13 Dec

Foucault: The Birth of Power

Posted By John Hewish

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In 1969 Foucault published The Archaeology of Knowledge, a theoretical and methodological treatise which summarised the work he had been doing throughout the 1960s. Six years later he published Discipline and Punish, a politically-charged work of history. This period saw a major development in his work, in which the vocabulary of power is elaborated and put to work in genealogies of health, madness and the disciplinary society. Foucault: The Birth of Power studies that pivotal period in Foucault’s career.

The Archaeology of Knowledge was published shortly after the tumultuous events of May 1968, and was, given the time, a curiously apolitical book. That was soon to change. At the time Foucault was a Professor at the experimental University of Vincennes, and was shortly to be elected to a chair at the prestigious Collège de France. Foucault gave courses there on classical and medieval knowledge, peasant revolts in seventeenth century France, the emergence of modern penal systems and psychiatric power. At the same time he was involved in political activism, from the famous Prison Information Group to a parallel group on health which ran campaigns on immigrant health, industrial accidents and was involved in the abortion rights struggle.

Foucault: The Birth of Power, like its companion study Foucault’s Last Decade (Polity 2016), makes use of all the available material from this period of Foucault’s work – lecture courses and archival materials alongside his published works. It also makes extensive use of Foucault’s reading notes and other materials newly available at the Bibliothèque National de France in Paris. The book is divided into six chapters, treating the development of the new theoretical tools of genealogy and power through to their utilisation in the studies of health, madness and prisons. As well as these being themes of his own writing, and collaborative research projects in his Collège de France seminar and beyond, they are also the focus of his political activism.

Foucault: The Birth of Power is therefore a work of intellectual history, resituating Foucault’s famous Discipline and Punish within the wider context of its intellectual and political genesis. I am now turning my attention to the very earliest works by Foucault.

Stuart Elden is Professor of Political Theory and Geography at the University of Warwick, and Monash Warwick Professor in the Faculty of Arts, Monash University. His book Foucault: The Birth of Power will be available in January 2017.