Foucault and Power

Michel Foucault considers the subtle, influential power over everything and how power is consolidated and expressed. The power of language—verbal or visual—is critical. Reason not only controls but also puts the productivity in power. Foucault suggests the quest for truth is neither completely disinterested nor isolated. Truth becomes part of a network, suggesting the encouragement of questions to be asked.


Michel Foucault

In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975), Foucault discusses the prison system and Panopticism, where there are guards in the center tower and prisoners who do not know when they are being watched. The Panopticon, which is a system as well as an architectural building, becomes an important metaphor about discipline, punishment, and all-seeing power. This example of the Panopticon “is the disciplinary form at its most extreme, the model in which are concentrated all the coercive technologies of behavior” (Foucault 1490). Therefore, no guard would need to be in the tower because the possibility of being watched would be in the minds of the prisoners, who are isolated, alienated, and exposed. It is the potentiality of being surveyed and watched that is emphasized here.


The Panopticon

Foucault argues that this model can be used for other institutions (e.g., the government, technology, the internet) or applied to anyone who needs to be watched or handled. Vision is central because prisoners are (1) under the impression of constantly being watched, but they are also (2) a part of being involved with spectacle. This display, performance, or show is spectacle. In societies, there is the potential to be looked at as well as the potential to look. However, it should be noted that surveillance and spectacle become more and more meshed in contemporary society.

There is a shift in the basis of power from Marx to Foucault. For Marxists, economics is the foundation that is determinant of everything else in culture. For Foucault, economics has no priority; no single discourse exists among human. Therefore, we go from a base and superstructure model to discourse as a basis of everything. Foucault thought about prisons, sexual activity, schools, religion (e.g., the confessional), medicine, and politics, expanding what could be included in discourse. Literature and art could become another discourse, but they do not necessarily become a separate aesthetic realm, for Foucault.


The Prisoner

With Foucault’s analysis of discourse, the subject of the novel or art can fit into the discussion of discourse. It is not just an intellectual field of power that shapes subjectivity. Viewers realize that literature and art shape who we are; therefore, we see literature and art not only as artistic expression or entertainment but also as a social or political work. Foucault’s emphasis on the plurality of discourse could lead to the following question: what new discourses could the future hold? His cultural criticism and theories have changed the way readers and viewers see the world and consider their lives within the societal structures they are born into.


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