Michael Foucault (1926 – 1984) is widely held to be one of the most influential philosophers of the second half of the twentieth century. He achieved this status by offering an alternative ‘currency’ to the existing liberal and Marxist theories as well as the linguists-based structuralism of some of his contemporaries. His currency was that of power. In 1979 he asserted that
“Power is everywhere: not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere…. Power is not an institution, nor a structure, nor a possession.
It is the name we give to a complex strategic situation in a particular society”.1
Foucault set out the reasoning behind his work on power in The History of Sexuality he remarks that,
.”.. while the human subject is placed in relations of production and of signification, he is equally placed in power relations that are very complex. Now, it seemed to me that economic history and theory provided a good instrument for relations of production and that linguistics and semiotics offered instruments for studying relations of signification, but for power relations we had no tools of study”.
Clearly he felt that the Marxist and structuralist analysis were inadequate and incomplete as a theoretical tool for the areas of life he wanted to examine. He explained further
“I have been led to address the question of power only to the extent that the political (juridical) analysis of power, which was offered, did not seem to me to account for the finer, more detailed phenomena I wish to evoke when I pose the question of telling the truth about oneself.
If I tell the truth about myself, as I am now doing, it is in part that I am constituted as a subject across a number of power relations which are exerted over me and which I exert over others.”3
Of the opposing theories it was perhaps Marxism that had the most to lose from Foucault’s approach. Whilst Foucault was clearly a key figure in philosophical terms his work has had its detractors. A coherent all-embracing critique is made more difficult by his works “somewhat fragmentary character” which “encompasses a variety of apparently disparate topics”.4
Despite this Foucault certainly succeeded in generating a good deal of criticism and controversy particularly following the publication of Discipline and Punish in 1975 (and translated into English in 1977)
He seeks to strengthen his standpoint by describing himself as a ‘historian’ rather than a philosopher and certainly sought to avoid being seen as a political theorist, arguing that his theories are more verifiable as a result. Although as McNay points out “historians have rejected Foucault’s work for being too philosophical, philosophers for its lack of formal rigour and sociologists for its literary or poetic quality”5
It is also true to say that before attempting a critique of his work we should really focus on one given period within the overall corpus. His work travels a great distance from the earliest Mental Illness and Psychology to the later contributions that increasingly saw him making direct interventions into contemporary issues like the death penalty, abortion rights and the Iranian Revolution. For the purposes of this essay Discipline and Punishment and The History of Sexuality can be viewed as the most important when considering whether power is indeed everywhere.
In the books Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality the expression of the relationship between power and knowledge were examined, which led to studies concerned with the various historical relations between forms of knowledge, and forms of the exercise of power. The overall analysis was a conscious continuation of the work of Nietzsche, who implied that knowledge was associated with the networks of power, that power produced knowledge, that power and knowledge directly implied one another or went together.
Foucault’s analysis of power implies that it, in itself makes a person who they are. The analysis sums up how it is exercised and by what means. It simply runs through the social body like a network, it produces knowledge, certain gestures and desires and therefore gives us our identities and constitutes us as individuals.
Foucault on Power
As is stated elsewhere in this essay Foucault’s theories relating to power did evolve somewhat during the period he was addressing but it would be useful at this point to look at some of his key power related concepts. Concepts that underline his break from the prevailing Marxist and Liberal philosophies. Here we consider some of the more important concepts.
In an interview with Gilles Deleuze in 1972, Foucault said:
‘It’s the great unknown at present: who exercises power? And where does he exercise it? Nowadays we know more or less who exploits, where the profit goes, into whose hands it goes and where it is reinvested. But power…we know very well that it is not those who govern who hold the power. But the notion of “ruling class” is neither very clear nor very highly developed.’6
Here Foucault clearly distances himself from the Marxist perspective that would argue that power is used by the ruling class to govern in their own interests.
