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Poststructuralism, the Question of Power/Knowledge and the Human Subject in History: Michel Foucault

The most influential postmodern thinker for the discipline of history was the French philosopher Michel Foucault. In several bestselling publications of the 1960/70s Foucault suggested a radical new way of thinking about ‘power’ and its relationship to the production of knowledge. His famous 'power/knowledge' nexus opened new ways to conceptualise the human subject and its history. According to Foucault, the aim of history writing was not to produce moral lessons for the present, nor to identify the origin of contemporary ideas and practices. For him history writing was a means to 'critque' the present.

‘It (history writing) consists in uncovering ... thought and trying to change it: showing that things are not as obvious as people believe, making it so that what is taken for granted is no longer taken for granted. To practice criticism is to make harder those acts which are now too easy... [A]s soon as people begin to no longer be able to think things the way they have been thinking them, transformation becomes at the same time very urgent, very difficult and entirely possible.’

(M. Foucault, ‘So, is it important to think?’ in The Essential Foucault: Selections from Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984, ed. by P. Rabinow and N Rose (New York, 1994).




Foucault, Michel, ‘Body/Power’ (1975), in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, trans. and ed. by Colin Gordon et al. (London, 1980), pp. 55-62. (

Foucault, Michel, ‘Truth and Power’ (1977), in in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, trans. and ed. by Coling Gordon et al. (London, 1980), pp. 109-133. (

Foucault, Michel, ‘The Eye of Power, in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, trans. and ed. by Colin Gordon et al. (London, 1980), pp. 146-165. (

Foucault, Michel, ‘The history of Sexuality’, in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, trans. and ed. by Colin Gordon et al. (London, 1980), pp. 183-193. (


Seminar Reading

Watch the video ‘Foucault/Chomsky’

(It might be beneficial for you to buy the cheap but brilliant Gary Gutting, Foucault: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2005). Best intro on the market for very small price. Doesn't take much space in your extensive library either!)


Significant Quotations

‘Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular effects of power. Each society has its regime of truth, its “general politics” of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true.’ (Foucault, in Rabinow 1991, check where originally appeared) Rabinow, Paul (editor) (1991) The Foucault Reader: An introduction to Foucault’s thought, London, Penguin.



‘We must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms: it ‘excludes’, it ‘represses’, it ‘censors’, it ‘abstracts’, it ‘masks’, it ‘conceals’. In fact power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth. The individual and the knowledge that may be gained of him belong to this production.’ (Foucault 1991: 194 – find quote).


‘The case of the penal system convinced me that the question of power needed to be formulated not so much in terms of justice as in those of technology, of tactics and strategy.’ (Michel Foucault, interview on ‘history of sexuality’, 1984)


‘What I want to show is how power relations can materially penetrate the body in depth, without depending even on the mediation of the subject's own representations. If power takes hold on the body, this isn't through its having first to be interiorised in people's consciousnesses. There is a network or circuit of bio-power, or somato-power, which acts as the formative matrix of sexuality itself as the historical and cultural phenomenon within which we seem at once to recognise and lose ourselves.’ (Michel Foucault in an interview on ‘The History of Sexuality’, 1984).



‘Discourses are not once and for all subservient to power or raised up against it… We must make allowances for the complex and unstable process whereby a discourse can be both an instrument and an effect of power, but also a hindrance, a stumbling point of resistance and a starting point for an opposing strategy. Discourse transmits and produces power; it reinforces it, but also undermines and exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart.’ (Foucault, The History of Sexuality: The Will to Knowledge (1984).



Seminar Questions

'All human experience – including emotions – are not natural.’ Discuss.

How useful is the Foucauldian insight of ‘knowledge/power to historians?

Why was ‘the body’ so central to Foucault’s work?

Do you think that Foucault’s work is still a ‘threat’ to academic history as it was perceived between the 1960s-1990?

Foucault’s theory of power/knowledge has become reality in today' world? What do you think?

'There is no universal Truth. Truth is always restricted to a particular social-cultural context at a particular moment in time.' Discuss.

'History writing does not stand outside the knowledge/power nexus. History is central to it to analyse contemporary power strategies’. Discuss.


Further Reading

Davidson, Arnold, ‘The Emergence of Sexuality’, in ibid., The Emergence of Sexuality: Historical Epistemology and the Formation of Concepts (Cambridge, 2001), pp. 30-65.

Arac, J. (ed.), After Foucault: Humanistic Knowledge, Post-Modern Challenge (New Brunswick, NJ, 1991).

Bernauer, J. & Rasmussen, D. (eds), The Final Foucault (Cambridge MA, 1988).

O’Brien, P., ‘Crime and Punishment as Historical Problems’, Journal of Social History, 11:4 (1978), 508-520.

Thomasa H. Brobjer, 'Nietzsche's Relation to Historical Methods and Nineteenth-Century German Historiography', History and Theory 46, 2 (2007): 155-179.

Burchell, G., & Gordon, C. (eds), The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality (London, 1991).

Burke, P. (ed.), Critical Essays on Michel Foucault (Aldershot, 1992).

