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According to Foucault's understanding of power, power is based on knowledge and makes use of knowledge; on the other hand, power reproduces knowledge by shaping it in accordance with its anonymous intentions. Power (re-) creates its own fields of exercise through knowledge.
Foucault incorporates this inevitable mutuality into his neologism power-knowledge, the most important part of which is the hyphen that links the two aspects of the integrated concept together (and alludes to their inherent inextricability).
It is helpful noting that Foucault has a textual understanding of both power and knowledge. Both power and knowledge are to be seen as de-centralised, relativistic, ubiquitous, and unstable (dynamic) systemic phenomena. Thus Foucault's concept of power draws on micro-relations without falling into reductionism because it does not neglect, but emphasizes, the systemic (or structural) aspect of the phenomenon.
However, he does not actually define knowledge.
According to this understanding, knowledge is never neutral, as it determines force relations. The notion of power-knowledge is therefore likely to be employed in critical, normative contexts.
History of the term
In his later works, Foucault suggests that power-knowledge was later replaced in the modern world, with the term governmentality which points to a specific mentality of governance.
- Foucault, Michel, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1981 (see pp. 92–102).
- Foucault, Michel, Histoire de la sexualité, volume 1: La volonté de savoir, Paris, Gallimard, 1976.