—“the great silent motionless bases that traditional history has covered with a thick layer of events” (to quote from the first page of Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge ). Foucault takes the opposite tack, inherited from Gaston Bachelard, Georges Canguilhem, and Louis Althusser. He posits sharp discontinuities in the history of knowledge. In one interview he grants that this obsession with breaks creates an account of knowledge that fits some facts, but is not a general model. Now not only do we find that the facts are sometimes not quite right, that they are overgeneralized, and that they are squeezed into a model of brusque transformations; we also find that many of Foucault’s dramas have already been told in calmer terms, by other people.
No matter. His histories stick in the mind. We can add our own corrective footnotes at leisure. These histories matter because they are in part political statements. They are also what I call philosophy: a way of analyzing and coming to understand the conditions of possibility for ideas—not only ideas of disease or insanity or imprisonment but also the traditional concept of epistemology, namely knowledge, and of ethics, namely power.
An exclusion is an exercise of power. It is a putting away. Despite all the fireworks, Madness and Civilization follows the romantic convention that sees the exercise of power as repression, which is wicked. The dramatic and fundamental feature of Foucault’s recent work is the rejection of this idea. But do not turn at once to his writings on power, for it is in his reflections on knowledge that this conversion occurs.
The psychiatrists, hygienists, forensic scientists, theorists of the prison, of education or population that emerge in the nineteenth century form a new band of experts. They had lots of hypotheses and prejudices and tidy theories that were constantly being revised, but which were embedded in an underlying conception of disease or crime or whatnot. Foucault used the French word connaissance to stand for such items of surface knowledge, while savoir meant more than science; it was a frame, postulated by Foucault, within which surface hypotheses got their sense. Savoir is not knowledge in the sense of a bunch of solid propositions. This “depth” knowledge is more like a postulated set of rules that determine what kinds of sentences are going to count as true or false in some domain. The kinds of things to be said about the brain in 1780 are not the kinds of things to be said a quarter-century later. That is not because we have different beliefs about brains, but because “brain” denotes a new kind of object in the later discourse, and occurs in different sorts of sentences.
The knowledge of Power/Knowledge is the savoir I’m calling “depth” knowledge. Maybe no one is conscious of this knowledge. We should expect that Foucault’s “power” will turn out to be some sort of “depth” power that no one wittingly exercises. Foucault’s worries about knowledge and power will not, then, be the important but trite questions about how geneticists or nuclear physicists are to use their new-won surface knowledge for the good or ill of our species.
A new knowledge is involved in the liberation of the insane as they are brought under the care of the medical man. New things are to be said and thought about the mad. Foucault’s book on medicine has a connected story. Laclinique denotes both an institution, the teaching hospital, and the clinical lecture, a way of talking. The Birth of the Clinic (1963) is another book about exclusion and about new candidates for truth-or-falsehood. It is also about the creation of a self-constituting class of experts located within a new knowledge. What makes this development possible? A familiar history of science would tell us a tale of heroes. We would learn of their problems, their goals, their luck, their experiments, their mistakes, their visible and invisible colleges, and their funding. Foucault does not aim at such a history of who said what and why, but a story about the web of specific sentences that were uttered, and a theory, called archaeology, of what made it possible for those sentences to be uttered (largely regardless of who uttered them). This impossible task will produce a bizarre account of what we might call pure knowledge. The first and probably last masterpiece in this genre is The Order of Things (1966).
Folie et déraison. Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique (1961). An abridged version is translated as Madness and Civilization (1965). During the rest of this review, dates of publication of other works refer to the French originals. The translations of these are not abridgments.↩
See, for example, "Madness and Civilization in Early Modern Europe: A Reappraisal of Michel Foucault" by H.C. Erik Midelfort in After the Reformation, Essays in Honor of J.H. Hexter, edited by Barbara C. Malament (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1980).↩
Folie et déraison. Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique (1961). An abridged version is translated as Madness and Civilization (1965). During the rest of this review, dates of publication of other works refer to the French originals. The translations of these are not abridgments.↩
See, for example, “Madness and Civilization in Early Modern Europe: A Reappraisal of Michel Foucault” by H.C. Erik Midelfort in After the Reformation, Essays in Honor of J.H. Hexter, edited by Barbara C. Malament (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1980).↩