Context of Foucault’s Writings

  • Enlightenment concepts of progress being challenged in the mid-twentieth century.
  • World War Two, the Holocaust in Germany, challenging the idea that Europe was civilised.
  • Capitalism itself had been challenged by the Soviet Union and China.
  • By 1960s de-industrialisation in Europe and the decline of the factory within capitalism was leading to a rethinking of Marxian theory.
  • This context led to Foucault’s desire to rethink what was seen as normative within society as well as the way power operated.

The Age of Enlightenment

  • The philosophical movement that took over the 18th century.
  • Related to the rise of scientific thinking.
  • Decartes: ‘I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.’

Foucault ‘Madness and Civilisation’ 1961

  • This challenged our conception of madness.
  • Madness in the renaissance was an experience that as integrated into the rest of the world, whereas in the 19th century it had become a moral and mental disease.

The Birth of the Clinic 1963

  • The Medical Gaze – seeing people as nothing but organs – articulation of power.
  • A critique of the professionalisation of disciplines central to bourgeois society.

The Archaeology of Knowledge 1969

  • Systems of thought and knowledge are governed by rules.
  • Conceptual possibilities are determined by the boundaries of thought and language used in a given domain and period.
  • This creates ‘regimes of truth’ and ‘discursive formations’.

Discursive Formations – Women & Medicine

  • Power and knowledge is always rooted in particular contexts and histories.
  • The production of knowledge is always crossed with questions of power and the body.
  • In the 19th century hysteria was regarded as a female malady.
  • Hysteria was performed and documented through the use of photography.

Power and Knowledge

  • Power operates through discourse.
  • Power to make ‘truth’.

CRITIQUE OF FOUCAULT – He roots too much influence in ‘discourse’ and not enough in the material and economic structures in the operation of power/knowledge.


Discipline and Punishment

  • Challenging enlightenment concept of humanism.
  • Debates on power.
  • The prison is a metaphor for the policing and running of society ourselves.

Disciplinary Societies

  • The body of condemned.
  • Foucault suggests two different types of Punishment.


  • Sovereign power involves obedience to the law of the King or central authority figure.
  • Punishment as inscribed on the body to prove the power and sovereignty of the King.


  • The modern prison uses this.
  • Each individual is carefully supervised, time organised in an effective manner and positioned into segments.
  • Punishment is no longer about crushing the body but about training, exercise and supervision.

Jeremy Bentham’s Panoptican


  • Prisoners in a circular position with guard in the centre. They cannot see the guard, but the guard sees them and they see each other.
  • Does the guard actually have to be there for it to work?
  • They self-regulate.

Features of a Disciplinary Society

  • Power is not external, its imposed from within.
  • Individuals regulate themselves.
  • Workers regulating other workers. Prisoners regulating other prisoners etc.
  • Seen in all institutions.

Foucault’s Conclusion

  • Power is everywhere and ‘comes from everywhere’ in this sense it is neither an agency nor a structure.
  • If power is individualised through institutions, it acts through discoursive formations.
  • Power is constituted through accepted forms of knowledge, scientific understand and ‘truth’.

A Reading – Stuart Hall on Foucault

  • He outlines three of Foucault’s major themes – 1) the concept of ‘discourse’; 2) power and knowledge; 3) the question of the subject.
  • By discourse, Foucault means a group of statements which provide a language for talking about a particular topic at a particular historical moment.
  • Discourse constructs the topic.
  • We can only have knowledge of something if it has a meaning – a discourse to which we understand it so it is the discourse that gives/produces knowledge.
  • e.g. madness, sexuality, feminism, punishment.
  • Things are only ‘true’ in specific historical contexts.
  • If discourse produced knowledge it would be different in each period.
  • Thus mental illness was not an objective fact.
  • The classic Marxist theory is that ideas reflect the economic basis of society and thus the ‘ruling ideas’ are those of the ruling class which governs a capitalist economy and correspond to its dominant interests.
  • Foucault argued this reduced the relation between knowledge and power to a question of class power and class interests.
  • He believed all political and social forms of thought were inevitably caught up in the interplay of knowledge and power, so his work rejects the traditional Marxist question: in whose class interest does language, representation and power operate?
  • The regime of truth: something may not be true but because everyone believes it to be and punishes accordingly, this will have real consequences, and eventually become ‘true’.
  • Foucault believed that power does not operate in a linear fashion from top to bottom. Instead he believed it was deployed in a ‘net-like’ organisation diffusing between institutions etc.
These notes are from my year two semester two lectures and seminars. The images are from: and

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