Adapting Foucault’s theory of power/knowledge

Print culture has presented itself as an interesting class. Unlike previous English courses, my background knowledge in social and media theory has been an integral part of my contributions to the class. But, I suppose that should come as no surprise. Literature studies courses come with their own jargon and analytical approaches and social theories are only applicable on a case by case basis. Fortunately, print’s extensive history offers extensive room to explore various theories. For me, I am most interested in using a Foucauldian analysis to examine how power is negotiated in both commercial and amateur printing circles. For this, I plan to use Foucault’s theory of power/knowledge.


Before even touching the theory, it must be noted that Foucault is a tough egg to crack. Existing in between the realms of structuralism and post-structuralism, Foucault targets the essence of social conflicts by distilling them to their bases. He rejects the light placed upon brute force coercion by Marxist theorists, but does not dispute the existence of structures in society. Instead, he rejects that structures only exert power on a large scale. For Foucault, power is everywhere and exercised by all actors.     


Like Foucault himself, power/knowledge can be a difficult topic to navigate. Built upon a traditional Marxist analyses, power/knowledge seeks to bypass the monolithic notions of “the powerful” and “the powerless” in favour for a closer reading of social relationships. For Foucault, power was not a fixed social position. Instead, power was a relationship negotiated through social interactions and the production of discourse through knowledge. Given this relationship,  power/knowledge is somewhat cyclical in nature. Exercises of power produce knowledge, the new knowledge is then leveraged as power against a subject. In essence, power becomes a tool to normalize behaviour. To explain more clearly, I borrow this section from Social Theory Re-Wired:


“For Foucault, power and knowledge are not seen as independent entities but are inextricably related—knowledge is always an exercise of power and power always a function of knowledge. Perhaps his most famous example of a practice of power/knowledge is that of the confession, as outlined in History of Sexuality. Once solely a practice of the Christian Church, Foucault argues that it became diffused into secular culture (and especially psychology) in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Through the confession (a form of power) people were incited to “tell the truth” (produce knowledge) about their sexual desires, emotions, and dispositions. Through these confessions, the idea of a sexual identity at the core of the self came into existence (again, a form of knowledge), an identity that had to be monitored, cultivated, and often controlled (again, back to power)..” (


Despite its complexity, power/knowledge offers nice framework many different socioeconomic relationships. In my essay, I hope to apply this theory in my final paper.

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