The Discourse of Power. michael foucault: history of sexuality & crime and punishment

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To Foucault, everything is about power

relationships. Entwined with power is knowledge so

that in every power relationship there is knowledge

and vice-versa. Foucault takes the cliché "Knowledge

is power" and revises it: the knowledge of humans

integrated with the power that acts on humans equals

power/knowledge. Consequently, power/knowledge (not a

binary opposition but an integrated construction) is

always a discursive formation and works through

language. To understand how power/knowledge works,

it's important to understand "epistemes" and


Epistemes are whole systems of relations or historical

groupings of knowledge. Foucault looks for truth and

knowledge in historical contexts rather than in

Humanist or Structuralist theories. Grouping

taxonomies, or categorizing is important in studying

epistemes because how we group things reveals what we

value. Power/knowledge works through language in

discourse as well as in epistemes. Discourse is

grouping an order of objects about a subject or group

of specialized knowledge about a subject. Discourse is

not simply language. Foucault says it is "not a group

of signs but practices that systematically form the

objects of which they speak." In this sense, analysis

of discourses leads to truth.

Discourse is fixed and limited to the time in which it

exists. For example, we can look at the current war

in Iraq and its discursive elements (weapons,

participants, strategy), but this discourse is

specific only to the time the war in Iraq exists. This

discursive formation is not relevant in the past and

will hold no truth in the future; it pertains solely

to its particular time. The goal for discursive

analysis is to discover what is being said through

what is said or as Foucault says, "to find what is

this specific existence that emerges from what is said

and nowhere else."

Control over body and soul is the primary focus of

Discipline and Punish. Discipline and punishment are

all about power relations between dominators and their

subjects. For Foucault, truth is a human construct

based on power. This construct is chosen within the

episteme. There is already desire and power within the

human quest for truth, and this is what Foucault is

interested in uncovering in examining power relations.

He says truth and experience make-up the social

consciousness of an episteme; truth is the desire for

power/knowledge, and experience is the desire for

freedom. The use of discipline and punishment as a

social force to control bodies requires agreement

between the empowered and the submissive. Both are

subjects who agree to the power relationship

established. The goal of discipline and punishment is

self-regulated behavior. Also known as the "physics of

power." You stop at stoplights because you are

self-regulating. You are a compliant subject. The

implied discipline and punishment for non-compliance

controls you so that the power/knowledge 'holder' does

not need to exert physical control over you.

Foucault begins Discipline and Punish with a graphic

sense of public execution in mid-17th century France.

A prisoner accused of murder is tortured, dies, and

his body is burned in the public square before a

crowd. Power/knowledge is in the hands of the

executioner. The crowd actively complies and gives up

power willingly to the one exercising power/knowledge.

They comply because they agree (implicitly) with the

power relation set up. They forfeit power so that they

will not be the next one executed. The execution is

displayed publicly to demonstrate the reaches of power

that the executioner holds. The idea being, "if I

control your soul, then you will comply and be

productive while I retain the source of power." How

can you best ensure a productive, compliant body?

Foucault says...
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