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Michel Foucault: Power/Knowledge

from Asad Zaman

We cannot understand the world around us without a sophisticated understanding of the complex but intimate relationship between knowledge and power. One of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century, Michel Foucault, crafted a radically different understanding of this relationship. Instead of seeing power in brute force, he saw power as being the ability to shape knowledge. To understand Foucault, we must let go of our comfortable and conventional understanding of Truth as an objective and factual entity which exists outside time and history, and which cannot be manipulated by ordinary mortals. Instead, we must learn to see Truth as a social product, which is created and shaped by politics and power. As Foucault said, “My job is making windows, where there were once walls.” Absorbing Foucauldian insights opens windows onto entirely new ways of seeing the world.

Instead of the simplistic binary understanding of ideas — as being either true or false — Foucault offers us a dramatically different perspective: “We have to be there at the birth of ideas, the bursting outward of their force: not in books expressing them, but in events manifesting this force, in struggles carried on around ideas, for or against them.” The concept of Power/Knowledge is best understood by illustrating how it is used with concrete and specific examples.  read more

  1. LK
    October 26, 2016 at 1:19 pm

    Foucault’s view of truth — that all truth is simply made by power — is outrageous nonsense, leads to comical conspiracy theory nonsense, and obscures the reality that objective empirical truths exist, and are made true by objective states of affairs in the external world which we can accurately describe in language.

    Postmodernism — which Foucault helped to create — is an intellectually bankrupt dead-end and Post Keynesians will discredit themselves by adopting this nonsense:


    • November 13, 2016 at 4:17 am

      Foucault is not a post-modernist. Calling him that is just politically oriented critique. In other words, done just to discredit Foucault’s ideas. Foucault calls himself a critical historian of modernity. I have some concern with the word critical, since critique is often used to bounce uncertainty into research and policy about which there is great consensus. For example, on climate change and the failure of neoliberalism. But Foucault does not make this error. He does not critique modernity as wholly corrupt and hopeless, but rather as a parish priest might critique the actions of a sinner. Since we are all sinners and need love and critique to overcome our sinfulness, for a time at least. On knowledge and power, this quote sort of shows where Foucault stood, “The theme that underlies all Foucault’s work is the relationship between power and knowledge, and how the former is used to control and define the latter. What authorities claim as ‘scientific knowledge’ are really just means of social control. Foucault shows how, for instance, in the eighteenth century ‘madness’ was used to categorise and stigmatise not just the mentally ill but the poor, the sick, the homeless and, indeed, anyone whose expressions of individuality were unwelcome.” (Philip Stokes, (2004), Philosophy: 100 Essential Thinkers). Consider, any historical situation and it bears out Foucault’s thesis. Even, the priest counseling the sinner wants the sinner to stop sinning. The very notions of sin and sinfulness proclaim power and control. Even if the motives of the priest are all for the betterment of the sinner. Each of us become who s/he is by relationships with other actors. Most of this is tacit and many of the results are not chosen voluntarily by the person, since prior to the relationships the person was different or did not exist. “Objective states of affairs in the external world,” as you term them, exist, but only as the result of a hell of a lot work in relationships. Even something as seemingly simple as a rock is formed in these relationships. Economics, post-autistic and otherwise would benefit greatly from following such threads. Knowing economics and economies are formed in this way might just break economists free from both their worship of mathematics and their fear of uncertainty.

  2. dmf
  3. Alan
    October 26, 2016 at 4:53 pm

    Michael Bess. Power, Moral Values, and the Intellectual, An Interview with Michel Foucault. History of the Present 4 (Spring 1988), 1-2, 11-13.

  4. October 27, 2016 at 6:21 am

    Asad, great piece. Thank you. I’ve always admired Foucault’s perspectives and used then in my work. The one thing I like more than any other in Foucault is that he shows how to reject Utopian plans and perspectives, while simultaneously using these utopias to examine the connected whole from which the utopias spring. A caution with reading Foucault is that he should not ever be interpreted as a social scientist, of any sort. And certainly not as an economist.

  5. October 28, 2016 at 11:09 am

    that is well written, and i’d recommend it to students or others if i was in a position to (which i am not). I’ve read some foucault (eg discipline and punish—about history of prisons, criminal in/justice system, etc.) and he’s quite dense (thought that may be partly because its translated from french, like bourdieu (my favorite in that area of french thought), derrida (somewhat interesting and somewhat incomprehensible and incoherent), and lacan (same). I only read these because i was in sciences (physics and biology) but my friends were into semiotics. (as an anecdote I heard that Foucault died of AIDS since he got into SF S&M scene).

    Jean Cocteau (orphee), Jean Luc-Godard ((weekend) and antonin artaud were even further out but more my taste (films, writing).

    But for people like me, ‘power/knowledge’ is old news; its a variant of social constructionism. I am not sure what that can really say about, say, the situation in Pakistan (split between afghan and india issues, and kashmir, and internal rivalries among military and civil society).

    Easterly, cited in the article (i read one of his books) operated in the WB system for a long time, and then said ‘it wasn’t much good to pay beurocrats like me big salaries when our ideas don’t work’. That’s along the line of Thomas Jefferson—‘as a slaveowner, i think slavery is terrible and should be abolished (after i die)’.
    Easterly’s nemesis is Jeffrey Sachs—famous for turning the communist USSR into the peaceful, democratic utopia it is today (like Crimea and Syria).

    None of these people have any ‘silver bullets’ or cures. In a sense one is arguing along the lines of Elinor Ostrom (i think first womyn to get a noble econ prize—and there are quite a few heterodox types among them—Amartya Sen, maybe stiglitz, shiller, tversy and kahneman, etc.) (Lucas is not, and Heckman is in between).

    One of my local radio stations uses instead of ‘power/knowledge’ the concept ‘information is power’. Its ‘black oriented’ and one of the few large media corporations owned by african americans, and has several stations locally. One is talk (alot of louis farrkhan supporters call in), and most are religious, and one is basically gangsta rap music.

    power/knowledge or ‘information is power’ (or try the ‘maximum power principle’ in nonequilbrium statistical thermodynamics) only go so far.

  6. Alan
    October 29, 2016 at 4:59 pm

    It’s worth noting that this is a critical economics blog but the discussion, unless I missed something elsewhere, of Foucault doesn’t take up his own work that directly takes up the topic of neoliberalism. It would be interesting to see some discussion here of Security, Territory, Population and The Birth of Biopolitics. A lot of the critical analysis elsewhere in the social sciences on governmentality and neoliberalism starts with these lectures given in the late 1970s.

  7. November 3, 2016 at 12:13 pm

    There could be no more relevant source to answer the question “what is economics?” than Michel Foucault. There is no discipline in science more entagled with power and global hegemony than economics and there is no fact more readily denied by economists.

    So go realworld economics!

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