In all Foucault’s theories he attempts to demonstrate that power is everywhere, as Pierre Boncenne put’s it “in the fibers of our bodies”, “that everything is reduced down to power”. 7
During the interview with Pierre Boncenne in 1978, Foucault was challenged to comment on the notion that whereas the Marxists had reduced everything down to economics he could be criticized for a similar one track approach, this time based on with power. He replied drawing on his work on prisons,
‘That’s an important question for me; power is the problem that has to be resolved. Take an example like the prisons. I want to study the way in which people set about using- and late on in history- imprisonment, rather than banishment or torture, as a punitive method… In reality, when we examine how, in the late eighteenth century, it was decided to choose imprisonment as the essential mode of punishment, one sees that is was after all a long elaboration of various techniques that made it possible to locate people, to fix them in precise places… In short, it was a form of “dressage”, thus we see the appearance of garrisons of a type that didn’t exist before the end of the seventeenth century; we see the appearance of great workshops, employing hundreds of workers. What developed then, was a whole technique of… management.8
He goes onto explain how power relations were exercised. Relationships in society, activities, obedience, goals, and communication all in relation to power. How we ‘value’ one another and our levels of knowledge. He claims that one should look at ‘power relations’ as opposed to ‘power’ itself. Power exists only when it is used. When it is exercised by some on others. Violence is also a relation to power. It can control, dominate, it bends, breaks and destroys, when put into use.9
Unsurprisingly one of Foucault key concepts set out in his book Discipline and Punish is “Discipline”. For him “”Discipline” may be identified neither with an institution nor with an apparatus; it is a type of power, a modality for its exercise, comprising a whole set of instruments, techniques, procedures, levels of application, targets; it is a “physics” or an ‘anatomy” of power, a technology”.10 Discipline is one of the ways that Power can be exercised. He looks at its use within the apparatuses like education, military, medical, industrial and within institutions like prisons and asylums.
He refers to it in the context of the ‘disciplinary society’. The formation of the disciplinary society is connected with a number of broad historical processes- economic, juridico-political, and lastly, scientific- of which it forms part.11
Setting it a historical context Foucault links the development of the prevailing form of ‘discipline’ arose from the “growth of a capitalist economy” that he argues “gave rise to the specific modality of disciplinary power, whose general formulas, techniques of submitting forces and bodies, in short, “political anatomy, could be operated in the most diverse political regimes, apparatuses and institutions”12
Foucault refers to what he calls Panopticism (a term based on a design for a prison produced by Jeremy Bentham in the late eighteenth century. The cells of the prison were grouped around a central viewing tower which Foucault saw as a metaphor for how power and more specifically surveillance works in post modern society and a prime example of the ‘technology of power’).
The Panoptic on was neither operated by the juridico-political structures nor was it entirely independent of it. Compare this with clarity of the Althusserian ideological superstructure and its direct type of relationship with the economic base. In a representative democracy ‘the representative regime makes it possible, directly or indirectly, with or without relays, for the will of all to form the fundamental authority of sovereignty, the disciplines provide, at the base, a guarantee of the submission of forces and bodies.”13
In Discipline and Punish, Foucault claims that ‘the power of normalisation’ is exercised by our social mechanisms to gain health, knowledge and comfort.
‘We must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms: it “excludes”, it “represses”, it “censors”, it “abstracts”, it “masks”, it “conceals”. In fact, power produces: reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth. The individual and the knowledge that may be gained of him belong to this production.’14
This normalization is summed up by McNay as a kind of trade of between Government and individual. ‘In Foucault’s words, individuals are supplied with a little extra life while the government is supplied with a little extra strength’.15
The fact that individuals were resistant to the process of normalization was also an important part of the overall theory.
“The theory of government…permits Foucault to explain how individuals are always resistant to complete incorporation within the normalizing process of subjectification. The idea of the government of individualization denotes, therefore, both the way in which norms are imposed on forms of individuality and the multiplicity of ways in which individuals exceed such constraints”16
The full title of his 1975 work (Translated into English in 1977 ) was, in English, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. The book largely concerned itself with the role and mechanisms within modern western societies’ penal systems. For Foucault a Prison was a form of the ‘disciplines’ referred to earlier. It was an institution that alongside military barracks, asylums, schools, hospitals etc. It was a ‘technology of power’.
Foucault identified from history three distinct ways of organizing the power to punish. Firstly, the most violent was Penal Torture. This was a ‘technology of power’ that was used as ‘sovereign power’. As Smart puts it –
“The punishment was extremely spectacular, violent and ritualistic. Penal torture charted a set of techniques for inflicting pain, injury and in some cases, death! Torture also was used as a means of extracting a confession from the criminal during investigation. The relations of power and truth in the form of penal torture were articulated on the body. Many of these punishments were put into force to make an example of. Even the minor of offences would be punished. Also to encourage gathering crowds to take part by insulting and attacking the criminal.”17
Foucault begins his seminal work with a gruesome description of the execution of Damiens, the would be assassin of Louis XV. It turned out to be the last of these most appalling styles of execution – drawn and quartered – that was reserved for Regicides.
Secondly, he identified ‘humanitarian reform’ that comes as a reaction to the ineffectiveness of the torture based punishments.