Chartier, R., ‘The Chimera of the Origin: Archeaology, Cultural History, and the French Revolution’, in ed. by Goldstein, J., Foucault and the Writing of History (Oxford, 1994), pp. 167-186.

Cooper, D., ‘Productive, Relational and Everywhere? Conceptualising Power and Resistance within Foucauldian Feminism’, Sociology 28 (1994), 435-454

Diamond, I., & Quinby, L. (eds), Feminism and Foucault: Reflections on Resistance (Boston, 1988).

Michel, Foucault, ‘Nietzsche Geneology and History, Rabinow, O., Nikolas Rose (eds.), The Essential Foucault: Selections from Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984 (New York, 1994), pp.

Michel Foucault, ‘Introduction’, in ibid., The Archaeology of Knowledge (London, 1972), pp. 3-17.

Ibid., ‘Docile Bodies’, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (London, 1977), pp. 135-169.

Fine, R., ‘Struggles against Discipline: The Theory and Politics of Michel Foucault’, Capital and Class, 9 (1979): 75-96.

Sophie Fuggle, Yari Lanci, Martina Tazzioli (eds.), Foucault and the History of Our Present (Houndsmill, 2015).

Gaventa, John, Power after Lukes: a Review of the Literature (Brighton, 2003).

Goldstein, J., ‘Foucault Amongst the Sociologists: The Disciplines and the History of the Professions’, History & Theory, 23 (1994), 170-92.

Goldstein, J. (ed.), Foucault and the Writing of History (Oxford, 1994).

Grosz, E. ‘Bodies and Knowledges. Feminism and the Crisis of Reason’, in A. Alcoff and E. Potter (eds) Feminist Epistemologies (London, 1993)

Gutting, G. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Foucault (Cambridge, 1994) (one of the best writers on Foucault, lucid and, most importantly, it is not a misinterpretation of his ideas!)

Heyes, Cressida J. (ed.), Foucault Studies Special Issue: Foucault and Feminism, September 2013 (

Hacking, Ian, ‘The Archeology of Michel Foucault’, in ibid., Historical Ontology (Cambridge, MA, 2002), pp. 73-86. (one of the best interpreters of Foucault).

Hartsock, N., ‘Foucault on Power: A Theory for Women?’, in Feminism/Postmodernism Linda J. Nicholson ed., (New York: 1990), pp. 157-175.

Hekman, S. J. (ed.), Feminist Interpretations of Michel Foucault (Philadelphia, 1996)

Hesse, Carla, ‘Kant, Foucault, and Three Women’, in J. Goldstein (ed.), Foucault and the Writing of History (Oxford, 1994), pp. 81-98.

Jones, C., & Porter, R. (eds), Reassessing Foucault: Power, Medicine and the Body (London, 1994).

Koopman, Colin, Genealogy as Critique: Foucault and the Problems of Modernity (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013) (order).

McClaren, M., ‘Foucault and the Subject of Feminism’, Social Theory and Practice, 23:11 (1997): 109-128.

McNay, L., Foucault. A Critical Introduction (Cambridge, 1994).

Nick, C., ‘Body-Subject/Body-Power: Agency, Inscription and Control in Foucault and Merleau-Ponty’, Body and Society, 2: 2. (1996): 99-116.

Megill, A., ‘The Reception of Foucault by Historians’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 48 (1987): 117-41.

Merquior, J.G., Foucault (London, 1991).

Mitchell, D., Critical and Effective Histories. Foucault's Methods and Historical Sociology (London, 1994).

Munslow, A., The Routledge Companion to Historical Studies (London, 2000), pp. 107-111.

Noiriel, G., ‘Foucault and History: The Lessons of a Disillusion’, Journal of Modern History, 66 (1994): 547-68.

O’Brien, P., ‘Michel Foucault's History of Culture', in L. Hunt (ed.), The New Cultural History (Berkeley, 1989), pp. 25-46.

Poster, M., Foucault, Marxism and History: Modes of Production, Modes of Information (Cambridge, 1984).

Mark Poster, ’Foucault and History’, Social Research 49,1 (1982): 116-142.

Ramazanoğlu, C., Up Against Foucault. Explorations of Some Tensions between Foucault and Feminism (London, 1993).

Roth, M. S., ‘Foucault’s “History of the Present”’, History and Theory, 20:1 (1981), 32-46.

Rousseau, G. S., ‘Whose Enlightenment? Not Man’s. The Case of Michel Foucault’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 6:2 (1972): 238-56.

Skinner, Q. (ed.), The Return of Grand Theory in the Human Sciences (Cambridge, 1990)

Strozier, R. M., Foucault, Subjectivity, and Identity. Historical Constructions of Subject and Self (Detroit, 2002).

Veyne, Paul, Foucault: His Thought, His Character (Cambridge, 2008).

Weeks, J., ‘Foucault for Historians’, History Workshop Journal 14 (1982), 106-119.

White, Hayden, ‘Foucault Decoded: Notes from Underground’, History and Theory 12 (1973).