Introduction to Foucault

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One of the broader modern views of the importance of power in human activity comes from the work of Michel Foucault, who has said, "Power is everywhere...because it comes from everywhere." —Aldrich, Robert and Wotherspoon, Gary (Eds.), 2001

Foucault on Power[edit]

Foucault's analysis of power is founded on his concept "technologies of power". Discipline is a complex bundle of power technologies developed during centuries as Foucault demonstrated in Discipline and Punish. For Foucault, power is exercised with intention. Instead of analyzing the difficult problem of who has which intentions, he focused on what is intersubjectively accepted knowledge about how to exercise power. For Foucault, power is actions upon others' actions in order to interfere with them. Foucault does not recur to violence, but says that power presupposes freedom in the sense that power is not enforcement, but ways of making people by themselves behave in other ways than they else would have done. One way of doing this is by threatening with violence. Yet, suggesting how happy people will become by buying an ATV is exercise of power as well, and there is a huge knowledge of techniques for how to (try to) elicit such behavior within marketing.

Foucault's works analyze the link between power and knowledge. He outlines a form of covert power that works through people rather than only on them. Foucault claims belief systems gain momentum (and hence power) as more people come to accept the particular views associated with that belief system as common knowledge (hegemony). Such belief systems define their figures of authority, such as medical doctors or priests in a church. Within such a belief system or discourse, ideas crystallize as to what is right and what is wrong, delineating what is normal and what is deviant. Within a particular belief system certain views, thoughts, or actions become unthinkable. These ideas, being considered undeniable "truths", come to define a particular way of seeing the world, and the particular way of life associated with such "truths" becomes normalized. This subtle form of power lacks rigidity, and other discourses can contest it. Indeed, power itself lacks any concrete form, occurring as a locus of struggle. Resistance, through defiance, defines power and hence becomes possible through power. Without resistance, power is absent, but it would be a mistake, some recent writers insist, to attribute to Foucault an oppositional power-resistance schema as is found in many older, foundationalist theoreticians. This view 'grants' individuality to people and other agencies, even if it is assumed a given agency is part of what power works in or upon. Still, in practice, Foucault often seems to deny individuals this agency, which is contrasted with sovereignty (the old model of power as efficacious and rigid).

"One needs to be nominalistic, no doubt: power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategic situation in a particular society." (History of Sexuality, p.93)

"Domination" is not "that solid and global kind of domination that one person exercises over others, or one group over another, but the manifold forms of domination that can be exercised within society." (ibid, p.96)

"One should try to locate power at the extreme of its exercise, where it is always less legal in character." (ibid, p.97)

"The analysis [of power] should not attempt to consider power from its internal point of view and...should refrain from posing the labyrinthine and unanswerable question: 'Who then has power and what has he in mind? What is the aim of someone who possesses power?' Instead, it is a case of studying power at the point where its intention, if it has one, is completely invested in its real and effective practices." (ibid, p.97)

"Let us things work at the level of on-going subjugation, at the level of those continuous and uninterrupted processes which subject our bodies, govern our gestures, dictate our behaviours, etc....we should try to discover how it is that subjects are gradually, progressively, really and materially constituted through a multiplicity of organisms, forces, energies, materials, desires, thoughts, etc. We should try to grasp subjection in its material instance as a constitution of subjects." (ibid, p.97)