“During the course of the eighteenth century, reformers began to criticise the amount of violence associated with penal torture. Public executions were deemed non-affective in deterring crime so another form of punishment was needed. The reformers desired a more humane and lenient form of punishment. Foucault stated that there was just a different termed tendency towards a more finely tuned justice.”18
Finally there was ‘Penal Incarceration’ the form of punishment that prevailed during the time of his writing.
Turning to Foucault’s studies on the history of sexuality he seeks to set out the evolution of attitude from the Victorian era to the modern day. It is true that in Victorian times, sex and sexuality was hardly spoken of, there was all pervading prudery and the whole subject of sex was taboo. For Foucault a power of repression was behind the Victorian treatment. It was kept contained within the domestic four walls an unspoken phenomenon.
This is where concept of ‘pastoral power’ comes in. Foucault believed that throughout the ages we as individuals have changed and evolved in the way we see ourselves and others. Christianity plays a role in this. Pastoral power exercises a major influence over our lives. It defines modern societies and economic relations throughout social life. It consists of a set of ‘techniques, rationalities and practices’ that guide and inform our behaviour. Another concept related to Sexuality was ‘bio-power’ i.e. power over birth, death and reproduction. The emergence, the expansion and consolidation of bio-power was an element in the development of capitalism.
When asked in an interview conducted by Pierre Boncenne, whether Foucault wanted to show that it was more useful for power to admit sex than forbid it? He replied
‘All Western Catholics have been obliged to admit their sexuality, their sins against the flesh and all their sins in this area, committed in thought or indeed, one can hardly say that the discourse on sexuality has been simply prohibited or repressed… I think that once again we are confronted by a phenomenon of exclusive valorisation of a theme: power must be repressive; since power is bad, it can only be negative, etc. In these circumstances, to speak of one’s sexuality would necessarily be liberation. However, it seemed to me, that it was much more complicated than that’19
The idea of repressed sex isn’t therefore, just a theoretical matter. To say that sex is not repressed, or the relations between sex and power isn’t categorised by repression, is a platform for a well-accepted argument.
‘Power lays down the laws by which sex functions and by which its workings are to be interpreted. It operates on the individual subject and his sex through his very acquisition of language; language is the means by which the individual is initiated into society; as he acquires it he encounters the law. The law tells him what he desires by forbidding it. The pure form of power is that of the legislator; its relation to sex is of a juridical-discursive type. Power operates on sex in the same way at all levels.’20
Of course Foucault’s concept of power knowledge reminds us of Bacon’s assertion that ‘Knowledge is Power’. Though Foucault distances himself from this association. Power Knowledge is a mechanism that is concerned with the gathering and collation of information about an individual. He argues that there is a relationship between power and knowledge but that they were not the same.
The power of the government etc. A governing body who dictates the state of our lives by only allowing certain housing, funds and living for certain classes. Foucault stresses in many statements that ‘power and knowledge’ go hand in hand. Going over the ‘struggles’ of exercising power, the question is clear that looking at the ‘knowledge’ part of it, would they not have to have the ‘knowledge’ to gain the ‘power?’21
Foucault was asked in an interview by Bernard-Henri Levy. ‘Should we now think that power must be viewed as a form of war?’
‘One thing seems certain to me: it is that the moment we have, for analysing the relations of power, only two models a) the one proposed by law (power as law, interdiction and institutions) and b) the military or strategic model in terms of power relations.’22
In an interview with Bernard Henri Levy, Foucault states that he is certain of one thing:
‘For the moment we have, for analyzing the relations of power, only two models: a) the one proposed by law (power as law, interdiction, institutions) and b) the military or strategic model in terms of power relations. The first one has been much used and its inadequacy has, I believe, been demonstrated: we know very well that law does not describe power. The other model is also much discussed, I know. But we stop with words; we use ready-made ideas or metaphors “the war of all against all,” “the struggle for life” or again formal schemata.’23
In his claims that power is everywhere, Foucault also claims that spatial relations play an essential role in the exercise of power. In an interview conducted by Paul Rabinow, Foucault was asked how the technology of power opposed to discipline; did space play a central role? ‘Space is a fundamental in any form of communal life; space is fundamental in any exercise of power. To make a parenthical remark, I recall having been invited, in 1966, by a group of architect to do a study of space, of something that I called at that time “heterotopias,” those singular spaces to be found in some given social spaces whose functions are different or even the opposite of others. The architects worked on this, and at the end of the study someone spoke up-a Sartrean psychologist- who firebombed me saying that space is reactionary and capitalist, but history and becoming are revolutionary.’24
The question that followed asked if Foucault’s concerns were more on space than architecture, and that the physical walls were only one aspect of the institute. He was then asked to explain the difference between the architecture and space? To which he replied that architecture was an element of space that performed the functions of “allocation” and “canalization”.