The anti-establishment ethos of New Historicism wasprofoundly influenced by Foucault‘s theories of Power/Knowledge and Discourse. Foucault observed that the discourse of an era brings into being concepts, oppositions and hierarchies, which are products and propagators of power, and these determine what is “knowledge”, “truth” and “normal” at a given time. Drawing on Jeremy Bentham‘s notion of the panoptic surveillant State, that exerts its power through discursive practices, circulating ideology through the body-politic, Foucault highlighted the subtle, indirect oppression and the “capillary” modes of power that controls individuals and their knowledge. His primary concern has been with power’s relationship to the discursive formations in society that make knowledge.
Foucault understood power as continually articulated knowledge and vice versa; that knowledge always endorses the position of the powerful and that knowledge is created by power structures. Foucault based his approach both on his theory of the limits of collective cultural knowledge and on his technique of examining a broad array of documents in order to understand the episteme of a particular time. Thus, following the Foucauldian mode of analysis, New Historicists seek to find examples of power and manifestation of discursive practices, how they are dispersed within the text, and how they contribute to establishing the “greatness” or ‘failure’ of a text at a given point of time.