The Interplay of Power, Knowledge and the Self - Subject and the Art of Telling the Truth in Michel Foucault

Essay, 2011

11 Pages


Abhilash G Nath

PhD Synopsis

The Interplay of Power, Knowledge and the Self: Subject and the Art of Telling the Truth in Michel Foucault


Unlike many other prominent names in the history of continental philosophy, the noun Foucault signifies path-breaking studies on diverse fields, such as, understanding of modern institutions like mental asylum, prison; studies on disciplines as diverse as medicine and pedagogy; studies on the behaviour of the subject in relation to sexuality and ethics; engagements in literature and literary theory; and a range of methodological approaches and theoretical tools – engagements that have provoked vigorous examinations and detailed studies, over time; though, escape the preview of a single study’s comprehension. Foucault himself has tried to re-imagine his earlier studies on science, politics, and ethics, at times, when he realised the changing directions of his intellectual endeavour. The three domains of genealogy that have invoked his curiosity, as he states, are: “first, a historical ontology of ourselves in relation to truth through which we constitute ourselves as the subject of knowledge; second, a historical ontology of ourselves in relation to a field of power through which we constitute ourselves as the subject acting on others; third, a historical ontology in relation to ethics through which we constitute ourselves as moral agents,”[1]

It is quite interesting to notice that as Foucault re-imagined his entire intellectual endeavour, he rightly elevated one aspect of his interest to the heart of the entire problematic whether it be his study of knowledge or power or even human behaviour – and that is the problem of subject. Though an idea of a ‘passive subject’ is implicit in his early studies, as they deal with the discursive formations and power, it is only in Foucault’s later writings that ‘subject’ emerges as the major concern. Subject here becomes central to one function that is the function of “telling the truth,’ especially, in a historical formation in which ‘truth’ is something that is granted and is produced in an environment of inter-related discursive and non-discursive systems. Telling the truth, for Foucault, is an ‘endless labour’ involving a spiritual relationship to oneself; of engagement; of knowing; and of being and speech: and, therefore, subject is pivotal.

The idea of a ‘thinking-subject’ that became an obsession to the Western thought[2] since Plato, however, has been replaced, as Foucault locates the possibility of a thoughtful and a positive relation to one’s own time in what is termed: knowing-subject [3] – a subject, who is positioned himself to know through language that within him, he has the traces of the already ‘said’[4] and that they not only constrain his understanding but also his language itself; a subject, whose concern is not authenticity or originality, that is, truly be our own self, rather creativity through an infinite self-becoming in a condition of ‘complex interplay of truth, power and the self.’ The study tends to offer a commentary of Foucault’s reading of the ontological conditions that constitute a knowing-subject in a way of living that he calls ‘aesthetic of existence’ and, therefore, this study stands apart from a lot of literature on Foucault – especially, those that deal with subject in relation to discourse or power.


Language, Exteriority and the Thought from Outside: what defines both Foucault’s conception of a knowing-subject and probably his own writings is an attempt to explore the possibility of experiencing the exteriority of one’s own culture, a culture that systematically controls the experience of its “outside” by treating the otherness within it in subjective, psychologising and interiorized terms. For instance, in Madness and Civilization, Foucault has shown us how psychoanalysis organises the internal “guilt” of a madman as a consciousness of himself and as a non-reciprocal, paternalistic relation to the keeper, on the one hand, and on the other hand, as an awareness of the “other” in the man of reason.[5] The experience of the sparkling outside, however, cannot be realized in what one means by “I think,” since the proposition “I think” inevitably leads to “the indubitable certainty of the “I” and its existence.”[6] Foucault writes “thought about thought, an entire tradition wider than philosophy, has taught us that thought leads us to the deepest interiority” and certainly not to an experience of the outside.[7] What Foucault looking for and found in language, especially in literature, is, then, an experience of a form of existence that infinitely unfolds towards the exterior and yet with out an interiority that negating nothing. In other words, what he found is an experience of language that can take him to the exteriority of his own sacralised culture;[8] an opening to explain the historically constructed centrality of “I think” in his own culture. When asked, Foucault replied once “for me, Nietzsche, Bataille, Blanchot, Klossowski were ways of escaping from philosophy.”[9]

