Michel Foucault, best known for his critical studies of social institutions, such as psychiatry, medicine, the human sciences, and the prison systems as well as for his work on the history of human sexuality, has been tremendously influential on postmodern thought, especially through his writings on power, knowledge, and discourse.
Overthrowing the Enlightenment ideal that knowledge is power, Foucault radically claimed that power is knowledge. Consistent with much postmodern thoughts, Foucault affirmed the impossibility of escaping the shackles of some form of power or the other and that power is a constitutive dimension of all discourse. He posits the idea of the all seeing — panoptic — surveillance State (corresponding to Jeremy Bentham‘s panopticon prison), that exerts power through discursive practices, circulating ideology through the body politic, and through subtle, indirect oppression.
The panoptic state is seen as a monolithic structure, where change is nearly impossible, where power is ubiquitous and exists in capillary forms.
The most representative instance of such a state is Ingsoc in George Orwell‘s 1984, where there is pervasive government surveillance (“BIG BROTHER. IS WATCHING YOU”) and incessant public mind control, where historical records are rewritten to conform to the Party ideology, such that the Party is omniscient and always correct, and “truths’ is constructed to serve the Party’s agenda.
Analysing the relationship between power and “discursive formations” in society that make knowledge possible, Foucault developed the “archaeology of human sciences” in The Order of Things, in which he studied the rise of the forms of knowledge, the classificatory mechanisms of knowledge and the rules by which knowledge was collected, archived and disseminated.
In The Archaeology of Knowledge, he observed that a given discourse is a reflection of power structures and that what one deemed to be truth or valid knowledge is based upon the discourse of that time. His primary attempt was to unravel the underlying structures of thinking in the various fields of knowledge because he considered these structures as conditioned and constructed. Knowledge is constructed, organised, shared and used through particular forms of speech/writing and language called “Discourse,” which refers to the context in which meaning is produced. Through his works Madness and Civilization, The Birth of the Clinic, Discipline and Punish, where he studies the “construction” of the insane, the sick and the criminal respectively, he demonstrates how discourses condition people’s lives and inform their thinking, and how they construct and legitimise unequal power relations.
However, Foucault despised being labeled as a postmodernist or a poststructuralist, preferring to classify his thoughts as a critical history of modernity rooted in Kant. He accused Derrida’s obscurantist thoughts and writing and also disputed the idea that “there is nothing outside the text.” His project was particularly influenced by Nietzsche, his genealogy of knowledge being a direct allusion to Nietzsche’s genealogy of morals, and hence perhaps, he preferred being labeled as a “Nietzschean.”