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A Review of Foucault's Work on Power

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A review of Foucault's work on power

The difficulty of engaging with Foucault is that he does not attempt to construct a systematic theory of power; his analysis of power is dispersed throughout a large number of works. Foucault explores issues of power through his historical examination of different ‘discourses’ such as prisons and sexuality, and uses genealogy and archaeology as analytical tools. Section 1 focuses on some key features of Foucault’s analysis of power, while Section 2 discusses some of its possible limitations.

Section 1

How power needs to be analyzed

For Foucault, power is not the property of a certain group: ‘power is exercised rather than possessed; it is not the privilege, acquired or preserved, of the dominant class, but the overall effect of its strategic positions.’ (Discipline and Punish, p.26). Since power is not a possession, but an effect, consequently he argues that power should be studied not by asking who has power, or how it is obtained, but in terms of techniques/practices/strategies of power and by observing them at the point of application. He expounds this further in Two Lectures (p. 97), where he argues that, “it is a case of studying power at the point where its intention is completely invested in its real and effective practices. What is needed is a study of power in its external visage, at the point where it is in direct and immediate relationship with that we can provisionally call its object, its target, its field of application, there-that is to say-where it installs itself and produces its real effects”. The analysis needs to be conducted at the micro-level, what he terms as the ‘micro-physics’ of power.  This is precisely what he does in Discipline and Punish, where he analyses the mechanisms through which sovereign power operates in the ancien regime, i.e. punishment from torture, to the way modern power is exercised in the form of surveillance by a large array of apparatuses (prison, hospital, school), through the classification and documentation of individuals and the turning of subjects into objects of knowledge.

Power is not hierarchical and has multiple forms

As mentioned earlier, power, for Foucault, is not located exclusively in certain institutions, the State or individuals, but it is rather a set of relations dispersed throughout society: “Between every point of a social body, between a man and a woman, between the members of a family, between a master and his pupil, between everyone who knows and every one who does not, there exist relations of power which are not purely and simply a projection of the sovereign's great power over the individual”.

This statement highlights several key points. Firstly, there is not just one relation of power, but multiple forms, between various individuals in society. Secondly, power is not exercised in a top-down fashion, but is fluid, running through the entire social body: “Power must be analyzed as something which circulates, or as something which only functions in the form of a chain . . . power is employed and exercised through a netlike organization” (Two Lectures, p. 98). The second argument is in direct contradiction to Marxist theory, which posits that subjects are made by the system (e.g. capitalism). For Foucault, rather than one entity (e.g. institutions, individuals) being more powerful than another, power is exercised in a multitude of ways among these. He gives the example of surveillance as an example of a mechanism by which ‘disciplinary power’ is exercised in a non-hierarchical manner, arguing that ‘although surveillance rests of individuals its functioning is that of a network of relations from top to bottom, but also to a certain extent from bottom to top and laterally, this network holds the whole together and traverses it in its entirety with effects of power that derive from one another: supervisors, perpetually supervised’ (Discipline and Punish).

Freedom and resistance

Foucault states in Subject and Power that ‘power is exercised over free subjects, and only insofar as they are free’. Thus, according to him, individuals are not simply passive victims; power needs to be understood differently than domination, which implies a relationship where one of the sides is unable to take any action. Power needs to be conceptualized as a relationship where both parties have ‘freedom’, the ability to undertake action. This implies that individuals are to an extent, in control of their own fates, since the possibility for resistance always exists.

Foucault further describes the nature of power as the modification of action by action: ‘power is no longer conceived as the abstract relation of forces but as the structuring of the field of possible actions by means of action’. Using the concept of ‘conduct’ (Subject and Power, p. 21), he argues that power operates by guiding the actions of a fundamentally free subject, Power relations are thus not about coercion, they take place in a ‘field of open possibilities’. These statements further highlight the potential of resistance within the relationship of power.

Productive nature of power

One of Foucault’s central arguments is his emphasis on the productive nature of modern power, and his dismissal of the narrow conceptualization of power as being simply repressive or oppressive[1]: “if power was never anything but repressive, if it never did anything but say no, do you really believe that we should manage to obey it? What makes power hold good, what makes it accepted, is simply the fact that it doesn’t only weigh on us as a force that says no, but that it traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse...in fact power produces, it produces reality, it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth” (Truth and Power, p.119). For example, in Discipline and Punish, one of the main effects of disciplinary power was to produce ‘individuality’. Power in its modern context is to be seen as not a repressive force that overpowers individuality, but in fact “it is one of the prime effects of power that certain bodies, certain gestures, certain discourses come to be identified and constituted as individuals”. Foucault shows, in Discipline and Punish, how the examination, ‘indicates the appearance of a new modality of power in which each individual receives as his status his own individuality’ (p. 192). Again, in Truth and Power, he offers the example of how bourgeois society’s attempts at the repression of the sexuality of youth through “banning of words” only served to have the opposite effect of sexualizing everything for them. He says that, “sexuality is far more of a positive product of power than power was ever repression of sexuality” (Truth and Power, p. 120). The productive side of modern power is demonstrated by the enhanced efficiency in the capitalist industry, for example, by coordinating human labour through new types of administrative strategies (Discipline and Punish).

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