Foucault and Geography

Crampton, Jeremy W. and Stuart Elden, eds. Space, Knowledge, and Power: Foucault and Geography. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate. [Selections]

The introduction to this collection lays out plainly the importance of spatiality in Foucault’s work. As early as 1967, when the Heteroropias article was first written, Foucault claimed the present epoch was perhaps above all about space. It’s also interesting that Foucault gave his famed interview with geographers at the time he was delivering the lectures of Society Must be Defended (SMD).

In a subsequent response to his interview—something he had never done before—he asked the geographers: “What are the relations between knowledge (savoir), war and power? What does it mean to call spatial knowledge a science? What do geographers understand by power? And what would the geographies of medical establishments (implantations) understood as ‘interventions’ look like?” (33). He also asked what should be understood by the notion of “strategy” in the relation between knowledge and power. This year also hinged his studies of discipline and power with his later paramount concern on the subject.

It’s interesting that Foucault draws on Marx (Volume II of Capital) in developing his ideas about the productiveness and ascension of power. The authors note: Foucault draws on Marx for some ideas about the positivities of power, such as the fact that power is heterogenous: ‘if we want to do an analysis of power … we must speak of powers and try to localize them in their historical and geographical specificity’” (6).

Even the seeming spacelessness implied in some parts of Security, Territory, Population are not as spaceless as they may seem. Yes, one governs things and men (not territories or spaces), but, he goes on to note, “men in their relations, their links, their imbrication with those things that are wealth, resources, means of subsistence, the territory with its specific qualities, climate, irrigation, fertility, and so on.” Moreover, the authors note, “For Foucault, space, knowledge and power were necessarily related, as he stated, ‘it is somewhat arbitrary to try to dissociate the effective practice of freedom by people, the practice of social relations, and the spatial distributions in which they find themselves. If they are separated, they become impossible to understand’ (Foucault 1984, 246).”

It’s all very socio-spatial and the separation of one thing from another merely obstructs analysis and actually reproduces the one-sided abstractions through which power actually works. In analyzing SMD, one author (Philo) claims that “a key point of the book that discourses and knowledges, including histories of rightful territorial possession, battle it out to be accepted and that this results in ‘an uneven geography’ of knowledge about society” (12).

Francophone Responses

The first response to some questions makes two important points right away: 1) Any analysis of power must be analyzed in its scalar context and, I would add, interconnections (planetary, bodily, local, etc); 2) “strategy” for Foucault is slippery because it encompasses both intentional and unintentional effects. On the second point, they elaborate:

When we speak of strategy and tactics, it is clearly not about these unconscious apparatuses [dispositifs ], these collective propensities that we are thinking, but about plans, secretly or discretely constructed, devised by one of the protagonists in a relation of force, plans that take account not only of the means and characteristics of the adversary, and of the other strategy that he, too, could put to work, but also of the configuration of the ‘terrain’ (of topography on various scales of social space) and the relative positions that the forces present occupy. It is for this that knowing-how-to-think-space [le savoir-penser-l’espace] has so great an importance in all strategic reasoning. (24)

One respondent ties the “mapping of power” directly to the state: “To map power is first to map the power of the State in all its levels [échelons], to define its different types of domination of space, to detect its areas of weakness and contradictions. This should be the goal of the ‘knowledge of spaces’ for which we are fighting” (26-27).


Harvey’s critique of Foucault admonishes him for conceiving of geography as solely concerned with space, leaving among many things by the wayside that of nature. Besides showing how Kant’s endgame ran up against the cold hard fact of geography, Harvey also says that Foucault implicitly accepts the division of absolute space and time underwriting Kant’s project, and couches Foucault’s sole concern with space (rather than geography) as evidence of this bifurcation. A more dialectical view of space requires an integral notion of history and geography.


Nigel Thrift’s contribution highlights four “blindspots” in Foucault’s work: 1) Anti-humanism: This is a claim that I still have trouble understanding, but it Foucault’s notion of the subject is obviously tied to this in the way that the subject is seen as constituted by discourse. 2) No explicit tackling of affect: Thrift chalks this up to the focus on discourse, which though corporeal, never receives the kind of treatment that “desire” plays in Deleuze and Guattari. 3) Space: Foucault, when he treats space, does so namely through a kind of spatial ordering, which remains a kind of one-sided, non-dialectical view of how space is both a medium and a product of social relations—space’s aliveness. 4) Things: Perhaps due to his aversion to economy, but also for reasons of his focus on the self and discourse.


Stuart Elden offers some interesting commentaries on the trajectories of Foucault’s work. In 1974, Foucault announced “he was bored with the subjects he had been working on and that ‘political economy, strategy, politics’ would be his new concerns” (1994, I, 45) (69). Elden summarizes the turn of the Security Territory Population lectures: Foucault is concerned with rereading the history of the state from the perspective of practices of government, and he suggests three key models for the West. These are the Christian pastoral, with its themes of the flock, confession and the government of souls; the diplomatic-military technology that emerges following the Peace of Westphalia; and the notion of the police. Population, police and governance: all themes that had been in his work before, but now given new pre-eminence and a much more explicitly political twist” (69). He also explains the important influence of Marx on some of Foucault’s key innovations: “Foucault notes that in terms of spatial analyses Marx’s work on ‘the army and its role in the development of political power’ had been unjustly neglected (1994, III, 39; this volume, 182). It is also notable that Foucault is interested in the second volume of Capital, both because of its analysis of the genealogy of capital (1978, 1), but also because of the material on circulation (see 2004a).”


The “Meshes of Power” lecture, delivered in Bahia amid the military dictatorship no less, lays out the importance of Marx in getting Foucault thinking about disciplinary power and power “over” population. This is such an important insight! And so silenced! His use of Marx relies on the division of labor and the governance of the factory floor with the growing size of industry (Vol. I), the critique of bourgeois social “contract” theory, and the multiplicity of powers discussed in Volume II of Capital (the workshop, slave-ownership, the army, etc.). This helps draw out the distinction, as it does for Marx, the distinction between juridical power and more diffuse technologies of power. Foucault interestingly argues that privileging the state apparatus in an analysis of power falls into a bourgeois trap, as Marx would have it, that only perpetuates the fiction of the social contract as the source of power—the way one supposedly individually cedes or invests one’s power into the state. Foucault closes by explaining how this form of power was coextensive with the expansion of capitalist expansion and population growth (“discipline” and “population”), which is why sex and sexual regulation become so important.

I’ve read the Herodotus interview enough times to leave that from being part of these notes.

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