In Foucault: The Birth of Power, Stuart Elden outlines how the theorisation of power was the essential tool developed within Foucault’s work and political activities in the early 1970s following his return from Tunisia. Drawing on writings, interviews, lectures and unpublished or newly available manuscripts, Elden offers an indispensable read for those looking to gain further insight into Foucault as a writer, philosopher and activist, recommends Syamala Roberts. 

Foucault: The Birth of Power. Stuart Elden. Polity Press, 2017.

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In his conclusion to Foucault: The Birth of Power, the political theorist and geographer Stuart Elden cites Michel Foucault on writing:

Basically, I do not like to write. […] Writing interests me only to the degree that it incorporates the reality of combat […] I would like my books to be like a kind of scalpel, Molotov cocktails, or undermining tunnels and to be burned up after use like fireworks (Dits et écrits 152; see 186-87).

Foucault’s contemporary Gilles Deleuze also described Foucault’s works in terms of instrumentality, although in less violent language –as ‘tool boxes’ for readers (187). In this volume, Elden argues that the theorisation of power was the essential tool Foucault developed during the early 1970s.

The period that forms the focus of Foucault: The Birth of Power is from the late 1960s to 1975, when Foucault returned from three years of teaching in Tunisia to a post-1968 France whose political and intellectual landscape had changed utterly. These are the years of ‘the political Foucault’, of wanderings ‘from the streets to the archive, from the classroom to the desk’ (20), in Elden’s own words, during which Foucault worked with the Groupe d’information sur les prisons (GIP), medical groups and on campaigns for abortion rights.

Elden draws on the familiar works of this period (between the publication of The Archaeology of Knowledge and the completion of Discipline and Punish), lecture courses at the Collège de France, short writings and interviews, as well as unpublished manuscripts from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BNF) and material related to Foucault’s activism from the Institut Mémoires de l’édition contemporaine. The corpus thus provides an overview that would otherwise be inaccessible to anyone but the specialised scholar. Furthermore, Elden’s task is not a simple matter of systematisation: in addition to his dislike of writing, Foucault was famous for his vexing of epistemology. In a lecture course, he described knowledge as ‘allied first with malice’ (33). We consider, then, the work of a writer with a deep aversion to writing, and a philosopher who does not love knowledge, or, at least, one who shows us that knowledge is constructed, shifting, multiple and intertwined with power.

For this reason, Elden’s book on the genesis of Foucault’s theory of power is, necessarily, an account of forms of knowledge. Elden challenges the accepted notion that knowledge is only a concern of the early Foucault writing produced at the end of the 1960s. Rather, he shows that the problem of knowledge is a pervasive preoccupation throughout Foucault’s work.

Image Credit: ‘Life in the Panopticon’ (Anokarina CC BY SA 2.0)

The first three chapters of The Birth of Power, headed ‘Measure’, ‘Inquiry’ and ‘Examination’, are structured around these three forms of knowledge, elaborated in Foucault’s 1973 lectures on ‘Truth and Juridical Forms’ in Rio de Janeiro. ‘Measure’ emerges from Foucault’s study of Greek juridical, political and religious practices, although he suggests that the concept originated in Eastern thought (27). It encompasses strategies of exchange, distribution and moderation (for instance, in money) as well as the law (nomos). It is ‘both calculation and norm’ (28), emerging from statistical analysis and used as a standard, both constitutive and constituted.

‘Inquiry’ was the model dominant between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries among philosophers and scientists; it is associated with the science of observation. Foucault locates the rise of inquiry in the transition from Germanic law, which functioned on the basis of a test or duel between parties, to a legal system imposed from above, adjudicated by a separate ‘inquisitor’. The third model of knowledge, ‘examination’, is prevalent in the disciplinary and punitive society. It is the basis of knowledge-power, savoir-pouvoir, that generated the ‘human sciences’, as Foucault terms them (6), the social sciences of psychology, sociology, even the medical discipline of psychiatry. It is examination that is at work today when terror suspects are held indefinitely at Guantanemo Bay without charge – ‘inquiry, but before any offence’, as Foucault wrote (84).

The next three chapters, ‘Madness’, ‘Discipline’ and ‘Illness’, also draw on Foucauldian manifestations of power in culture, but these are less forms of knowledge than themes that interested Foucault in theory and in practice. This half of the study provides the more substantial account of Foucault’s activism in prison reform, health and debates on sexuality. It also covers Foucault’s preparation of a study of madness and criminality using the memoirs of Pierre Rivière, who killed his family with a pruning hook in 1835; his work on space and the formulation of panopticism; the positive and negative uses of power in the disciplinary society (for instance, administrative strategies versus exclusion and expulsion); and the intersection of medical debates with wider political struggles and other sociological concerns, such as public hygiene and urban planning.

These chapters are filled with illuminating insights: into the process of subjectification initiated by the panopticon’s spatial disposition (i.e. thinking themselves to be observed, individuals begin disciplining themselves, 152); an unexpected, more positive view of knowledge as a weapon of defence (131); and on the intersection of capitalism and the disciplinary society and the formation of ‘productive bodies’ for work (99). The distinction of Elden’s work lies in his intertwining of theory and practice. His methodology borrows from Foucault’s own approach: Foucault’s reading notes at the BNF are undated and sorted by theme, which is an indication of his manner of thought, drawing thematic connections over a wide expanse of chronology.

Elden also makes several useful remarks on style and translation, including on the controversial rendering of Surveiller et punir as Discipline and Punish and on Foucault’s extensive use of the passive voice in this work. However, these points are rather buried in the overall narrative, and could be given more breathing space. One gains a sense of how difficult Foucault is to systematise from the manner in which Elden is obliged to treat several similar topics in different places, only stopping to note that the point is ‘further discussed in chapter…’. The book can therefore be a little difficult to follow, and one would appreciate greater contextualisation of historical events under discussion, such as the Nu-Pieds revolt against taxation in Normandy of 1639-40 or the story of Rivière. It is perhaps Foucault’s own hallmark to present such events as the execution of Damiens at the beginning of Discipline and Punish in vivid, narrative terms; in contrast, Elden skims over the details to pursue a more theoretical discussion. For this reason, the volume is more suitable for those engaged in a specialised study of Foucault than for the general reader.

For its account of unpublished or newly available material and manuscripts, woven together with Foucault’s publications, Elden’s book is indispensable, and it succeeds in showing how the theorisation of power guided Foucault’s activity in this period, both conceptually and politically. The book is firmly geared towards the English reader, with references to both French and English primary texts and little recourse to French terminology without elucidation. Elden has also written a guide to the late Foucault in the same mould, Foucault’s Last Decade, thus providing us with the intellectual book-ends to consider his work and career. The Birth of Power is, finally, a reminder that the critical analysis of philosophical texts should be read with the primary work open, and that the limitations of one can lead to the completion of the other.


Syamala Roberts graduated with a BA in Modern and Medieval Languages and an MPhil in European and Comparative Literatures and Cultures from Jesus College, Cambridge. She specialises in modern literature and aesthetics, and has recently worked on topics ranging from George Eliot, Goethe and the notion of sympathy, to the role of listening in contemporary French philosophy and to representations of concentration camps. In October 2017 she will begin doctoral research on music and sound in German literary modernism at the University of Cambridge. Read more by Syamala Roberts.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 

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