Foucault’s Theory of Power

As an analogue to discourse-analysis, the work on power can be broken down into three separate strands. First, Foucault constructs what we can call a new ontology of power: a radical revision of what power is. Second, he articulates an “analytics of power,” a somewhat sociological classification of the modes in which power has worked since the eighteenth century. And, third, he offers concrete histories of specific “power technologies”-especially a history of “penalty” (in Discipline and Punish) and, more sketchily, a history of “bio-power” (in the first volume of The History of Sexuality). In the 1980s, the theory shifts again. Foucault declares that he is concerned with power given within individual liberty, outside both relations of domination and submission and the larger social technologies which have overwhelmed and formed modernity. This “self-governmentality,” as he calls it, entailed some more backtracking, as is clear from another of his last (male-centered) interviews:

Myself, I am not sure, when I began to interest myself in this problem of power, of having spoken very clearly about it or used the words needed. Now I have a much clearer idea of all that. It seems to me that we must distinguish the relationships of power as strategic games between liberties-strategic games that result in the fact that some people try to determine the conduct of others-and the states of domination, which are what we ordinarily call power. And, between the two, between the games of power and the states of domination, you have governmental technologies-giving this term a very wide meaning for it is also the way in which you govern your wife, your children as well as the way you govern an institution. The analysis of these techniques is necessary, because it is often through this kind of technique that states of domination are established and maintain themselves. In my analysis of power, there are three levels: the strategic relationships, the techniques of government, and the levels of domination. (Foucault, Michel, 1988a, 19)

The levels sketched here-strategically relationships, techniques of government and domination-map quite easily onto the divisions classically drawn between (1) family and self; (2) civil administration; and (3) state politics. It had been the strength of Foucault’s description of power hitherto, that he had insisted that the second of these levels (i.e. techniques of government) impinged on the first (strategical relationships) in ways generally ignored, and that the role of the last (domination) had been overrated by historians and sociologists.

Foucault’s crucial move is to regard power as a condition for society in general:

Power relations are rooted deep in the social nexus, not reconstituted “above” society as a supplementary structure whose radical effacement one could perhaps dream of. In any case, to live in society is to live in such a way that action upon other actions is possible and in fact ongoing. (Foucault, Michel, 1983c, 222-3)

In a formulation which owes much to Gilles Deleuze’s 1962 monograph on Nietzsche, “power” is the name for the conditions of possibility for “an action upon actions.” The concept is transposed from post-Galilean science for which the basic element in the world was “motion,” as for instance, in Hobbes’s thought. By the ninetieth century, this “motion” becomes itself celebrated as an ontological and social principle against both God and Man:

This Universe, ah me-what could the wild man know of it; what can we yet know? That it is a Force, and thousand fold Complexity of Forces; a Force which is not we. That is all; it is not we, it is altogether different from us. Force, Force, everywhere Force; we ourselves a mysterious Force in the centre of that. (Carlyle 1935, 11)

For Nietszche, force merges into the concept “power” (in the German word Macht) and can thus be used to re-narratives history. Now history becomes intelligible as a series of a-teleological struggles and strategies, in which power/force is everywhere but is not everywhere the same. As Foucault wrote in the first volume of The History of Sexuality:

It seems to me that power must be understood in the first instance as the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organization; as the process which, through ceaseless struggles and confrontations, transforms, strengthens, or reverses them; as the support which these force relations find in one another, thus forming a chain or a system, or on the contrary, the disjunctions and contradictions which isolate them from one another; and lastly, as the strategies in which they take effect, whose general design or institutional crystallization is embodied in the state apparatus, in the formulation of the law, in the various social hegemonies. (Foucault, Michel, 1980c, 93)

To establish a method upon this ontology of power is, once again, to work against dialectics or any conflict resolution model; against those human sciences (including semiology) which base their analyzes on concepts such as “system,” “structure” and, finally, against sociological history which distinguishes social phenomena from economic and cultural phenomena.

More radically still, for Foucault, power as the precondition for an “action upon an action” is relational. Therefore it is not primarily possessed by an agent-though, of course, some people may be able to control acts by others. For instance, any division between work and play areas in a school distributes bodies, and thus constructs subjects, in a particular way, and is a power-effect in Foucault’s terms, even if that power belongs to no individual. It follows both that power cannot be analyzed in terms of conscious intentions, and that the dominant themselves are constrained within power networks. This means that these networks are not adequately described in the kind of analysis associated with the Frankfurt school or so-called “critical theory.” Critical theory aims to demonstrate that power in general works to cover up people’s real interests by offering them a false view of what those interests are. It implicitly relies on a notion of ideology as the primary instrument of domination, a notion extended and reworked by French marxists-Louis Althusser in particular. For Althusser (to put a complex matter simply), ideology exists as a unified set of beliefs that masquerade as common sense to as to allow existing conditions to be reproduced and to permit individuals to recognize themselves as unities (rather than as beings that live and think at the intersection of social processes and differences). Foucault refused the Althusserian concept of ideology partly because it implies that external criteria exist for telling what is “ideological” as against what is “true” (or “scientific”), and partly because formalist analyzes based on a concept of the ideological presuppose what they dismiss: that is, a “human subject on the lines of the model provided by classical philosophy, endowed with a consciousness which power is then thought to seize on” (Foucault, Michel, 1980b, 58). Ideology must appeal to, or be recognized by, such a subject even as it shapes him or her. Finally, ideology-critique also ignores the way in which practices have consequences that differ from the ideas that legitimate them. When prisons replace locks and warders by TV eyes and remote-control electronic “keys,” ideology may not change but power-effects do.