With language, Foucault means, is not what language means or the form in which language says, what it means, rather its raw state; as the “always undone form of the outside…in its attentive and forgetful being; its power of dissimulation that effaces every determinate meaning and even the existence of the speaker.”[10] He continues, “Language, its every word, is indeed directed at contents that pre-exist it; but in its own being, provided that it holds as close to its being as possible, it only unfolds in the pureness of the wait.”[11] The directedness-at-nothing, a state of nothing-but-itself, that interiorise itself to the extreme; this bold feature of the waiting, that opens a passage to the exterior, according to Foucault, is also the event that gave rise to what we call “literature.”


[1] Michel Foucault, “On The Genealogy of Ethics: An Overview of Work in Progress” in Paul Rabinow ed., Michel Foucault: Ethics, Subjectivity and truth, 1997, op cit., p no 262

[2] Here Foucault stands strictly opposed to the humanist tradition developed along with Cartesian cogito, Freud’s meta-psychological conceptualization of libido, Husserl’s transcendental intentionality or even Heidegger’s human will.

[3] Paul Rabinow and Nikolas Rose (eds.,), The Essential Foucault: Selections from The Essential Works of Foucault 1954 – 1984, (New York: The New Press, 2003). p. no: 59.

[4] Michel Foucault, “The Discourse on Language,” in The Archaeology of Knowledge & The Discourse on Language, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1072), p. no: 218; See also the discussion of ‘found language’ in Michel Foucault, Death and The Labyrinth: The World of Raymond Roussel, (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1986), p. no: 177.

[5] Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, trans., Richard Howard, (New York: Mentor Books, 1967), p. no: 199.

[6] Michel Foucault, “Maurice Blanchot: The thought from Outside” trans., Jeffrey Mehleman and Brian Massumi, in Foucault – Blanchot, (New York: Zone books, 1990), p. no: 13.

[7] Ibid, p. no: 13

[8] Out of the ‘mass of things said,’ the totality of ‘actual discourse,’ literary and philosophical discourses were historically been sacralised and made to function in a certain way through rigorous institutional validation. Literature ‘functions as literature through an interplay of selection, sacralisation and institutional validation’ and it thereby became a ‘substitute’ or as a ‘general envelope’ for all other discourses. What Foucault maintains is that the ‘expressive character’ that is being endorsed upon literature is increasingly being eroded since 1970s, with the writings of Roussel, Bataille and Blanchot. An obsession to the ‘problem of language’ began to develop at the heart of literary discourse, freeing literature and to start concerning only with itself, and thereby, directly relating ‘literary construction’ and the ‘interplay of language.’ Michel Foucault, “An Interview with Michel Foucault” in Death and the Labyrinth: The World of Raymond Roussel, (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1986), pp. no: 175 – 76.

[9] Michel Foucault, “The Function of Literature” in Michel Foucault, Foucault, Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings, (New York: Routledge, 1988), p. no: 312.

[10] Michel Foucault, 1990, op cit., p. no: 57.

[11] Waiting here is not a waiting for something; rather it is directed at nothing. It is pure exteriority unfolding, without wrapping itself in interiority; and therefore, ‘all of it falls irremediably outside,’ and any object that gratifies a waiting would only efface it. Hence “what takes it up is not memory but forgetting. This forgetting, however, should not be confused with the scatteredness of distraction or the slumber of vigilance; it is a wakefulness so alert, so lucid, so new that it is a good-bye to night and a pure opening onto a day to come. In this respect forgetting is extreme attentiveness – so extreme that it effaces any singular face that might present itself to it.” Michel Foucault, 1990, op cit., p. no: 56.

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The Interplay of Power, Knowledge and the Self - Subject and the Art of Telling the Truth in Michel Foucault
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Foucault on Ethics and Aesthetics
interplay, power, knowledge, self, subject, telling, truth, michel, foucault
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Abhilash G Nath (Author), 2011, The Interplay of Power, Knowledge and the Self - Subject and the Art of Telling the Truth in Michel Foucault, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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