Symbolic and Structural Approaches to Place

Michel Foucault: "Questions On Geography"

Foucault, Michel. "Questions on Geography" in C. Gordon, ed. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977. New York: Pantheon, 1980: 63-77.

This is an interview that highlights Foucault's amivalent use of geographical terms. Excerpts are included below. The indented part is from the interviewer, the non-indented is Foucault's replies.

Geographical Terms:

[Your] uncertainty about spatialisation contrasts with your profuse use of spatial metaphors - position, displacement, site, field; sometimes geographical metaphors even - territory, domain, soil, horizon, archipelago, geopolitics, region, landscape.

Well, let's take a look at these geographical metaphors. Territory is no doubt a geographical notion, but it's first of all a juridico-political one: The area controlled by a certain kind of power. Field is an economico-juridical notion. Displacement: what displaces itself is an army, a squadron, a population. Domain is a juridico-political notion. Soil is a historico-geological notion. Region is a fiscal, administrative, military notion. Horizon is a pictorial, but also a strategic notion. ...

Certainly these notions are not geographical in a narrow sense. Nonetheless, they are the notions which are basic to every geographical proposition. This pinpoints the fact that geographical discourse produces few concepts of its own, instead picking up notions from here, there and everywhere. Thus landscape is a pictorial notion, but also an essential object for traditional geography.

But can you be sure that I am borrowing these terms from geography rather than from exactly where geography found them?

Geographical Terms and Power

People have often reproached me for these spatial obsessions, which have indeed been obsessions for me. But I think through them I did come to what I had basically been looking for: the relations that are possible between power and knowledge. Once knowledge can be analysed in terms of region, domain, implantation, displacement, transposition, one is able to capture the process by which knowledge functions as a form of power and disseminates the effects of power. There is an administration of knowledge, a politics of knowledge, relations of power which pass via knowledge and which, if one tries to transcribe them, lead one to consider forms of domination designated by such notions as field, region and territory. And the politico-strategic term is an indication of how the military and the administration actually come to inscribe themselves both on a material soil and within forms of discourse. Anyone envisiging the analysis of discourses solely in terms of temporal continuity would inevitably be led to approach and analyse it like the internal transformation of an individual consciousness. Which would lead to his erecting a great collective consciousness as the scene of events.


In Discipline and Punish, this strategizing method of thought advances a further stage. With the Panoptic system we are no longer dealing with a mere metaphor. What is at issue here is the description of institutions in terms of architecture, of spatial configurations. In the conclusion you even refer to the "imaginary geopolitics" of the carceral city. Does this figure of the Panopticon offer the basis for a description of the State apparatus in its entirety? ...

By the term "Panoptism", I have in mind an ensemble of mechanisms brought into play in all the clusters of procedures used by power. Panoptism was a technological invention in the order of power, comparable with the steam engine in the order of production. This invention had the peculiarity of being utilised first of all on a local level, in schools, barracks and hospitals. This was where the experiment of integral surveillance was carried out. People learned how to establish dossiers, systems of marking and classifying, the integral accountancy of individual records. Certain of the procedures had of course already been utilised in the economy and taxation. But the permenant surveillance of a group of pupils of patients was a different matter. And, at a certain moment in time, these methods began to become generalized. The police apparatus served as one of the principal vectors of this process of extension, but so too did the Napoleonic administration. I think in the book I quoted a beautiful description of the role of the Emperor; from the First Attorney-General in Paris to the least Assistant Public Prosecutor in the provinces, one and the same gaze watches for disorder, anticipates the danger of crime, penalising every deviation. And should any part of this universal gaze chance to slacken, the collapse of the State itself would be imminent.

The Panoptic system was not so much confiscated by the State apparatuses, rather it was these apparatuses which rested on teh basis of small-scale, regional, dispersed Panoptisms. In consequence one cannot confine oneself to analysing the State apparatus alone if one wanst to grasp the mechanisms of power in their detail and complexity.