Foucault’s power, then, is not simply a system of domination: prisons can be redesigned within a rhetoric of humanitarianism that saves lives, yet this redesign can lead to more surveillance, more control of those lives, and so on. The streets can be policed; this leads to a genuine increase of personal safety. But, at the same time, it consolidates social division by forcing the very poor into a choice: to become a criminal or not to become a criminal? The design of a barrack affects both officers and privates. Also, power-effects can be hidden from view, and they can always misfire in part because they are not simply intentional. This means that it is difficult to judge a particular formation or event in advance: what might appear to be the consequences of setting up a particular institution, for instance, may always turn out quite otherwise. Because, for Foucault, societies do not possess a single “ideology” or a single agency of domination (the bourgeoisie, the state) which work in a single direction, the analysis of power is more effective when it starts “from the bottom up”-from the design of school yards-rather than from the top down-from reports on education to parliament or what Matthew Arnold wrote about culture. Power also flows from the resistance out, from petty acts like that fictionalized in Oliver’s “more” rather than, simply, from the 1834 report on the English Poor Laws. However, these two injunctions: “from the bottom up” and “from the resistance out” are not rules, just because power’s path is not unidirectional. Foucault’s argument is, rather, that these events at the “bottom,” at points of “blockage,” are crucial because they have most intensity. They are where power, most of all, touches and shapes the body, the thingness of human life, or what will become in his later work “ethical substance.” (Barry Smart, 2002).

Because power has no outside it belongs to what Foucault calls a “productive network.” It does not repress. In particular it invites people to speak: to assess and articulate themselves. He describes many protocols for self-assessment: for instance, particular pieces of sexual behaviour begin to be carefully itemized in the Christian confessionals; the penitent is there given a voice, her actions divided into minute categories which may be worked on. And during the nineteenth century, students are encouraged to express themselves in poetry, art and music lessons: these activities being moulded by the very place in which they are performed. Such self-expression, shaped by its context, but not ordered from above, produces new forms of “deep” subjectivity. Where power is self-imposed it is most dispersed-and most effective. From this Foucault draws a quasi-archaeological conclusion: the intelligibility of history is not to be found in its documents. Behind documents exists the non-discursive condition-the power network-which allows the subject to speak (and act). Even in Pierre Rivière’s confession of his crime, discourse, action and power are intertwined. Rivière, the peasant parricide, uses murder to express himself, because murder, which so fascinates the media, communicates between the rich and the poor. Yet the question, “how are you able to speak?” has a rather mysterious relation to “why do you say (or do) this in particular?”-and Foucault never quite succeeded in drawing these two levels together. Especially in the presence of subdued, forgotten voices, voices which speak without official permission, he tended to respond with a vitalist, if not indeed a neo-classical aesthetic vocabulary, as for instance, in his remarks on Rivière himself, or his celebration of the “beauty” of the “classical style” of long-dead criminals. He wanted to reprint the “lives of infamous men” in order to circulate their “intensity” and communicate the “vibration” he felt on first reading them (Foucault, Michel, 1979, 77).

Foucault, then, is attempting to balance the monism of power against its dispersion into events. Where power is dispersed it still operates against resistance, it works at specific times in specific places on subjects who return its pressure. And, just as in judo one’s opponent’s resistance is turned to one’s advantage (a possibility that permits feints and ruses); the pressure back in power-relations rapidly crosses and re-crosses sides. That there is no power without resistance-as inertia or as liberty, does not simply mean that power liberates, partly because the substance to be liberated, like a child invited to express herself, is already formed within power’s network:

Let there be no misunderstanding: it is not that a real man, the object of knowledge, philosophical reflection or technical intervention, has been substituted for the soul, the illusion of the theologians. The man described for us, whom we are invited to free, is already in himself the effect of a subjection much more profound than himself. A “soul” inhabits him and brings him to existence, which is itself a factor in the mastery that power exercises over the body. The soul is the effect and instrument of a political anatomy; the soul is the prison of the body. (Foucault, Michel, 1977b, 30)

On the one side, networks of power drive people to speak and inscribe individuals with souls. On the other, the exercise of power, as well as resistances to it, involve pleasure. It is for these reasons that, for Foucault at this stage of his career, the systems in which utterances are considered to be true or false back out onto the splintered and dynamic order of power-relations, bodily events and feelings, not onto nothing or death as in The Order of Things. There exist more than one kind of relation between power and truth, however. For nineteenth-century working-class radicalism, the Baconian adage, “knowledge is power” was a cliché-as it appeared on the masthead of a famous radical journal, The Poor Man’s Guardian, for instance. This progressivist sense that knowledge enables control over self and others, as well as self-confidence, is not foreign to Foucault. And yet the benign Baconian reading of the relation conceals its darker side: “In the end we are judged, condemned, classified, determined in our undertakings, destined to a certain mode of living or dying, as function of the true discourses which are the bearers of the specific effects of power” (Foucault, Michel, 1980b, 94). The desire to know, to find out the truth, can itself entice us into new relations of power. For Foucault, discourse about sexuality in the nineteenth century works precisely in this way. Once more, it is not a matter whether discourses are really true as it is for ideology critique; the “truth” constrains our “undertakings” whether it can be contested or not. And there are various ways of recognizing truth: either it can be defined, for instance, as that which helps one live a particular kind of life, or as a function of the fit between representations and the world, or as the degree of generality that a set of statements have attained-to take some instances at random. In this later work, Foucault thinks about such variations as types of “truth games.” In strategical situations, particular truth games link up, in non-law like ways, with specific “relations of power”-power-relations like those between an anthropologist and a local community, an employment bureau and its clients, a wife and a husband, a psychiatrist and a patient, and so on. Indeed, the later Foucault can suppose that intellectuals differ from non-intellectuals in that they have enough competence with truth games to protect certain forms of truth from power encroachments. (Jeremy R. Carrette, 2000).


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